When Chance Took Us to Church
The Problem with (White) Liberal Neutrality
By Matthew William Brake
Did you watch the Grammys last week?
Yeah, me neither, but I heard about them the next day.
One of the main stories to come out of the Grammys was Chance the Rapper’s performance of various Christian worship songs during his performance along with Gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann. Zeba Blay, commenting on the cultural significance of this performance, writes, “Bringing the likes of Kirk Franklin and the legendary Tamela Mann onstage with him on what was likely the biggest night of his career thus far sent a huge message. It was a tipping of the hat, a moment of celebration and recognition of a part of black culture that rarely gets its props in the mainstream.” She is of course referring to the role of religion in the black community, specifically Christianity.
What accounts for this lack of acknowledgement in mainstream culture?
I think it’s fair to say that mainstream culture is informed by complex and specifically European circumstances out of which the phenomenon of the secular and its supposed neutrality emerged (like the so-called “Wars of Religion” in Europe). This very Western view “defines itself…[against] its static counterpart, as that which does not progress” (Fessenden, 148), the “dark jungle” outside that the neutral secular world with its (usually non-white) irrational or religious ‘other’ (Asad, 60, 161, 171).
In contrast, Blay writes, “The story of black people and God, or at least the Christian God, is obviously fraught. It was the Bible and Christianity that were ostensibly used as tools towards the enslavement and colonization of Africans. But it was the same Bible, the same God, that stood at the center of so many spiritual and political movements that helped black people become free.” The ideal of secular neutrality in white culture provides at least part of the answer to the question of mainstream culture’s ignoring of religion in black culture. Such a view holds that one should maintain a stance of “liberal neutrality” in public discussions about justice. This is the view of the predominantly white mainstream. A public display of religious profession is then viewed as an oddity that remains irrelevant to public discourse.
The mainstream’s secular nature has had some unfortunate results in American society. The Democratic Party’s drift toward “the neutrality ideal” in the “1960s through the 1980s” up until now has resulted in “[ceding] moral and religious discourse to the…Christian right” (Sandel, 249). This, despite the fact that it was not the purely secular that motivated civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., but he and “the anti-Vietnam War movement were energized by moral and religious discourses” (249). Even a secular thinker like Jürgen Habermas has admitted that the foundations of Human Rights are the legacies of Judaism and Christianity (150-151).
Chance has given us a “chance” to reflect upon unquestioned secularity of mainstream culture. Rather than rejecting religion outright in a zero-sum contest between the secular and the religious, maybe we can acknowledge, appreciate, and reflect on the religious resources of liberation that have meant so much to black culture. Perhaps, we can even question the very idea that the religious occupies an inferior position compared to the secular. After all, it wasn’t a pure notion of the secular that drove MLK and Gandhi towards their projects of liberation.
Zeba Blay, “Chance The Rapper Took Us To Church Last Night. Here’s Why That Matters,” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chance-the-rapper-took-us-to-church-last-night-heres-why-that-matters_us_58a11093e4b094a129ec4b4a.
Michael J. Sandel. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2009.
Tracy Fessenden, “Disappearances: Race, Religion, and the Progress Narrative of U.S. Feminism,” Secularisms. Edited by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2008.
Talal Asad. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2003.
Jürgen Habermas. Time of Transitions. Malden, MA: Polity Press. 2006.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He is also a very white guy who feels nervous about writing definitively about black culture but hopes these thoughts will be appreciated. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.