By Josef Sorett
Contributor to Patheos.com
At the same time that President Obama was preparing to convene a meeting of black religious leaders at the White House, a debate had been brewing over the blogosphere, mostly among scholars of religion, regarding the significance of black churches in this historical moment. To attribute the cause of the former to the latter would be to overestimate the impact of scholarship on society, but the confluence of these conversations certainly appear serendipitous.
On the one hand, this new version of an old academic debate should help to put to rest any singular notion of “the black church.” Yet, on the other hand, Tuesday’s White House conversation confirms that black church leaders are still quite skilled at projecting their voices into the public sphere, thus presenting the president with a PR problem if he is perceived as not responsive to the concerns of African American churchgoers. Together, these developments serve to clarify questions of style and substance that emerge at the intersection of religion and politics in American life. Three in particular are worth mentioning here.
The first question is one of identity. Who are these black clergy and the black churches that they lead? While we all are awaiting this information, one thing is for certain: we will not be able to map them into any one shared group sensibility. If the invitees look anything like the White House’s faith-based advisory council, they will reflect a wide array of denominational affiliations (or none), theological positions and political commitments; most of which may never even show up in the public conversation. Nonetheless, they will surely not look like the black religious establishment of old, exclusively aligned with mainline protestant denominations, which held sway as Dr. King struggled to put forward a more progressive agenda.
Second, to what degree do these preachers really represent black people as an imagined collectivity? At best, black churches have never claimed more than roughly 50 percent of black communities as members. Clearly, there is no direct line between all of black life and the pulpit, and these somewhat fragile connections are increasingly enmeshed in the broader religious landscape of the United States. While President Obama’s invitation would seem to suggest that pastors are still perceived as the best proxy for a black representational politics, this assumption may no longer be viable. In fact, the dramatically increased class divide that emerged alongside the gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s only places in further doubt the ability of churches–as fundamentally bourgeois institutions–to effectively represent the concerns of the growing number of blacks who find themselves falling into the ranks of the so-called underclass, in the midst of what has been described as the Great Recession. And we can add to this class chasm a statistically small but growing number of black elites who profess no allegiance to black churches. And, remember, it was both of these realities that shaped Obama’s campaign success in the first place, while many prominent black clergy remained in the Clinton camp.
Third, and finally, it is imperative that we inquire as to what those shared interests are that black clergy stand in for in Tuesday’s convening. Are we to believe that this gathering offers anything beyond symbolic value? If so, why? While symbolism certainly has its place, if the clamoring about President Obama not taking black clergy seriously is to reveal anything more than religious hubris, then this discussion ought to at least suggest something concrete in terms of resources for the majority of African Americans still struggling to navigate their way through the continued economic malaise. However, even here we must keep in mind that a black presence in the White House–whether pastors or a president–does not a progressive agenda make. As such, more important than the public stylings that arguably provoked Tuesday’s event is the need for substantive policies that provide for “the least of these”–regardless of race or ethnicity–in American society.
Josef Sorett is an assistant professor at Columbia University. He is an interdisciplinary historian of religion in America, with a particular focus on black communities and cultures in the United States.