Former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines has written a spot-on ode to the black preacher for The Daily Beast. While it's easy to pooh-pooh the political machinations of high-profile clergy like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Raines focuses on the recently-lionzed Joseph Lowery. Though Ta-Nehisi Coates is moderating some heated back and forth on Lowery's "mellow tallow" benediction at Barack Obama's swearing-in on Tuesday, Raines praises Lowery's charming, syncopated performance, as akin to "Miles Davis taking a tired melody and investing it with the majesty of the blues."
The Buzz loved Lowery, too—not least because he is getting long-deserved mainstream adulation after decades on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. Though Lowery was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1957 and sat down with George Wallace in 1965, he was never a mainstream political figure like Rep. John Lewis or even an administrator or academic like Julian Bond or our own Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (though he straddles all these distinctions with grace). Rather, he remained "only" a preacher—and Raines' argument is that "Black Preachers are Better," that the prophetic African religious tradition in American politics transforms a black man of the cloth into so much more than that.
From the article: "Dr. King's particular genius was his recognition that once he moved the freedom debate in a religious direction, segregation would have to fall. He knew that white Southerners of that time were immune to many finer things, but powerful preaching was not one of them. That's what the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" is about: reminding white people who had been relentlessly exposed to religion since the cradle that, deep in their hearts, they knew what Jesus would do about the charade of "separate but equal."
This universal liberal morality is very apparent in the approach President Obama has taken to faith in his career, from including "nonbelievers" in his Tuesday speech to an unprecedented faith outreach effort in election 2008. Perhaps understanding Raines' point, Obama is keeping former president Bush's Office of Faith Based Initiatives—even expanding its function for his "new era of responsibility" he discussed in his inaugural speech. As Andre Wills has written here, look for Lowery and his ilk in the black church to play a part in helping America care for, as Obama likes to say, quoting Matthew 25, "the least of these."