Panel Debates Black Churches

Speakers Discuss Traditional Roles of Religious Institutions

The Black church in America has historically had an anti-democratic structure but has also had a positive influence on Black culture and politics in the last 100 years, several panelists at a Divinity School conference said yesterday.

The event, attended by a crowd of about 50, was part of this weekend's conference on Afro-American Religion and Politics.

Jerry Watts, associate professor of American studies at Trinity College, spoke of the tradition of the charismatic leader as a force in the Black community.

The position of pastor was elevated in the Black church, Watts said, because "in a charismatic political leadership, the leader has to claim a disproportionate access to God."

Watts criticized the hierarchical, "anti-democratic church" that he said has developed in the last century.

Cornel R. West '74, of Princeton University, agreed for the most part with Watts, but he added, "We're fighting to keep [Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.]'s legacy alive, wherever we can, however we can. Who knows when the next social movement will be?"

West charged that current leaders of the Black church are not accountable to the populace, pointing to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson as an example.

"Accountability is an alien idea to the brother [Jackson]," said West.

Linda F. Williams, a fellow at the Barone Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, used two models to describe the Black church.

The pessimistic model maintains that the church has had a negative influence on Black leadership, she said, and the optimistic model holds that the church has been key to developing charismatic leadership.

"We know that charismatic leadership counts in the white world, too. How else can we explain Ronald Reagan?" joked Williams.

Williams said that the percentage of Black elected officials who were ministers dropped by half between 1982 and 1986. She concluded that Black leadership is becoming much more secular.

"The Black church may be at its lowest ebb in the history of influencing Black leadership," Williams said.