African-American Churches Divided Over the Role Faith Plays in Politics
At the recent National Conference and Revival for Social Justice in the Black Church, longtime political activist Rev. Al Sharpton identified how sexually-based issues divide the black church and challenged black clergy members to follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace a religious agenda more in tune with social justice. Sharpton admonished clergy not to forget those who struggled to “break us out of the shackles of racism, rallied to end the heinous war in Vietnam and battled for blacks to be treated like others” under the banner of Christianity.
This seemed off pitch to Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, TX, a church that boasts more than 28,000 members and sponsors MegaFest, a conference that attracts over 500,000 attendees annually through messages of self-empowerment through spiritual transformation and economic development. Responding to Rev. Sharpton, he stated, “I do not believe that African-American ministers should allow their political views to dictate the subjects and tone of their sermons.”
At least one comment agrees with Jakes, stating that “Sharpton has lost all touch with the greatest part of the Christian community he claims to represent,” and “his views on same sex marriage, black voting problems and lack of equality for blacks in America are not mainstream with black Americans.” It’s hard to deny that there is some divide between African-Americans of the Civil Rights generation and the current “megachurch” generation.
Despite the rift, some black ministers are reclaiming the tradition of focusing on social justices issues, while avoiding the pitfall of being partisan political pastors. The Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, advocates for the poor and focuses on social action from his megachurch pulpit. Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale offers a ministry for social action, and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL addresses political and social justice issues that adversely effect on the lives and rights of people of African descent in the U.S. and abroad.
The kinds of ministries taken up by Rev. Haynes, Rev. Hale, and Rev. Wright find a middle ground between Revs. Sharpton and Jakes. Advocating for social justice and the common good doesn’t have to mean playing pure partisan politics. Hopefully as these groups raise awareness about the relevance of social justice issues, not partisan politics, to the African-American church community, other clergy will soon follow.