Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.

The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.

A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:

Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.

And interviews from such noted conservative figures as Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Star Parker, and the late Andrew Breitbart help the film draw clear ideological lines in the sand. Fans of 2016: Obama’s America, another controversial conservative documentary released this year, will find much here to “amen” to as well.

The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.

The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.

Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.

Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.

Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.

After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.

View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.

Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.

The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.

PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)

The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.

Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue.  “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”

The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.

The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.

The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer.  “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said.  “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”

So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.

Lord, Deliver Us from Smartphone Stupidity

Lord, Deliver Us from Smartphone Stupidity

The few times I’ve had the opportunity to preach on the topic of reconciliation, I’ve drawn from one of the many iconic Bible passages on the subject, Galatians 3:28 — “for there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is their male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

As a way to inject some levity into the conversation, before I get to the “one in Christ” part, I like to throw in a “neither Mac nor Windows” reference.

Or at least, I used to enjoy doing this. Because there was a time when that was, clearly, a joke.

That time is long gone.

In 2012, the iPhone vs. Android argument is in full force.

It’s been raging for a while now, as I referenced in last year’s tribute to Steve Jobs. But a new round of controversy erupted recently with the release of the iPhone 5. Apple’s decision to jettison Google Maps in favor of their own mapping program may have aligned with the company’s long-term interests (fending off Google’s Android OS), but to put it mildly, their users are not happy about making the switch.

And it’s touched a nerve, because not only are there plenty of iPhone owners lamenting the loss of Google Maps, but also plenty of Android owners gloating over the whole thing. I know because I was, at least temporarily, one of them. I didn’t call out any of my iPhone-carrying friends directly (mostly to avoid embarrassing flame wars), but believe me, it’s not because I didn’t consider it.

I mean, let’s be honest. There’s something delicious about seeing someone that you perceive as arrogant get their comeuppance. (I wish there was a word for that…?) And few stereotypes are more resonant in tech than the arrogant hipster who insists that the latest Apple product is automatically and universally superior to everything else on the market. It drives informed consumers crazy, and eventually they do things like create spiteful, R-rated animated videos lampooning so-called “iSheep” just to blow off steam.

The Foolishness of Smartphones

What is it about phones that inspire these levels of personal investment, adoration, and vitriol?

Maybe it’s their omnipresence. Just about everyone has one, and they are either central or peripheral players in many of the basic things we do every day. We use our phones to communicate professionally and socially. We use them to listen to music, to be informed, some of us even use our phones to read the Bible.

But you add in all of the complexities inherent in understanding all the differences in hardware and software, the various manufacturers, model names (and code names), and the wireless carriers involved, and it’s clear that choosing a cell phone is no simple task.

APPLE PASSION: Eager customers, like these in New York City, camped out in front of Apple Stores around the world last week in order to be the first to purchase the new iPhone 5. Apple sold 5 million of the gadgets in the first three days of its release. (Photo: Don Emmert/Newscom)

And since cell phones often require two-year service agreements, even after we’ve made our choice of handset and/or data plan, we consumers are constantly looking for reassurance that we’ve made the best decision. This often manifests itself as a form of confirmation bias, where we tend to filter the available information by emphasizing the things that confirm our belief.

Just as in any other emotionally charged issue (like, say, a presidential election), once our beliefs are questioned, we tend to come out swinging. In comment sections of tech articles, I’ve seen people use strawman arguments, ad hominem attacks, profanity, you name it.

But they’re not talking about the tax code, campaign-finance reform, or the societal cost of mass incarceration.

They’re talking about phones.

Rejecting Digital Snobbery

Ironically, some of the most mean-spirited, spiteful rhetoric comes from people who would probably boast of their belief in racial harmony and tolerance, including many Christians. But Christ died to break down all of the walls between us. If these folks have somehow cleared the ubiquitous hurdle of race relations, what kind of sense does it make to replace one dividing wall with another?

Especially since the truth is nowhere near as simple as we’d like. Just as there are plenty of other ethnicities and racial dynamics at play besides black and white, there are plenty of other brands besides those of Apple and Google competing for market share. Before the iPhone, the hot “it” phones were usually by Nokia, Motorola, or Blackberry’s Research In Motion. There are no guarantees that either Google or Apple won’t be outshined by some other new phone (for example, check out the new HTC Windows Phone 8 phones — cool colors, shiny tiles … sorry, I got a little distracted there).

Maybe this article isn’t for everyone. But if you’re like me, now might be a good time to take a step back and remember that sometimes a phone is just a phone.

Yes, there are cultural implications to the way we implement technology. Yes, we’re free to discuss, and even defend, the merits of our preferred tech platforms. But like Paul said, don’t let your freedom become an opportunity to indulge the flesh. If you’re an iPhone user and you’re tired of people badmouthing your phone, or you’re an Android user and you’re tired of seeing churches make apps exclusively for iOS, feel free to say so — just do it in love.

Because we all need grace from time to time. And considering how quickly the pace of technology keeps changing, all of us will need help navigating the digital landscape here and there.

Especially those of using the new Apple Maps app, because I hear it’s pretty terrible.

(Lord forgive me, I couldn’t resist just once.)