October 14, 2004
Black Churches: Liberation or Prosperity?
Does Christianity encourage or discourage political activism among African-Americans? Part of the answer lies in how black Christians understand the political implications of their relationship to Jesus Christ. Two traditions of black ministry, liberation theology and prosperity gospel, have very different notions of Christ and therefore exert different influences on political action.
Black liberation theology seeks to make Christianity relevant for African Americans engaged in political and cultural struggle against white racism. It asserts that God has a unique relationship with African Americans and is centered on a belief in a black Christ who sides with African Americans as they struggle against social, political, and economic marginalization. Liberation theology reasons that Christ takes on the position of the poorest and most despised in any historical moment, thus in the American context, Christ must be understood as black.
Prosperity gospel offers a radically different interpretation of Christ. The prosperity gospel asserts God's desire to help his people be financially free and secure. It teaches that Christ helps individuals who follow certain formulas in their personal and spiritual lives. Christ is an investment strategy and a personal life coach whose power can be accessed by believers to improve their finances, protect their families, strengthen their faith, and achieve personal authenticity.
Data from a survey of black Americans supports the conclusion that liberation theology promotes political action while prosperity gospel reduces it. Survey respondents who believe that Christ is black are more likely to vote, contact public officials, attend protest demonstrations, and sign political petitions. Those who see God through the lens of the prosperity gospel are less likely to engage in all of these political activities.
Through the narrative of Christ as Liberator, black theology mandates a collective approach to politics and critiques systems of inequality. Christians are called by Jesus' example not just to serve the poor but to destroy the structures that create and reproduce poverty. The prosperity gospel advances a pervasively individualistic conception of Christ. To the extent the prosperity gospel promotes an individualized, dispositional understanding of the world, it discourages collective political action. Through the black Christ, liberation theology supports the continuing political struggle of African Americans by bolstering participatory action. Beliefs in more instrumental and individual ideas of Christ, like those prosperity gospel, make black Americans less likely to engage politically.
This has implications for the future of black politics. Prosperity gospel is a fast-growing theology among black Americans. Preachers like Creflo Dollar and TD Jakes have congregations, viewers, and readers numbering in the tens of thousands. There is some evidence that their individual and instrumental message dampens political activism among African Americans. This effect can have significant consequences for the Democratic Party which relies heavily on African American turnout in local and national elections. However this effect is countered to the extent that other congregations advance a liberation theology understanding of a God who sides with the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the poor.
For partisan politics there is no single "black church," but diverse theological positions that have real impact on political action.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.