12/02/2011 10:53 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

White or Black, the Church Has Failed African Americans

O, Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn,
O, Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn,
Pharaoh's army got drownded,
O, Mary, don't you weep.

But weep I did, when as a white boy caught up in the civil rights movement I had to grasp the horror that Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. I canceled my 14th birthday party and sent my birthday money to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which until then King had led.

It is easy to see -- and indeed to admire -- why Africans, snatched from their homeland, enchained in slavery and forced to become Christians, would take their newly imposed religion and turn it into a source of solace and strength. More, they made it a beacon of liberation -- one that shone for a century until the triumph of the movement for which MLK gave his life.

It is sadly ironic, then, that the same religion has become a weapon against an African-American president and any nonconforming or freethinking African-American citizen.

Last week, President Obama issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Right-wing critics, who never take a day off from their campaign of vilification, leaped on it for supposedly not mentioning God. Actually, it does.

What they are really upset about is that Obama doesn't use the occasion to turn the bully pulpit of the presidency into an altar and beseech God on our behalf to forgive the nation's sins -- a peculiarly Judeo-Christian concept. But Obama is right. The president of a pluralistic 21st century republic is not our preacher-in-chief. Those who want to invoke God on Thanksgiving can do so at the church or diningroom table of their choice. They can even start wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Who's stopping them?

Despite their lip service to liberty, what religious conservatives actually hanker after is the power to impose their religion on the nation as a whole. It is a fundamental (you should pardon the expression!) difference in worldview from that of the Founding Fathers. Rather than see America as a place where people can be free to choose any faith or no faith, religious conservatives seek to enshrine the very thing colonists rebelled against: established religion at the heart of the nation's polity.

Fortunately, despite the Dominionists' overweening ambitions, that has not happened -- yet. But there are plenty of church-based communities that try to impose their will on everyone in sight, out of the misguided notion that they have a monopoly on sacred truth. Regretably, taken as a whole the African-American church is one such community. Although there are certainly exceptions, by and large the African-American church, once the engine of progress for its people, has become a tool of oppression for any members of its community who are gay, nonbelievers or both. Even as the Armed Forces have come around to accept gay relationships, the black church remains adamantly opposed:

When asked whether there is any debate about homosexuality in this crowd [reports NPR's Barbara Bradley Haggerty], the Rev. Patrick Walker, pastor of New Macedonia Baptist Church in southeast D.C., turns to face his colleagues standing around the sanctuary. "Anyone here for same-sex marriage?" he yells. The two dozen ministers are silent for a beat -- and then break out in incredulous laughter. While surveys show African-Americans are the most liberal group on issues of social justice, they are the most conservative on gay rights.

Sociologist Shayne Lee, himself African American, notes the Balaam's Ass-ititude of African-American churches toward gay rights. It is, he writes,

a church culture that often requires biblical leaders to vigorously and rigorously uphold biblical injunctions against homosexuality, despite the inherent visceral conflicts such a position might present. It's no secret that a large majority of African-American Christians are theologically conservative. The Pew Research Center's national study of American religion lists African-Americans among the most religiously committed American ethnic groups.

This theological conservatism contributes to a disdain for science. One of the all-too-few prominent African-American scientists of our time, Neil deGrasse Tyson, sounds less like the leader of a vanguard than a stray soul:

[W]hen I look behind me, I don't see all that many [young minority scientists] coming after me. It would be one of the greatest tragedies in our society if that absence was only for want of support that could have completely transformed their life's trajectory.

The sad thing is that anyone who holds the Bible at arm's length can see that to take it literally is madness -- especially for African Americans. It is patently written by an ancient people in a particular time and place, with no notion that even while they are writing in Israel, there are whole other civilizations in China, India and Meso-America, to name a few. The Bible writers clearly have a crude and largely superstitious understanding of how the natural world works. But worst of all for African Americans, to take the Bible literally is to be forced to swallow its endorsement of slavery. Sure, it can be sugar-coated by transmutations of "slave" into "servant," but the underlying fact remains: if you take the Bible as your literal, word-for-word guide, you condone slavery.

Now, African American churches do not, of course, embrace slavery. Like everyone who claims to be a biblical literalist, they pick and choose. But it is truly disheartening to see black church leaders, who ought to know oppression when they see it, choosing to condemn their gay brothers and sisters.

Of course, none of this compares to the role of the church in Africa itself, where Catholic anti-condom propaganda has caused the needless deaths of countless souls from AIDS, and where bellicose anti-gay preachers have led relentless drives to enact the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda and Nigeria.

It's enough to make you weep.