Reckoning: The Black Church in the Post-Obama Era
On January 20, 2017, President-Elect Donald J. Trump will be formally inaugurated as the President of the United States after a divisive and bitter electoral campaign whose repercussions continue to reverberate. It is especially jolting to the African-American population. We go from having “Our President” to a man that who garnered only eight percent of the Black vote.
President Obama’s ascension embodies all the collective dreams and hopes of a people who have endured the worst excesses of second-class citizenship, poverty and institutional repression in this “land of the free”. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal essay “My President Was Black” in The Atlantic Monthly chronicles this hope—and what happened next. Unprecedented levels of obstruction and disrespect were hurled at the President by the opposition Republican Party. The Tea Party formed and embittered portions of the country were eventually enjoined to “Make America Great Again” through thinly veiled appeals to fear, prejudice, and xenophobia.
As an institution, the Black Church felt it was intimately a part of the Obama Presidency. The access granted to traditionally-Black denominations was unprecedented. Basking in the glow and privilege of the Obama administration, we side-stepped divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion. We placed our hopes of redress in the seat at the table we had, even though “Black Lives Matter” developed before the Black Church’s very eyes and the institutional leadership was playing catch-up to the needs of our community. Even though there were policies adopted whose impacts towards African-Americans were questionable (changes in Federal student loan policies at HBCUs was a big one), there was a consensus that we had to help the President succeed.
For AMEs, there was a special relationship with President Obama. Mr. Joshua DuBois, one of his key advisors and Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood In his first-term grew up in an AME parsonage. The AME Church in the Chicago area during the administration of Bishop Phillip Cousin was instrumental in helping President Obama launch his national political aspirations. Bishop Vashti McKenzie served on the President’s Inaugural Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Council. President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney was more than a political speech. It was a message that spoke to our hearts because we felt and knew him to be family.
Then the unfathomable (or at least unpredicted) occurred on November 8th and Trump won. As pundits grappled with their short-sightedness, we were forced to wrestle with our future and uncomfortable internal truths. During his campaign, Trump made several attempts to form his own faith-based coalition and engage voices from the Black Church. The list of Black clergy who engaged Trump read like a “Who’s Who” of the Word Network or Prosperity Gospel 101. We must now face the reality that we will have a President who knows next to nothing about the institutional Black Church. Worse, “our” seat at the table will go to persons whose theology is diametrically opposed to what we believe and whose ministries have been largely discredited.
Leadership and members of the institutional Black Church will also have to confront what we believe and to what extent we will support the policies of a Trump administration. The “Black Church” is loosely defined as majority Black denominations, mainline Protestant denominations with majority Black congregations and non-denominational churches rooted in the Black faith traditions. While we may share similar preaching styles and worship environments, there are theological differences and disagreements. A 2009 Pew Foundation Study sheds light on some of them:
- Within the 23 million of “Black Church” adherents, 34 percent describe themselves as Conservative, 37 percent describe themselves as Moderate and 22 percent describe themselves as Liberal.
- Abortion was supported by 56 percent.
- Homosexuality was supported by 54 percent.
- Gay marriage was opposed by 52 percent.
- 61 percent believe that churches should speak out on political issues yet only 36 percent believe that candidates should be endorsed from pulpits.
We could mostly agree on President Obama but what do we do with President Trump? If we are true to our legacy and heritage, to what extent will AMEs find ourselves at odds with our Pentecostal and Baptist brothers and sisters—and are we prepared for this situation? Do we support the assault on female reproductive rights? Do we sympathize with the attack on LGBT protections? It is these issues of “bedroom politics” that Republicans will look to in order to find common ground while at the same time shredding the social protections that are vital to the health and well-being of our community. President Trump’s stances on immigration and policing are also places where divisions in the Black Church could erupt.
There are no easy answers to be found here, but the future of the Black Church depends on having these tough conversations and beginning to examine our theology and praxis.