Ever since Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., penned "The Black Church is Dead" for the Huffington Post back in February, my e-mail inbox has been barraged by responses mostly ranging in the limited and pedantic scope of attacking Glaude personally or suggesting that one not air dirty laundry publicly.
The term "black church" is loaded with assumption. How one understands the term "black church" will probably reveal how they felt about Glaude's piece.
Glaude admits in his essay that defining the black church is complicated, if not impossible. It is a mix of, but not limited to, prophetic, liberal, conservative, charismatic, and mainline tradition that is not conducive to a monolithic classification.
In my opinion, Glaude is right: the black church is indeed dead. He is right because the institution that he critiques in his essay never existed.
Glaude wrote: "But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared."
The accuracy of the first part of the Glaude's statement would depend greatly on how one defines the term "central to black life." Is it defined by church attendance or are there other factors? But Glaude also defined the black church as "a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation that has all but disappeared."
A lofty definition to be sure, and one that I'm certain many who attend what would be defined as an historical black church in all likelihood agree. My unscientific research, based on the comments that I've read, strongly suggests that those who took umbrage with Glaude's essay continue to see the institution as "a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation."
The problem I have with Glaude's piece and subsequent debate is not so much his observations but the fact that he constructed a straw man for easy dismantling, and those in opposition assisted by dissenting to this historically flawed argument.
The myth of the black church being the storehouse of the nation's moral compass was created largely during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The black church is therefore looked upon as standing at the vanguard of progressive social and moral issues.
But history indicates that it is more accurate to suggest that there have been individuals who were products of the historical black church that were on the cutting edge of justice and equality issues than to offer the institution as pushing the nation en masse to live up to the ideals to which it committed itself in 1776.
If there was a so-called "golden era" within in the black church that embodied some type of uniformity against injustice, one might do better to examine the 19th century. From 1800 to 1865, spawned by the "Invisible Institution" where slaves would have "church in their own way" and several notable slave revolts inspired by biblical texts, the black church, whether free or enslaved, was on a path toward liberation.
But after 1865, the black church bore the burden of having millions of newly emancipated citizens in a nation not fully prepared socially to embrace that freedom. This reality necessitated that the black church become the "venerable institution as central to black life" that Glaude defined.
Many churches, responding to the spiritual and communal needs of their congregations, offered hope on Sunday and provided vital social functions the rest of the week that would have otherwise not been available. The black church provided for the indigent and created schools, universities, banks, insurance companies, and other institutions.
While there continue to be examples of this practice with a number of institutions across the country, the overarching need that began post Civil War is obviously not the same. Anyone who read Glaude's essay beyond the title would quickly see he reaches a similar conclusion.
The tension in Glaude's piece lies in the mythical public morality role that many hold for the black church.
In 1963, Martin Luther King was in Birmingham confronting Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and his police dogs and fire hoses in what was known as Project C. There were approximately 500 black churches in Birmingham and the surrounding areas, but less than 20 actively marched with King. Moreover, many of Birmingham's black pastors not only opposed King being there but used the same language as the segregationist oppressors, calling King an "outside agitator."
The percentage of black church involvement in Birmingham was also consistent with that of the Montgomery Bus Boycott eight years prior. The facts indicate that more black churches either overtly or though the tactic consent of silence opposed King's efforts than those that courageously worked with him.
The legacy of the black church has always been a mixed bag that has responded rightly and wrongly to the social challenges of the day.
The internal fights, largely around the role the black church should play in the civil rights struggle (necessitating King and others to split from the National Baptist Convention and form the Progressive National Baptist Convention in 1961), illustrates the difficultly in viewing the black church in monolithic terms. It also suggests defining the black church as a "repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation" is equally disingenuous.
There are black churches today that oppose same-sex marriage and immigration reform, but there are also African American pastors like the group I am affiliated with, People for the American Way, that advocate opposite positions.
I disagree with a recent New York Times article that suggests that Glaude has taken a "rhetorical wrecking ball" to the black church. What I do see are proponents of the black church unable to embrace the high and low moments of the institution that it holds dear with equal authenticity.
It is the latter critique that makes the black church a profoundly American institution. Just as America historically struggles to authentically embrace its high and low moments with the same valor, so too have many black church advocates sought the safe refuge of debating the myth rather than engaging Glaude's comments based on the reality of the institution.
As long as the myth that is the black church is what's being debated then Glaude is right in his perception.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site, byronspeaks.com