Rev. Jeremiah Wright

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile the religious fears concerning President Obama have more often centered around claims that he is a secret Muslim or a communist atheist, his initial campaign for the presidency revealed that even his Christianity could cause outrage. In March of 2008, the media and the country burst into a frenzy concerning comments from several of his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. One sermon in particular said of America and its government:

And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.

The Black Prophetic Tradition

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s someone raised Mormon, I was surprised to hear these comments, and based on the media attention, many others were not just surprised but profoundly outraged. And yet, over time, I have come to realize that these comments, this fiery style, this pointed social critique…these are crucial elements of “the black church” — and more particularly, this notion of the black prophetic tradition in America. These days, when we think of politically polarizing black politicians, it’s not difficult to find men of the cloth. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both Baptist ministers, are probably some of the first who come to mind, but in his scathing critique of Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson identifies West as striving in his writing for — yet failing to attain and perhaps even to understand — status as the latest in the Black prophetic tradition. (And, for whatever it’s worth, while Dyson humbly concedes that he is also not fit for as representing one in that tradition, he discusses his own ordination as a minister.)

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton

Indeed, even as Pew and other researchers have found that many religions are experiencing declining attendance, black churches remain strong.

Indeed, one relatively new star in the black public intellectual tradition, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is often identified and assessed based on his rejection of the black church and even theism in general — reviewers of his latest book can’t help but assess it against the religiosity that is so often attendant to black social advocacy.

…and indeed, black social advocacy goes back further with religious figures…whether it be the Muslim Malcolm X or the Christian Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Most Segregated Hour

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]eligion and race therefore have a complex relationship in America, and not just for black Americans. Many predominantly white church traditions have had to grapple with abhorrent statements and teachings in their past regarding race, as Mormons too are well aware.

Is it any surprise, then, that many including Dr. King, would say that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America?

In reflecting upon my upbringing within Mormonism, I have written that — at least somewhat unconsciously — Mormonism has given me a glimpse of becoming white and delightsome (however elusive.) In addition to my education and my socioeconomic status, I can attribute a lot about my professional development and success, my personality, my skill sets, to Mormonism. I hear Reverend Wright’s words as another language — although it is a language that, in recent months, I have become more and more familiar due to continued events in the news; my native tongue (even if I don’t believe or practice) is still Mormon. When people call me oreo — black on the outside, white on the inside — that to me is tied to Mormonism.

So, I was interested to find linked by a friend on Facebook an article discussing research from Baylor University about the impact on views of race within mixed race religious communities. From the article:

…“We find little evidence that multiracial congregations promote progressive racial views among attendees of any race or ethnicity,” the researchers wrote. Views of minorities in multiracial congregations contrast to those generally held by religiously affiliated blacks and Hispanics.

“Whose interests are multiracial congregations serving?” asked researcher Kevin Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “We want to believe that they promote a shared, integrated identity for all. But the truth may be that many are advancing a form of Anglo-conformity instead.”

The study’s focus was explanations for socioeconomic differences between blacks and whites in the United States. Previous research shows that blacks and Hispanics point to discrimination as a cause of black disadvantage, while whites often emphasize personal motivation as a cause, researchers said. But inside multiracial congregations, explanations for inequality become more similar across groups, coming to resemble the views of the whites.

Although more of America’s faith communities are becoming racially and ethnically mixed, the dominant white racial frames may go unchallenged. That potentially influences minority attendees to embrace those attitudes, or multiracial congregations may attract minorities more likely to accept the attitudes in the first place.

“The ongoing racial desegregation taking place in America’s congregations has many costs,” said lead author Ryon Cobb, Ph.D., National Institute on Aging postdoctoral fellow at USC Davis School of Gerontology. “For blacks and Hispanics, affiliation with racially diverse congregations costs them a perspective on racial inequality that is distinct from their white counterparts within and outside their racially diverse congregation.”

I appreciated that the article pointed out that the relationship of the correlation is not fully known. It could be that ethnically mixed faith communities influence minority attendees to embrace white-majority racial attitudes…or it could be that racial minorities already predisposed to accepting those racial attitudes self-select for those communities. In my case, I cannot tell what may or may not have been the case for my convert parents, but as someone raised in the church, I can’t say that I had much of a say in my faith community (although I guess by not attending anymore, that is my choice there?)

What do you think about this research? What do you think about the style and content from the preachers of black churches?

A diverse church congregation worshipping together