At the start of Wednesday night's Grammy Awards, host Rosie O'Donnell told the nominees, "I bumped into God backstage, and he said, 'You're welcome.'" O'Donnell's attempt at humor didn't go over too well with many of the God-thanking award winners--especially the African-American ones. Performers such as TLC and Whitney Houston made a point of publicly rebutting O'Donnell.
Besides lending some drama to an otherwise dull evening, the verbal sparring brought to light a cultural phenomenon that I've noticed for some time: our society has a much higher tolerance for public expressions of religiosity from blacks than from whites. When African-Americans thank the Lord, people find it tiresome at worst, uplifting at best. When white evangelicals do it, many of those same people find it unpalatable, even vaguely creepy. (Blacks thanking Allah is another, more complicated story.)
At last year's Grammys, Lauryn Hill not only thanked God profusely; she also read from the Bible. And while there were undoubtedly people who were put off by all the public piety, it didn't seem to detract from Hill's stature as an artist, and on the whole the response was respectful. Likewise, at last year's American Music Awards, Kirk Franklin performed his top-10 hit "Stomp"--a blend of hip-hop and Gospel whose lyrics are much more overtly religious than the stuff coming out of the white-dominated Contemporary Christian Music scene. The crowd went nuts, and host David Spade could only joke, "Somewhere, Marilyn Manson has just turned to dust."
Try to imagine the same kind of response if a white evangelical had read from the Bible during his acceptance speech or performed a number anywhere near as direct in its expression of faith as "Stomp." The pattern also holds true outside of music-awards shows. People aren't nearly as uncomfortable when a black person speaks of faith as when a white person does.
Why? The first and most ignoble reason is a condescending attitude by whites toward the faith of African-Americans. It's best summarized in a series of internal statements: That's just the way black folks are--they're more religious, more vocal, more emotional than white folks. An even more patronizing variation on this theme is: Whatever gets them off the streets--if religion helps African-Americans cope with the vicissitudes of being black in America, I'm all for it.
This reduces sincere belief to nothing more than a cultural artifact or a social-welfare program. It excludes the possibility that an African-American could believe in Jesus simply because he or she is convinced that what Christianity teaches is true.
The other reason for the skittishness gap is of more recent vintage. Put simply, for many people, expressions of faith by white evangelicals are perceived as threatening. You see evidence of this feeling in a Gallup poll of a few years ago, which found that nearly half of all Americans said that they wouldn't want a "fundamentalist" as a neighbor. (By "fundamentalist," they meant a white conservative evangelical.)
This perception is rooted more in prejudice than in reality. As Federica Mathewes-Green's appreciation of Ned Flanders, the evangelical neighbor on "The Simpsons," points out, Ned is the sort of person you'd most want to have as a neighbor: kind, generous, good-natured, reliable.
What's so "threatening" about white evangelicals? It's the feeling that they're trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of the society. Since the late '70s, the noun "evangelical" has come to connote more than a set of religious beliefs; it has acquired political overtones. And the politics of some activist evangelicals make a lot of people anxious about the prospect of having "one of them" as a neighbor--at least in the abstract, until they actually meet one.
In contrast, black piety doesn't have the same connotation. To put it crudely, black expressions of piety, even when expressed publicly, are perceived as private and personal.
Is it fair that white piety carries a subtext that black piety doesn't? Is the subtext valid? No and no. The faith of African-Americans isn't a purely private matter. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine any people whose faith has had a greater public impact than that of African-Americans. Martin Luther King and the entire civil rights movement are just page one.
As for white evangelicals, many of them are remarkably apolitical. They want nothing more than to live quiet and peaceful lives, minding their own business. And even many of those who have been active participants in the "culture wars" are looking for a way to "declare victory and go home." They're tired of fighting, tired of being angry, and tired of having their neighbors think that they're jerks--especially when they're not.
For now, we're stuck with a double standard that does neither side justice. But, at the risk of annoying Rosie, let me just say that we're not beyond redemption, thank God.