“God in America” and Black Christianity

“God in America” and Black Christianity

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Last week, PBS’s Frontline/American Experience aired a most interesting three-part series entitled “God in America.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School

Last week, PBS’s Frontline/American Experience aired a most interesting three-part series entitled God in America. The series featured not one, but three Duke University Divinity School faculty members: professors Lauren Winner, Grant Wacker, and Richard Lischer.

The six-hour series can be viewed in its entirety online. I provided real-time Twitter commentary as the series was broadcast, and followed with concluding comments.

This series could not have aired at a better time. I say this for two reasons.

The first is this. Whether we’re talking about the ruckus over plans to build a Muslim center in New York City, an evangelical pastor in Florida who threatened to burn a copy of the Koran (with appeals from the highest governmental levels, he was persuaded against doing so), or Glenn Beck’s “March on Washington” and the Tea Party’s invocation of God in its calls to take “our country back,” I think it’s indisputable: the God-question is in the cultural and political air.

The power of the God in America series is the historicizing of the importance of God and religion in our country’s national discourse. Indeed, the series puts the current crises of religion and race in American culture and politics, especially since Obama’s election to the presidency, in perspective.

From the 17th century Puritan language of a “City on Hill,” first uttered by John Winthrop to interpret America (and  then taken up again by Ronald Reagan), through the American Civil War, the various waves of immigration, the fight for women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, the rise of the Religious Right, all the way to more recent debates about terrorism and gay marriage, God in America does a marvelous job of showing how religion has been at the heart of cultural and political debate. In fact, what the series profiles is how the country’s greatest historical crises have always been staged in relationship to religion or, perhaps better, as religious or theo-drama.

Given this and its masterful handling of the material, God in America deserves a wide viewing.

But for my money, God in America deserves a serious viewing for another reason: on the whole, its handling of the central place of black Christianity and the role of black churches in America is well done.

Black Christianity, at its best, has been a voice of religious sanity for the country. This comes through clearly in God in America. The show helps clarify the central role of black Christian faith in guiding the country to follow its better angels—the angels of Freedom, Justice, and Liberty for All, and to honor our responsibility to our kin and beyond. In other words, black Christianity has been a voice of humanity and humaneness in religion in America.

This comes through in particular when we hear the elder statesman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. recount his part in a march to demand the release of Martin Luther King Jr. from the jailhouse where he was being held. I was moved as he told of the group of marchers kneeling in prayer, believing that somehow God would work in the interests of righteousness to free King.

There is also the series’ recounting of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Written on the margins of a newspaper and other scraps of paper, the letter was King’s direct rebuttal of demands from mainline clergy that he cease and desist agitating for social justice. In this letter, King reworks the ways that Christian imagination is called to counter the interests of injustice in America.

We also hear King calling for economic justice for the poor, and his insistence that the United States get out of Vietnam, a war that he saw as a new form of Western imperial domination.

The series is chock full of moving scenes such as these, scenes where profound humaneness and humanity jump through the screen.

This points to what I want to get across: God in America profiles how black Christianity at its best has been a healing agent, helping shape Americans’ struggle to live by our better angels, not our lesser angels. Black Christianity has sought to move beyond fragmentation toward a different social vision, a vision of belonging and community.

But what we—and here I mean specifically black Christians—must now ask ourselves is this: To what degree are we living into the best of black Christianity that has gone before us? In other words, I am asking the question of Christian discipleship in the present. What ought Christian discipleship look like now?

 As I see it, too much of black Christianity has become about mere entertainment, on the one hand, and about judging who can—and who can’t—be “saved,” and thus who can and who can’t be in the church. As a result, the discipleship question is a decidedly open one. It is a question that demands our attention.

If the recent Eddie Long incident (and others I might have invoked) tells us anything, surely it is this.

Perhaps this is the other challenge the series God in America poses.

I recommend it heartily.

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