By Dr. Larry Cameron Menyweather-Woods
The past couple of weeks have driven home the concern and desired role of the clergy for the presidential election of 2008. America has given recognition to the 33 White pulpiteers who accepted the challenge and promise not from their divine commander, Jesus, but the Alliance Defense Fund, a neo-conservative Christian lawyers organization based in Arizona, to challenge the Internal Revenue Service 1950 amendment forbidding groups classified as 501(c)(3) to engage in the endorsement of political candidates.
These White pastors stood before their congregations and proudly pronounced their allegiance, not to the God of their weary years and silent tears, but to the man they believed stands for morality in immoral times, the honorable senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. These preachers, who evidently were wrestling how to persuade their congregations to vote for the better of two men, freed themselves from between the proverbial rock and hard place, to breathe a breath of reinvigorating air. Their unified action resulted in an internal release, just as it had done for their forefathers over 200 years previously (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1830). Tocqueville was the French writer who stated America’s freedom was represented by the vigorousness of the Church’s message which stood for the free expressions of ideas.
Cal Thomas, former public relations representative for the late Dr. Jerry Falwell (founder of the political right, evangelical machine, The Moral Majority), broadened the discussion in a recent op-ed where he injected “race” into the scenario by offering the opinion that African-American pastors have been getting “away” with violating this policy of the IRS “today”(Thomas, “Politics-free pulpit better for Gospel, The Omaha World Herald, 10/05/2008). Thomas is quite clear and somewhat biased, racially speaking, for he declares, “churches and ministers would do better to keep their focus on things above, rather than things below.”
Thomas’ concluding words bring to focus the criticism Blacks have always made against the Black church – it is too otherworldly. This is interesting, for what Thomas does is justify the otherworldliness, which is part of the tension confronting the Black church, thoughts of authenticity and how Whites write about the Black Church. The title of this piece comes from the question which was often asked of the person assigned to care for the city while the people slept. To make certain the watchman wasn’t asleep, someone would make rounds and ask, ‘Watchman, what of the Night?’
If Black clergy are guilty of Thomas’ remarks, it is because these Black preachers marched and listened to a different drum major compared to Thomas and the 33 White clergy. The White clergy treated their message to the people as being a simple lesson in constitutional law, not of divine urgency.
When Black preachers involve themselves in the political spray, they must have a Biblical justification, not a moral imperative, for we have learned that moral imperatives are mere clichés and not necessary rooted in the word of God. It is the hermeneutical model used by the clergy which will determine if they are acting as prophet or priest. The Black preacher has historically viewed himself as prophet/priest, the emphasis on prophet, speaking what thus saith the LORD. White Preachers have historically viewed themselves as being priest/prophet, friends of the government, loyal to the government whether right or wrong. Two different views – two different tensions built within the body of Christ.
It is this phenomenon which frightens those who have too long yielded to the tension of the priestly, no change, no divine charge, simply telling people How to vote. Pat Robinson did the same thing, when for years the ballots they placed in Churches told them through coded words whom to cast their vote for. Now these lawyers believe they have the votes on the Supreme Court to change the IRS division, that’s why they are waiting for the IRS to threaten to take away the nonprofit status of these 33 White churches. The lawyers are looking not to the heavenly but the earthly in the names of Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and of Scalia, and the swing vote of Kennedy, to get this regulation overturned or denied an injustice to the constitutional rights of the clergy to once again partake in the political process by telling their people whom to vote.
Watchman, what of the night? Cal Thomas calls politics the ultimate temptation which pollutes the Church. The action of the 33 White clergy, the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, and especially Mr. Thomas’ editorial, which he earnestly believes purports the freedom of the Gospel, forget we are not of the world but in the world. We, as believers, especially Black American believers have understood the importance of faith and the world being reconciled unto the Christ. Our Africanness and our faith call us not to a world where dichotomous language rings confusion, but to a world where, in spite of double consciousness of being Black and an American, Black preachers do not have to provide ballots to encourage people to vote for the right candidate. He or she doesn’t have to declare a name; all they have to do is preach the full Gospel and from their people will know the “who!”
If the White preacher is so afraid his people will cast their vote for the “wrong candidate,” try telling his people what of the night. Be prophetic, be vigilant, be focused! Do not moralize, but preach the GOSPEL! It’s not about you, nor should it be about me, it should be about the Christ we preach! Watchman, what of the night?
Dr. Larry Cameron Menyweather-Woods is an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.