Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

Quick Links:

Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA


New books

Riverside's Black-White Divide
by Thea A. Button and Andrew Walsh

For almost a century, Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Morning-side Heights has been mainline Protestantism’s highest profile pulpit, and its pastors—celebrated preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick and William Sloane Coffin—shaped the hearts and minds of an important slice of American Christianity. They led the charge on the great 20th-century issues: against fundamentalism and war; for civil rights and social justice.

James Forbes, who held the job from 1989 until 2007, upheld Riverside’s tradition with an eloquent, distinctly Southern, African-American style. But in spite of his general commitment to liberal Protestantism, Forbes never had much to say about the fight that has divided the mainline—at Riverside and around the nation—most bitterly in recent decades: gay rights.

Coffin, his predecessor, was a pioneer of the gay-friendly “Open and Affirming” movement in the mainline churches, leading Riverside to become the first United Church of Christ congregation to take that stand. (Riverside also belongs to the American Baptist Church.) And over time, Forbes’s reticence became a grievance, especially among the shrinking cadre of white members. After his departure, their grumbling reached the pages of the New York Times and other newspapers.

So it’s worth noting that Forbes’ successor—a dynamic, young, scholarly African-American preacher named Brad Ronnell Braxton—laid down a gauntlet dramatically at the beginning of his ministry by reasserting the importance of Riverside’s open and affirming stance.

On November 9, in his second sermon as pastor, Braxton chose as his text a passage from the Old Testament: Joel 2:28, in which God promised that “it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.” In Braxton’s reading, God told the prophet: “No one can control me, but everyone can reach me.”

“Did you hear God’s open and affirming language?” Braxton asked his congregation. “ALL FLESH!” All flesh was everyone: old, young, men, women, “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered, queers and heterosexual people, ALL FLESH!” 

Up until that sermon, there hadn’t been much public acknowledgement of divisions over gay rights at Riverside, a massive stone complex on Riverside Drive built by the Rockefellers in the late 1920s to be American Protestantism’s premier pulpit. In the late 20th century, Riverside strove to embody progressive change rather than manifesting the Protestant Establishment, in order to be, in the words of its mission statement: “interdenominational, interfaith, and international.”

The church’s second black senior minister, Braxton has a combination of skills and background that might allow him to put forth ideas in a more palatable way to a mostly minority congregation than Coffin had been able to do, and to encourage discourse on uncomfortable issues more than Forbes was willing to do.

Coffin decided to force the issue of gay rights, even though there was substantial resistance among black members of the church. He “felt there were limits to what could be reconciled,” writes his biographer, Warren Goldstein. “Finally, there were conflicts that could ‘only be decided by taking one side or another. And homophobia is like racism. You cannot reconcile that. You’ve got to come down on the right side. It’s the only way it’s going to be solved.’”

In Goldstein’s account, Coffin’s righteous stand failed to solve the issue, creating instead a lasting, racialized division at the church.

“Although Coffin won the immediate battle he lost the larger struggle to reunite Riverside,” Goldstein judged. Many of the older, black congregants (in those days, a substantial minority of the church’s congregation) were alienated by Coffin’s strong stand, embodied in the church’s 1984 “Statement of Openness, Inclusion, and Affirmation of Gay or Lesbian Persons.”

One clear result was sustained tumult. Coffin had endured a rough ride at the church, and so would Forbes. Writing on September 15, when Braxton’s selection as senior minister was announced, Paul Vitello of the Times noted that Forbes “drew criticism from congregants that he neglected Riverside’s tradition of liberal Protestant activism while pouring his energies into increasing black membership with a Southern style of preaching and worship.”

The piece echoed complaints recorded as early as 1992, in a Times piece by Ari Goldman headlined “Riverside’s Pastor at Center of Turmoil.” Riverside, Goldman noted, was “sizzling with life and remarkably integrated,” but internal critics “accuse Forbes of being authoritarian, aloof, too spontaneous in his worship, and too much of a fundamentalist, especially in his sermons. They say that under his leadership, more blacks have joined, whites have left, collections have declined. His critics, both black and white, insist that their criticism is not racially motivated.”

A group of persistent critics, several of whom had held congregational offices, spent much of Forbes’ tenure complaining. In 2006, the New York Post reported that they had complained repeatedly to the Manhattan district attorney about financial wrongdoing and sought—unsuccessfully—to get external oversight of Riverside’s financial affairs.

Press coverage has tended to reflect two publicly articulated causes of controversy, the first being Forbes’ alleged abandonment of Riverside’s traditions of liberal activism, and the second,  his attempt to push Riverside toward the norms of large African-American churches.

“Dr. Forbes detractors,” Eric Konigsberg wrote in the June 10, 2007 Times, “accuse him of softening Riverside’s political involvement and abandoning his predecessor’s intellectual approach for something more evangelical. At times he has shown a fondness of altar calls during services and his sermons can be long and emotional.”

“The sermons of the senior minister haven’t tended to address, to the extent of his predecessors’, the burning national and international issues of the day,” said Howard Geiger, a former church treasurer and one of the liberal dissidents.

Forbes told Konigsberg that his sermon style—recognized as among the nation’s most powerful by publications ranging from Newsweek to Christianity Today—“had its roots in the sermons of his father, a Pentecostal minister in North Carolina,” and had “come as a shock to some Riverside members. People thought they were getting Bible Belt values as well as my Bible Belt style.”

A series of Times reporters found similar concerns among white congregants during 2008. Russ Buetner reported on August 3 that some felt that Forbes “hadn’t done enough to maintain the church’s tradition of advocating social justice positions” and that “his style had increased the number of black congregants and alienated some white members at a church that prides itself for its racial diversity.”

But it’s hard to take seriously complaints that Forbes failed to uphold the liberal tradition at Riverside. A look through the index of Christian Century, for example, shows that Forbes was a consistent voice for the poor, for AIDS victims, for Nelson Mandela, for the Dalai Lama, for a long list of Democratic presidents and presidential candidates (especially named Clinton), for universal health care, and for beleaguered liberal institutions like the National Council of Churches. He even led the charge against Intelligent Design.

The Dallas Morning News’ Jeffrey Weiss caught Forbes on one of his frequent campaigns across the country, at the August 24, 2002 unveiling of the Texas Freedom Network’s Fundamentalism Education Project in Dallas.

 “I propose to show that, out of love of all God’s children and in providential care for the world, God is gathering an interfaith company of believers to proclaim a theology of divine righteousness which demands justice, respect, tolerance, compassion, inclusiveness, trust in the ultimate efficacy of divine zeal, and the righteous pursuit of peace in the midst of competing interests and faith claims through the power of God’s enabling grace,” Forbes preached in impeccable ecumenicalese.

However, there are some indications in the press of why Forbes’ message and style generated confusion among white liberal Protestants. On December 17, 2004, for example, USA Today printed a list of “10 great places to hear the Christmas gospel” that had been originally developed by the evangelical weekly Christianity Today’s online operation. Forbes’ Riverside headed the list. In praising Forbes, USA Today noted that “the American Baptist has appeared as one of President Bush’s chief clerical critics, but don’t expect much that’s political on Christmas Eve.”

If charges of disloyalty to the liberal creed are hard to credit, then race—and what might be called the resulting circulation of elites—has clearly been an important part of the struggle at Riverside. The Times’ Vitello reported on the September meeting where Braxton was elected that “longtime members attribute some of the situation to the changing racial makeup of the…congregation.” He added that “some of the tensions are blamed on generational differences—an older, white membership with emotional roots in the civil rights era, and a younger contingent of middle-class black members who bring a less politicized set of religious beliefs to Sunday services.”

When Braxton appeared on WNYC radio’s Brian Lamb program on December 19, he defended Forbes’ record, adding that whites would have to get used to a changed reality of a black majority at Riverside.

Whereupon an angry Riverside member (identified as “Amanda from New York”) shot back on the program’s message board: “We joined the church BECAUSE it was diverse—in every way—racially, socially, economically. But it has become clear to longtime members that Dr. Braxton is continuing Dr. Forbes’ longtime goal of moving the church toward being a traditional ‘black’ church (altar calls, the move to eliminate traditional music program, etc.).”

“The real disappointment is this—there are already many well-established and better known black churches,” she lamented. “There are so FEW truly diverse churches in New York City or anywhere else.”

Lamb dryly observed during the Braxton interview that many whites still felt uncomfortable about experiencing diversity when they were among the minority, rather than as part of the majority they once took for granted.

And, indeed, the last couple of decades at Riverside have challenged congregants who valued the old mainline establishment model. Interestingly, as presented by the Times over a series of articles, many of these criticisms came from black members of the church whose involvement predated Forbes’ arrival.

Konigsberg, for example, quoted the Rev. Robert Polk’s advice to Forbes upon the latter’s arrival in 1989. Polk, a retired staff member who was the first black appointed to Riverside’s ministerial staff in 1960, said, “I told him: ‘You could do one of two things. You can preserve the three ‘inters’—international, interdenominational, interracial—or you can forget about that and make it all black.’ He did the second.”

But it is clear that many other African Americans rejoice in the shifting balance of power. Konigsberg closed his June 10 Times piece by quoting Princeton theologian Cornel West, a speaker at the Riverside service honoring Forbes’ retirement, noting that West gave an “an impassioned tribute” to Forbes. “A particularly loud burst of applause came when he declared, ‘The last 18 years have been a delicious experiment in contemporary American Christianity.’”

While he repeatedly asserted his commitment to diversity, Forbes agreed in his interview with Konigsberg that the church had changed under his watch. “When I came here, the ethnic breakdown was about 60 percent white, 40 percent black,” Forbes told Konigsberg. “Shortly after my arrival, the incoming membership classes would have a few more blacks than whites. Eventually it was 50-50, then 60-40 blacks to whites. The last census was closer to 70-30 blacks to whites.”

However, uniting people requires people to unite. One reason that blacks currently so outnumber whites at Riverside is that whites in New York City are now simply much less likely to attend church than was once the case.

The 1990 National Survey of Religious Identity showed, for example, that 89 percent of New York City’s Baptists (Harry Emerson Fosdick’s denomination and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s, too) identified themselves as black and only 4.1 percent as white. So, it is possible that Forbes did not drive out the white congregants so much as fill the pews with one of the last groups to attend Sunday services regularly, blacks.

And the statistics tend to suggest that the Forbes years have been good ones at Riverside. Coffin had rebuilt the church’s membership, which fell as low as 1,500 before he arrived in 1977. By the end of his term, total membership had reached about 2,700, where it has remained pretty steadily.

Moreover, under Forbes, Riverside’s finances recovered. The reported value of the endowment fell as low as $65 million at the close of the Coffin years, but had rebounded to about $160 million before last fall’s market collapse. (In the early 1970s, the endowment was a very impressive $120 million.)

Braxton has chosen to differentiate himself from Forbes by the volume of his support for the full inclusion of gays in the church. The new minister followed up on his October sermon, for example, by issuing a personal statement on November 19 lamenting the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned the California Supreme Court decision extending marital rights to homosexuals.

Yet it would be incorrect to understand Forbes as in any sense an opponent of gay rights. To the contrary, during his pastorate at Riverside, the church began to celebrate same-sex unions in 1991, put strong inclusive language in it mission statement in 1992, and in 1997 adopted the Lamda Legal Defense funds resolution on same gender civil marriage. He often took to the road to support gay rights, including the right to civil marriage, speaking and leading services at conferences and other events.

In 1996, for example, he showed up for a conference on homophobia in minority communities in Denver even though black church backlash had led the local pastor to withdraw his offer to serve as host. The Denver Post reported on July 17, 1996 that the pastor’s letter of withdrawal described homosexuality as “an abomination before the Lord.”

The Post conveyed Forbes’ calm response: Many black denominations “are just starting to address homosexuality openly. There are many white denominations with deep discomfort in talking about gays…but black churches seem to have a unique set of problems confronting the issue.”

When, in 2000, the mostly black Eastern North Carolina Association of the UCC voted not to accept an “open and affirming” startup congregation as a member, Forbes indicated to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” that he understood black church reluctance, although he disagreed with it. “I would say that it is true that many times black people, who themselves have been stigmatized…tend not to want the added burden of a position that might be considered to be sinful.”

So the grievance of white Riverside liberals—and perhaps much of the chest thumping about the abandonment of Riverside’s social justice tradition—has to do with little more than insufficient zeal for a social justice issue that they cared particularly deeply about. What Forbes declined to do was shift into rhetorical hyper-drive to criticize African Americans for failing to embrace gay rights.

In that hesitation, Forbes is certainly far from unique. Take Renita Weems, an African Methodist Episcopal cleric and scholar who addressed black attitudes towards gay marriage in her blog November 20.

“There are many who do not put the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement on par with each other,” she wrote. “Why not? Because they don’t see gay rights as a civil rights issue, perhaps? Because they see gay rights as a lifestyle issue and not a human rights issue, perhaps? Because they think homosexuality is a sin or just plain wrong, perhaps?”

In that forest of perhapses, Weems argued in favor of civil unions for gay partnership, but not marriage. She, like many black church leaders, was wrestling with press coverage attributing the defeat of gay marriage in California to black voters. A string of opinion pieces in mid-November argued as much, based on exit polls showing black voters rejecting gay marriage at rates of about 70 percent, compared to bare majorities in other groups. (Subsequent polling indicated that the number may actually have been less than 60 percent, virtually identical to the rate among Latinos.)

At the present time, Braxton, a full generation younger than Forbes, is willing to increase the decibels on gay rights, although he had not yet named names. In his November 19 statement, he quoted the church’s 2004 position on gay marriage at length, and associated himself with it.

“In an attempt to embrace all committed-relationships, the Church will take the bold action of no longer distinguishing between same-sex unions and (heterosexual) marriages,” he wrote. “All ceremonies among two committed, loving adults at The Riverside Church will be recognized as marriages….We further commit our resolve to support efforts leading to the development of social policies and laws that enable same-gender loving couple’s access to the privileges, legal protections, and benefits of civil marriage.”

The statement put Braxton way out in front of most other black clerics, in the company of Jeremiah Wright, another black preacher who made his career leading a UCC congregation. Indeed, Braxton shares with Wright a public commitment to Afro centric theology, which often drives white Protestants, and certainly conservatives, crazy.

But Braxton’s Afro centric style is part of a package with substantial appeal to Riverside liberals, white and black. Like Forbes, Braxton is the son of a Southern black church pastor, but he comes with the sort of high octane intellectual pedigree associated more with Riverside’s old mainline establishment heyday. A Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia who went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship, he earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Emory University and taught at Wake Forest and Vanderbilt before assuming the pulpit at Riverside.

He can readily accommodate Riverside mainliners who yearn for sermons studded with footnotes and texts lifted from the headlines. “One can do Afro centric scholarship and still be diverse,” he told interviewers from the Columbia University undergraduate daily on September 24. One key aspect of Christianity, he said, “involves us loving God with our minds. I hope to bring serious, high-level conversation to Riverside Church.”

Braxton’s embrace of the cause of gay rights was, it seems, intended to send a message to the church’s white liberals, hungry as they are for a champion on an issue they care deeply about but haven’t been able to move forward. They may not get a lot of Bach back on Sunday mornings, but Braxton seems willing to use the prophetic eye to scrutinize the black church’s comfort zone.

While this formula may not bring balm to the perennially troubled Gilead on Morningside Heights, it might reconcile white oldtimers who have been complaining loudly since the early 1990s. And there is no current sign of black backlash. It may be, as was apparently the case for Jeremiah Wright, that a sufficiently vigorous Afro centric worldview will give Braxton whatever legitimacy he needs in the eyes of black congregants.


Hit Counter