Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eddie Glaude Jr. & the bankruptcy of the black religious intellectual

I commented on philosopher-theologian Eddie Glaude Jr. in March 2007 on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog:

Tavis Smiley meets Eddie Glaude: Black pragmatism in action

I singled out what I considered to be the strategic essence of his ideological positioning: "a combination of ethnic provincialism and the impersonal rhetoric of professional philosophy, creating an illusion of intellectuality combined with community engagement." Analyzing his deployment and intertwining of two cultural code languages, I concluded: "The combined code of bourgeois professionalism and ethnic provincialism is pretty slick."

Glaude is in the news again, and once again ideological scrutiny is in order.

"A call to give religion full voice in the public square," USA Today, December 9, 2008.

Glaude spoke on race and religion at the second annual Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Key West. (The full transcript should soon be available at Glaude complained that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were unjustly forced to mitigate their expression of the religious basis of their political convictions. Note carefully the basis of Glaude's complaint, as reported here:
Glaude observed both men seemed to say that democracy demands religiously motivated people translate their concerns into universal, not sectarian, terms, that a religion’s claim to truth is not sufficient or persuasive.

But, Glaude said this would mean only those who argue from reason, i.e. facts or science, not from revelation, can make their case in the public square. Revelation can be subjective, personally interpreted, and relevant only within a religious community not beyond it, he said.

Glaude views such enforced translation into universal secular terms is conducive to an “unchristian result", whereby politicians cannot authentically express their real convictions. The nauseating obscurantism and ignorance embedded in this perspective reveals the menace that lies concealed in the ideological interventions of today's left-liberal clergy. The very essence of a secular society and secular democracy is the presumption that only rationalistic, universalistic criteria are legitimate in the public square, and that neither institutions nor policy can be based on religious revelation or supernaturalist superstition, though in their capacity as private individuals people have the right to believe and express whatever nonsense they choose. Glaude's advocacy of the irrationalist pollution of political discourse is a manifestation of a decaying society and its prevailing rightist tendencies. Was the religious left of earlier generations as bad as this?

Now see:

Black church and politics in the Obama era by Michael Paulson, The Boston Globe, December 8, 2008.

Glaude highlighted the racial dimension of the election and its aftermath, mentioning also the speculation over whether Obama will enroll his family in a black church in Washington. Glaude scoffed at the notion of a post-racial historical moment, though the emergence of black leaders who never experienced American apartheid marks a historical shift. Glaude also contemplated the impact of Obama's presidency on the black church.

"How will black suffering speak publicly? [. . . ] "Wherever power is operating, there is a role for a prophetic voice, but it's going to be complicated because a black man is running the empire.''
I don't disagree with this last point, which at least alludes to a sociological perspective that could be delineated much more clearly than Glaude's otherwise murky ethno-religious perspective.

This next article is even more revealing of the issues:

Trends beyond black vote in play on Prop. 8 by Matthai Kuruvila, San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2008.

This article highlights the uncomfortable implications of the reported claim that "70 percent of African Americans voted to ban same-sex marriages in California." However, many commentators warn that improper conclusions may be drawn from this statistic, including a tendency to place the blame or credit squarely on blacks for the outcome of this vote:
But demographers say the focus on one race not only disregards the complexity of African American identity but also overlooks the most powerful predictors affecting views on same-sex marriage: religion, age and ideology, such as party affiliation.
Faith is emphasized as a key factor:
A number of black gay and lesbian Christians say the No on 8 campaign underestimated the role of faith in the election. The impact of poor religious outreach was compounded in the African American community, where the church remains the single most powerful organizing force.

Historically black churches, which have a diverse array of denominations, include many with a long tradition of biblical literalism, said Professor Eddie Glaude, who teaches religion and African American studies at Princeton University. Glaude said many black churches in the 1960s believed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was "too radical."
Glaude is quoted:
"Failing to engage the black Christian community is a failure to understand that there's an internal argument to be had among all Christians about how we ought to understand same-sex love [...]"
It's a shame that this Princeton prof can't dig beneath such banality to get to the bedrock issue. As long as religious authority holds sway, an internal religious dialogue aimed at liberalizing religious dogma is undoubtedly better than nothing, but the problem with the black Christian community runs deeper than theological disputation. Liberal middle-class professionals who occupy a genteel world have the luxury of a pretend open-mindedness that blinds them to the viciousness undergirding social institutions, the popular imagination, and their manipulation by power-brokers. The failure of black intellectuals, in a post-apartheid era no less, to challenge the authoritarianism and backwardness of the black church, not just in terms of specific positions, but in its fundamental nature, is appalling. Traditionalism, authoritarianism, and religious orthodoxy are fueled by a culture of ignorance and fear. Without challenging the fear-based cultural basis of the black church-- its pretense to a love ethic notwithstanding--and without challenging its obsolete provincial ethnic basis, the black intellectual becomes a traitor to the intellectualism that got him where he is. To be a socially conscious black intellectual in a post-apartheid era wherein the class divide within the black population marks a historically new problematic is better than simply jumping ship and shifting one's loyalty entirely to the upper classes, but an ethnically and religiously based ideology is an inadequate posture. Glaude is a protege of Cornel West and his vacuous "prophetic pragmatism". It's too bad the Ivy League fails to yield better than this.

Glaude is also quoted in a Pew Forum article on Obama:

"Does Obama need to find a black church to call home?" by Adelle M. Banks, December 9, 2008.

Obama's engagement with Jeremiah Wright and his church remains an enigma, meaning, as does everything with Obama, all things to all people. To what extent Obama's self-reportage of his motivations and his faith is authentic is only one question, for the deep question of ideology is how people fool themselves, not others, how they dwell within an ideological universe whose real operation remains obscure to them. Obama's earlier association, which did him well in Chicago black politics, proved to be an impediment to his presidential ambition, though obviously not an insurmountable one. Obama's church affiliation compounded the ambiguity of his political self-presentation, attacked or defended by the right and left on bogus grounds. I agree with Adolph Reed Jr., who termed Obama a neoliberal fraud. Cornel West is a much gentler critic as well as an Obama supporter, but West's own Christian rhetoric blurs the analytical contours needed to assess the situation.

Elements of the black religious left continually vaunt the phrase "speak truth to power," but they continually blunt the still-forbidden truth that needs to be spoken.