The rhetoric last summer at commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington was quite different from that heard at the original march in 1963. Lament replaced the determination to gain “jobs and freedom.” Speakers deplored the Supreme Court’s rollbacks of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. They condemned the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Instead of celebrating the great march, the anniversary events sounded a plea for a new civil rights movement.
Largely missing from that call, however, was the strong prophetic voice of black religion that Martin Luther King, Jr. had famously articulated from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years later, many black leaders were advising young African Americans to honor King and other heroes and heroines of the movement by altering their personal behavior.
Reverend Al Sharpton passionately declared, “Don’t you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or to give you the right to be a thug. That is not what they gave their life about.” President Obama similarly observed,
[W]hat had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support—as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled.
Both speeches represent an important shift in focus: from denouncing structural racism and equality to viewing the dysfunctional behavior of some African Americans as a key cause of the continued economic gap between the races.
That shift originated with religious figures in the black community, and it remains an important and controversial tendency in the African-American church today. Unlike the righteous anger of the 1960s, the message from many black ministers is respectability—an internal focus on the personal failings of African Americans, particularly poor ones. How did this shift occur?
After the heyday of the freedom movement passed in the 1970s, two contrasting paths gradually emerged in black churches: one stayed true to the message of social justice while the other turned to an emphasis on individual morality and a gospel of prosperity. Most rising religious leaders took the latter approach. In the 1990s T.D. Jakes—whom Time dubbed “America’s Preacher”—organized “Women Thou Art Loosed” conferences that promoted spiritual and sexual health. These gatherings, which attracted audiences of over 10,000 women, combined spiritual counseling, group therapy, and personal confession. In a dramatic style, Jakes spoke to women about the abuse they had suffered, and they let their emotions flow. The sermons were just the cornerstone of a thriving business, which included teaching materials, a book, and a movie. Jakes used the message of respectability and prosperity to build a massive support group for women, who are the majority in most black churches. While Jakes said little about politics, other ministers employed talk of moral uplift to advance their views about social issues—in particular, their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Bishop Eddie Long’s massive New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside of Atlanta became a leader in that campaign, as well as a mainstay of the prosperity gospel movement. Long preaches mainly on those Bible verses that seem to promise material gains if one tithes to the church and leads a sin-free life. Verses such as Proverbs 3:9–10 (“Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats overflow with new wine”) urge members to give at least 10 percent of their income and promise that, in return, they will receive financial blessings from God. Long cuts a flamboyant figure with his muscular body, displayed in tight T-shirts worn under expensive suit jackets. His sermons focus on how healthy heterosexual relationships can produce “Godly men.”
Long’s firm stand against same-sex marriage brought him national attention. He appointed Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights icon and a preacher herself, an elder of his church. In late 2004 he organized a “Reigniting the Legacy” march to oppose same-sex marriage. Twenty-four thousand people strode through the streets of Atlanta, led by Long and King. “There has not been a unified voice out of our community since the assassination of Dr. King,” Long said. Most black Americans, he claimed, want “to go back to basic, fundamental moral beliefs.”
His stance created an uproar in both the LGBT community and among civil rights leaders. Earlier that year, Coretta Scott King had objected that “a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.” Julian Bond, the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader and Georgia state senator, wondered, “with so many problems affecting black Americans . . . what harm is done by people in love?” But many other black churches echoed Long’s opposition to homosexual rights. In 2004, aided by a ballot measure banning gay marriage, George W. Bush gained 16 percent of the African-American vote in Ohio, almost double the percentage he had received in 2000. Without Bush’s narrow win in that state, John Kerry would have been elected president.
By criticizing Wright’s anger, Obama also seemed to be dismissing the prophetic tradition of the black church.
The pinnacle of Long’s moral crusade occurred, ironically, with the funeral of Coretta Scott King in February 2006, which, with Bernice King’s approval, was held at Long’s megachurch. In attendance were former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as the incumbent George W. Bush. Bernice King sat next to them on stage while civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were relegated to the pews. The service—filled with tears, laughter, and tension—symbolized not just the passing of a movement icon but the rise of the politics of respectability. Even Bill Clinton invoked the new paradigm: “You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her behavior.”
Ironically, in September 2010 Long had to defend himself against a civil suit alleging he had sexual relations with four young male members of the New Birth congregation. The minister was accused of grooming the young men for sexual relationships while they were minors, and then consummating those relationships when they reached sixteen, the legal age of consent in Georgia. According to a civil suit, Long and one of the plaintiffs even conducted a ring exchange ceremony. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount of money and never went to trial. Long continues to head the church, though both his reputation and his congregation have significantly dwindled in size.
Some black ministers did continue advocating the politics of social justice that was so integral to building the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One controversial example is the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, whose former pastor was Reverend Jeremiah Wright and whose current leader is Reverend Otis Moss.
Although Wright became an infamous figure to many during the 2008 campaign, he had long been committed to racial, economic, and sexual equality both in the United States and abroad. His harsh style of preaching, sometimes peppered with language from his days as a Marine, endeared him to black Chicagoans. Trinity reached every class of African Americans, from young gang members to such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey and Obama. Early in the 1990s, Wright preached his support for gay rights in the sermon “Good News for Homosexuals.” He asserted that gay people had the same access to God as heterosexuals and were just as worthy of His love and protection. That was a courageous act at the time and, in many black churches, remains one today.
The April 2003 video of Wright declaring “God Damn America” that surfaced during the 2008 campaign ought to be understood in context. In that sermon, “Confusing God and Government,” Wright was condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had just begun, as well as other interventions abroad: “[W]e [America] cannot see clearly what it is that we do,” he said. “We call it ‘Crusade’ when we turn right around and say our God condones the killing of innocent civilians as a necessary means to an end.” To Wright’s congregation, it was not a unusual speech. Apart from those three inflammatory words, his rhetoric was similar to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s calls for abolishing poverty and ending the war in Vietnam.
In his response to the furor over Wright’s comments, Obama unwittingly revealed his agreement with the politics of respectability:
The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.
By criticizing Wright’s anger, Obama also seemed to be dismissing the prophetic tradition of the black church and to be blaming African Americans for helping cause their own problems. His election that year proved to many black ministers that talk of respectability works.
But when the president announced in May 2012 that he had changed his mind and now supported same-sex marriage, he challenged that conservative turn. Many anti-gay African Americans were predictably dismayed. The Coalition of African-American Pastors, which has 1,300 members across the country, sent him a public letter protesting the move. Coalition leader Reverend William Owens charged, “The man holding the most powerful position in the world is stooping to lead the country down an immoral path.” He even called for black people to withhold their vote. Owens’s campaign failed, of course. Obama received more African-American votes in 2012 than he had in 2008.
The issue of same-sex marriage continues to divide both black ministers and their congregants. In 2012 Maryland voters narrowly approved a gay marriage referendum after the state legislature had enacted a bill with the same end. Most African-American pastors strongly opposed it, even as they backed Obama’s re-election. According to Jamal Bryant of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, same-sex marriage “disrupts the fabric of the culture. . . . It goes against our biblical understanding of what marriage represents in our society—especially in the African-American community, where homes have already been fractured.”
Yet other black ministers supported the referendum, as did the state’s chapter of the NAACP. Reverend Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church testified for the original measure before the Maryland legislature. “It is not a question of private belief,” Coates argued, “but whether all citizens of this state have the same rights.” He also organized a White House meeting with other black leaders who agreed with his position. Still, a Pew Poll published in the spring of 2013 found that just 40 percent of African Americans back same-sex marriage, while 49 percent of whites do.
For black churches, this issue is at the core of an ongoing debate about how to interpret the legacy of the civil rights movement. Pastors like Jamal Bryant and Eddie Long believe that all the attention on LGBT rights has overshadowed the rights of blacks and other people of color. While they like Obama’s talk of respectability, they oppose his pragmatic sympathy with a constituency they consider immoral. Meanwhile, right-wing state politicians and federal judges, nearly all of whom are white, are busily attempting to reverse some key achievements of the freedom movement—affirmative action and voting rights, most prominently.
Some black ministers are pushing back, however. Take Moral Mondays in North Carolina. Over the past year, William Barber, a prophetic preacher ordained in the Disciples of Christ and president of the North Carolina NAACP, has led a series of marches of Christians and non-Christians of all races in Raleigh, the state capital. They are protesting, among other policies, a voter restriction law passed by the deeply conservative Republican legislative majority. As a result of these protests, which have drawn a good deal of local media coverage, the Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to prevent the new law from being implemented.
It is Barber’s view that
God desires to save us from anything that oppresses us—racial injustice, economic injustice, and anything that works against the solidarity of the human community. The contemporary church needs to hear this afresh because too often it has become so accommodative to the worship of wealth that its theology is often viewed as a justification of economic injustice.
Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.