Kamau Bell is a mid-40’s American comic and TV host; his original series United Shades of America is on CNN Sunday night. For a tall black guy who tackles exceedingly difficult topics like a visit with the modern day KuKlux Klan, Bell is disarmingly laid back and funny. He sports not quite a full Afro, but way more than low-drama Obama’s buzz cut. Bell dresses in jeans and a shirt — no Anderson Cooper suit with a crisp white shirt and tie, no matter where Bell is going.
That Bell has a history as a stand-up comic protects him, I think. He just doesn’t evoke hostility, even from the most hostile people. I found that show where he visited the cross-burning Klan terrifying, even though I suppose he had the protection of a CNN camera crew who were doing the filming. That the Klan members were chummy with Bell while explaining the ins and outs of cross burning gave me chills. I held my breath until he got out of there and went back down the dark road, safely away from the rising flames and white hooded Klan members.
Bell’s latest foray is into the world of megachurches, specifically those that make their home in Dallas, home of the megachurch movement. Bell visits a conservative white one, where the pastor told his 30,000 followers to vote for Trump because Trump is in alignment with Jesus, a black megachurch dedicated to social justice whose pastor follows the path of Martin Luther King, an LGBTQ megachurch with a Brit gay pastor who tries to redeem “church” for those most wounded by it, and a megachurch-in-the-making that has just raked in enough money to build a big structure in the boonies outside the city.
All of these places share common threads: they are full-blown media productions that attract tens of thousands of members; they present the gospels in an easy to follow mode that assumes worshippers want to be entertained; they bring in a lot of money; they are by and large segregated by race, sexual orientation, philosophy. One white megachurch pastor said outright that he considers Jesus an entertainer, and his ministry calls him to be an entertainer too. The Prosperity Gospel megachurches make no apologies for insisting that members fund the lavish lifestyles of their preachers; the 6M jet pastor is unabashed in saying God wants the members to buy him this jet.
After my book How Much is Enough? came out in 2002 and I got hired by a lot of Protestant churches to talk about stewardship, I attended a Wednesday night church service at one of these places in the midwest, at the invitation of my host. I found the service intentionally hypnotic, with low lights and repetitive chanting and people swaying back and forth with their eyes closed. Biblical instruction was projected onto a big screen with fill-in-the-blank questions and answers, as in “The purpose of prayer is _________.” I forget the single word answer, but the congregants all knew it. During the praise section a church member was singled out for having baked 400-some odd cupcakes singlehandedly. She was a nondescript woman who probably didn’t get much recognition in the rest of her life, but here we all were shouting praise to the Lord for Sister-Cupcake-Baker.
I found the whole thing creepy. But thousands of people flock to these places, while more traditional Protestant worship is dying on the vine. In some way megachurches and the election of Donald Trump are hitting the same chord, but it’s not music that I myself can hear.