LITHONIA, Ga. -- Under a sparkling blue sky, thousands of worshipers in cars and SUVs streamed into the mall-like parking lots at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a sprawling campus just off I-20 in this suburb of Atlanta.
It was Sunday morning, and for the African-American families flocking to services that meant it was time for church, just as it had for generations of black Christians who had found in the pews not only a sanctuary from a hostile world, but also a platform for communal action to make their lives better.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation commemorates on Monday, was a product of the black church, and the black church has arguably done as much as any Christian community to inspire the soul and culture of modern American society. It has supplied the prophetic language that has driven the nation's ongoing reconciliation with the original sin of slavery, and it helped form the character of Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president and an orator with the delivery of a black preacher.
Yet New Birth Missionary Baptist -- with 25,000 members who generously bankroll high-living pastors and high-tech services -- is also emblematic of what many in the African-American community see as a profound crisis in black Christianity, or even the "death" of the black church.
One objection is that this prominent Georgia megachurch preaches a money-centered "prosperity gospel" that traditional African-American clergy consider a betrayal of their faith's legacy of sacrifice and social justice. This focus on personal financial gain represents a kind of cultural conservatism that is spreading among black churches, critics say, and signals a concern for the success of each individual congregation rather than the national community.
In addition, New Birth's charismatic leader, Bishop Eddie Long, is under intense scrutiny for allegations that he used his position as a spiritual counselor to coerce at least four men into sexual relationships while they were teens, giving them cars and cash in return. Long and his representatives have denied the charges
, saying only that Long -- who said he takes pride in being called "Daddy" by the congregants -- was just serving as a mentor to the teenagers and did not engage in sex with them.
Long, who is 57 and married (and an opponent of gay rights) freely admits that he is "not perfect." But he is also not about to step aside from his pulpit, and, more importantly, his congregation has rallied to his side.
"Of course we support him," a congregant who gave his name only as Roger said after a nearly three-hour service of rollicking music and praise for Long, and insistent appeals for donations -- appeals that were repeatedly answered as thousands streamed up to the pulpit to lay wads of cash in a growing pile on the stage.
"We're just men. We have no right to judge," Roger said. "Whatever happens is between you and God."
"He's doing what God anointed him to do," agreed his wife, Eleanor, as they pushed a stroller with their 1-year-old grandson. "This is a little thing," she said of the charges. "There are so many big things to worry about."
That's not how a lot of other voices in the black church see clergy like Eddie Long.
"They're pastors, but they're really in the Halloween costume of a Fortune 500 CEO. And in the process they're trick-or-treating the people," Jonathan L. Walton, an assistant professor of African-American religion at Harvard Divinity School, told an appreciative audience three days earlier at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta.
Ebenezer Baptist is 20 miles away from New Birth Missionary Baptist, and light years distant in terms of black history and a lot of contemporary black Christianity.
Founded in 1886 during the brutal post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, Ebenezer Baptist
was the church of Martin Luther King, Jr., (and his father), the seat of "pastoral royalty" in the church, and the icon of what the black church hoped to be, and what it became. The event where Walton and others spoke opened with the black gospel standard, "We've Come This Far By Faith," and concluded with "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," known since the civil rights era as the black national anthem.
Yet for all that poignant history, the Ebenezer Baptist panel focused on what the black church needs to do today in order stay relevant, and above all to help a community struggling more than ever.
During the discussion, participants lamented the growing conservatism and anti-intellectualism that they often found in the black church. They also cited the community's broad antagonism toward homosexuals, a phenomenon that has been widely noted as black voters have been crucial blocs in voting against gay marriage ballots.
The panelists also ripped what they see as the accommodation of black churches like New Birth to the kind of winner-take-all, capitalist mentality that Dr. King struggled against in the name of social justice -- a gospel concept that has become anathema to believers like Glenn Beck and his Tea Party followers.
"We're baptizing a lot of this crap in the name of Jesus," Walton protested, sparking more applause.
These vastly disparate views of contemporary African-American Christianity -- and the fact that the differences are roiling the black church to such a degree -- can come as a surprise to outsiders who tend to see "the black church" as a monolithic entity, a community of like-minded liberals walking arm in arm like those grainy newsreel images from the civil rights era.
But in fact the problems are real, the arguments are passionate, and it has all spilled in to the open over the past year.
The precipitating event was an essay posted last February on the Huffington Post by Eddie Glaude, Jr., a young African-American religion professor at Princeton who gave his column the eye-catching title, "The Black Church Is Dead,"
and continued that with an equally arresting lead:
"Of course, many African-Americans still go to church," Glaude began, noting surveys that track the higher-than-average religiosity of American blacks. "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," he said.
In his obituary, Glaude cited a number of official causes of death, including the fact that black churches are -- like houses of worship in other communities -- increasingly just another facet of people's lives rather than the central organizing principle: "I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs."
Also, upwardly mobile blacks are continuing the process of assimilation and are therefore attending traditionally white churches, while African-Americans of all classes are drawn to megachurches led by white pastors such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Entrepreneurial black clergy, including Bishop Long and Creflo Dollar, are also trying to create their own megachurch phenomena, and are building on the legacy of flash-and-cash African-American pastors of the past like Reverend Ike and Prophet Jones.
Above all, however, Glaude in his essay was hoping to expose the "myth" of the black church as a unified, progressive entity that served as both central rallying point for the African-American community and its engine for social and economic uplift.
That view never really reflected the reality on the ground, Glaude notes. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his activist allies were sharply criticized by some fellow black clergy for being too liberal, for example, and split from the more conservative black church establishment of the day to establish the Progressive National Baptist Convention
If anything, that myth of a large, liberal and influential black church is less viable today than ever, and that has profound political ramifications. Resurgent conservatism like the Tea Party movement, for example, seems to have channeled the grass roots energy that the black churches once had, and the black churches -- representing as many as 30 million people in 50,000 congregations -- have not been able to marshal the votes to respond in kind.
Just look at exit polls from the 2010 mid-term elections, which indicated that only 10 percent of African-American voters went to the polls, a dismal turnout of what is by far the most reliably Democratic bloc and in a campaign in which every sign of support was critical for the political prospects of Obama, the first African-American president.
"If the 2010 election is a preliminary tea-leaf-reading to 2012, then President Obama has a lot to think about in terms of re-mobilizing the strong African-American voter base that he enjoyed in 2008," Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and a prominent African-American voice, wrote in a post-mortem
. "Part of that base -- the old guard 'black church' coalition -- is not as strong as it could be. Republicans have learned to mobilize their 'affinity groups,' but black churches do not have the same strong community and 'affinity' links that existed in the past."
But whatever the realities, the black churches occupy such a sacred space in the African-American imagination, as well as the national consciousness, that Glaude's obituary was bound to spark intense debate. And did it ever.
The website ReligionDispatches.com called Glaude's essay "the Digital-Age equivalent of nailing a set of theses to a church door" when it hosted a series of often pointed responses
a month later, in March 2010. Glaude and one of those respondents, Josef Sorett, an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, engaged in a bloggingheads.tv
debate on the topic.
Then just last month, leaders representing the nine largest traditionally black denominations gathered in Washington to try to re-launch a national entity to "fill the void for a unified voice of faith" -- an implicit acknowledgment of aspects of Glaude's critique. The newly constituted Conference of National Black Churches
(CNBC) aims to affect public policy on issues like health care, education and the economy, all areas where the black churches have had nothing like the impact they had during the civil rights era.
"[T]he absence of voice has allowed more conservative voices to come in and say they speak for the black church," the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, head of the CNBC, told NPR
. "They may speak for some aspect of it, but that's not the whole story. What we want to make sure is that the whole story of prophetic social engagement, public policy challenge is a part what it is that we do."
While Richardson acknowledged the truth in some of Glaude's critique, others were not so open to his jeremiad.
Some sharply criticized Glaude for airing the community's dirty laundry -- allowing the broader public, as Samuel Freedman put it in a New York Times column
, "to eavesdrop on the theological equivalent of a black barbershop, a place of glorious disputation that is usually kept out of white earshot."
Others objected that Glaude's own connection to the historic black churches was too tenuous to give him standing to criticize the community (Glaude was raised a Catholic and considers himself a Christian but rarely attends church) while a few protested that he was an intellectual, not a minister with experience in the pews.
"Theologians and philosophers like Eddie Glaude don't go to black churches," Lawrence H. Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar and co-author of the "The Black Church in the African American Experience," told Freedman. "They haven't been out in the field. And unless you're in the field, you can't see what's happening."
But in the end, many seem to accept that the debate has been healthy, even if uncomfortable, including Glaude.
"I was somewhat shocked by the initial reaction," Glaude told PoliticsDaily last week. "But I think the subsequent conversation was really good, despite the passions of some of the exchanges."
He said the essay helped to show that black churches "are not inherently progressive or somehow necessarily places where prophetic energies emerge," and to push the black church "to insist that progressive black Christians insert their voices more powerfully into the national conversation."
"This is really about turning over the soil so we can think about what it means to be black and Christian in the 21st century."
"In Christianity death never has the last word," Glaude said. "So to declare the death of the black church is actually to declare the precondition for its resurrection."