If you have studied religion in American life -- either as a reporter or in history classes -- then you have had to wrestle with the complex and fascinating role that the black church plays in African-American communities, large and small, rural and urban.
Obviously, black churches and their charismatic leaders have always been politically active at the local, regional and national levels. In the second half of the 20th Century, most of that activism has taken place inside the structures of the Democratic Party.
Thus, most reporters think of African-American Christians as loyal Democrats. Period.
However, if you have followed the debates about who is, and who isn't, an "evangelical" these days, you know that lots of African-American churchgoers fit quite comfortably -- on doctrinal issues -- in the true "evangelical" camp. This is one reason why it's so misleading to use the "evangelical" label as another way of saying "white, Republican conservatives."
What about issues in which doctrine and politics have been known to clash? Take abortion, for example. Or flash back to 2008, when black voters in California voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's White House bid AND also voted to oppose same-sex marriage. As the Washington Post noted at that time:
The outcome that placed two pillars of the Democratic coalition -- minorities and gays -- at opposite ends of an emotional issue sparked street protests in Los Angeles and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. To gay rights advocates, the issue was one of civil rights. ...
That appeal ran head-on into a well-funded and well-framed advertising campaign in favor of the ban -- and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs of an African American community that largely declined to see the issue through a prism of equality.
This brings me to a recent New York Times story that ran with this headline: "In Trump’s Remarks, Black Churches See a Nation Backsliding." The key question: Did this story seek to diversity, in terms of the kinds of churches that reporters visited? Here is the overture for this long political feature story, which was built on reporting in Washington; Atlanta; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; and Brockton, Mass.
WASHINGTON -- In the middle of a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome” on Sunday morning, Marty Austin Lamar, the music director of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, made a sudden change to the lyrics.
“O.K., we are not afraid, but replace ‘someday’ with ‘today,’” he told the congregation.
The worshipers sang back: “We are not afraid today.”
On the day before Martin Luther King’s Birthday, African-American churchgoers gathered as they always do, to pray, give thanks and reflect on the state of race in America. But after a disheartening week and an even more disheartening year, black Americans interviewed on Sunday said they were struggling to comprehend what was happening in a country that so recently had an African-American president.
I am not, of course, surprised that most of the black-church people quoted in this story are upset with Donald Trump. However, I was surprised that the Times team thought that it had surveyed a wide and diverse set of voices in African-American church pews.
The churches featured in this story are from denominations and flocks that tend, as a rule, to lean left on moral and cultural issues as well as on political issues.
Now hear me: That's a crucial part of this story. Of course editors needed to send a reporter, for example, to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor of the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor, rewrote part of his sermon after Mr. Trump’s comment. ...
“What we heard was not new; it was a new low,” Dr. Warnock said. “I had to wrestle with how do I characterize what he said without saying it.”
What emerged was a service that swerved between the past and the present, a renewed political reckoning and another denunciation of the president from one of the country’s most prominent black churches. Before a rapt crowd that included Dr. King’s only surviving sibling, Dr. Warnock accused Mr. Trump of trafficking in “hate speech” and described him as “willfully ignorant, racist, xenophobic.”
Of course, the Times team needed to hear from leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, black Catholics (from Haiti) and elsewhere in the mainline Christian world.
However, I also would have been interested in hearing from people in the gigantic Pentecostal churches found in the majority-black Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. What about talking to some people in the Church of God in Christ, a dominant voice among denominations in black Pentecostalism? How about talking to African-American Southern Baptists? How about members of the Assemblies of God?
Think of it this way: If reporters talk to Episcopalians, United Methodists, liberal Lutherans, progressive Baptists and other members of the "Seven Sisters" of liberal Protestantism, have they really surveyed what people are thinking and feeling in predominantly white congregations in America?
Of course not. No one would ignore the doctrinally conservative side of church life, if the goal was to listen to typical white Christians in American cities and towns.
So why ignore America's many Pentecostal and evangelical African-American megachurches, if the goal is to help readers understand what black-church people are feeling about the mood in America these days, and the rhetoric of President Trump in particular?
Now, I suspect that the Times troops would have discovered that lots of doctrinally conservative black Christians are also mad as hornets at the president, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Reporters may have found a few worshipers in black churches who have, so far, been willing to give Trump a shot -- but have strong misgivings about some of his statements about immigrants and the poor.
In other words, this Times political feature could have ended up with a more diverse set of criticisms of the president, finding voices that are more representative of the black church as a whole. That would be good, right?
Why talk to one side of the black-church community, alone, ignoring some of the paradoxes and tensions found in these pews and pulpits on matters both doctrinal and political?