Black churches losing political power

Monday afternoon, an audience of about 40 heard Emory University Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Leo Owens describe his perception that the political engagement of majority black congregations in historically black churches has lessened, specifically in the Obama

“Where I expected sound and fury, I observed quietude, even as the economic and social conditions in the neighborhoods surrounding the churches worsened,” he said.

Owens said he found the silence odd for three reasons.

First, it is clear that churches have both “micro” and “macro” resources, including motivated members, strong group consciousness, a culture of action, structure and leadership.

Second, scholarship supports the assumption that black churches would be a “mighty river,” a political power base. Owens cited Andrew Billingsley’s “Mighty Like a River: the Black Church and Social Reform,” 1999, which outlined the reasons for the political power of black
churches, and several other books describing black churchs’ political strength.

The third, puzzling element is the continued presence of what Owens called “systemic sin and entrenched evil,” the very forces that churches are organized to fight against. It isn’t, he said, as if all problems have disappeared.

Owens asked his audience to assume that his observation was accurate and help him gauge the validity of what he sees as the causes for the
silence. He said he has never expressed these ideas in public before.

The first factor Owens feels is silencing the black churches is the “triumph of the prosperity gospel.” By this, he explained, he means churches that focus on helping congregants achieve material prosperity rather than social justice. He cited several books and people as examples, including Creflo A. Dollar’s “Total Life Prosperity: 14 Practical Steps to Achieving God’s Full Blessing.”

“The prosperity gospel is leading churches astray, weakening the voice of the church, creating ‘steeple envy’ and ‘edifice complexes,’” Owens said.

The second cause that Owens identified is the “co-optation by government-funded, faith-based initiatives” of work that could be done by churches. This is the topic of his book “God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America” (University of
Chicago Press, 2007).

Owens said these government initiatives “narrow the political vision of black churches.” He cited research showing that in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, as public assistance to black churches and their neighborhoods increased, the churches grew quieter politically.

Owens said the third cause is “community mobilization for political de-mobilization,” which he said is related to the second cause.

His claim is that “churches do not push for more government action to improve communities” once there is some government action. He feels this leads to blacks failing to realize they need to keep pressuring politicians even after the political system has provided some benefits.

“Blacks have become weaker politically,” he said.

Owens said a fourth cause is the general increase in the feeling that churches should stay out of politics. He cited Pew polls showing that fewer black protestants favor churches’ expressing views on political and social issues in 2010 than in 1996; the percent who favored churches expressing such views fell from 69 percent to 53 percent.

Owens cited Michael Dawson’s recent “Not in Our Lifetimes: the Future of Black Politics” (2011), which he said “does not mention churches” in its discussion of the future of black politics.

When pushed by a member of the audience to reply to those who say the church should be separated from the political arena, Owens said, “American values have been shaped by religious people in public spaces. Black churches were from the start engaged in efforts to make American better. Despite the trends, black churches can turn out a lot of people to vote. “

He said he would “like the churches to be more active more frequently, not just when a cop shoots a black kid.”

Owens closed by responding to a question about what he means by “politics.”

“I mean,” he said, “action that involves turning outward from the church itself, to pay attention to city hall, the Federal Reserve, any and all
institutions that make policy choices. Not just the government. All actions that affect the distribution of benefits and the allocation of costs,” to various groups in the nation.

The Department of African American Studies, the Department of Political Science and the Center for Multicultural Affairs sponsored Owens’ talk as part of Black History Month.

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