I gave a speech at a church in New York on the date of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The choir director at the church had everyone in the room stand up to sing the famous song, “We shall overcome.” But the song had a twist on this special day. Instead of using the words, “We shall overcome,” the choir director changed the words to “We have overcome.”
That’s when I knew we were in trouble.
The rest of the day, I was bombarded with the glee of church members, who proudly carried their portraits of Barack Obama’s face right next to Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. Their savior had arrived. Well, second to their other savior, of course. With the election of our new president, black people were finally free.
I thought about the church in New York as I read that 20 black church leaders are meeting with President Obama to discuss issues of the day. The leaders have written an open letter to the president, encouraging him to “stay the course,” in spite of the challenges he’s received from the left and the right. According to Corey Ealons, The White House Director of African American Media, “the meeting is not about politics.”
I know Corey and respect him enough to know that he fully understands that meetings like this are always about politics. Obama’s speeches at black churches, where he refuses to discuss policy but will tell black men that they are not good fathers are typically all about politics. Obama’s Limbaugh-esque reminders that African-Americans should learn personal responsibility are inherently political. Obama doesn’t use the bathroom without thinking about politics, so political strategy will be at the forefront of his mind when meeting with black church leaders. In fact, this meeting is likely inspired by Obama’s sensitivity about recent unemployment data. The data showed that while our economy created 162,000 jobs last month, the black community saw their unemployment rate skyrocket from an atrocious 15.8 percent to an unfathomable 16.5 percent.
One of my first questions about the meeting between the president and the black pastors was “Who’s going to be there?” Does the group consist of both progressive and conservative pastors, or are they only including the ones who are willing to pat the president on the back and say, “good job”? President Obama has shown a tendency to only acknowledge and meet with those who are most supportive of him, implying that he may not be quick to spend time with black church leaders who are truly concerned about the economic challenges of their constituents.
The reason that the president finds comfort in meeting with black church leaders instead of more progressive community activists is because some (though not all) leaders of the black church are oddly comfortable with low political expectations. As long as people are coming in every Sunday, praising the Lord in every sentence and putting money into the pot every week, life is good. For some church leaders, what happens inside the walls of many churches matters far more than any atrocities taking place outside the boundaries of their chapels. Those in the black community who are suffering outside of the church are typically encouraged to join the church as a recipe for solving their problems. In the 1960s, there were a few church leaders who stood with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but there were just as many who stood to the side and quietly supported the status quo. Only strong leaders like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson have had the courage to demand that our nation live up to its expectations.
One other ironic fact about black church leadership is that many of our leaders have more in common with conservative Republicans than liberal Democrats. If the Republican Party were to ever get over some of their racial prejudices, they could have hundreds of black pastors signing on with their agenda.
Obama’s preference for meeting with black church leaders is also driven by the fact that many members of the black church leadership are politically passive, middle-class conservatives who would never actually join the Republican party. Therefore, although many of them are adamantly against abortion, and hate the ACLU’s commitment to the separation of church and state, they stand with the Democrats for at least allowing poor African-Americans to have a seat at the political table. I have no doubt that President Obama will give a speech on how our community lacks personal responsibility, and how his faith in the Lord helps him get through the tough times. That’s what wins him his applause, and at the end of the day, Obama’s words are not expected to be backed by tangible policy. The black community is expected to be the silent spook behind the door when it comes to American politics.
Church leaders who meet with President Obama have an obligation to discuss issues that go beyond church doctrine. The idea that black unemployment has risen while white unemployment has declined should be at the top of their collective agenda. The reality that inner city schools are inadequately funded should be high on the list. The mass incarceration of black men in the black community should also be up for discussion. So, as church leaders contextualize their jubilation over a black man being granted access to the White House, they must do the work of Jesus and have the courage to hold him accountable. This meeting is very important.