Updated with Response: The Black Church is Dead—Long Live the Black Church

A few weeks ago, Princeton’s Eddie Glaude Jr. published an obituary for the black church in the Huffington Post—the Digital-Age equivalent of nailing a set of theses to a church door. And while it is a brief article, short on the conventions of mourning, in it Glaude details the long, lingering illness of the venerable institution, and cites multiple causes of death. What has finally died, Glaude explains, is the idea of the black church as a singular idea; what remains are black churches, in the plural.

Glaude concludes his provocative pronouncement with what Jonathan Walton refers to below as “a prophetic challenge.”

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.

RD asked a selection of historians, religious scholars, and other interpreters of the black church to respond to Glaude’s thesis, and to his challenge. Following is a set of comments and reflections [note: see Eddie Glaude’s response at the end of this article]:

Saying It’s Dead Doesn’t Kill It

by Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

Well, I disagree with Eddie, (let’s hope we’re still friends, lol). The Black Church may be dead in its incarnation as agent of change, but as the imagined home of all things black and Christian, it is alive and well. As a historian, I understand that the moniker Black Church never meant the Pentecostals, the spiritualists, the NOI [Nation of Islam], the Garveyites and the like. It was meant for those traditional monikers of black Baptist, AME and other religious denominations. Growing up a black Catholic also meant that I was never one of that great number of the black church either.

So when I read Eddie’s article, I had to laugh, because you see, it perpetuates the stereotype even as it says that the black church is dead. Glaude says “the death of the Black Church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian.” Psst. Eddie. Not every black person is a Christian, nor wants to be. This sort of thinking that every African American must be lodged in a Christian paradigm perpetuates the notion that Christianity is equated with the African-American Experience. Even a scholar like Professor Glaude, who is on one hand, critical of the megafest, etc., can’t see his own participation in the Black Church Show. Remember the “State of the Black Union” featuring Tavis Smiley? That was an eight-hour church service on C-SPAN replete with theologians and prayer. So much for the Black Church being dead.

Seriously, I did not want to respond to this article for one big reason… saying something is dead doesn’t kill it. Not only that, I will go out on a limb and say that the black church will never be truly “dead” as long as we have a nation invested in racial symbolism. Whatever the black church may be historically or socially, the fact of the matter is, the last time anyone saw a Black Church in reality was occasional snippets of newsreel in the Civil Rights movement. If you don’t think that’s true, then explain the fallout over Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America.” No white person in the 1960s would have been surprised about that… they knew just how radical black preaching and teaching was because they saw it on television.

The 2008 white person, however, is so far away from that Black Church experience, not because they haven’t seen it, but because its become a caricature. When there are movies, comedians, and rappers depicting their ideas of the Black Church, it is not difficult to imagine you don’t know what a Black cCurch is, because you think you have seen it. And you hear it every time an African American who is a good orator (including President Obama) gets that intonation just right, sounding like a prophetic black preacher. So when all you see are the caricatures of “Black Church” it feels as though you have seen it all already. Perhaps this is why Professor Glaude feels that the Black Church is dead. It has turned into a cliché.

The relevance of the Black Church, in my opinion, will return when “the folk” realize that there is more than just a Black American Church, but a variety of religious entities that are part of African-American Religious experience and the broader African Diaspora religious experience. Until then it will be difficult to move forward in the historical narrative, not only because of the captivity of the past, but the captivity to the caricature of what the black Church has become. Stereotypes, however harsh, have a way of multiplying themselves. It is difficult to imagine a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Howard Thurman arising out of the ranks of the provincial and petty “culture war” black preachers these days, knowing not just the Christian tradition, but understanding Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha. I also imagine that, given its obsession with money, pervasive homophobia and patriarchal strongholds, the Black Church will remain stagnant. So don’t call the time of death yet Professor Glaude. There is still some dying for this corpse to do.

The Black Church Ain’t Dead! (But Maybe It Should Be?)

by Jonathan L. Walton, University of California–Riverside

The history of Afro-Protestantism in America, most often referred to as the “black church tradition,” is a complicated one, indeed. Hewn out of the crucible of a slaveholding society and populated by those who were theologically trained within seminaries of suffering, these venerable institutions represent the best of American society in general, and black human strivings in general.

For instance, the organizational acumen and creative cultural genius of early black denominations disrupted the logic of white supremacy. With few resources other than a theological vision of equality and unrelenting commitment to freedom and justice, black congregations became sites of social improvement as well as moral consciences that exposed the hypocrisies of the dominant society. It is understandable why, then, we have come to commonly describe black congregations as having formed “a nation within a nation.” Black churches were religious reactions to unfortunate cultural realities. When and where African Americans were excluded from the many spheres of society (i.e., economic, educational, political, and mass media), black congregations became, according to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “counterpublics” over and against apartheid systems. To be sure, self-segregation was never the ultimate goal; rather full-scale participation in the larger society.

Just the same, the history of Afro-Protestantism reflects the worst of America as well. The varying systems of hierarchy, exploitation, and exclusion that characterize other American institutions are also pervasive within black churches. In the words of Langston Hughes, “We, too, sing America!” Intraracial class warfare, gender discrimination, ethnocentrism and xenophobia are all realities that retard African-American Protestant communities. Not to mention the lax restrictions and nonexistent ecclesial regulations of the evangelical tradition that continues to cultivate charismatic yet conniving religious leaders. Sure, for some, the black church represents freedom. But for others it is little more than an asylum for those who are scared to be free.

The reason I offer this very commonsense view of the black church tradition is to frame how I interpret Eddie Glaude’s provocative article on the Huffington Post. As an astute interpreter of African American religious history, and the many scholarly movements therein, Glaude knows that black churches are very much empirically verifiable. Black Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal denominations are still prominent despite ecclesial and theological shifts. Among black Protestants, over ninety percent attend historically black congregations. And only a small percentage of African-American clergy serve in what could be considered “mixed-race” contexts.

But the question that I understand my former teacher and ecclesiastically-challenged friend to be raising is, “Is this a good thing?” Or more specifically, “Does it even matter if there are black churches on every corner?” Particularly since it is difficult to identity progressive political activity or hear a status-quo disrupting theology en masse amongst the surfeit of congregations, denominations, conferences, conventions, fellowships, mass meetings, megafests, revivals, bishops, elders, evangelists, apostles, religious radio broadcasts, Christian networks, books, magazines, gospel recording artists, stage plays,… (I could keep going, but I think you get my point.)

And since the widely accepted definition of the term “black church” is based on a politically active, liberatory, and disruptive model dating back to the early writings of W. E. B. DuBois (accurate or not), maybe its time for Afro-Protestant congregations to live up to the term in the present or relegate it to the museums of cultural memory about the past. In other words, Glaude’s piece can be read as both a descriptive proclamation as well as a prophetic challenge.

So, yes, it’s a stretch to suggest that the black church is dead. But unless Afro-Protestants becomes less consumed with building institutions characterized by tribal racial insularity, autocratic cult of personalities and/or idolatrous inward-oriented, henotheistic theologies, it might as well be. And once we bury “the black church” as a tyrannical narrative of nostalgia that too many profess, but few perform, then possibly Christian progressives of all racial stripes will feel the freedom to create our own tradition in this present moment.

RIP: The Myth of the Black Church

by Ronald B. Neal, Claflin University

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the Huffington Post, Princeton University religious scholar, Eddie Glaude, Jr., offered a provocative and deceptive proposition regarding Christianity in black America. After surveying recent sociological data gathered by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and taking stock of the differentiated landscape of contemporary black America, Glaude concludes, “The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead.” This conclusion flies in the face of a forty plus-year-old socially engineered belief that Christianity in black America is fundamentally progressive and transformative; that Christianity in black America is distinct from traditional expressions of Christianity which lie outside of black America. In a word, Glaude’s pronouncement buries a belief which has done a disservice to the history of Christianity in black America and to the present religious and social realities of Christianity among black Americans. What is more, it lays to rest a view of Christianity in black America which contributes very little to what most Americans should know about Christianity among black Americans.

Most Americans are largely unaware of the diverse Christian congregations and denominational structures that comprise what is called the Black Church. For many Americans, the oratory, quasi-liberal politics, and charismatic swagger of Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, Jesse L. Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Tavis Smiley are the primary windows into Christianity in black America. Beyond these living caricatures of black and Christian America, PBS specials, black-and-white footage of the Civil Rights era, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, have informed what many Americans know about black Christians, especially the Black Church. Unfortunately, these narrow and misleading representations of Christianity in black America, including the iconic legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., have contributed to a view that is deceptive and mythical. In significant respects, American mass media is responsible for this myth. However, part of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of highly educated black religious elites: seminary trained clergy and professors at theological schools, divinity schools, colleges, and universities. These elites are responsible for shaping and perpetuating a view of the Black Church: the Black Church as socially progressive and liberation oriented. Overall, the prophetic and progressive view of the Black Church is a myth that bamboozles too many Americans, including black Americans.

The Black Church as viewed through the limited windows of highly visible, politically oriented, charismatic black men and myth-making intellectuals, is galaxies away from the clergy, congregations, denominations, and socially conservative religious worldviews and morals that are largely invisible to most Americans. Theologically conservative Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and a host of independent congregations have conditioned and influence the Christian ethos in black America. These theologically conservative communions outnumber and overwhelm the influence and theological visions of Christian traditions that are stereotypically progressive such as the United Church Christ and the United Methodist Church. The stark reality is that the overwhelming majority of black Christians have more in common, theologically, with Southern Baptists, the Church of God, and the Assemblies of God than with Episcopalians and Unitarians.

The common ground that black Christians share with conservative Protestants outside of black America can be seen in the eye opening and mind boggling cross-racial alliances that have been forged over the last decade or so, between theologically conservative black and white Christians. One only has to follow the trails of highly popular and conservative clergy such as T.D. Jakes, Creflo A. Dollar, Eddie L. Long, and a whole host of other men and women, and they will lead to the churches, offices, and homes of the most theologically conservative white men in America: Dr. James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, John Ashcroft, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, et al. These alliances between black and white Christians, wedded by shared Christian orientations, confound the prophetic and progressive view of the Black Church. And they speak volumes about why prophetic religion and progressive politics do not characterize the language and ethos of the Black Church today.

The influence of traditional Christianity among black Americans is not a recent development. It is simply a historical, religious, and social reality that has been denied for far too long. In a word, it represents the under-acknowledged and under-examined theological and sociological dirty laundry of Christianity in black America and it’s what prompts Eddie Glaude to announce the death of the Black Church. But Glaude is correct, something has died; though it’s not the Black Church. What no longer lives and cannot be resurrected is The Myth of the Black Church. May it Rest in Peace.

The Afterlife of the Black Church

by William David Hart, University of North Carolina–Greensboro

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the “madman” descends the mountain where he has received a sacred wisdom—a “gay science”—and proclaims to a bewildered audience that “God is dead.” The audience cannot hear what he has to say. What he says strikes their ears as the ranting of a madman.

If, as Eddie Glaude claims, the Black Church is dead, then its death is more than a twice-told tale, which is not to say it is not a tale worth retelling. To reread Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, E. Franklin Frazier, C. Eric Lincoln, Gayraud Wilmore and others is to be reminded of how old this declension narrative is. They all proclaimed, in one way or another, the death of God, the disenchantment of the world, the “living death” of the Negro Church, the death of the Negro Church, and the deradicalization of the Black Church. In the 1830s, long before any of these writers, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the intimacy if not interchangeability of church and commerce, the marriage of God and money in America.

If the Black Church is dead, then it is dead because the “universal church” is dead, because God is dead in the sense that Nietzsche meant when he put those words in the mouth of a “madman.” There is a tinge of Black Church exceptionalism in the discourse of “the prophetic.” However, the Black Church is not an exception to the general fate of the church. It is not, has never been, a beacon, a “church on a hill.” It has always been affected by the same forces that affect other churches. The Black Church is dead; long live the Black Church.

“This is the Air I Breathe”: Unpacking Post-Black Church Proclamations

by Josef Sorett, Harvard University

Let me confess: I have become increasingly skeptical or suspicious of iconoclastic claims like “The Black Church is Dead,” as was recently argued by Eddie Glaude. Such rhetoric might be viewed as part of a more recent trajectory in scholarship on African-American religion, to which I am tremendously indebted, that aims both to historicize and problematize overly general claims about Afro-Protestantism(s). I’ve even heard some call for a moratorium on the very phrase “the black church.” For the sake of nomenclature, we might refer to this development as post-black church studies.

This approach is defined by a concern, on one hand, with correcting the historical record by highlighting the longstanding reality of black religious diversity—both intra- and extra-Christianity, for lack of a better phrase. Yet, on the other hand, it also often reflects a presentist commitment to creating space for more voices in a public discourse that continues to uncritically privilege a certain (namely, Civil Rights/1960s and Protestant) narrative of black religious experience. While I think Glaude has an iron in both of these fires, it also seems clear to me that his lot, in this essay, is cast primarily with the latter.

To be clear, again, I am deeply sympathetic and intellectually informed by this impulse. But I now find myself asking a series of follow-up questions: What work does one accomplish by claiming that “the black church is dead,” and who is the intended audience for such a claim? Does it aim to educate the American public? Critique scholars of African-American religions? Challenge or provoke black clergy? Inspire progressive Christians of all races? The power and poignancy of Glaude’s essay is that he succeeds in accomplishing each of these tasks within the word-count constraints of an internet article. As such, my hope here is simply to meditate for moment on a phrase that I’d like to think is his primary aim; that is, to create “an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian.”

While such a statement would seem to be self-explanatory, it is still important to note that “the black church” (as the institutional representation of “what it means to be black and Christian”) is a trope that has performed loads of political and religious work. That is, it is simultaneously a racial and spiritual signifier rife with cultural and social significance. Thus, to be post-black church might be read as an attempt to release the diverse complexities of black Christianities (even Catholic ones) from the burden of an identity that is perceived as normatively oppositional (on the political front, say Dr. King) and aesthetically exceptional (on the cultural front, say Gospel Blues). As an aside, I still wonder if, in the popular imagination, African-American religion actually is perceived as overtly political, or if in fact it is more often assumed to be overly emotional, irrational, and politically disengaged. And this still says little about the ways in which racial and religious identity are conflated in so many conversations about African-American religion.

So perhaps it might be helpful to consider, paraphrasing Stuart Hall circa 1991, what exactly this “black” and “Christian” is in post-black church debates. Following Glaude’s phrase, I’ll touch upon “the black” first. We can rightfully locate his analysis in the broader field of black cultural studies that draw on theories of the postmodern to critique black metanarratives of all sorts; highlighting difference along the axes of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and now religion. Closely related, this also calls attention to the specifics of a post-Civil Rights era in which it is now longer plausible to posit blackness as inherently opposed to mainstream America, be it Ivy League universities, corporate America, or the office of the presidency.

Similarly then, black churches cannot be presumed to maintain a posture of resistance to the American status quo. At their best, to borrow from Cornel West, they too are often “progressive yet co-opted.” This simply means to recognize that black Christians are a part and parcel of, as David Wills has long written, the Protestant establishment. Yet even this view of black churches says little about what is religious in the discussion. We might ask, what distinguishes “post-black church” rhetoric from claims of a post-racial America?

So, to conclude, I’d like to briefly consider more closely “the Christian” in Eddie Glaude’s provocations. More generally, I’d like to raise the question of whether “post-black church” analyses are derivative of, or distinct from, recent formulations of post-black identities and aesthetics. That is, what is Christian (or religious, more generally) about this conversation? The “new cultural politics of difference” proffered by Cornel West, bell hooks and others certainly breathed life into debates about differentiated black identities during the 1990s; and it continues to do so. But post-black church claims raise more specific questions regarding what is constitutive of black Christianities in the post-Civil Rights era?

More specifically, what will be the norms that govern or animate “the prophetic” that Glaude and others call for? Does it take place on theological terms, perhaps a movement of black religious liberalism in which spiritual heterodoxy is valued over Christian orthodoxy? Or maybe the push might be political, in which progressive interracial alliances that assume theological solidarity (or overlook their differences) organize to address pressing human needs? Or, finally, ought we turn to the entanglements of cultural aesthetics, arguably the definitive realm of “the Black Church,” wherein the most popular black gospel stars now often distinguish themselves by re-imagining (read: breathing new life into) songs that first became staples within largely white congregations of American evangelicals. Just give a listen to the race-d renditions of “This is the Air I Breathe,” on YouTube: (Byron Cage vs. Hillsong).

Clearly, religious and racial identities cannot be parsed neatly, or separated discreetly, as they are experienced in real time. Nor is there any more of an essence to Christianity than there is of blackness. Yet post-black church calls invite us to think more specifically about both race and religion—as they converge and diverge—but also the intersections of culture, politics and media. Even as efforts to articulate a public and progressive Christianity are being crafted in countless quarters at this moment, what this song seems to suggest is that a deeply personal sense of spirituality that assumes doctrinal conformity, downplays political engagement, and plays across racial boundaries, is being breathed in the fastest growing churches, black and white, and rewarded in a market that is cast as the racial equalizer.

Sympathy, Frustration and Reform

by Edward Blum, San Diego State University

I had three emotional responses to Professor Glaude’s recent claims about the “black church” being dead. My first was sympathy. It’s been a rough couple of years for the black church. It and its offspring black liberation theology were blamed for almost derailing the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (and black liberation theology got branded as somehow not black). Then, Barbara Dianne Savage of the University of Pennsylvania declared that the “Negro church” was an imaginary construct of early twentieth century sociologists and historians who flattened out complexity, rendered women silent, and ill-prepared the nation to understand black politics in the Civil Rights movement (she conveniently left out that women played a vital role in that early construction, one even co-editing with W. E. B. Du Bois the pathbreaking The Negro Church in 1903). And now, Eddie Glaude thinks the black church is dead. To the black church… I feel bad for you.

My second response was wonder and frustration. How many times do religious historians have to declare a religious entity “dead” only to retract their statements years later, feel embarrassed that they made the claim, and reverse their positions entirely? Will Professor Glaude need to do this as Harvey Cox has had to? Almost universally, we laugh at the “God is Dead” moment of the 1960s, recognizing that religious values were relevant then and profoundly important in the years following. For some reason, I’m guessing that on-the-ground studies will demonstrate that in the hearts and minds of many African Americans, “the church” still moves and inspires their lives. To scholars of American religion… I feel frustrated with you.

My third response was nostalgic. I think we can add Professor Glaude to the group of African American academics who have used their scholarly positions to call for a reform of black churches. We can add him to the line with W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Gayraud Wilmore. His essay, as I read the ending, is just as much a proclamation of the black church’s death as it is a call for its resurrection, but in a more progressive form. This echoes Du Bois, Frazier, and Wilmore. To Professor Glaude… I feel encouraged by you.


Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Responds:

When sound bites and spin too often define the substance of our conversation, we find ourselves, at least sometimes, screaming at the top of our lungs to be heard. Only to realize, perhaps naively, that a deliberate use of the sound bite—of hyperbole even—might turn a head or two. Of course, hyperbole carries huge risks: one may turn, if just for a moment, too many angry heads.

I diagnosed the death of “the black church” deliberately to provoke a conversation about the role and place of black churches in this momentous present. My aim was to re-deploy, as William Hart rightly notes, an age-old strategy to unsettle conformity with a standard view of “the black church” as necessarily prophetic and/or progressive. That story obscures more than it illumines. Ronald Neal is right to suggest that what is really the object of my polemic—at least one object—is the myth of the black church not black churches as such. Implicit in the piece then are historiographical concerns that speak to a relatively specialized audience.

I also wanted to give voice to my own sense that this moment, one characterized by so much misery, requires prophetic Christian voices to rise above the chatter of those who have succumbed to the incantation of orthodoxy. I did so not out of some nostalgic longing for the supposed heady days of black Christian prophetic witness. History betrays the lie buried beneath that story.

Rather, as Josef Sorett so brilliantly notes, mine was an invitation (to self-professed Christians, Anthea) to think about what it might mean to occupy the space of “being black and Christian” in a context in which both categories register complex and fluid realities. Explicit in the piece is a desire for Christians, especially black Christians, to argue amongst themselves about how best to witness their faith in a time of storm and stress (and Jonathan Walton and Ed Blum joined in with vigor).

Perhaps the most personal aspect of the essay involved the expression of my own sense of Christian commitment. I have struggled with this for a while now. For years I have described myself as a pragmatic naturalist. But something has changed. I need not offer my testimony here. I should only say that I have found what my soul, at least for now, requires. Yet and still, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson continually haunt: “dare to love God without mediator or veil.” For him, this mediator may be an empty Christ; for me, it may be an empty black church. No matter, the task is to insist on the desperate need of a new revelation now.

To my mind, the shadows of our faith in something called the black church, of our politics, of those who made us possible block the way to a clearer view of what is called of us today. So, the essay ends with an expression of faith: that freed from the burdens of an idolatrous embrace we too can prophesy on behalf of the least of these. And not be Christian peacocks content to show our feathers!

Obviously, I haven’t quite learned my lesson. Hyperbole abounds still. I am reminded of a passage in Aristotle’s Rhetoric: [t]here is something youthful about hyperboles; for they show vehemence. Wherefore those who are in a passion most frequently make use of them.” Maybe this is why I still find myself inspired by these communities who make bricks out of straw and who can slay Goliaths with simply the power of their tongue and the profession of their faith.