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Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

God finds his way into everything that Black folks do, Harris-Lacewell says.

Harris-Lacewell: Well religion is everywhere with Black folks.  You know one of the . . .  When I talk about sort of how . . . how God ends up in the middle of everything Black folks do, I sometimes point to this great HBO series “Real Sex”.  And on it they had this one Miss Nude Black America or something.  And just before they go out – all of these beautiful young women, completely naked – to compete for the Miss Nude Black America, they all stand together and pray before they go out.  And I thought, “Yeah, of course.” (Laughter)  In other words, that makes perfect sense to me that the nude . . . Miss Nude Black America contestants would all pray together first before going.  There was a way in which, you know, just sort of a traditional element in Black discourse in everything from, you know, school, to politics, to you know, to social life is involved and framed around questions of God, and godliness, and what it is that God wants from individuals; not just as individuals but as a Black community.  Now that said, even though it’s everywhere, to what extent does it have politics or policy content?  That I wanna say is very much sort of in contestation right now.  And I think there are really two big frames.  One is a traditional Black social gospel that says something like look, African-Americans are the dispossessed.  They’re the poor, they’re the despised, and they’re the hated.  And because of that they’re the special people of God.  God has a particular place in God’s plan for the despised, the dispossessed, and the poor, right?  And it’s a particular reading of the Bible that suggests that we are doing God’s work when we are addressing the needs of the least of these.  There is another extremely powerful new strain of ideological religious thinking, and that’s the prosperity gospel.  Now the prosperity gospel is not just an invention or creation of Black communities.  It’s very popular in general.  But how it ends up sounding in Black communities is if you are the poor, the dispossessed, the despised, and the hated, then maybe that means you don’t have a special place with God’s people.  Because when God likes you, God shows that God likes you by making sure that you have a comfortable home, a nice car, that you’re out of debt, and that you have a good looking spouse, right?  That we can in fact tell that God likes us by very . . . what an old church tradition would have called “worldly things”, right?  That the worldly things in fact give us access to our understanding of God’s interrelation with us so that we have to behave well, be morally upright, virtuous, sexually pure, and by the way, pay your bills on time.  And if you do all of those things you’re within God’s will.  That’s really quite different from a social gospel that says well maybe you’ll do those things, but none of those will really count if when the poor person came to you for a glass of water you did not give it to them.  So there’s a very different emphasis.  Both communities would definitely believe in sort of the fundamental precepts of Christian identity.  And any individual African-American might hold some of the social gospel and some of the prosperity gospel teachings, right?  On the one hand doing service work out there in the community, and on the other hand trying to pay your bills on time to make God happy seems fine.  But there really is a different political agenda that emerges out of a belief that God’s fundamental call on the lives of Black people is a call to assistance of the poor, the dispossessed, and brining social equality; than to say God’s primary concern is with your individual, financial, personal, and familial prosperity within the context of a system that may be corrupt.  So one says get it for yourself.  God wants you to be prosperous.  The other one says God wants these social institutions to change.  I heard T.D. Jakes once say God will give you a car to get out of the ghetto.  And I thought, “No, no, no, no, no.  The story is God doesn’t want there to be ghettos.”  So this is a very, very different sort of political inference that emerges from one kind of religious set of ideas versus another.