Why We Need a Public Black Theology for the 21st Century

"Hands Like These Helped Shape America": Photo courtesy flickr user Universal Pops via Creative Commons

To come across a Christian public intellectual—as Alan Jacobs notes in Harper’s this month—is a rare occurrence. To come across a Black Christian public intellectual is even less likely.

The secular audiences that are suspicious of substantial Christian commitments are white secular audiences, and they are doubly suspicious of the public intellectual who embraces Blackness along with Christianity. Yet I’d argue that the need for the Black Christian public intellectual is particularly acute today. Jacobs observes that Christian public intellectuals are uniquely situated to address the conflicts over public religion that appear regularly in the headlines. The Black Christian public intellectual is doubly important, serving as a translator of both Christian and Black concerns to a white, secular public that is attuned to racial injustice more now than any time in the past half century.

It is easy to overlook the absence of Black Christian public intellectuals because many of the most prominent Black public intellectuals are scholars of religion. Undoubtedly the most famous is Cornel West, but Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Eddie Glaude wrote dissertations on topics related to religion, and specifically to Christianity. Derrick Bell, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, and Robin Kelley have all discussed religion or spirituality in their scholarly writings. Yet with the possible exception of West, none of them could be considered Christian public intellectuals.

They do not frame their public engagements as motivated by their Christian commitments, and they do not employ a thickly theological idiom.

Given the historical importance of religion to the Black community and the models offered by religious civil rights leaders, Black students in the generation after the end of segregation were understandably inclined toward religion. The academic study of religion, both in religious studies and more generally in the academy, did not have quite so long a history, nor quite so many disciplinary conventions, as did history, English, anthropology, sociology, or other fields. There was also the possibility of an audience: with a large proportion of the Black population professing Christianity, well-credentialed experts were bound to attract a crowd.

Moreover, the distinction between theology and the academic study of religion is largely lost on an audience outside of the academy. The Black religious expert who would expound widely on social and political questions has long been a familiar figure in Black communities—from Henry McNeil Turner during Reconstruction and Reverdy Ransom during the early years of the twentieth century to Jesse Jackson and Al Shapton in more recent years. If you held an Ivy League Ph.D. in religion, Black churches and community centers were sure to open their doors.

But many of those Black public intellectuals who began their scholarly careers studying religion quickly turned away, maintaining at most a secondary interest in religious questions. The cultural landscape had shifted and the public square had become secularized. Jacobs describes this shift, in which Christian language and practice were increasingly relegated to the margins, and explains how it affected the role of the public intellectual. But for Black intellectuals this shift was refracted by another.

With the end of segregation, the institutions and practices that had maintained a forced unity of the Black community fell away. Welcome opportunities to live, socialize, work, and study in new spaces—for those who could afford them—posed a challenge to the Black social fabric. The most talented Black youths came to be educated in predominantly white universities and to work with predominantly white colleagues. Laws and policies that maintained white domination by new means, including police violence and mass incarceration, put talented Blacks in a precarious position. They were still the target of discrimination and, at times, violence, but they had placed themselves at a distance from the (now especially weak) social fabric of the Black community that could provide at least a modicum of support.

Talented Blacks lived contradictory lives, alternating between teaching the history of Black radicalism in the classroom and golfing eighteen holes with white friends. Such a precarious social location necessarily inhibits deep engagement with either the Black community and its traditions or white America. The result was often very smart people unable to say very smart things. The intellectual and political menu was already set, defined in white terms: conservative or liberal or leftist, postmodernist or pragmatist or humanist.

And Christianity was not on the menu.

Religion may not have been an intellectual or political option, but it was a option in terms of style. The performance of the black preacher was still much-admired by the white world, even as Christian ideas were met with ridicule. That style of performance allowed whites to nostalgically embrace an imagined moral consensus represented by King, and it offered white liberals the hope of countering the menace of the Religious Right. What white audiences wanted was the form of the black preacher with content that they recognized, because it was theirs.

Jesse Jackson did not quite succeed in fulfilling these desires. He had the style down, but the content was inconsistent. What was to be made of his shifting views on abortion, or his comments on Jews? In contrast, Black public intellectuals were better at consistently hitting the right content but less talented at the preacherly style. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, the white world found what it was looking for, the perfect mix of performance inspired by the Black church and content taken straight from the liberal academy: Barack Obama was elected president.

Another way to describe this post-segregation shift is in terms of audience. With Dyson in the pages of The New Republic, Glaude in Time, and Harris-Perry once on MSNBC, now in Elle, Black public intellectuals are speaking to a predominantly white audience. Many other critics have examined the ways that Black leaders are cast as representatives of their race, translating the Black world for the white world, obviously an impossible task. This has always been the case, but the dynamics shifted with the end of segregation. With talented Blacks so often surrounded by whites, the possibility to become an organic intellectual, immersed in but also critically reflecting on a community, nearly vanished (except in prisons).

Mainstream (and even leftist) white audiences do not necessarily want to hear about Black Christianity, and Black public intellectuals have little interest in telling them about it.

The exception that proves the rule is the media scrum that resulted from Eddie Glaude’s claim that “The Black Church is Dead.” Glaude’s argument was, of course, more complex than his title, but it was just as pleasing to secular white audiences. There is no need to think about Black Christianity in supernatural terms, Glaude argues. It’s really just a collection of complex human institutions. Then, Glaude tells secular white liberals exactly what they want to hear: Black churches need to stop thinking about religion and start thinking about liberal policy reform – and they especially need to quiet down about the sinfulness of abortion and homosexuality.

While Glaude’s essay provoked many responses, oddly absent was a specifically theological response. A Black Christian public intellectual might have argued that Church is not reducible to churches, that no matter how much denominations fracture or what proportion of the American population identifies as Christian, the Body of Christ remains unchanged, and that this is the fundamental meaning of Church—from a Black theological perspective, this is the essence of the Black church.

Such an argument would have been illegible to those secular audiences following the debate about Glaude’s essay on National Public Radio, in The New York Times, and even at The Root, the Henry Louis Gates-founded blog geared toward the Black upper-middle class.

Where were the Black theologians? They do exist: in our age of institutionalized multiculturalism, every divinity school and seminary knows that they need one. Academic Black theology began with Black Christian intellectuals inserting themselves into the public square. In 1966, a group of theologians bought an advertisement in The New York Times supporting the Black power movement. But the oppositional force of Black theology faded quickly. What was once militant theology became a militant posture accompanying liberal theology. The towering figure of Black theology, James Cone, moved to the bastion of religious liberalism, Union Theological Seminary.

The promise of Black theology had been to rethink Christianity from its roots, shedding all that was complicit with white supremacy and building anew from the foundational proposition that God is Black. Cone was trained as a systematic theologian, and his early work attempted to reimagine the basic concepts of Christianity from the perspective of Black life. But Black theology was quickly subsumed by contextual theology, an appendix to (white) academic theology.

Everyone sees Christianity from their own vantage point, whether it be Black, Asian American, Latinx, queer, genderqueer, disability, or some other, or especially some combination, and the work of the contextual theologian is to harvest the insights available from such perspectives. This is the theology for liberal multiculturalists, and it is even palatable to some secularists.

With the ambitious enterprise of Black theology reduced to a vestigial inflection of liberal multiculturalism, Black theology is certainly not the place to look for Black Christian public intellectuals. What about beyond theology and religious studies? There, in the broader intellectual terrain, the marginalization of Christianity in our secular age means that any mention of Christian identity or ideas raises red flags. It is only Blacks with generally idiosyncratic views (such as Stephen L. Carter), or conservatives (such as Clarence Thomas), who may be able to find a hearing.

Idiosyncratic and conservative Black intellectuals are curiosities for the broader public intellectual culture, offered guest passes but never permanent membership.

The Black Christian public intellectual has not always been such a rarity. In my book Black Natural Law I argue that, from Frederick Douglass to Anna Julia Cooper to Martin Luther King, Jr., religious ideas about God’s law catalyzed community organizing and offered a powerful tool to challenge the ideology of white supremacy. Black Christians were both public intellectuals and organic intellectuals, versed in grassroots organizing and fluent in the religious idioms of the Black community but also speaking before a broader public.

Segregation has ended, so the tradition of Black Christian public intellectuals ended. Yet the need for such figures has not ended because anti-Black racism has not ended. Police violence and mass incarceration will not be stopped by waiting for secular white liberals to feel more compassion—or if they do end, they will be replaced by even more violent forms of anti-Blackness.

It will take Black community organizing coupled with a challenge to the wisdom of the white world to make any significant progress toward racial justice. Pragmatists may excel at community organizing and critical theorists may excel at challenging the wisdom of the world, but I would argue that it is only Black political theology that does the essential work of joining the two.

Where to look?

Cornel West has been the nearest that we have had in recent years, though he is at his best as a charismatic orator rather than as a public intellectual in the ordinary sense. In print, West’s Christianity can seem superficial, but performed to an audience, West displays a powerful charisma. At his best, West avoids giving white audiences what they want; he takes risks and makes sacrifices because of his convictions; and he welds ideology critique alongside social movement organizing.

James Baldwin has been an inspiration for some aspiring Black public intellectuals who, like the writer, fashion themselves post-Christian, grappling with rather than jettisoning the legacy of Christianity while speaking boldly against white supremacy. Yet Baldwin too often serves as a model of how to use religious-sounding words to advance a secular purpose, just as Jackson and Sharpton use religious-looking performance to advance a secular liberal agenda. Moreover, it is not clear whether those who follow the spirit of Baldwin can really communicate with grassroots Black Christians.

The Black theological academy has recently been reinvigorated by those seeking a return to the original, radical project of constructing a theology that begins with the Blackness of God. J. Kameron Carter at Duke Divinity School, Willie James Jennings at Yale Divinity School, and Brian Bantum at Seattle Pacific University have been rightly praised for their penetrating scholarship. They are interested in revisiting the fundamental ideas of Christianity in dialogue with Black literature and culture.

While this is a welcome development, it remains to be seen how scholarship addressing deep and important questions of faith translates to a secular public, and particularly to public conversations about the pressing issues of the day.

As we contemplate this state of affairs, we may be consoled by remembering that extraordinary Black Christian public intellectuals arose, seemingly out of nowhere, against enormous odds, during many years of slavery and segregation. It can happen again.