News & Politics

Why are Millennials running from religion? Blame hypocrisy

White evangelicals embrace scandal-plagued Trump. Black churches enable fakes. Why should we embrace this?

Photo Credit: Kzenon / Shutterstock

I think we can safely say that President Donald Trump has changed American politics forever. He won the White House with no political experience, didn’t release his tax returns, and the extent to which Russia was involved in tilting the election is still under investigation. In the midst of all of Trump’s deception and corruption, there’s one rule he had to follow: yielding to the word of God.

Be a good person by treating others well, say your prayers, be humble, thank God, and you have a pretty good shot at getting into heaven. That’s how it was explained to me. Now, some of my friends were holy rollers whose families took praise to the next level: They went church ten times in a seven-day week, even on Tuesdays, wore suits, quoted Bible verses and washed away their sins by being baptized in front their congregations. But extreme or not, the majority of Americans are taught one way or another that Jesus died for us and our lives should be devoted to making it up to him.

God is on our money and has been inserted into our Pledge of Allegiance, so don’t even think about running for president without spending huge portions of your campaign explaining your relationship with God and how he found you — we assume God is a he — and distancing yourself from Muslims while pandering to Christians and Catholics up and down the Bible belt. It all seems phony — fake as a $3 bill with George Bush on the front — and especially when it comes to Trump's appeal to conservative Christians.

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Seriously, you are going to tell me that Donald Trump, who received 81 percent of the vote from white so-called Evangelicals, is a devout Christian? False praisers and prophets looking for profits aren’t a new thing.

My grandmother was one of those church women who proudly suited up, tied her chalk-polished white shoes up extra tight and went to war for her pastor, baking dinners, working street ministries or attending whatever event he asked her to attend, and at times giving her last to make sure the church kept the lights on. But she lived in a different time. My grandma was a Baby Boomer, so she hailed from a time when religion meant something­, back when the black church was the center of the black community.

Imagine having a place where you can go to meet up and strategize with like-minded people. A place where you can go to eat, celebrate, rejoice, dance and sing until your lungs ache. No money? No problem. This place would never turn you away; in fact, they might even give you some money in a time of need, help you raise funds to start that business or connect you with resources to ensure your success. This place also offered all of that in addition to marriage counseling and programs for children. Most importantly, the black church offered hope.

“The black church was the creation of a black people whose daily existence was an encounter with the overwhelming and brutalizing reality of white power,” theologian James Cone, author of "Black Theology and Black Power," wrote. "For the slaves, it was the sole source of personal identity and the sense of community. Though slaves had no social, economic or political ties to people, they had one humiliating factor in common­­­ — serfdom.”

The black church was an extension of slavery that derived from one of the most powerful tools of white slave masters. Owners and overseers liked to dangle the idea of Christianity to slaves, teaching them that a cocktail of accepting white Jesus, hard work and obedience would prohibit them from being slaves in heaven. Some masters would even allow their slaves to wear their old clothes and worship on Sundays.

My grandma, like many people in her generation, never questioned the origin of the traditions they subscribed to, and why would she? By the time she came of age, the church was the only consistent resource in black communities. She passed that on to her children, who tried to pass it on to us, but our relationship to religion had evolved by the time I was a teenager in the '90s.

“Open up!” my friend Block yelled. He beat on the door until the hinges rattled. I sat on the floor in the next room, nursing a half cup of vodka. The walls were so thin that you could hear dust form. “Open up! Or I’m gonna see dude myself!”

Block’s sister came out the room. Her face was puffy and shiny from tears. She flopped her back on the wall and slid to the floor before telling him that her boyfriend told her, “you a stupid b**ch if you think I’m leaving my family for you!”

She was a teenager like us and had been seeing dude for a while.

 “I’m gonna beat his head in,” Block told her. “Come on, D!”

She pleaded for him to stop as he stormed out. I chugged my drink and tripped out of the door behind him.

“What’s the move?” I asked.

Block sparked a cigarette, cracked his car window and blew a cloud out. “She been messin with the preacher dude from up the block for a minute. He been gassin her up, making her think they was gonna be together and she just cry all of the time. I'm sick of this clown. I’m a crack his jaw.”

“Haaaaaa, yo, we gonna go fight a preacher?” I blurted, trying to hold my laughter in. “What, you gonna crack him over the head with a stack of Bibles? Drop me off, man. My grandma would roll over in her grave! And I'm not letting you go to jail for assaulting a preacher.”

“What should I do?”

I told him to tell his sister to stay away from the guy. He didn’t beat her or anything, he just broke her heart. That’s what religion represented to me at that time in my life: heartbreak. Church people prayed, suffered and never really had anything, just like in the slave days. And my perception of a lot of church dudes was lower than the chances of that preacher leaving his family for Block's sister. We drank, blew weed, hustled, chased girls and ran the streets because we were young criminals. Church people from the neighborhood did all of the same things, but looked down on us because they put on suits and prayed on Sundays. Knowing preachers and deacons who dipped into our dating pool wasn’t a strange thing; they drove cars like ours or better and wore designer clothes and jewelry like us. We basically looked the same to outsiders.

I don't think all churches are bad. A lot of pastors do great work. However, rogue preachers are everywhere, and a lot of people who are blinded by the need for that hope our grandmas talked about can't tell the difference.

I have no personal experiences with white churches other than I heard that their services aren't as long. A black church sermon could easily be eight hours of songs and preaching­ — throw your whole Sunday away — whereas I think white church only lasts 20 minutes. But again, I don’t know; I've never been. I do know that white church people who identify as Christians are responsible for every major American war, bombing other countries, the genocide of Native Americas, the horrific mid-Atlantic slave trade, plantation slavery, and now Donald Trump, who probably has had more scandals than any other president in the history of our country.

Trump collects scandals like trading cards­: championing sexual harassment and assault, calling entire countries full of black Christian s**t holes, allegedly hiding a string of affairs with women like adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Through all of this, the evangelicals, the holy rollers­ — the white Christians — are silent. I remember them demanding Bill Clinton’s head during the Monica Lewinsky affair in the '90s. Is it because Trump is pro-life and Clinton wasn’t? Because a sin is a sin, right? Or is it just hypocrisy?

Either way, unlike in the days of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, my grandma's day and Clinton's, information is everywhere. We are in the era of the 24-hour news cycle where everyone has access to everything, which means evangelicals are definitely watching and choosing to remain silent­­, thus uniting many people who represent the modern black church and white church with their actions and forcing me to see them as one and the same: phony. The talk doesn't match their actions.

Millennials are definitely taking note, and continue to abandon the church. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found 35 percent of millennials identify their religion as "none" — that's twice the percentage of Boomers. If Christian hypocrisy isn't addressed, organized religion won't last.

 

D. Watkins is an editor-at-large for Salon. He is a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America and The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir.