By Edward J. Blum
contributor to Patheos.com
Reports of the demise of the black church are most certainly exaggerated. Although Princeton University’s Eddie Glaude recently announced that “the black church is dead,” President Obama’s meeting with 20 African American religious leaders suggests otherwise.
In it, we see the continued power and place of black churches in American politics and society. We also see that Obama is building upon several understandings and misunderstandings of the historical relationships between religious life and political maneuvering.
First, it’s smart politics to court ministers and keep them committed to your cause. President Obama knows what John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan both knew. To reach your sheep, contact the shepherds. Kennedy made certain to present himself as a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even if JFK couldn’t stop King from being thrown in jail in 1963. Ronald Reagan let Nancy perform all the astrology she wanted as long as white evangelical ministers continued to champion his politics and show videos of him at Christian conventions for young people. And now, with mid-term elections looming and the Democratic Party in need of some energy, President Obama is reaching out to a powerful political network – black religious leaders.
Second, once again the African American church is seen as the avenue to understand, touch, and transform black communities. For the entire 20th century and now into the 21st, whites and blacks have looked to the black church to explain and change African American life. When W. E. B. Du Bois – the most famous civil rights activist and intellectual before King – turned to socialism in the late 1930s, he hoped to bring African Americans there through their churches. When civil rights activists needed a meeting spot, they turned to their churches. Now, President Obama too thinks the road into black communities runs through their churches. And third, we find once again a faulty notion among American politicians that male religious leaders are the best means to their ends.
The overwhelming majority of African American ministers are male, but their congregations are overwhelmingly female. The movers and shakers of black religious life are women. It was that way in Du Bois’s time, even though he sometimes focused too much on male church authority. It was that way during the Civil Rights crusade, even though we continue to lionize the male leaders of the movement and minimize the efforts of black women. It is that way today. The individuals who invigorate community outreach programs and perform the heavy lifting between Sundays are African American women.
President Obama will certainly listen to these leaders and offer some plans for shaping African American communities, but if history teaches us anything about black religion and politics, the real task will be for these leaders to convince the women of their denominations, churches, and communities to put ideas into action.
Edward J. Blum is the award-winning author of “W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.”