Rough Transcript

LiVecche: Hello everybody, I am Marc LiVecche. I am the executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, and I am here with two friends and longtime Providence contributors. First, Derryck Green, who is currently a freelance writer living it up in sunny California, and Keith Pavlischek, a retired Marine and so much more, including senior editor to Providence. But two old friends, and we are going to have conversations about a new Pew Research article that came out about black spirituality, the Black church, and that’s going to lead to all sorts of questions about race relations in America, the woke revolution, and much else. I’m going to play a little bit of a fly on the wall and hand things over to Keith, who’s going to I think lead us into the conversation. And I’ll just intervene intermittently as I see fit. So, with that, Keith, take us away.

Pavlischek: Well, I’m happy to be here. I think it was actually getting acquainted with Derryck a little bit on social media that prompted what I hope will be the focus of this discussion. First, let him basically pick up the ball and run with this recent Pew study of the Black church basically to get an understanding of what they’re saying, and Derryck seems to be the right guy that’s attuned to this. And let him run with his thoughts about what is revealed in this polling data. And then the next step will be to go in and ask some questions about well, to find a point on where is Black church leadership or Black intellectuals speaking into the whole new woke, the religion of wokeness. And so, those are the two areas we want to get into. So, I guess I would just initially ask Derryck if he would have some opening comments to say about some of this new Pew Research data.

Green: Sure. So, the interview was conducted right before I guess the COVID plague, and so they surveyed a number of Black individuals about the impressions of the Black church and the influence of the Black church both on their lives and their lives as American Blacks as a whole. And it’s the first of a number of studies that he was going to release, and it was very interesting for a number of reasons. One, the Pew research confirmed what I think a lot of people already know. And it confirmed what previous Pew polls had demonstrated, Gallup polls, CBS polls, ARIS poll, the American religious identification survey from several years back, that Blacks still remain the most religious demographic in the country. They are more likely to go to church on a regular basis. They’re more likely to read the Bible on a regular basis. They’re more likely to pray to God on a regular basis. And when I say on a regular basis or more likely than their multi-ethnic counterparts that were also polled and surveyed, they’re more likely to believe that evil spirits exist. They’re more likely to believe that the word of God is to be taken literal. It just shows that religion still has a tremendous impact on the lives of American Blacks. Now this particular poll demonstrated what, again, a lot of people know, is that the younger generations are less religious than older generations. So, Generation Z and I think they call the millennials, I think they’re two separate demographics, are less likely to be religious than Gen Xers, than the Greatest Generation, or Silent Generation. However, what this data shows is that Black millennials are still more religious than their multi-ethnic counterparts at that level. So, even though there’s a decline of religious impact and religious influence, Black millennials are still more religious than their counterparts. And so, I think this shows a lot of, again, religion has been such a central part for the lives of American Blacks going back to slavery that it’s almost inherited as a central part of American lives when you are part of a demographic or a subgroup that has been oppressed several times for extended periods of time in the nation’s history, you are more likely to rely upon the power of God to get you through those very difficult parts, whether it’s slavery or Jim Crow. So, that to me, at least it has been in my life, has been an inherited form of that religiosity. That we know that there is a power that is greater than ourselves and greater than the power that subjugates us that has the power to deliver us. So, it’s really not a shock that Black Americans remain as religious as they are. I think the shock is there’s certain aspects of Black communities that seem to stand in contra distinction to the values that are in the Bible, and that’s one of the issues that I like to research a lot to see how we can bridge that gap. So, it’s not just polling and statistically being more religious than our counterparts, but demonstrating that religiosity in our lives as proof of that religiosity is one of my primary concerns.

Pavlischek:  Can you give an example or two of where you identify the disconnect? You said there’s a disconnect between the religiosity and what you think are certain norms that you would expect a Christian, we’re talking about Christians here primarily right. What we would expect from church or, as Pew often says, when you identify religiosity it’s regular church attenders. So, if you did a study of regular church attenders and then you match that up with something that would not seem to connect with that, how would describe that disconnect in some areas?

Green: There’s a couple things that I would like to touch on as an aspect of the religiosity. So, one of the things that I would say is that they’re more likely to hear sermons dealing with political issues, race, that kind of thing, but they’re also less likely to hear topics about specifically abortion. That was specifically mentioned in this data. The reason that’s important is because non-Hispanic Black women, the last set of data that I looked at, were responsible for 38 percent of all abortions. And so, if they’re not hearing this from the congregation as a moral imperative not to do it rather than a political imperative, then they’re less likely to take that into consideration if and when they’re in that position to have an abortion. So, there’s a disconnect, in my opinion, there. The second thing that we see is Black women are more likely to go to church than Black men, and that’s understandable for a number of reasons. But if Black men aren’t in churches internalizing the message of the sermons that the pastors are giving, they’re less likely to take those messages home to their own families and be the leader, the moral authority, in their homes with their wives over their children. And one, there’s this idea that the church has become a matriarchal institution. Because a lot of the sermons are taught and given from a feminine point of view, it’s more likely to be internalized by women than it is going to be by men. But if men aren’t in these churches, particularly in Black communities in which there’s a lot of social dysfunction, they’re not internalizing some of the moral messages from the pulpit that they need to hear to improve their lives as men, but also as husbands and then taking what they learn in church and taking it back to their home so then they can be moral leaders for their children, their sons and their daughters. Or even if they’re in a position to mentor other men or young boys and girls, they’re not being that moral leader that some of these communities need. And so, it’s unfortunate that a lot of pastors are, at least if they’re speaking about it, they don’t have the platform that some of their more aggressive and politicized counterparts have to say these are messages that need to be internalized by both women and men. Because this is how we can create different sorts of theologies that can bring together the Black family that has been utterly destroyed post-60s to kind of overcome some of the moral dysfunction in Black communities. I think that’s something that pastors have to be more courageous about and speak more to, because in a lot of these areas because of the lack of men, the lack of husbands, the pastor is in many respects the de facto father and husband and moral leaders of these communities. And so, if he’s abdicating his moral responsibility, his religious responsibility, to speak to these issues, he’s doing a disservice to the women that are in church, and the children that are in church, and the men that need to be in church. And so, I think that’s something that needs to be really reassessed in Black communities, to be spoken more in Black churches.

LiVecche: If I could jump in real quick. Derryck, I don’t know if you would have the means to answer this, but you mentioned abortion, if I recall from the Pew data, it said something in the vicinity of 23 percent of Black respondents believe that opposing abortion is essential to their religious identity. Only 23 percent. And probably a lot can go into what it means to say essential sure, but my question would be, if you isolated that question to only Black pastors, do you suspect that number would skyrocket and be a much higher percentage, or does that represent somehow sort of a consensus opinion within the Black church as a whole?

Green: I can only speak anecdotally. So, the number of Black churches that I’ve gone to, up and down the state of California, including Texas, Memphis, Tennessee, Mississippi, that issue really does take a back seat. A very distant back seat to more immediate issues of racial justice and overcoming racial discrimination. And I think Pew insinuated that I think a little bit. And so, there’s a reason that a lot of time and energy is spent on that as opposed to abortion, and the reason for that is that I think in my experience there has been a lot of single motherhood in a lot of these churches, and there’s been a lot of women who have had abortions. And calling people to account is difficult for some people. And this is, again, this is a tradition that believes that they are called by God to shepherd his flock. Even though they’re called by God, they still are afraid to speak some of those hard truths because they don’t want to alienate a considerable segment of their congregations. And there’s a lot that goes into that as well. But at the same time, they may not want to alienate them so they continue to come. But what does that say about their spiritual lives? And their spiritual lives and their activities here is combined with the afterlife, so they do them a disservice not only here but in the future in the world to come. I think personally, so, it’s been my experience that they’re reluctant to talk on that issue because it affects so many people in the congregation. I mean, even if they weren’t going to talk about abortion but they talked about the consequences of single motherhood, that would at least be a start getting in that direction. But it seems that those two issues if they’re discussed, and I think that single motherhood is discussed more than abortion, they both are behind issues of racial justice. And I think that too much is made of racial justice in 21st century America and not enough attention is given to some of these more immediate and direct issues that are having negative consequences on Black communities across the country.

Pavlischek: Thanks, that’s great. Something has been obvious to some of us for a long time. Some of us were critical in the ‘80s of sort of explicit politicizing and even partisanship from the pulpit. Back in the day, it was the Moral Majority and the whole Jerry Falwell thing. But it was also clear to some of us back in the day that the moral majority didn’t have anything over the Black church in terms of, predominantly Black church, in terms of explicit partisan political campaigning from the pulpit. Now I know that that’s not true of all Black churches, and you have to divide up the predominantly Black church. The church of God in Christ is not the same as Baptist Black denominations, right. And I understand that. And that’s also true in of course the White evangelical world, too. But I wonder if you could say something about, I guess for people looking from the outside, conservatives will scratch their heads like it’s kind of odd that there’s a hesitancy to speak to those really hard and difficult moral questions, but you also see a lot of politicizing, even partisan politicizing, from the pulpit. And I think some of that comes out in that there’s historical reasons for that.

Green: Yeah, it’s interesting. That actually goes to the point that Marc just brought up about hearing abortion from the pulpit, because a lot of Black pastors and Black churches see that it’s such a central issue for White evangelicals that they see it as kind of a politicized bludgeon to be used against them, and there’s not enough talk about racial issues from White evangelicals. So, it seems as if they’re trying to fill the void with one by de-emphasizing the other. And I think that, I understand it, but I think that may be a mistake so to speak. Having said that, I think that it’s very interesting with the Civil Rights movement, because not all Black churches were on board with that. Obviously, not all White churches were on board. But it was an issue that was born and nurtured in the Black church tradition, and I think that despite some of its failures, the overarching winds that it had was a true testament to the Black church tradition about the effect that it can have on American culture and society to force Americans to live up to the ideals that were beautifully expressed in the Declaration and the rights that were codified in the Constitution. That was a huge moment in our nation’s history. It’s interesting because I think that since then, people have been trying to replicate that in various different levels. And I think, personally, the Moral Majority was part of that. It was to say if the church had that kind of impact on the nation, we see the nation going in a way that we don’t like, let’s see if we can try to have that kind of influence on the country as a whole. And so, listen, they did some good things. They did some bad things. I think part of the Moral Majority’s mistake was not including Black churches in that discussion. Because considering some of the wins that the Black church tradition was responsible for, I think that was a mistake. I also think when it comes to politicizing things it’s really interesting, because I think churches, despite the ethnic composition, some of them will politicize from the pulpit, but there’s a lot, and believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time in seminary sitting with a lot of pastors who were very, very reluctant to talk about political issues from the pulpit, they simply didn’t want to do that. And so, I understand their reluctance to do that. The problem is they don’t necessarily have to politicize from the pulpit. I’ve always said if we try to make the moral argument, politics follow. So, make the moral argument, or lead your congregation morally from the foundations that are found in the Old and the New Testament, to give your congregation at least a foundation upon which to go into the polling place or at least to consider political issues. But if you simply create that vacuum, something is going to fill that void. And as we’ve been seeing over the last 20 years, it hasn’t been good. So, I think that if pastors don’t want to politicize from the pulpit, at least make moral arguments regarding political issues. Whether it’s race and going back to an Old Testament Christocentric anthropology that says we’re created in God’s image, we are renewed in the image of Christ rather than a as a firm distinction between the superficial anthropology that comes from identity politics, you can make the moral argument there and teach your congregation the direction in which they should go biblically speaking. And then pray that they make the right decision. I don’t think there’s enough pastors doing that. The second thing is, I think particularly with respect to the Black churches, the Black churches have allowed themselves, and again, this goes back to the Civil Rights movement, to be taken over by a monolithic form of politics. And so, there’s a lot of blurring of the lines that goes on in Black churches, particularly around election time in which people running for office go into the Black church, they tell Blacks what they want to hear, and then they disappear for another four years. Or there’s politics that are so intertwined with the Black community that there is no distinction between a Christian world view and a leftist or progressive or Democrat worldview. Just kind of the lines are blurred and they intertwine with one another. I think that’s a bad thing. But I also think it’s a bad thing for predominantly White churches, if I can call them that, synthesizing this form of being a patriot church or things that come along with that. I think that there’s too much politicization in there and not enough Christian religiosity that distinguishes it, because both churches are in the position in which they cannot hold political parties accountable because they’re so intertwined with one another. So, they have to kind of divorce themselves up to a particular point so people can see a clear distinction between one and the other, which means if you make the moral argument to support particular political positions, you haven’t so intertwined oneself or you can’t call them to account when they err. And I think both church traditions have gotten themselves in that particular position, which is partly responsible I think for the declining influence of traditional Christianity.

Pavlischek: I’ve spoken with Marc, I told him a little anecdote from when I was in grad school. This would have been the mid to later ‘80s, and I was forced to take a couple of ethics courses at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was doing my degree at the university but I took a class over there, and it was a mix of people in the class. It was in the middle of the whole Moral Majority Christian Right, and as a Christian, I remember I was making an argument, it was critical of the Religious Right, and it was along the lines that you said. I said I don’t believe in political sermons or partisanship from the pulpit, but the idea is that you inform the lady and the lady becomes active politically from the ground up rather than the top down. And I caught hell from a Black woman who told me that, in the middle of me criticizing the Moral Majority who they all hated anyway, but it was like if you did that, you’re silencing the Black church. Because the leadership of the Black church came out of the leadership of the Church preaching freely from the pulpit, and the whole Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, and the reverends. It was a church-based movement. And I said well yeah, I think I have an answer to that. It’s like in a situation of extremist, yeah okay, you get that kind of leadership. But if you rely on that leadership over a lot of time, you’re going to get into trouble, and you’re going to get into trouble for the same reason the Christian Right petered out. And for the same reason the Moral Majority had those problems.

Green: Absolutely. All I can say is that there are a lot of good Black preachers in Black churches and a lot of them who are making the moral argument and the moral case against certain activities and political behaviors that have been utterly detrimental to Black communities, and they aren’t given the same type of pulpit as people who are advocating for leftist politics are given. And so, it seems as if there aren’t pastors out there speaking out. They’re out there speaking out. They just don’t have the platform as some of their counterparts are given. So, I think that’s, again, that’s a detriment not only to pushing people into politics that have been destructive for their communities, for themselves, their families, and their communities, but it silences other people in which there’s no dialogue. So, we could have a more robust moral persuasion over politics as a whole if we were going to bring in people who aren’t given the platforms that some people on the left are given. Listen, let’s have a conversation and say okay, where do we agree morally from this position? Now let’s take that and go try to persuade not only people out in the world, but some of these political parties to do the right things for Americans broadly as a whole, but for also Black communities across the country. And I don’t think that’s happening as much as it should be.

Pavlischek: Right. This might be a good time to segue into the second big question that I have for Derryck. As I think I mentioned to him before we kicked this off, I’ve been watching a lot of Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on YouTube. I think they’re both brilliant. I think they’re both brilliant. Glenn is over 70, that’s Glenn Loury, of course. And John McWhorter is a young intellectual. He’s about 30. And I was struck. There’s something ironic going on with Glenn Loury, who describes himself as a Christian apostate, and John McWhorter, who is an atheist or agnostic secular intellectual. They’re both Ivy Leaguers and Black intellectuals. And the question I had was isn’t it somewhat ironic that the criticism of wokeness, and particularly the religious nature of the new “Great Awokening,” as some people have called, is coming not predominantly from the Black church or Christian Black intellectuals, but it’s coming from these guys. And it’s coming with both barrels, no holds barred. I’ll read an example of this. John McWhorter had said that he just sees, he uses this peeing pants metaphor, and Loury challenged him on it. He said oh, you’re speaking metaphorically. And so, his definition of the excesses and dangers of critical race theory, this is Loury, I believe, is this “image of a terrified, cowardly, spineless white person in business, non-profit organizations, educational institutions who is so fearful that he/she is going to be out of step with the social justice advocates of critical race theory that they endure ridiculous humiliation and reeducation, which they privately loathe and see as a transparent power move but they endure it because they can’t bear being called a racist by the social justice advocacy crowd.” This is Loury. And McWhorter says, “you have to imagine a person in business clothes sitting behind their desk, that if they came from behind their desk you would see a suspicious stain. That’s how I actually think of all these people.” So, what I find remarkable about these two Ivy League Black intellectuals is, in particular, they see it as a religious ideology. That it’s a substitute for a Christian faith. And so, I guess my question I really wanted to get at with you was why is that?  Why do I have to get that from Loury, as a Christian, why do I have to get that from Loury and McWhorter? I mean, apart from the fact that they’re probably more brilliant than most anybody else on the scene, Black and White. What accounts for their prophetic, if we use the term prophetic, voice on this, even though they’re not believers.

LiVecche: Derryck and Keith, let me do an editorial intervention here. We’ve come in and out with Keith’s audio a little bit. He’s got a great provocative question. That might be a wonderful place for us to stop part one of this conversation, and tease up part two of this conversation by starting off with that question in part two. So, if we can do that, why don’t we sign off for now, give our listeners a break, and come back for part two. Keith, you’ll reframe your question. And Derryck, you’ll hit it out of the park. So, until then, Keith Pavlischek, Derryck Green, thank you for joining me in this episode of the ProvCast.