Black Boys in Crisis: The Abuse of Religion

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

African-Americans are the most religious ethnic group in America. The Pew Research Center states that “African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the US population as a whole, including the level of affiliation with religion, attendance at religious services, the frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.” Most African Americans (around 78 percent) are Protestant, and most of those belong to historically black churches, which were formed during the time of slavery. These churches have been a bedrock for African Americans through the years, forming a center for the community to gather and share their joys and sorrows.

They provided emotional and financial support in times of hardship and bolstered African-American resolve during the long years of slavery and the struggle for emancipation. Furthermore, the churches have served as a creative cauldron, providing early platforms for musicians such as Whitney Houston and offering a space for public speakers to hone their art. From the churches, in fact, came many of our greatest teachers and leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

However, as in society at large, there is an anti-intellectual strain within the church that has taken its toll on the black community. This shows up particularly in so-called megachurches, which have become more like staged music or comedy shows than traditional church services. These churches prey on well-meaning parishioners who would be reticent to part with their money for a cause such as providing art classes at their local public school, but who are susceptible to pleas purporting to be from God. The churches have raked in colossal sums—$420 billion since 1980, according to Tyler Media Services. Where does this money go?

Recently, televangelist Creflo Dollar, who heads the Atlanta-based World Changers Church International, was in the news for requesting donations for a private plane. His previous Gulfstream III was getting old, and he wanted $60 million for a new top-of-the-line Gulfstream G650. His suggested donation was $300 per parishioner. The appeal was couched in religious language: “We believe it is time to replace this aircraft so that our Pastors and staff can continue to safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide.” Though Dollar was widely ridiculed in the mainstream press, his flock came through: he raised the money to buy the new plane within a few months.

Another megachurch pastor, Eddie Long, who helms the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, faced a lawsuit and the attention of federal investigators after he urged parishioners to support a Ponzi scheme allegedly perpetrated by his friend Ephren Taylor. After parishioners lost over a million dollars, they turned on Long, who was forced to retract his support for Taylor. Long was also under scrutiny for the more than $3 million he made from his nonprofit charity, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries, Inc.

The charity’s “compensation” to Long included a six-bedroom, $1.4 million home and the use of a Bentley. Said Long, in defense: “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk, and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation. You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.” Long, who is virulently anti-homosexual in public, later made the news when he settled lawsuits brought by young men claiming he’d used his position of influence to coerce them into sexual relationships.

Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long are two of the more reprehensible examples of church members taking advantage of a gullible public; there are many more who operate at a less ostentatious level. I am not claiming here that churches should be abandoned or that they do not perform a significant public-service role; rather, I am saying that it is too easy for a young person today to get sucked up in “religious” fervor, squandering their time and resources on charlatans. The preaching of the “prosperity gospel” is similar to the obsession with athletes and rappers: it’s a type of magical thinking that relies on luck and divine intervention rather than education and hard work.

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