The African-American church was birthed out of political necessity. The emergence of the Afro-centric Christian church was the result of America’s embrace of slavery and the exclusionary and racist customs and practices whites embedded in the ‘peculiar institution.’ The Black church, though, has been fundamental to the development of ancillary institutions serving African-Americans, such as banks, insurance companies, mortuary services and historically Black colleges. And through the years, African-American congregations, while acknowledging the separation of church and state, have been at the crossroads of the nation’s politics.
Given the history of the Black church, it should have come as no surprise when it was revealed that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was trolling Black ministers to secure their endorsement. After all, it has been customary for white candidates to envelope themselves in the symbolism of a Black clerical endorsement to curry favor with Black voters. It is a practice that Democrats and Republicans have engaged for decades; from well-timed appearances by candidates on a Sunday morning, to seeking ‘spiritual guidance’ from visible and prominent Black clergy to demonstrating biblical literacy to convey kinship with the Black masses. The Black church has tragically been used as a political doormat for so many years that politicians feel no guilt in wiping their dirty shoes off on its history and cultural significance.
However, Trump’s meeting with a group of Black clergy was offensive given the encounter’s context and present circumstances in our nation. As a candidate Donald Trump has made no secret of his biases; he has trivialized the grievances of BlackLivesMatter and dismissed the very real crisis of police brutality and gun violence. Trump operates with an air of invincibility, borne out of ignorance and racism, buttressed by his wealth and largely tolerated by many journalists who are enamored with the myth of the mogul. The real estate magnate is a modern day bigot who trumpets white supremacy but conceals it by clothing it in the attire of a maverick. The emergence of this 21st century demagogue comes at the precise moment when a generation of African-Americans, largely independent of traditional cultural institutions, has found its voice in demanding not only equal treatment under the law but proclaiming its intention to dismantle structural racism in America. Trump's ascendancy has similarities in the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s and the Wisconsin politician’s false populism that was fascist to its core.
It should come as no surprise that Trump could find a group of Black ministers willing to give credibility to his candidacy. It was never about an ‘endorsement.’ Trump knew that just the appearance of meeting with Black ministers could defuse criticism that he is racist. And he also knew that there were Black ministers who clamored for the attention and are desperate to appear relevant though betraying common sense. It is a fairly open discussion in the Black community, but largely ignored by the media, that the Black church has been injured by the profiteering, grandstanding and selfishness of some who serve in the pulpit. The Black church is also being called out for its sexism, homophobia and lack of relevance to the masses in ways unheard of in its history. The imagery of palatial churches in the shadow of impoverished Black neighborhoods is now being challenged by African-Americans who have grown weary of the hypocrisy. To be certain, Blacks remain faith-focused but there is a growing detachment from the institution of the Black church over the very behaviors of Black clergy that was on display in the meeting with Trump.
Trump’s engagement with this group of Black clergy is having the opposite effect as was intended by the candidate’s campaign team. The meeting has stemmed a wide backlash by Blacks and again put the spotlight on the self-serving nature of some Black clergy. It has also confirmed to many African-Americans that faith is a meal ticket for many Blacks who claim to be called to the ministry and that their special commission is available for sale to the highest bidder. The defense of Trump by some Black ministers in attendance at the meeting, and the insistence that the serial offender is not racist, stand out as particularly offensive at a time when the very right of Black people to exist in America is at stake in this presidential election. Rather than leading Black people to the ‘Promised Land,’ we have Black ministers who are directing traffic to hell.
Despite the mockery of faith these ministers exhibit, there is a role for African-American faith-based institutions far beyond declaring preferences for candidates – Republican or Democrat. By re-engaging the Black community beyond the church walls, channeling resources to meet unmet needs – housing, food, small business development and education – Black churches can reset the so-called “welcome table’ on earth as it is in heaven. It will take the righteous indignation of lay people to corral pretenders in the pulpit and align the Black church to serve the needs of the community. And this course correction need not be carried out in private. Some Black clergy deserve a very public outing for their imbecilic and self-righteous posturing and betrayal of the very tenets of faith they daily betray but shamelessly preach down to their congregations on Sunday morning. Some of the worst offenses to Christianity occur in pulpits during Sunday morning services in America.
For now, let Trump have his ‘amen corner.’ There is something prophetic to the biblical warning that one cannot serve two masters. Our focus is better spent on reforming the Black church to make it become relevant to the needs and aspirations of Black Americans.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.