Blacks, Gospel Music, and the Pursuit of Diversity in the American Church

By Gerardo Marti

In conducting interviews for my book Worship across the Racial Divide, I enjoyed talking with a Caucasian worship leader at an outdoor café on Los Angeles’ Westside. We drank coffee as he described his enthusiasm for racial diversity and the type of music he worked into each Sunday service. Then, in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly blurted out, “I just wish I could be black!”

I was struck. Although it was not the first time I had heard a white person admire black music performers and styles, this blunt yet seemingly natural statement stuck out as one of the most significant. This leader’s abrupt remark crystallized observations that had been building on racialized perceptions of worship over the previous months. Over and over again, non-blacks expressed a profound belief in the ability of African Americans to attain a deep, emotional, and, for many, inspiring worship through sacred music. Even African Americans themselves agreed that they had a racially-specific connection to worship.

What I found over the course of two years was that African Americans occupy a unique place in the moral economy of multiracial congregations. Like the canary in the coal mine, the assumption across America is that if there are few African Americans in a congregation, then the congregation’s culture is racially “toxic” against blacks. Congregational leaders serious about addressing racial issues are trying to alter their cultures. Attracting African Americans is now a major priority for many non-black churches, and this priority influences the type of music being introduced.

Gospel music is generally thought to be the music required to successfully bring African Americans into a congregation. This belief is driving changes in musical liturgy. “Gospel is a very African American thing,” one Asian musician said. “The African American spirituals we sing intentionally acknowledge the African American members of the church,” said a white choir member. A Black female church member said, “I’d say Black people do mostly enjoy gospel music.” Another Black female and member of her choir referred to the more diverse of two Sunday morning services and said, “That service is for the African Americans predominantly, and the music is different. More gospel.” Blacks enjoy gospel, therefore gospel is required. The introduction of gospel music becomes a form of instrumentalism as a musical genre that is intended to achieve a particular effect.

My book provides an extensive look at this belief in the need for racially-specific music and shows that specific types of music are not necessary for the successful racial diversification of churches. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and reactions to this newly research are only just beginning to appear. Here I will stress that it is important to approach the notion of “superiority” of Black worshippers by recognizing that the image of blacks orients around a universally held idealized image of Blacks singing gospel. A white female church member said, “I love black gospel music—like when Whoopi Goldberg did it in the movie Sister Act.” Another white female church member in another congregation said, “They all really know how to sing.” African Americans by virtue of skin color – even before people hear them sing – are bestowed authority on worship and connection to God in multiracial churches. I’ve known of some African Americans being recruited to the choir or to the worship committee the day they first walked through the door. Indeed, I found that the fewer the African Americans in a multiracial church, the more they are emphasized by members, and each African American attending becomes imbued with even more authority on music and worship.

The universal assumptions regarding the nature of Black worship radically separates experiences between racial-ethnic groups, makes racial groups absolute, and reinforces the dynamic of “Black performers” for non-Black audiences. When church leaders mix notions of black superiority of worship, the need for gospel music to be included in musical liturgy, and the requirement of black authenticity in the performance of gospel music, such music becomes the basis for separation on the basis of race. If only Blacks can truly perform gospel music (e.g., they have soul), incorporating gospel music creates a tension between “black performers” and non-black audiences. All combined, the beliefs surrounding Black gospel music have the potential to creating conditions for separation and difference rather than unity and togetherness. Insisting on gospel music inadvertently exaggerates, rather than ameliorates, one of the fundamental sources of racial divisions in America – beliefs of racial essentialism.

In the end, what’s most surprising is that the incorporation of diverse people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds into liturgy does help achieve diversity — but not through the selective incorporation of racially-specific styles of music. As one pastor wrote in response to his reading of the book, shaping a caring community through practice and performance is far more important.

More fun with statistics

Back by popular demand—and because frankly some weeks (months?) it is just plain challenging to pull new material together—are another dozen curious statistics about today’s young adults, from a new nationally-representative study of just under 3,000 18-39-year-olds.

1. Here’s an interesting one. We asked respondents whether their biological parents were ever married to each other. I got clever (I think) with the responses and acquired more than just a yes or no response. It turns out that 42 percent of this sample said that yes, there biological parents were and are still married today. An additional 29 percent said that yes they were, but are no longer due to separation or divorce; 10 percent said that yes they were, but that one or both of them is now deceased.

2. Another one on the basics—we asked about full siblings: 21 percent said they had no full brothers or sisters; 34 percent said one, and 24 percent said two. From there it drops dramatically: just under 10 percent said they had three siblings; half that said four, etc.

3. Just over 70 percent of the sample agreed that their family relationships “were safe, secure, and a source of comfort.”

4. One in three agreed that “there are matters from my family experience that I’m still having trouble coming to terms with.”

5. We asked a question that (sort of) tapped mentoring: “When you were growing up, was there an adult (other than a parent or step-parent) who did NOT live with you, but who you felt very close to, spent considerable time with, and who you think made an important positive difference in your life?” Just over 55 percent of the sample said no.

6. Among those that said yes to that question, we asked about the gender of that person or persons. For those who selected only one person, 65 percent said their mentor was a woman. Thus men are less likely to have a mentor, and less likely to be one to those who have had one.

7. When asked how hard they’d been hit financially by the recent economic recession, 22 percent said “extremely hard,” 27 percent said “somewhat hard,” 35 percent said “a little bit,” and 14 percent said “not at all.”

8. Just under 14 percent of 18-23-year-olds said they spent “4 hours or more” on social networking sites on a typical weekday. An additional 16 percent reported between two and four hours on them. That’s a fair chunk of time, I’d say. If people are so interesting, they should become a sociologist and get paid to pay attention to other people’s silly behavior.

9. When asked about attendance at religious services (not counting weddings, baptisms, and funerals), 29 percent of women and 34 percent of men said “never.” On the other end of the scale, 7 percent of women and 5 percent of men said “more than once a week” and 16 percent of each said “once a week.” I was expecting a slightly more skewed gender story there.

10. More women than men (17 vs. 10 percent) said it was “very characteristic of me” when asked if they “find it difficult to trust others completely” in romantic relationships.

11. More women than men (27 vs. 21 percent) said yes when asked if they think they have a bad temper.

12. More women than men (8.5 vs. 4.6 percent) said yes when asked whether they have seriously thought (in the past 12 months) about committing suicide.

Now, don’t get me wrong—the gender distinctions aren’t off the charts here, and I’m not testing for statistically significant differences in a quick blog post, but between these and other outcomes I haven’t listed here, it would appear that young women are expressing a bit higher levels of stress, anxiety, and emotional challenges than young men.

And last but not least, the obligatory sex statistic. When asked whether they’d ever had anal intercourse, 20 percent of the youngest group (18-23-year-olds) said yes, while 37 and 39 percent of the older cohorts (24-32 and 33-39) said yes. Given the miniscule difference between the older two groups on what is an age-graded behavioral experience, it looks like the early-mid 20s are ground zero for this one. If you haven’t done it by age 30, it appears unlikely that you will.

Five Questions to Describe a Christian

I’m just starting a very exciting research project in which we’re looking to study day-to-day spiritual experiences. This got met thinking about measuring Christian spirituality from an applied, rather than academic, perspective.

So, here’s my question. How would you measure the quality of someone’s Christian faith (how good of a Christian they are, how much they live out the faith… not sure how to word it), how would you do it?

Specifically, how would you gauge someone’s Christian faith if you could only ask 5 true-false questions? What would those questions be? (And why)

So, basically, I would like to crowd-source this research puzzle. I have some ideas, but they feel very incomplete, so I would like your input.

Feel free to post your ideas as comments or e-mail them to me at bradley.wright@uconn.edu.

Thank you! I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Between Exclusivism and Relativism

By Nicolette D. Manglos

While reading Peggy Levitt’s 2009 book on religion and immigration, God Needs No Passport, I was struck by her summary of the four prevailing attitudes towards religion. She describes the academic, well-meaning anti-religionist; the indifferent non-religious average Joe; the Christian exclusivist who fears local mosques and Hindu temples; and the religious relativist, with strong beliefs of his/her own who nonetheless values all traditions as equally valid. It is clear how she feels about each. The first two need a dose of reality—religion isn’t going away anytime soon—and the third needs to be hit over the head for their close-mindedness. The fourth, needless to say, is her ideal religious person, as it is for many thoughtful intellectuals. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace celebrates this trend in American life towards relativist religiosity. The message is that we should all be as religious as we want to be, as long as we accept others’ religious preferences and inclinations as equally valid.
As nice as it sounds, it’s also an illogical and problematic attitude. It perpetuates the barrier between relativist intellectuals and the average religious person (speaking globally). Granted, I appreciate Levitt’s appreciation of how important religion is to the vast majority of the world. That should be the bare minimum for good social science, but it hasn’t always been, so I think we may be getting somewhere. On the other hand, the doctrine of religious relativism is illogical and self-contradictory. Ultimately, it is condescending to the deeply committed. There are three main reasons for this.

First, all major religious traditions are metanarratives. They make an account of human existence that subsumes all other meta-narratives within it. Each one makes a fundamental claim to being true. Jesus Christ may have been the only one quoted as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but all traditions take as their starting point that they are THE way. Some may argue that this is not always the case. Usual examples of “non-exclusive” religions are Shinto in Japan, yogic philosophy, or certain strains of Buddhism. Without going into too much depth, I would counter that although those traditions largely recognize the validity of other spiritual beliefs and practices, they also assert their own imperative. Siddhartha’s Four Noble Truths are ultimately a metanarrative. Within that narrative, if you fail to acknowledge those truths and follow Siddhartha to non-attachment, you will be lost in a world of painful suffering. Therefore, serious devout religious people everywhere are going to have a problem with relativism, because they actually believe—as their tradition tells them to believe—that their beliefs are truth. They believe others will be better off believing them. If they didn’t, why would they waste their time?

Secondly, religious exclusivists and fundamentalism, as described by Levitt and many other social critics, are also unacceptable alternatives for believing people. In today’s public discourse, such attitudes are assumed to be based in fear that one’s tradition will disappear or will be persecuted and marginalized. Yet religious traditions, as metanarratives, prepare believing people for this possibility and explicitly tell them not to fear it. This, again, is a logical extension of promoting a certain metanarrative as real truth. If truth is in fact truth, it cannot disappear, no matter how much those who believe in it are persecuted, and no matter how difficult it gets to believe. In fact, persecution may be a good sign. David Koresh seemed to think so, as Nancy Ammerman so clearly described. Christian Smith has similarly noted the “embattled and thriving” identity of American evangelicals.

Finally, what we call religious exclusivism is disproportionately concentrated in the Global South. The Global South is also disproportionately post-colonial and peripheral in global politics, as well as dark-skinned, non-Western, and less-educated. We used to think them primitive because they wore minimal clothing and danced to strange gods. Now we think them primitive because they outlaw homosexuality and premarital sex, and attribute political events to the work of Satan. Their habits and beliefs have changed dramatically since two hundred years ago, and overwhelmingly they have embraced Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam. Yet implicit racism and intellectual imperialism from our side persists. Levitt may have talked to some Brazilians and Pakistanis that bewailed the increasing power of fundamentalists in their societies. Her example of religious exclusivism may be a Catholic resident of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Yet the fact remains that statistically-speaking, religious “exclusivism” is a non-white phenomenon. We can get away with demonizing it because the majority of the global elite are white. It’s a simple case of Gramscian cultural hegemony.

Most of the believing people I have known personally, and have interviewed in my research, fall somewhere between the exclusivism and relativism Levitt describes. The Ghanaian Charismatics I interviewed in Chicago are a good example. They do not fear that Christianity will be persecuted into oblivion. They decry violence as a conversion method and live peacefully in America. They frequent shops owned by Hindus without much of a second thought. They eat Chinese food. If they are ridiculed for their non-relativist beliefs, they take it in stride Further, they understand the role of cultural variation in religious belief. They can interpret biblical texts in the context of first-century Israel, and their biblical literalism is not a simplistic reading of ancient texts. On the other hand, they fully believe that they are better off as Christians, that African society as a whole is better off since the introduction of Christianity, and that everyone else also needs to believe in Christianity in order to be saved from suffering in this life and the next. Evangelism, for them, has very little to do with cultural change or domination. It has everything to do with collective responsibility and the choice to believe and commit to what one perceives as truth.

As Weber argued, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I would add the Axial Faiths more generally, are radically universalist. Yet rather than asserting that everyone’s different ideas are equally true, this type of universalism asserts that everyone is a candidate to believe the truth because this truth is true for everyone, regardless of language, history, culture, or skin color. From this perspective, to respect another is to enable them to believe the truth. We as academics, relativists, and white Americans may not agree. Yet we must recognize that this is not the same close-minded and fearful exclusivism that Levitt describes.

So to summarize: 1) religious relativism is an oxymoron; 2) exclusivism, as it is commonly described, is also an unacceptable position for most believing people; and 3) religious relativism is a disturbingly imperialist attitude in global context. For all three reasons, it is a shame it is such a prevailing attitude among those who study religion and shape academic discourse. There is a third attitude, the one taken by millions of believing people, that is neither exclusivist nor relativist. It is a reasoned, confident belief in a given metanarrative. It is fully compatible with the idea that multiple metanarratives must coexist peacefully and that all human persons are due respect, as well as the idea that one day everyone will recognize that their metanarrative is most true. Without understanding this perspective, we cannot understand what motivates religious people.

What Makes a Development Expert?

by Amy Reynolds

With discussions currently underway, the World Bank is expected to name a new president next week.  Three candidates are being considered for the position:  Nigerian Finance Minister and managing director at the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala;  Columbian professor and former Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo; and Dartmouth University President and medical doctor Jim Yong Kim.

The two institutions that make up the World Bank—the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA)—have the goal of reducing poverty and promoting development.  As stated on their website, “The IBRD aims to reduce poverty in middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries, while IDA focuses exclusively on the world’s poorest countries.”

What are the qualifications most important for leading an international development-focused organization? Reading through the various articles supporting (or pointing out flaws in) the different candidates, the debates over their qualifications raise at least three important questions about economic development and poverty more generally.

1)  Who should hold the power within a development organization?  The World Bank (headquartered in D.C.) is largely controlled by Europe and the U.S.(based on money invested into the bank). From the bank’s founding in 1944, it has always had an American president. In fact, this is actually the first time that non-U.S. candidates are being considered, even as many predict Kim will be elected because he was nominated by Barack Obama.

Should those putting in the most money have the most say? Should each country have an equal vote? Or should those countries most affected by the policies of the bank be given more weight?

As nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests in an opinion piece,

Since expertise on development by and large lies within the emerging and developing countries—after all, they live development—it seems natural that the World Bank’s head would come from one of those countries.  While the US, the international community, and the Bank itself repeatedly emphasize the importance of good governance, a selection procedure that de facto leaves the appointment to the US president makes a mockery of it.

2)  What is the end of development?  Economic growth is often seen as central to the

equation, alongside issues such as life span and quality of life. The World Bank uses the Human Development Index (HDI) to take into account a number of factors.

As someone who studies the underlying values of markets, I reject the notion that markets are simply efficient structures for the allocation of goods. Likewise, I would argue that development is too often equated with economic growth, and more important than measuring development is figuring out what it entails. Our current markets (and development paradigms) often value individualism over the community; efficiency over equity. We must acknowledge that assessing how to define and measure development is an ethical, and not merely technical, process. As I find in my own research, economists and theologians rarely provide similar answers over the central aspects of development.

3)  Who is an expert in development?  I find this to be one of the most interesting questions in the current discussions, perhaps because the answers are so different.  Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo are economists; Kim a medical doctor with a doctorate in anthropology. While Forbes and the Economist, alongside a cadre of World Bank leaders, seem to be endorsing Okonjo-Iweala, other development economists have endorsed Ocampo.

What are the most important skills we want a “development expert” to have. Is having experience on the ground important?  Being able to design economic models? Evaluating the data produced by those models? Having experience making economic policy decisions? Understanding the interaction of a local culture to development programs?

While this debate is currently being followed in the media, it is not that dissimilar from those being held in boardrooms in the religious development world.  A number of Christian relief & development organizations have selected as recent presidents those with expertise in the financial and business world; others value someone who has spent time in various parts of ‘the field.’  As a recent post on this site highlighted, when Christianity Today asked what development initiatives were most (cost) effective, it was the economists who made that evaluation.  Kim’s nomination, at the very least, challenges the notion that economic expertise is the most central development-related skill.

Given the current power structures, it seems likely that Jim Yong Kim will take over from current president Robert Zoellick later this month. As someone who spent time with World Relief (a Christian relief and development organization) in El Salvador, I will be watching for the announcement.  Yet to be honest, I’m perhaps equally interested in the responses of both friends and public leaders, to better understand how they think about poverty, development, and power.


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