Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
ENTERING THE PROMISED LAND?
The Rise of Prosperity Gospel and
Post-Civil Rights Black Politics

FREDRICK C. HARRIS

THE FUNERAL of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in February 2006 symbolically revealed the diminishing influence of the prophetic tradition in African-American politics and civic life. What surfaced in this ritual of remembrance and homage to Mrs. King, who for over thirty years kept the memory and the values of her husband’s message of peace and social change in the nation’s consciousness, was a nod to a theological worldview whose beliefs are antithetical to the prophetic tradition Dr. King embraced. Dr. King’s funeral in 1968 had been held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is surrounded by a poor neighborhood east of downtown Atlanta, but the final service for Mrs. King was held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church—a suburban megachurch 15 miles outside of the city—whose minister, Bishop Eddie Long, is an ardent supporter of a theology that teaches the virtues of material prosperity.

Long had been criticized months before when a newspaper investigation revealed that he received compensation from the church’s charity organization that included a million dollar plus salary, a $1.4 million mansion, and a Bentley automobile. When asked by a reporter about the compensation, Bishop Long responded: “We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation.” Informing the reporter that “Jesus wasn’t poor,” Bishop Long justified his compensation from the charity, pointing out that “we’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies.… You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”1

The controversy did not end there. When the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), a predominately black Christian seminary in Atlanta, invited Bishop Long to speak at its commencement, students protested, an honorary degree recipient boycotted the ceremony, and a long-time trustee of the seminary expressed outrage. The honorary

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