The Black church today

Art Cribbs | 3/2/2011, 5 p.m.

Being a Black preacher in the post-civil rights era can be very costly. From the fiery, prophetic voice of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor emeritus of famed Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, to the unrepentant militancy of Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, clergy in the tradition of Black liberation theology find themselves in the cross-hairs of media pundits and across the line from many popular Black mega-church pastors.

Wright gained greater prominence in 2008 as his most nationally recognized congregant, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, launched his campaign for president of the United States of America.

Members of the media delved into Pastor Wright's ministerial background, unfurled snippets of his sermons and widely broadcast 10- and 15-second sound bites that were manipulated to portray him as a hate-monger and an unpatriotic, "God damn America" preacher.

The media-controlled interpretations of Wright's theological perspective created such a furor, presidential candidate Obama publicly severed the 20-year relationship with his pastor. Wright's consistent sermons based on Black liberation theology preached from his Chicago Southside pulpit fueled the attacks against him.

Twenty-four years earlier in 1984, Minister Farrakhan experienced similar treatment, after the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his candidacy for president. Minister Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, was accused of being anti-Semitic, because he criticized religious people who failed to live up to the tenets of their faiths including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Media personalities edited Minister Farrakhan's messages to short clips and disseminated them as actual statements without either context or further reference. His words were reduced to single sentences, although the length of his Black liberation orations usually exceeded an hour.

On the other hand, less traditional Black preachers who spew a gospel of prosperity, feel-good-about-yourself theology, and keep-the-people-entertained doctrine found their soft-pedaled messages attracted churchgoers without too much distraction.

"Members of the Black Church are flocking to 'religious' leaders who are totally out of touch with the liberation agenda and who are wholeheartedly preaching greed as the 'new level' of spirituality to which they have transitioned," says the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Jr., pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif.

Theology professor Dwight N. Hopkins of the University of Chicago Divinity School, named some celebrity preachers whose non-traditional Black religious approach won favor with former President George W. Bush.

"You've got Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, T.D. Jakes, and there are about two others," Dr. Hopkins told BeliefNet, the online religious source. "They've had access to President Bush, and he's actually promoted them. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I'm just saying they have similar theologies that have political consequences with the president."

Smith is less opaque in his criticism of Black preachers, who have found salvation through money collection and prosperity promotion. In a sermon delivered at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles last year, Smith decried the absence of prophetic sermons in exchange for easy listening, soul stirring rhetoric.

"What is going on in the Black church with 50,000 believers gathering to get high spiritually is comparable to 80,000 Blacks gathering to hear Nelly or 50 Cent," he warned. "Between Nelly and Negro preachers, between Dollar and 50 Cent, the Black church in North America is on the verge of a breakdown."