(CNN) — In a stinging passage from a “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned white churches for rejecting his pleas for support.
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies,” King wrote from jail during the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrations.
The contemporary white church has largely accepted King as a religious hero. Yet some observers say there is one religious community that continues to shun King — the largest black churches.
Forty years after his death, King remains a prophet without honor in the institution that nurtured him, some black preachers and scholars say.
They also say King’s “prophetic” model of ministry — one that confronted political and economic institutions of power — has been sidelined by the prosperity gospel.
Prosperity ministers preach that God rewards the faithful with wealth and spiritual power. Prosperity pastors such as Bishop T.D. Jakes have become the most popular preachers in the black church. They’ve also become brands. They’ve built megachurches and business empires with the prosperity message.
Black prophetic pastors rarely fill the pews like other pastors, though, because their message is so inflammatory, says Henry Wheeler, a church historian. Prophetic pastors like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, often enrage people because they proclaim God’s judgment on nations, he says.
“It’s dangerous to be prophetic,” said Wheeler, who is also president of the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“I don’t know many prophetic preachers who are driving big cars and living very comfortably. You don’t generally build huge churches by making folks uncomfortable on Sunday morning,” he said.
The prosperity gospel started as a fringe doctrine in the black church. It was pioneered by “Rev. Ike,” a prosperity televangelist with a pompadour who boasted during his heyday in the 1970s that “my garages runneth over.”
Jonathan Walton, author of “Watch This! Televangelism and African American Religious Culture,” says that although people may have chuckled at Ike’s flamboyance, his theology exerts more influence in the modern black church than King’s.
“King got the glory and the history books, but … [Ike has] got the numbers,” said Walton, who is also an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Black prosperity preachers say their message is not based on greed, though, but self-help.
Bishop Paul Morton, senior pastor of Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, says that teaching black people better money management is the “next dimension” of King’s ministry.
“The Bible said that the poor we will always have with us,” he said. “It’s up to us to bring ourselves out of the curse of poverty.”
Morton was the only black prosperity preacher contacted who agreed to talk about King’s ministry. Many of the black church’s most popular prosperity preachers — the Rev. Creflo Dollar of Atlanta, Georgia; the Rev. Fred Price of Los Angeles, California; and Bishop Keith Butler of Detroit, Michigan — all declined.
Jakes, the most popular prosperity preacher (he made the cover of Time magazine in 2001), declined to talk as well. He did, however, address his views on social justice in August on “Religion & Ethics,” a PBS news program.
“I’m not against marching,” Jakes said. “But in the ’60s, the challenge of the black church was to march. And there are times now perhaps that we may need to march. But there’s more facing us than social justice. There’s personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can.”
The debate between self-help and political activism is nothing new in the black community. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois clashed over the issue at the beginning of the 20th century. Most black prophetic teachers teach self-help along with activism.
King was caught in the middle of this debate early in his ministry.
King became prominent after leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, but he was already gaining a name for himself in the National Baptist Convention, the largest black church organization in the nation.
King wanted to use the convention as an institutional base for the movement. But his tactics — civil disobedience, publicly confronting segregationists — were repudiated by convention leaders and the Rev. J.H. Jackson, the convention president, says Wheeler, the church historian.
“He thought that if blacks were good citizens, worked hard and did what was expected, our rights will come; we would prove out merit,” Wheeler said.
In 1961, King tried to orchestrate the election of a leader to replace Jackson. He and a group of black ministers attempted to vote Jackson out of office at the convention’s annual meeting. It was a disaster.
According to Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years,” ministers exchanged blows. One lost three teeth. Another was killed when his skull was fractured. Riot police were called out to separate the warring pastors.
Jackson kicked King out of the convention and held onto power. The pastors who aligned themselves with King formed their own group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. The schism remains today.
Wheeler says the black church’s rejection of King wasn’t confined to its leadership. Most people in the pews didn’t want to get involved. The movement was driven primarily by younger people.
Fear was the primary reason, he says.
“We forget that people were getting killed, churches being burned,” he said. “It was the common understanding that things were not going to change, that people were getting killed for nothing.”
A new generation of prophetic ministers in the black church is now trying to do what King once attempted: gain a voice in the establishment.
Four years ago, a group of them formed the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Proctor was a scholar and college president who was active in the civil rights movement. The annual conference attempts to preserve the prophetic voice of black churches by bringing like-minded pastors together for support and advice.
A few prophetic pastors have even talked about taking another approach to raising their profile in the black church: television, says Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
“Some of them have talked about the need to get on television and try to counter the televangelists, but I don’t know of any social justice preacher who has a broad television audience,” he said.
At least one young prophetic minister has found a prominent place in the public eye.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King preached, says that prosperity preaching is not just a distortion of Jesus’ message but a betrayal of the black church’s heritage. The black church was formed by slaves who saw Jesus’ message as a tool for social justice.
“The prophetic voice of the black church is the very reason for its being,” Warnock said. “The only reason that there’s such a thing as the black church is because of the question of freedom, justice and equal access.”
Walton, the University of California scholar, says contemporary black churchgoers have now embraced another mission: equal access to wealth. “It’s the theological doctrine of American culture,” he said.
King’s voice may ring out in the history books, but it no longer rings out in the black pews. Walton says the battle between the prophetic and prosperity ministers in the black church is over for now.
The Rev. Ikes have won.
“Many Americans give lip service to entering the social justice arena and speaking out against the economic and politically powerful,” Walton said, “but very few of us are willing to pay the price.”
“We like to identify with Dr. King in theory, though we emulate Rev. Ike in practice.”
Modern black church shuns King’s message