The conversation about Christian intellectuals in America was revived recently by humanities professor Alan Jacobs in an essay for Harper’s entitled “The Watchmen.” Jacobs noted, briefly, that race and gender were barriers that Christian intellectuals had been slow to break.
Essays such as this often stir up the waters of identity politics because of the conspicuous absence of gender, race and sexuality from the narrative. Religion professor Vincent Lloyd attempted to bridge that gap as it relates to race in his response essay, “Why We Need a Public Black Theology for the 21st Century” published here at Religion Dispatches. While I appreciate the essay for generating conversation around the topic of black Christian intellectuals, the essay fails to deliver in a few areas.
The essay begins with a discourse loosely framed around the lack of black Christian intellectuals, shifts to black intellectuals in the public square, and then finally to black theology. But the conclusion of the essay does not relate well to the problem posed at its outset.
While Lloyd offers a working definition of what a Christian intellectual is, he does not properly define who or what embodies a black Christian intellectual. This leads to a discussion about what Lloyd terms “Black religious experts.” This line of reasoning gets lost in the weeds and mired down in the muck of tragic characters such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Toward the end, Lloyd invokes the names of Melissa Harris-Perry and Eddie Glaude as Christian intellectuals— which is questionable seeing as how Harris-Perry is a political scientist, and Glaude has a background in philosophy.
Writing about black religious culture should not be the qualification for being a black Christian intellectual.
In light of Lloyd’s not calling the historical roll of black Christian intellectuals there are a few names and particular histories that are worth mentioning. Mordecai Johnson, for example, the first African American president of Howard University, was a renowned preacher and expositor of how his Christian faith informed his social and political ethics in a segregated America. Benjamin Elijah Mays, a preeminent president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, was not only a noted scholar with a dissertation on the sociology of the Black Church, but also a well-known preacher whose Christian ethic publicly informed his role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Towering above all when it comes to notoriety and influence was Martin Luther King, who occupied a large part of the American public and “space of opinion” who consistently merged his Christianity and his politics—even to the point of being ostracized by the mainstream.
Notably absent from this historical list are black women Christian intellectuals. While there were black women who were the heavy lifters of the civil rights movement, those women who functioned as Christian intellectuals were left out of the history books because of social and gender norms that did not give them voice. Howard Thurman’s grandmother never had the opportunity to be a black Christian intellectual. Nevertheless, Thurman, in his book Jesus and the Disinherited, recalls how his grandmother’s biblical criticism informed both her faith and her life.
It goes without saying that there are ways in which systems intentionally shut out other voices. In this case, a male-centered ideology functioned to silence the voices of those black women in history who allowed their faith to criticize and challenge their social condition.
In 2013, The New York Times published op-ed contributions from some of the leading black public intellectuals of our day. Melissa Harris-Perry offered the following:
So much of the most valuable intellectual work happens in spaces that are only nominally public. Black academic communities have long engaged in robust, fruitful, sometimes personal, always interesting discussions that result in critical articles, conflicting data and passionate conference presentations. But most of the work of academics goes unnoticed. Then one or two or 10 of us manage to break out of the ivory tower just enough to gain public attention in a way that brings institutional and personal resources. We are dubbed thought leaders when most often we are just the best-looking, most articulate thought synthesizers of our age.
Specifically, Harris-Perry’s observation about “spaces that are only nominally public” resonates with me. There are untold numbers of black Christian intellectuals who exist in the academy and stay unknown throughout their careers. The same holds true for black Christian ministers who do intellectual work in their sermons and within their congregational context that will never be interviewed on a cable news outlet. In fact there are many publics that a Christian intellectual can occupy: the public space of the academy (journals, essays, lectures, etc.), black religious culture (sermons, appearances on religious broadcasting, etc.), mainstream media (cable news outlet appearances, op-eds in nationally circulated media, etc.), and even community appearances such as a political rally or a civic demonstration.
Underlying much of Lloyd’s observation seemed to be an ideological thread about what qualifies as public Christian intellectual work.
By invoking the names of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Cornel West, he uses household names to make an argument that these people are close to what he considers to be black Christian intellectuals, but not quite. While the names of J. Kameron Carter, Willie Jennings and Brian Bantum resonate with a black theology crowd—those who are solidly a part of the black academic community—one has to revisit the question of which publics these professors occupy. By and large, academics consider intellectual production to be public—which by a basic definition, it is. But while the vast majority of people have equal access to academic books on Amazon, or to livestreamed lectures at various forums, we all know that in reality that the academy functions as nominally public space.
And for the sake of balance, leaving out the names of Eboni Marshall Turman, Emilie Townes and Teresa Fry Brown in a list of those participating in the black theological academy is a noticeable omission.
Because Lloyd fails to tightly define what he sees as black Christian intellectualism, he is unable to identify those who currently occupy that space. In the 21st century, there are numerous black Christian intellectuals who come to mind: Leslie Callahan, Robert Michael Franklin, Yolanda Pierce, Delman Coates, Anthea Butler, Yvette Flunder, Jonathan Walton, Jeremiah Wright and Michael Walrond. This not by far an exhaustive list (perhaps someone needs to do the work of creating one), but it includes persons who are one time or another, or currently, occupy the public square and space of opinion. These are people who publish essays and articles in easily accessible spaces outside of the academy, who appear on the cable news outlets, or who have preached sermons with a social gospel message that therefore becomes part of the black Christian conversation.
To drive the point home a bit more, the absence of William Barber from the conversation about black Christian intellectuals in the 21st century almost seems unforgiveable. Barber gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention this year that to the ears of those familiar with the southern black homiletic sounded more sermon than speech. It was the perfect marriage of how his social and political ideology is shaped and critiqued by his Christian ethics. The reason I lift Barber up is, again, because of the way he occupies the public square. He does so in a large and visible way—a way that is accessible by many public entry points.
Lloyd offers a fair premise about the need for a public black theology in the 21st century. Based on the landscape as I see it, there are numerous persons who did so in the 20th century and there is no shortage of those who are doing it in the 21st century. The seat of critique as I see it rests with the larger methods of intellectual consumption—or lack thereof—of the American public. In other words: how does the public consume Christianity? And in this case, black Christianity.
In his Harper’s essay, Jacobs connects the dots in the ways that a post-war America was fertile ground for a public theologian to emerge—someone who was going to be a Christian intellectual—and the ways in which the current state of affairs is nearly untillable land for a Christian intellectual to emerge. That resonates even more with respects to having popular black Christian intellectuals emerge. Under an Obama era this country saw a black cultural renaissance of intellectual production in the form of the black blogosphere— what Michael Eric Dyson termed the “black digital intelligentsia”— that spread itself into many fields of study and cultural interest. But somehow black religious culture was left out of this renaissance. Therefore, no popular black Christian intellectual exists.
Much of the public space of opinion within black religious culture is occupied by megachurch personalities, not what I would understand as Christian intellectuals. And the opinions offered by personality cults are more of the navel-gazing type generally associated with celebrities. The country’s larger black religious culture is much more inclined to listen to T.D. Jakes than to Raphael Warnock. This is evidenced by the fact that one has a daytime talk show dispensing his lifestyle advice based on his Christian faith and the other does not.
Given recent news about black clergy in battleground states endorsing Donald Trump, cable news outlets are likely to pit a clergy member against a Democratic strategist as the typical point-counterpoint. There is never a space given to black Christian intellectuals who function as interpreters of what is happening. Even when Donald Trump made an appearance at Great Faith Ministries International and received a Hebrew prayer cloth, no news outlet in earnest sought out any black Christian intellectual response to help interpret the deeply religious and faith symbols that were at play. Or even, for that matter, to help to locate the pastor of the church, Wayne T. Jackson, in his historical role as a longtime Detroit minister.
This is not the fault of silent black Christian intellectuals, but rather the tragedy of an American public that fails to see the value in their voices.
Jacobs argues that this (again due to the current national landscape) also has to do with the ways that “Christian” is a bad word in liberal circles. Black folks most likely to emerge as Christian intellectuals operate in these same liberal circles where apologizing for the wide breadth of Christianity from the Crusades to Southern Baptists can be a common practice. This leads me to believe that the black Christian intellectuals that I have listed above do so out of a pragmatic necessity rather than civic duty.
To be black, Christian, and an intellectual requires the ordering of that nomenclature: black first, Christian second, intellectual third. To be black in this country is a compendium of ontology that this essay does not have room to contain. To be black and Christian with a sense of what that means historically is to understand resistance to core American values that founded this country. To be black and Christian and an intellectual is a formula that the United States may need, but not certainly one that it desires. There is no impetus for this dynamic of black Christian intellectuals relegated to spaces only nominally public to change until the American public finds a way to desire the voice and opinion black Christian intellectuals.
Until that time, a black theology for the 21st century that exists outside of the nominally public spaces will have to wait.