ANNISTON, Alabama — The morning after white supremacists and neo-Nazis sparked violent clashes in Virginia, the Rev. Titus Roberson delivered a 45-minute sermon to his historically black church here. He urged the nearly 50 congregants to give their lives to God. He warned them to avoid greed and jealousy. And he wrapped up without ever mentioning the violent clashes in Charlottesville, or President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the white supremacists responsible.
Behind Roberson’s decision lies a debate raging among some African-American clergy — as well as white clergy — over whether they have an obligation to urge their congregants to take political action.
“God’s going to put in office who he wants to for that season. Once that season is up, you depend on God to do what needs to be done,” Roberson said in an interview in his office following his sermon, explaining why he kept politics out of his pulpit. “We, as Christians, need to keep praying.”
Other pastors disagree, particularly in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, several clergy members said in interviews. The bloodshed has reinvigorated those pastors’ calls for their fellow clergy to preach about political issues, rather than just salvation.
“There's too much apathy and silence in certain segments of the faith community, including the African-American faith community,” said Cleveland Rev. Tony Minor, who has been heavily involved in his city’s activist circles. "There's one point of view where people are very pietistic and introverted in their worship, instead of having the understanding that the Holy Spirit has empowered the church to transform the world."
Despite the church’s leading role, divisions over proper role of politics
Historically, black churches have played a leading role in combating white supremacy — from the earliest days of abolitionism to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
African-American faith leaders were at the center of the firestorm in Charlottesville as well. Hostilities began near the University of Virginia on Friday night, when hundreds of white supremacists surrounded a historically black church where reverends had gathered to defend the city. Church attendees then exited to lead a “human link” to protect the city’s Emancipation Park from the marching neo-Nazis.
But there have always been divisions among churches over how much to delve into political fights. “Martin Luther King had a very difficult time in his ministry attracting churches to hold mass meetings, and was very unpopular with many black churches specifically when he waded into foreign policy and war and peace,” said William H. Lamar, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Lamar said he is frequently involved in trying to convince black pastors to bring more stridently political messages to their sermons. “There is no faith without politics in it,” he said.
The theological case for a political church
Ray McKinnon, a black pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, spent last week preparing a Sunday sermon. Then the news from Charlottesville emerged on Saturday — and McKinnon threw out what he’d written and started from scratch.
“If you go to the church today, and there isn’t a mention of Charlottesville and white supremacy, find another church,” said McKinnon, who served as a Bernie Sanders delegate at last year’s Democratic Party convention. "We need to challenge the clergy: This is how the church reclaims its relevance.”
McKinnon said white and black congregants are often reluctant to hear overtly political talk on Sunday — that they sometimes come seeking relief and reprieve from the turmoil roiling the nation’s politics. “Several black churches have gotten too timid to talk about these things — some of the more prominent ones don’t want to be seen as political or offend anyone,” McKinnon said. “You have black folks just as comfortable with the systems in place as white folks.”
Last week, about 500 faith leaders gathered in North Carolina for the first training session of “The Poor People’s Campaign” — an attempt to revive MLK’s movement from 1968. Rev. William Barber, a board member of the NAACP and the leader of the new campaign, stressed that white as well as black parishioners need to confront white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. (Barber penned an open letter on Sunday criticizing the clergy who prayed with Trump at the inaugural.)
“We have a problem when clergy say they don’t want to be engaged in the public square,” Barber told me on Sunday. “In Jeremiah 22, it says, ‘Go to the king, go to the palace, and visit the king. Tell the king to stop murdering the innocent, to stop hurting the stranger, to stop mistreating the poor.’”
But in Alabama, churchgoers suggested that political questions should be subordinate to those of faith. “What most people don’t realize is you’re going up or you’re going down — they use this world to get our mind off heaven and hell,” said Jimmy Freeman, 74, another reverend at the church. “God told us, ‘You stink in our nostril, boy. But if you accept what I have given you, which is my son, that is my salvation.’”