Friday, July 14, 2006

Lord deliver us from self-help? (Psalm 1)

People often ask me for examples of how self-help has damaged America as a whole. In other words, they want me to document my book's subtitle: How does self-help make us helpless?

Late this past June, at a three-day event called the National Conference and Revival for Social Justice, a group of (self-appointed) black leaders committed much of their time to publicly flogging, of all things, America’s black churches. More specifically, the so-called "mega-churches."* The Dallas event took shape under the aegis of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and also featured the Rev. Jesse Jackson, controversial Harvard ideologue Cornel West, and about 100 others. In the "others" category was the Rev. Frederick Haynes III of the Friendship-West Baptist Church in South Dallas, who, despite his lower national profile, set the tone for the event when he thundered, "The message of many churches has been co-opted by American capitalism!" In its story on the conference, AP summarized the black leaders' gripe thusly: Too many of the largest churches had "abandoned Jesus' emphasis on social justice to preach a gospel of wealth and self-help."

Hmmmm. So self-help is the culprit, eh?

Some background. By almost every measure, blacks as a class are doing better today than did their predecessor generations. In 1959, fully 55 percent of American blacks lived in poverty. By 2003, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty, poverty among blacks had dropped to just over 22 percent (incidentally, the approximate poverty rate for America as a whole during the 1950s). Now, a 22-percent poverty level is nothing to crow about. But clearly great progress has been made. It follows that greater numbers of successful blacks are worshipping literally and figuratively at the altar of the free market. They no longer feel chained to the victimhood of days gone by. Nor do they feel compelled to see all that goes wrong in their lives through the lens of racism, because they've come to accept that things go wrong in everyone's life. You deal with it and you move on. It further follows that some of the larger, more prosperous black churches have adjusted their tone accordingly: They spend less time singing dirges about The Cause, and more time celebrating the vast opportunities to be had in latter-day America.

Naturally, this annoys the hell out of Sharpton and his fellow demagogues, whose franchise has always been in cultivating a class of forever-victims that blindly follow victim-based thinking and vote the party (usually Democratic) that reinforces it.

Tomorrow, we'll make a few key distinctions--about precisely what kinds of self-help Sharpton et al are talking about. (Hint: It's not the kind we attack in this blog.) Then we'll look more deeply at the cultural genesis of all this and what it signifies for self-help, minorities, America, and maybe even you.

* A mega-church is defined as one that boasts an average weekly attendance of 2000 or more worshippers and tends to draw from a wide area. Such churches also tend to be more well-funded, and preach to a somewhat more financially solvent base, than "regular" churches. At least 65 such black churches exist nationwide.

1 comment:

Rodger Johnson said...

It'll be interesting to read what's next.

I'm wondering whether it's good for the men of the cloth to preach the capitalistic "health-and-wealth" doctrine, or a more socially responsible credo?

It's not so much that I'm interested in how it benefits the church -- we have that answer. Ergo Lakewood and the gospel according to Osteen.

What about the individual?

Isn't the health-and-wealth gospel as infected with self-help as the victimization pontificated from the pulpit of Sharpton?