When he was named the Pusey Minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Jonathan Walton became the latest in a line of prominent African-American ministers to call the greater-Boston area home. The New York Times noted as much in its coverage of Walton’s installation ceremony that took place last November, linking Walton to his predecessor, the late Reverend Peter Gomes who led Memorial Church from 1970 until his unexpected death in 2011. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his doctorate at nearby Boston University under the tutelage of theologian Howard Thurman. Thurman served as the dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel from 1953-1965, the first black man to occupy such a prominent position at a majority-white American university.
Walton celebrates his connection to black America’s—and black Boston’s—storied past. But he is not beholden to it. “We’re all standing on the shoulders and benefiting from the sacrifices of those who came before us,” Walton explains. “But it can’t be totally reducible to race,” or for that matter, religion. Walton is a self-described “post-civil rights kid.” This means instead of focusing on the battles of the past, Walton hopes to “contribute a voice to some of the challenges of the contemporary age, informed by the religious traditions from which I come.”
Walton spoke with R&P about how he understands the long history—and continued importance—of people of faith engaging constructively and critically in politics. In his capacity as a preacher, scholar of American religion, and commentator on American culture, Walton sees his work as fundamentally “about the rich tradition of the Hebrew prophets: to be able to speak truth to power in love.”
Professor Walton is the author of Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. He is also the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and serves on R&P’s editorial advisory board. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –M.P.M.
R&P: You now occupy one of the most prominent pulpits in the country. How do you understand your role as a preacher in “Harvard’s Church?”
JW: It’s a wonderful and humbling position to be in. One of the reasons I found the position so attractive is because this pulpit offers me the security to be able to speak to major issues of the day. Yet obviously there are a couple of things that one has to navigate in this position. One has to navigate speaking truth to power in love while being at the epicenter of power that Harvard University represents in America and beyond. But also one has to address the particular needs of students, staff, faculty, and the precious lives that constitute Harvard University.
R&P: You have many roles. You’re a preacher, scholar, and a commentator on American life. How do you understand these various roles?
JW: I see them all as inextricably linked. From my understanding, a preacher is a scholar in a broad sense of the term. And it’s my scholarly vocation as a researcher and as a teacher [that] very much informs my preaching. And I could not preach the way that I hope to in this pulpit if I weren’t informed by my scholarship. In terms of being a commentator, that is what all of us who are called to this wonderful thing called ministry, whether it’s pulpit ministry, whether it’s ministry in the academe, whether it’s serving on street corners. We are all making public declarations in our words and our actions.
R&P: Speaking specifically about your scholarship, I read your book, Watch This!, as a study of the intersection of religion, politics, and the media. You note that conservative white evangelicals and black liberation theologians get most of the attention from scholars and from the media, whereas, until your work, the tradition of black televangelists has gone mostly unstudied. Why is this the case?
JW: What I describe in the book are two different traditions: the tradition of racial invisibility and the tradition of racial respectability. On the one hand, in the tradition of racial invisibility, quite often minoritized subjects—whether they are racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation [minorities]—their spiritual strivings don’t necessarily catch the attention of the dominant society. Unless, that is, if it fits into a particular mold that has already been created for them in the larger imagination.
And so therefore everyday people’s humanity becomes invisible.
On the other hand, there is a tradition of racial respectability. For so long minoritized communities in general, and African American communities in particular, have been viewed as something aberrant. Their religious lives have been viewed as something that is unproductive, something that is overly emotional, that is something uncivilized, uncouth. And so for many generations of scholars of American religion that came before me, they offered what was considered a counter-narrative to that dominant tale. They aimed to show that there are productive and progressive voices that have, since the very beginning of American society, raised voices, for example, in the best of the Protestant tradition, the best of the Islamic tradition, to move society forward.
But as James Baldwin noted, one thing I know to be true about black people is that there are also crooks, there are also robbers, and there are also thieves. In other words, they are human, too. And sometimes we can over-determine [respectability] because we’ve been rendered invisible. We want to make sure that the story that’s being told about us is a respectable story. From Fanny Lou Hamer to Martin Luther King Jr., from the abolitionists to the civil rights movement, those have been the stories that have been respectable. But underneath those stories are still brilliant and productive everyday people, who often represent working-class communities. Their voices have been marginalized in the process of making black Christianity respectable. And telling their stories is really what Watch This! is all about.
R&P: So when Pat Robertson makes a statement linking Hurricane Katrina to legalized abortion, or John Hagee to gay rights, this discourse fits into an established mold, one that the media has created. And then Jeremiah Wright’s story fits into a mold of the “angry black man” railing against America. Are the black televangelists you study more apolitical than Robertson or Wright? Why don’t we hear more about their politics?
JW: That is part of what I am trying to tease out by looking at the theological, the social, and the political messages of televangelists. Some of these messages are explicit, some implicit, and I think that’s what’s important for us to identify.
Televangelists are master communicators. They’re talking loud even if they’re not saying anything at all. If we think that a picture is worth a thousand words, then how much is a moving video stream worth? There are always embedded political messages, and quite often those who profess to be apolitical are often the greatest political monsters on the American scene. You have preachers across traditions, but particularly in the evangelical tradition, that are pushing a specific political agenda by denying political participation.
R&P: If you could identify the black televangelists’ politics, what would they be?
JW: There is a theme that cuts across the board: the myths of American society that they often appeal to, and we also see them in national politics. First, it’s the myth of American success, rags to riches, Horatio Alger, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps motif. Televangelists often present themselves as living embodiments of rags to riches success.
Related to this, the second theme is the obscuring of racial difference and identity, in so far as racial differences are not something to be celebrated, but they are something to be denied toward the end of a faux-colorblind society. And so often they appeal to those thirty-seven words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but taken out of context: Where he dreams of a nation where his four little children are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, you know the rest. As if race and ethnicity cannot be a productive part of our identity as Christians.
And then the third theme they often appeal to is a Victorian notion of gender and the ordering of society. And it’s quite a hierarchical model where a providing husband is in charge of a submissive wife who is the helpmate, and their 2.3 children. And they are all living—tied to the first motif—the American dream. It’s this modeling of a gendered and hierarchal society that in some ways frustrates even the explicit message of their ministry of equality of gender. But that is often not the implicit models they present themselves as on TV or on the Internet.
R&P: It seems thus, from what you’ve said, that black televangelists are trying to erase racial difference. But despite their efforts, is there a fundamental difference between white and African-American televangelist traditions?
JW: There are particularities of difference related to what one might consider the insecurities around black masculinity. This is particularly true when black masculinity is defined according to power and provision, an ability to provide. And of course we know that black masculinity has always been under attack in American society.
This has caused African American communities to respond in particular sorts of ways. And one of those ways is to encourage and revere—and not challenge—the authority of African American men who seem to have achieved relative levels of class. And to subsume other concerns of community, i.e. gender equality, concern and care for children, up under a concern for the uplift of black masculinity. And I would suggest that this has hamstrung many movements for social change in American society, not just within black communities, but also within the larger American community. It is fair to say that often when white America has a cold then black and brown America has the flu. So we feel it more acutely.
R&P: I can imagine that this is reflected in the Eddie Long scandal. Your book came out before those events transpired. What can Eddie Long teach us about black America, and more generally about American society?
JW: Yes, I wish the book had come out after Eddie Long!
I think it says something about American evangelical communities, as we’ve been so quick to embrace the kind of corporatized, franchised, mega-church model. And systems of accountability are breaking down. It’s leaving the most vulnerable in our communities literally outside in the cold. So in the same way that Wall Street and those who were taking high risk on a daily basis can bring the American economy to its knees, and into recession, and cause people to lose the one source of wealth that they’ve been able to accumulate—their home—yet not one high profile CEO, outside of those who were running clearly egregious Ponzi schemes, was held accountable.
R&P: The illegal Ponzi schemes as opposed to the legal ones?
JW: Exactly! The legal Ponzi schemes related to the housing bubble. And that’s what I’m scared about in faith communities. If we’re so quick to embrace those men who give up the title of pastor or minister and embrace [the title of] CEO and COO and CFO, this allows systems of accountability to break down. If you’re a CEO of a mega church, not a pastor of mega church, you’re living by a set of corporate laws instead of a set of moral codes. It’s this kind of entrepreneurial evangelicalism that, in the Christian community, we have to be raising our voices against. Because it’s rendering too many everyday people vulnerable.
R&P: Does this also mean that if you’re in a corporate mega church, like in any other corporation in America, you’re only doing well if you’re growing? And one can look the other way, ignoring peccadillos, if things are growing?
JW: Exactly. All success is measured by growth. It’s the McDonalds, McMansion model of bigger is always better. But size does not equate to being right or being just.
We have to remember that at the cross all the disciples denied [Christ], and the crowd said give us Barabbas. So we cannot always measure what is right by what is popular. That’s the difference between profit and prophet. People who are more concerned with being profitable than being prophetic—speaking truth to power—miss out on how I interpret the Gospel: being concerned with the least of these. “When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you gave me something to wear, when I was in prison you came and saw about me.” Whether we’re on the street corner of Detroit or in the Memorial Church at Harvard, I believe that we are called to keep track of the least of these.
R&P: Do you see that message—of holding the community accountable to the least of these—reflected in President Obama’s second term? There was certainly a lot of talk of care for the poor and the marginalized, including gay and lesbian Americans, in his second inaugural address.
JW: President Obama is religiously rhythmic. And he has a sensitive ear to communities of faith, and struggles for justice. And that’s a beautiful thing. Yet as the leader of the free world, he is in a peculiar predicament. And this is why, like Lincoln, like Teddy Roosevelt, like Lyndon B. Johnson, it’s incumbent upon us, his supporters, to place pressure upon him. So that he cannot just talk up the ideals that he articulates, but also transform them into policy. And if we do not do that, then we are not living up to our end of the bargain, and we are not supporters of President Obama in the best sense. We are simply a passive fan club.
On the other hand, President Obama has to avail himself to critique and to pressure from those who have committed their time, their resources, and their hearts to his vision. And if he does not do that, then he will go down in history as a productive, transactional president, yet one who missed his mandate at major transformation.
Max Perry Mueller is contributing editor of Religion & Politics.