“Prosperity” Preachers Ignoring Racism: The Potter’s Patch

Earlier this month, Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of one of the largest congregations in America (“Potter’s House” in Dallas Texas), responded to CNN’s claim that he and other “prosperity” preachers are ignoring the largely egalitarian messages of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King(photo: directionstoorthodoxy). Prior to publishing his article, Jakes stated that “personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can” are more pressing than the pursuit of social/racial equality.
In response to the attention given to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jakes defined the mission of Christian congregations and their function in larger struggles for racial justice and social equality. In an editorial Jakes wrote for CNN, he claims that a Christian congregation should not segregate itself on the basis of race or politics. Rather, “its relevance and vision must go beyond its community and reach the world for which Christ died.” This, for Jakes means that congregations (and presumably the congregants that fill them) should fill a “broader role in politics, business, media and impacting societal ills.”

In order to address societal ills, and more broadly, bring about social and racial equality in America, Jakes suggests the following: Americans dissolve their membership in monoracial churches and join multiracial congregations; and Americans unite across lines of race, class, and gender to provide resources to at risk groups.

Though sociologists such as Korie Edwards, Michael O. Emerson, and George Yancey continue to examine the role of multiracial churches in the quest for racial equality, the primacy Jakes gives to “social capital” is disturbing. Social capital refers to a community’s “trust, norms, and networks” (Robert Putnam). When used effectively, and by that I mean when communities form relationships with each other, resources can be distributed from the proverbial haves to the have-not’s. Sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Gianpaolo Baiocchi (2007) argue that this social capital approach involves a weak understanding of racism. This understanding ignores that: Social networks and norms of social behavior are often mobilized to defend racial exclusion in a racialized society; individuals in a racialized society do not have equal access to networks, and networks themselves are racialized. And the assumption that social capital leads to certain virtuous norms of behavior is both untenable and confusing of causes and effects. For Bonilla-Silva and Baiocchi (2007), proponents of this social capital perspective fail to acknowledge that America is a nation built and sustained on white domination of Blacks, Hispanics, and the white underclass.

Scholars such as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Shayne Lee, and Jonathan Walton claim that the leader of the Potters House, one of the largest and most diverse congregations, possesses a thin framework for understanding contemporary problems of race, class, and gender. These scholars argue that Jakes provides weak solutions to social problems. Jakes’ editorial did little to address those critiques.

Instead, in this and other works, Jakes dismissed Wright as angry and irrational while claiming to advocate for the Black community–a community that as Michael Dawson shows, shares the same views regarding racism as Wright. Sadly, like Booker T. Washington before him, Jakes’s weaving together of (a) American individualism and with that, a weak understanding of racism, with (b) an alleged concern for the Black community, not only separates Jakes from the thoughts and opinions of most mainstream Blacks regarding racism, but more importantly, any realistic hope of changing the racialized social system that hinders the advancement of Blacks and the white poor.


~ Ryon Cobb
Ford Foundation Fellow
Doctoral Student, Florida State University


  1. lou

    Great blog about Bishop Jakes. Do you think that preachers of multiracial churches shy away from talking about current racial issues because they think it will alienate some white members?

  2. Ryon

    Thanks Lou…

    If I remember MOE’s study, they talk about it, but we dont know how. From my experiencing in attending multiracial churches, its a limited discussion which highlights elements of black culture (fried chicken…), and says, “racism still exists,” but that’s about it.

    Jakes is mainstream and his appeal has much to do with being moderate…Oprahesque if you will on race issues.

    Shayne Lee (http://www.tulane.edu/~sociol/slee.pdf) and Jonathan L. Walton (http://www.jonathanlwalton.com/Site/Welcome.html) talk about this in both of their works…


  3. Terrific, post Ryon ~ glad to see you here. And good to see you here as well, Lou! It’s funny, I know about T.D. Jakes via The Dr. Phil Show (an spin-off of the Oprah empire). And, you’re absolutely right about the avoidance of racism. In my own experience, finding a multi-racial and queer-accepting church was important when I started looking for a faith community. That turns out to be a pretty tall order, but was delighted to find MCCNY which is multi-racial, queer and a theology based on a radical vision of social justice. The most moving services for me include the one on Martin Luther King Day, which features an interfaith service, and the Good Friday service where instead of the usual “stations of the cross” the congregants (of all races) read the names of hate crime victims, of both racially-based hate crimes and homophobia-based hate crimes. That gets me *every* time.

  4. Wes

    “Christian” churches were never meant to be a lucrative business.

    A question to consider is, how many preachers (especially “prosperity” pastors) would be in the “of the cloth” profession/club/cult if there wasn’t a substanstial economic incentive for them to do so? For those pastors that are inclined toward financial rewards, it would not be in their “worldly” best interests to alienate a single soul (or any white person) who contribute tithes and offerings to their collection plate.

    Money and self-interest trumps society’s racial ills, or any other ills. It seems that the mainstream cults – christian church, like America at large – has made a wrong turn along the way. Now they both are, largely, unrecoverable and lost.

  5. Ryon Cobb

    Thanks for the comments everyone…

    The Pew Study found that amongst blacks, Jakes remains popular. And due to his popularity scholars and journalists have critiqued his involvement surrounding social issues.

    To his credit, Jakes has moved from away from an apolitical biblicist message to one that’s more moderate. The message can be summarized as follows: Racism/Sexism and ism is wrong, but things have gotten better. Let’s focus on the progress, and pray, wait, and donate towards a brighter future, but for God’s sake, no protesting!

  6. Wes

    Ryon wrote:

    “Sadly, like Booker T. Washington before him, Jakes’s weaving together of (a) American individualism and with that, a weak understanding of racism, with (b) an alleged concern for the Black community, not only separates Jakes from the thoughts and opinions of most mainstream Blacks regarding racism…”

    In response to a question, Ryon replied:

    “The Pew Study found that amongst blacks, Jakes remains popular.”

    If I’m reading your commentary correctly, Rev. Jakes remains popular amongst black folks despite being separate from the thoughts and opinions of most mainstream Blacks regarding racism. Ryon, do you have an opinion or explanation for this apparent paradox?

  7. Ryon Cobb

    Yes, I do….

    Blacks seperate their spiritual liberation from their social liberation or have a weak linking between the two. Within the Black religious tradition, the most popular preachers (when they were alive) were those who were more or less apolitical or conservative in nature.

    I can go further if you would like…

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