Let African-Americans Look to Their Churches for Self-Help

Article excerpt

Is religion back in vogue? The very popularity of a new book that says it is not tells me that maybe it is. "The Culture of Disbelief," by Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter, has attracted a surprisingly brisk amount of attention by exploring the ambivalent relationship we modern Americans have with religion.

"In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them," he writes.

Carter makes a good point. We Americans, fond of our traditions that separate the state from our churches, synagogues and temples, are simultaneously reverent of religion and embarrassed by it.

If the first lady wears a simple little cross around her neck, as Hillary Clinton did at some inaugural events, someone inevitably raises questions as to its appropriateness, as one television commentator did. This, I think, sounded particularly silly. The Constitution says only that the state shall not infringe on religious practices. The state does not have to be hostile to religion.

But that ambivalence may be wavering these days back toward the church. President Bill Clinton carried Carter's book around with him on vacation, contributing handsomely to its sales. Hillary Clinton has held chats with Michael Lerner, publisher of Tikkun, the Jewish-oriented liberal monthly, on his faith-linked "politics of meaning." Princeton's Cornel West, son of a black preacher, in his best-selling "Race Matters," decries the new "nihilism" that has reduced the reverence some inner-city youths have for life, including their own lives. Responding to the rising intensity and irrationality of crime in poor black communities, Jesse Jackson is using his skills to enlist black churches the way he has buttonholed politicians and business executives in the past.

Calling his program "Reclaim Our Youth," Jackson has been asking black churches to attack the root causes of crime and violence - hopelessness, family disunity, poor performing schools and lackluster values - even if it steps on familiar toes and risks charges of "blaming the victim."

"Three hundred and sixty-two blacks under the age of 21 have been killed by other blacks in New York City this year," he said Monday at a church in New York's Harlem. "More than 300 in New Orleans. Around the country there is this rage of violence, not born of poverty and neglect as much as driven by drugs and guns and perverse values."

A week earlier, Jackson spoke just as passionately at the District of Columbia funeral of 4-year-old Launice Janae Smith, who was killed by a stray bullet at a playground. …