The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University’s Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King’s legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I’ve mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church’s often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God’s providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]

What’s so bad about (the word) religion?

I’ve only been blogging for a few short months, and I’ve already reached a new low—responding directly to a YouTube video. What has the world come to? The video I’m referring to is the “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus” clip that, as of Sunday evening, had already picked up 11.7 million viewers in a short amount of time. Since I’m a sociologist of religion, at times, I have something invested in the continued use of the term “religion.” It certainly sounds more academically acceptable than sociology of Jesus-lovers, not to mention that the term is not faith-specific.

While others have done an ample job of criticizing it where called for, here are a few tamer sociological observations about the content and claims in the video. You don’t tune in here for theological debate (although they are fun) so I won’t go there. After I watched it once, I thought the anti-Catholicism in the production was barely veiled. But since I’m all for debate, and I think far too little is had, I appreciated this fellow’s bringing it. But after watching it a second time, I suspected he has little clue about Catholicism, and isn’t actually subtly attempting to criticize it. It sounds like he’s wrestling with his former life as someone who looked good on the outside, but was inwardly wasting away. And so he turned his pen and camera—and he’s good at it—against that experience and the people in his former life that didn’t seem to call his bluff.

And in the end, I could be totally wrong. But my wife claims that I’m pretty good at psychological reads on people, so that must count for something. Given her stamp of approval, here are five observations:

1. It’s clear that such videos— [Read more...]

Where We Find the Most Bad Statistics

It’s my impression that the greater the social significance of a topic, the more inaccurate statistics will be created for and used about it. Why? 1) The more significant a topic, the more people will measure it, so there will be more statistics about it anyway. 2) The greater the significance, the more people will have incentive to either create or use misleading statistics that best represent their perspective.

Graphically:

Oprah, Osteen, Gaga, or Beck? Whose Celebrity Faith Do You Relate To?

Near the end of 2011, I had heard rumors that media celebrity Oprah Winfrey was visiting the Osteen family who lead the largest church in the United States: Lakewood. Lakewood is near downtown Houston and more than 40,000 attend the worship service each Sunday which is broadcast in over 100 countries to millions. This is the megachurch of megachurches in the US (still fairly small compared to Yoido and other super-ultra-mega-churches around the world. So it makes sense that Oprah, perhaps the most influential woman of color, would spend some time to get to know what it’s like to be one of the most influential Christian figures in America today.

I watched this interview recently on Oprah’s new cable channel, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network – how cool is that for an acronym brand, no wonder she’s rich!), which emerged since she stepped down from her widely syndicated show in the spring of 2011. My sociological curiosity was piqued because Oprah herself is indirectly known for her faith which these days gets dressed up in the phrase “spirituality.” Oprah was raised in a traditional African American church and is now a fairly “inclusive Christian,” a Christian who is fairly accepting of most other religions, and sees Christianity as merely one path to an integrated spirituality (or whatever term she uses).

There was nothing that surprised me in the interview I have to say, but maybe it’s because I had read a little here and there about the Osteens and their brand of Christianity. Their messages are ones that convey [Read more...]

My Faulty Moral Standards (Which I’d Like to Think are Better than Yours)

I’ve been thinking about personal standards lately, and one of the people I know with the highest standards about anything is UConn Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma. Here’s a story to illustrate. A couple weeks ago the team was playing West Virginia—a physically tough Big East opponent, and UConn was up by a comfortable margin. West Virginia’s center got the ball in the low post, and UConn’s center, Stefanie Dolson reached around and batted away from her, to one of UConn’s guards for an easy layup at the other end. As Dolson ran by the UConn bench, Auriemma chewed her out. Why? Because from his view on how basketball should be played, Dolson shouldn’t have given up the low-post position in the first place.

Auriemma has a clear vision of how the game should be played, and he won’t settle for anything less. It doesn’t matter if the team is up 50 points (which happens regularly) or down 10 points (which happens less regularly). As a result, he’s a hall-of-fame coach, Olympic coach, and has a winning percentage of 86%. (His teams have lost 6 games in the last four years). He wants his teams to play to a standard, not the situation. As a result, they have not lost to an unranked opponent since 1999! (In fact, I’m sure that my blogging colleague Jerry Park at Baylor will agree with me that UConn WBB has the best team this year).

When it comes to morals, which may even be more important than UConn basketball, I spend a lot of time watching the scoreboard. By that I mean that while I ascribe to high moral statements, when push comes to shove, I’m usually pretty happy if I’m doing better than other people or if things are going well in general.

Social psychologists explain this in terms of [Read more...]


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