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.

Dissecting the State of the Union

Dissecting the State of the Union

Tweeting Cynicism

I may have watched one too many Republican presidential debates. At least that’s what I thought after re-reading my tweets about President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. I detected a note of cynicism in them that I surmise is a symptom of election season fatigue. The president struck strong notes for the middle class when he talked about ending tax breaks for U.S. companies that export jobs overseas, but lost me when he highlighted a laid-off 55-year-old man who found a green energy job. Clearly he hasn’t looked for work in four years.

Through a Middle-Class Lens

For a straightforward report on the speech, check out Cynthia Gordy’s at The Root. She summarized it like this: “The president largely focused on the economy through the lens of the struggling poor and disappearing middle class. Laying out his blueprint for restoring the economy through manufacturing, clean energy, education and a revised tax code, he also touched on what he called ‘the defining issue of our time’ — delivering on the American promise of hard work and responsibility paying off with the ability to own a home, raise a family and retire.”

Others weren’t so generous.

More Partisanship

At The New York Times, John Harwood declared the speech “more partisan than presidential,” saying the president’s “promises to heal the rifts between red America and blue America have fallen flat,” so “he is now trying to highlight his differences with Republicans in an effort to win a second term and new leverage.”

More Spending

Times Columnist Ross Douthat basically agreed, but concluded that “the substance of the speech could be summed up in one word: More.” More spending on, well, everything, “all of it to be paid for, inevitably, by more taxes on the wealthy.”

More Gridlock

The president’s new policies may not do much for Black unemployment, said Perry Bacon Jr. at The Root. This is because experts tie African Americans’ high jobless rates to their disproportionate work in America’s disappearing manufacturing base and in the public sector. “Obama’s speech included a number of ideas to further speed up the revival of American manufacturing. But many of his ideas, such as provisions to raise the tax rates for companies that ship jobs overseas, may not pass the Republican House of Representatives,” Bacon Jr. concluded.

More Republican Critique

Newser has a nice summary of Republican responses to the speech, including that of Herman “I’m Not Going Away” Cain. He focuses on Tea Party complaints like “Obamacare,” class warfare, and the “liberal media,” Newser reported. Cain also reportedly said sexual impropriety allegations like the ones that derailed his campaign have failed against Newt Gingrich because “the American people are waking up to dirty, gutter politics.”

Oh, is that why? Whoops. My cynicism is showing again.

What do you think?

Did the president’s speech inspire you or merely tire you?

2011 News Highlights

2011 News Highlights

POLITICS

Protesters descended on cities across the country to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.

1. In politics, the battle over the federal budget raged all year.  Lisa Sharon Harper offered thoughts on a Christian approach to it,  others debated whether or not to lift the federal debt ceiling, and former New Jersey Secretary of State Rev. De Forest Soaries offered his thoughts on a potential deal, which some described as a Satan Sandwich.  As a  government shutdown loomed, a congressional “super-committee” failed to compromise, and the battle rages on.

Sparks flew with Herman Cain on the campaign trail. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

2. The 2012 presidential race heated up and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain briefly emerged as a Republican dark horse. We looked at his viability, asked if his candidacy was good for Americarealized he wouldn’t be easily written off, and lamented the scandal about which he may or may not have sung as he exited the race. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann speculated that blacks may have been better off under slavery and Larycia A. Hawkins offered the congresswoman a bit of advice. Texas governor Rick Perry limped along, but it seems his ‘Rainbow Right‘ coalition didn’t help him much, and fleeting front-runners Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were such long shots that they had nary a mention here until now.

3. Meanwhile, the Tea Party partied on and we talked to African Americans about the movement. First singer, author, and activist Loyd Marcus assured us that there are black Tea Partiers, then Tea Party activist Jesse Lee Peterson threatened to protest the NAACP’s annual convention and Hilary O. Shelton responded. Finally, LaVonne Neff reminded us that Tea Partiers need government programs too.

The Occupy Movement spread across the country.

4. From the other end of the political spectrum, the “Occupy” movement emerged and encamped across the country, but we asked: Is it too white and is it time for churches to take up the cause?

5. According to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the biggest religion story of the year was the faith response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Here at UrbanFaith, Todd Burke pondered what the terrorist’s death says about America.

INTERNATIONAL

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in  SomaliaUganda, Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.

CULTURE & SOCIETY

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in August.

On the cultural front, 1.) the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial finally opened, though not without controversy and not without delay.  2.) Historian Charles Marsh reflected on the death of Civil Rights icon and pastor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. 3.) Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs’ also died this year and Jelani Greenridge meditated on the entrepreneur’s wisdom. 4.) The nation solemnly observed the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and dedicated a memorial at the World Trade Center site, as the war in Iraq that those attacks spurred finally came to an end. 5.) The 150th anniversary of Civil War went largely unnoticed, but not by us. And sadly, 6.) legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired amidst a scandal over assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged pedophilia. Wil LaViest, Julian DeShazier, and I responded to the horrific news.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

After 25 years Oprah Winfrey says goodbye to her talk show.

1.) In arts and entertainment, Oprah Winfrey ended her talk show after 25 years and we revisited the “Church of Oprah.” No need to fear a loss of black media power, however because 2.)  Forbes named Tyler Perry the richest man in Hollywood. We covered elements of his media empire here, here, here, and here. 3.) The Help opened in cinemas amidst plenty of debate about its merits or lack thereof. 4.) Controversial Gospel music crossover success stories like that of Tonéx got Jelani Greenridge thinking and we mourned the death of cross-over artist Jessy Dixon. 5.) Lastly, BET’s successful relaunch of The Game deserves a mention, even though our commentator didn’t care much for the values of the show (or lack thereof).

CHURCH & FAITH

Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King before she left his church.

In church and faith news, 1.) Bishop Eddie Long agreed to a financial settlement with four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct, Bernice King left his church in the aftermath, questions continued to swirl about the allegations, but Long didn’t step down from the pulpit until his wife filed for divorce this month. In better news, 2.) The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that the black church is bucking a wider trend toward congregational decline, and 3.) the Southern Baptists got serious about diversity with the election of  Rev. Fred Luter as their first African American vice president. We also reported on other denominations that are pursuing diversity. 4.) Pastor Rob Bell stirred up a theological hornet’s nest with his latest book and conservative authors responded. 5.) Finally, Rev. Zachery Tims met an untimely death in a New York City hotel room.

What do you think?

What stories did we miss? Which ones will you remember? What do you think will top the news in 2012?

The Cain Conundrum

The Cain Conundrum

MORE QUESTIONS: Though GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain denies the latest allegations of sexual impropriety, he's "reassessing" his campaign in light of the scandal. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

In the aftermath of Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White’s bombshell revelation Monday that she allegedly carried on a 13-year “off-and-on” affair with GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, Cain is now “reassessing” his campaign strategy. Even though White is the fourth woman to accuse Cain of sexual impropriety, some pundits still believe Cain has staying power — or at least nothing to lose by staying in the race. Others pundits, however, believe he should concede defeat.

Although the Republican Party has unofficially branded itself as the party of family values, I’m wondering if this party and all political parties should reassess how we choose our candidates. Should we leave the personal affairs of candidates, married or not, out of politics? After all, the candidates are not running to be pastors or deacons or even husbands or wives of the year, they are running to be president.

Clearly, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader, managed to look past Republican nominee Newt Gingrich’s personal failures in its recent endorsement of him.

“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running. In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich. He has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times. He is worthy of your support on January 10,” wrote Joseph W. McQuaid, New Hampshire Union Leader publisher, in his editorial on Sunday.

ANOTHER OTHER WOMAN: Ginger White claims she and Herman Cain were more than friends.

Even ultraconservative 700 Club host and former presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, who is famous for having extreme views, is taking a more pragmatic approach to campaigning. “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff. They’re forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election,” Robertson said. “You appeal to the narrow base and they applaud the daylights out of what you’re saying, and then you hit the general election and they’ll say no way.”

CNN contributor Anne-Marie Slaughter considered this issue in her blog post “Why Anthony Weiner Should Not Resign” when former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner was lambasted after his sexting scandal earlier this year. (Weiner, however, ultimately did resign.) Slaughter points to former President Bill Clinton as an example of a political leader whose failures in his personal life did not negate his effective governing. She writes:

I for one am deeply glad that Bill Clinton did not resign; he was one of the best presidents of my lifetime and left the country in far better shape than he found it. His wife and daughter chose to forgive him and to preserve their family, which is their business, not ours. He also breached the public trust by lying, but in my view not to an extent that it affected his ability to govern successfully.

And there is even precedent for this stance in the Bible. In spite of King David’s flagrant cheating with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, he was not removed from the throne. Read 2 Samuel 11 and 12 if you don’t believe me.

But, of course, Cain hasn’t been elected to anything yet, and our perception of a candidate’s integrity and commitment to family are two important ways for us to gauge how much we like him. If he lies and cheats on his wife, will he lie and cheat the American people? This is a fair question.

If Ginger White’s story is to be believed, Cain ended his alleged affair with her prior to jumping into the presidential race. So, again assuming White’s story is true, at least Cain doesn’t have the hubris to believe he can juggle an adulterous relationship while persuading the American people that he’s the man to lead the nation. His 9-9-9 plan? Well, that’s another story.

Although as Christians we do not condone this kind of behavior, many powerful men down through the ages have struggled in their personal lives. And in today’s political scene, sex scandals seem to be a common denominator. If we subtract every candidate that has failed personally from the race, we may be left with very little to work with.

In fact, when you consider all the male politicians who we eventually discovered were unfaithful to their wives (think: John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Rudy Giuliani, Gary Hart, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and the list goes on), one might begin to wonder if having the gumption to run for office predisposes one to philandering.

Abraham Lincoln, another male politician, once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Among other things, power provides a person with greater opportunities — opportunities to do good or to act selfishly. Whenever we pull the lever or mark the oval for our candidate on Election Day, we’re putting faith in that person to choose the former.

May God help us to do the same.

Watch Herman Sing

Watch Herman Sing


So I’m going to say (write) what I’m not supposed to admit (at least publicly) as a black person. I have paid more attention to GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain because he is black. There I said (wrote) it! Pardon me that as a black person in this country, I still find it fascinating when black people rise to certain heights that would have been impossible not that long ago. So now that I have gotten that admission out of the way, let me proceed with the business of this commentary …

If you were to ask me to give you a blow-by-blow account of what high jinks other GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and others have been up to over recent weeks, I would pause and then hopefully distract you with my knowledge of what is becoming the spectacle of the Republican presidential campaign: Herman Cain.

Actually Cain, who lives in Atlanta as I do, has been on my radar even before he entered the presidential race. From time to time, I listened to him on his radio show because he was the lone black conservative on the local radio station, and when I looked up his bio, I must also admit that I was impressed. So when he decided to join the Republican race for the presidency, I felt that he was at least owed my attention as a hometown candidate.

And paying attention to Cain has not failed to disappoint me yet! From his admission that while he was a student at Morehouse College, he chose not to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement (even though Atlanta is arguably the capital of the movement) to his membership and ministry at the liberal megachurch Antioch Baptist Church to his 9-9-9 plan, Cain is a journalist’s dream. His life and choices yield a plethora of stories which brings me to why I’m paying attention to Cain this week.

Herman Cain

On Monday, Cain was backed into a corner, forced to defend himself before the National Press Club after Politico revealed that Cain was accused of sexually harassing two women while he was the president of the National Restaurant Association. He denied the allegations and attempted to downplay them by stating he was unaware of any settlement the women may have received. Apparently, after denying the allegations, the president of the National Press Club asked Cain, who is known as a singer as well, to bless the audience with a song. Cain agreed, choosing to belt out the gospel song “He Looked Beyond My Faults (And Saw My Need)” by Dottie Rambo.

“Amazing Grace will always be my song of praise.
For it was grace, that brought me liberty,
I do not know, just why He came to love me so.
He looked beyond my faults and saw my need.”

This incident disturbed me on so many levels. First of all, let me tackle the obvious. With his choice of song, was Cain not-so-subtlety admitting his guilt? Was the conviction of the Holy Spirit so strong that he was led to seek forgiveness through song? But then again, as a politician he wouldn’t be that obvious, would he? If that wasn’t what he was doing, was it some sort of Jedi mind trick — a ploy to mesmerize the audience, making them forget what they were there for? And, quite honestly, I also was disturbed that Cain’s singing in that particular situation reminded me of the Happy Negro singing on the plantation. It just wasn’t a good look.

Whatever his tactic, I’m still paying attention to Cain. It has been said that all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure as Cain is still being pressed about the sexual harassment issue. Since the press conference, Cain’s story has changed, and on Friday night his wife, Gloria Cain may be appearing on the On the Record with Greta Van Susteren on Fox to address the allegations. As I said (wrote) before, “Mr. Cain,  it’s not looking too good this week, but I’m still looking at you …”

Yes, Cain initially got my attention because he is a black man in the GOP race, but that is not why he has kept my attention. Regardless of race, he’s the man you would want to talk to at any party, Republican or otherwise. He’s accomplished, controversial, maybe even a bit “coo coo for cocoa puffs” — and a gospel singer to boot!

Herman Cain photo by Gage Skidmore.