“I Speak to God in Public”: Are Young Black Millennials Reclaiming a Theology of Resistance?

Last year, independent artist Chance the Rapper dropped a mixtape titled Coloring Book that received immediate critical acclaim. One of the undeniable threads in the critique was just how much Chance’s personal faith and spirituality were an integral part of the music. Many speculated whether or not the mixtape classified as part of the gospel genre given that superstar Kirk Franklin was featured prominently on a track.

So it was no shock that during his February acceptance speech, after he won a Grammy for best new artist, Chance exclaimed “Glory be to God! I claim this victory in the name of the Lord!” He went on to give the obligatory “Thank you God” that we’re used to seeing from black hip hop artists. The music started playing cuing the end of the speech, and Chance repeated his opening lines again: “Glory be to God! I claim this victory in the name of the Lord!” He sounded more like an over-enthusiastic white evangelical on baptism Sunday than a goofy black kid from the South Side of Chicago.

In one year, Chance moved from being a break-out hip hop star to being a Grammy-award-winning musician. He had made appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen Show just to name a few. In the midst of his tour, Magnificent Coloring World, he sold out the U.S. Cellular field, the former name of his hometown Chicago White Sox’s stadium. All the while his personal faith was at the center.

The almost-24-year-old is the epitome of the young black millennial aesthetic. Born after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president, he grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Chatham neighborhood. The son of an aide to Barack Obama and Chicago City Hall staffer to Rahm Emanuel, many of Chance’s formative years took place in a post-9/11 America rife with culture wars often centered around religion. Chance’s faith-filled rhetoric doesn’t jive with conventional wisdom about millennials when it comes to religion. Many of us have seen the ill-effects of conservative Christianity in the public square and are keen to shy away from conversations that might devolve from discussion into debate. This is partly why, as it is commonly said, “millennials have left the church,” or are, simply, “spiritual but not religious.”

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So when I watched Chance’s proclamation on live television at the Grammys, I cringed because it felt so antithetical to my natural millennial sensibilities. My generation is not supposed to publicly claim Christianity without acknowledging other religions and beliefs. In the public square, Christianity has received a black eye for most of my adulthood for its blatant inability to acknowledge the places where it has done more harm than good. The culture wars etched into early millennial memory range from the same-sex marriage fight under the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush administration to the categorical misunderstanding of black liberation theology vis-à-vis Jeremiah Wright in respect to the 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama. Not to mention, there has also been awareness of Westboro Baptist Church and the general sentiment of prominent white evangelical leadership towards immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.

Chance’s rhetoric and aesthetic performance would have read very differently had this been the BET Awards or the NAACP Image Awards. The challenge of perception would have been canceled by the racial context. In other words, Chance’s effusive display of religiosity wouldn’t have made me second-guess it if the audience was mostly black. In those black spaces, Christianity doesn’t don the specter of the failings of American Christianity around xenophobia, Islamaphobia and good old-fashioned racism. However, at the Grammys, where the audience is mostly non-black, the performance of Christianity can be interpreted in many different ways.

When the Pew Research Center released the findings from its 2014 religious landscape study, it confirmed what most Protestant mainline denominations knew in practice for years: Americans aren’t going to church like they used to. Beyond that, much of the research around trends—specifically with millennials born between 1981 and 1996—reveals a much more complex American landscape. The larger takeaway in the 2014 study was that the American church was losing members—and that became the sexy cover story.

Lost in the weeds was the fact that affiliation with historically black denominations was more or less even (the loss was less than one full percentage point). And generally speaking, black Americans between the ages of 18-29 are not leaving Christianity and ecclesiastical affiliation. Only among historically black Protestant denominations did that number trend downward significantly between 2007 and 2014; the 18-29 age group decreased from 24 to 20 percent among historically black Protestant denominations. The number of 18-29 year olds among Catholics and evangelical Protestants ticked up 1 percent respectively, and among mainline Protestants it saw a 9 percent increase. In the interest of equity, blacks make up 9 percent of those who are unaffiliated with any religious tradition (“nones”), and of that, the numbers trended upwards among 18-29 year olds.

Many news outlets covered the overall trend of millennials leaving the church in connection with the uptick of the religiously unaffiliated, but ignored the racial subtext of the millennials who chose to stay, and also were black. In all fairness, the public narrative supports why mainstream media was slow to cover this. Peter Breinart in his essay “Breaking Faith” in the The Atlantic writes:

The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders.

You could say that Breinart is using the same conventional wisdom that has fueled notions around American millennials leaving the church and applied it to black millennials via the Black Lives Matter movement. But the Pew numbers don’t exactly confirm this. And Breinart’s statement, although a true fact, ignores the other side of the coin that there are prominent black churches that have embraced Black Lives Matter, fueled by the 18-29-year-olds in their congregation.

Specifically, what Black Lives Matter did for religiously affiliated black millennials is to provide a social gospel that affirmed the political activism of the zeitgeist in a post-Ferguson world as well as challenged traditional theologies in black religious culture.

In the months following the death of Michael Brown, black churches and organizations began hosting “seven last words” services patterned from the Good Friday services that many black churches host with seven preachers in rapid succession preaching the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross. Rather than the seven sayings of Jesus, these were the words of Eric Garner saying “I Can’t Breathe,” Michael Brown saying “Don’t Shoot,” and Renisha McBride proclaiming “I Want to Go Home.” These services were hosted at the divinity schools of universities like Duke, Princeton and Drew as well as local churches in New York and Washington, D.C.

Some of these organizations have continued the service in successive years. Duke Divinity School’s Office of Black Church Studies has officially sponsored the service titled “Seven Last Words: Strange Fruit Still Speaks” (a reference to the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” about Jim Crow lynchings in the South), and it is now a staple of the programmatic calendar. These venues give opportunities for black millennials to craft their own public theology and hear public theology that is directly designed for them.

If the numerous think-pieces and essays on Coloring Book—specifically around its samples from Christian contemporary music and black gospel—were any indication, you might think that Chance’s popularity is in part because of his public embrace of his faith, not despite it. He casts down his nets into the depths of what could be termed millennial hip hop spirituality, a social and sonic admixture of post-adolescent silliness (“I give Satan a swirly”) to heavy theology offered on the track featuring Jay Electronica that almost requires a New Testament professor to provide an exegetical hermeneutic.

The mixtape plumbs a depth in which twenty-somethings can feel comfortable; a no-judgement zone where their spirituality is not relegated to a Sunday morning experience, or divorced from the vicissitudes of their daily life.

As I’ve written at Religion Dispatches before, there is a commonplace belief that there seems to be a dearth of public theologians in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr. With the democratization of information and opinions via social media, one can hardly imagine that a singular voice such as Niebuhr’s will ever emerge again. Still, that has not quelled the consumption of theology in public by the masses of social media users. That includes young black millennials as well. Given the number of gospel music videos that get shared on Twitter, the preaching clips that get shared on YouTube, the Facebook Live notifications I receive during an on-going worship service, and the video parodies of the idiosyncrasies of black church worship and critique thereof, one could surmise that there is still an appetite for theology to be done in public places and specifically by these young black millennials.

Somehow, some way, Chance the Rapper, the goofy kid from the South Side of Chicago, has cut through all of this and warmly declared on the mixtape: “I speak to God in public.” And in case you missed it the first time, he says it again: “I speak to God in public.”

The first time it’s as though he’s saying it for himself. The second time carries with it an implicit permission for the listener to be as bold as he is and speak to God in public as well. In this current socio-religious climate, there is a black young millennial who has found a way to do effective public theology. The opportunity is ripe for black millennials en masse to construct their own practical public theology of anger and resistance.

If the goofy kid from the South Side can speak to God in public, why can’t the rest of us?