By Rev. Earle J. Fisher
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributor
*Editor's Note: Earle Fisher first presented this article at the 2012 National Council of Black Studies Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on March 9, 2012. The Editor added the title.
Over the past several years, comedian turned radio host, motivational speaker and author of love relationship manuals Steve Harvey has turned himself and his ideologies into a multi-million dollar business enterprise. While initially being coined a “King of Comedy” Harvey has found a new niche by publically projecting his theological and religious ideas in concert with his gift of humor and rhetorical skill and has received a great deal of support and funding from religious institutions, television networks and numerous ministerial leaders. In the age of televangelism and other ministerial platforms, not limited to “jack legs” – unofficial, untrained and often unorthodox ministerial representatives - coupled with the rise of the “prosperity gospel,” Steve Harvey is both reaffirming some religious stereotypes as well as shaping new techniques that impact the mainstream’s understanding of effective evangelism as he continues to publically proclaim and promote his faith.
This essay serves two purposes. It first seeks to explore the impact of Harvey’s new found display of divinity and how Harvey fits, oxymoronically, into both the televangelist and “jack leg” genres. Secondarily the essay posits whether Harvey’s methods are merely a byproduct of a rhapsodic religious zeal or another pious Ponzi scheme.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I do not hate Steve Harvey. I actually have much love and respect for him as a comedian, a rhetorical strategist and black entrepreneur. I also do not have a problem with him proclaiming his faith in public. Faith is an action verb and ought to be displayed, in my opinion, in an appropriate manner giving considerations to the environment by which faith is fostered and the context by which faith is practiced and lived out. My disconcertment lies in the unintentional blending of Harvey’s platforms and his preface in many public presentations that “I am not a preacher…..but – insert theology.”
Some would argue that by no stretch does Harvey fit within the framework of a preacher nor public theologian and I would respectfully disagree. In order to understand the demographic identification within which Harvey is operating (whether purposefully or not) in his new found faith-based platform one must see how the elements of faith, rhetoric, theology and other elements of ideological projection are at work within the public arena today. Our unwillingness to expand our scope and sensibility of faith in public is tied to some mythical lines of demarcation that we have been conditioned to support and reinforce and therefore we have compartmentalized the role and the function of the preacher, pastor, minister, evangelist, prophet and other terms associated with spiritual mentorship, counsel and advisement.
In his writing, Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves, Dr. G. Lee Ramsey Jr. chronicles the portrayal of the minister in southern fiction. In his introduction, Ramsey asserts that “…[Southern fiction ministers]…come at us with such colorful force that they challenge us to think about the church and ministry in new ways. They shock us with their convictions and their deceptions.” (Ramsey, xvi.) I would surmise that Harvey has done exactly this; shocked some, deceived others (not excluding, arguably, himself). Ramsey expounds and highlights the depictions of the understanding of ministerial representation in the southern psyche and I would argue that this sensibility extends beyond the Mason Dixie into countless corners and cathedrals of American culture. The challenge most have with seeing Harvey as minister is that not only does Harvey dismiss himself from the platform verbally at the beginning of his theological dissertations, but according to Ramsey, “The preacher with Bible in hand, standing behind the pulpit or pacing before the congregation, is the dominant image of the Protestant minister…” (Ramsey, 14) Harvey’s platform would thereby be inconsistent with this symbolic image even when his projections are seemingly the same as the quintessential “prosperity gospel” minister found in alleys and on altars all around the globe.
As Ramsey argues that “Fictional preachers appear in almost endless variety…” (Ramsey, 15) I contend that non-fictional preacher’s persona is endless as well. Not only are there the Bible toting, licensed and ordained, hopefully seminary trained and congregationally endorsed “quintessential” ministers. There is also a strong representation of the “jack-leg” preacher who Ramsey suggests Southern literature describes and projects as “tiresome, meddling, moralistic, shallow, ignorant, bumbling, or irrelevant (I initially read as IRREVERANT and I think that ought to be added to the litany) (Ramsey, 15). The irony for Harvey is, in different ways Harvey aligns with BOTH the traditional or “quintessential” projection as well as the “jack-leg” personification of the preacher.
When one observes the parallels between Harvey’s target audience, theological and rhetorical sensibilities, and physical persona (body politic) in harmony with the demographic of the prototypical black church’s membership, doctrinal and theological presumptions and the symbolic representation of the pastor or minister, the consistencies are striking (bold maleness, flashy dress, large black female follow-ship, etc.).
Yet, when one comes to see Harvey’s presentation in light of the substance (or lack thereof), right-wing evangelical recapitulation, inconsistencies between his theory/theology and past practices as well as the opportunistic nature of the endorsement of numerous religious leaders in light of the aforementioned “jack-leg” characteristics, Harvey remains oxymoronically consistent in this regards as well.
Harvey has begun to frequent the stage of TBN (the Trinity Broadcasting Network) over the past several years. TBN has been cast as the premier platform for prosperity gospel preaching and recently welcomed Harvey as “keynote speaker” one of the Praise the Lord broadcasts (or fund raiser program). On April 4th, 2011Harvey assumed the persona of lead minister and resident theologian with a sermonic reflection on “Success/Prosperity Success/Whatever You Want To Call It” (authors emphasis). Here Harvey can be found quoting various biblical texts (coupled with animated imagery even as they flashed his website at the bottom of the screen) and espousing theologically and waxing righteous on biblical implications in reference to “...Faith Street... Doubt Drive... Pity Way...” as well as other metaphorical and religious rhetorical tropes. The TBN platform itself brands Harvey as ministerial (like it or not) and moreover as a mega-minister due to the broad audience (i.e. congregation) that tunes in to TBN (sadly) seeking spiritual and religious inspiration.
Furthermore, Harvey’s clothing line is comparative to the style, scope and tenor of the lavish black minister which has been mimicked and rebranded by those of the “jack-leg” persuasion. To venture out and brand one’s clothing puts theological and historical researchers in the mind of those who have endorsed and profited off of the promotion of various suit styles, robes, collars, jewelry and other outwards signs of spiritual signification not limited to bishops, rabbis and other church leaders.
Let it also be mentioned that the contemporary pitch of neo-evangelical pastors has been to formulate their theological and ideological ideals in book form. Countless “mega-pastors” from T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Creflo Dollar (as well as other pastors who I would argue may have a bit more substance and theological depth) have posited their congregations (both local and world-wide via technological projections and social networking sites) as a “wishing-well” of publishing houses and consumers. Harvey fits this brand as well. As an author, according to Bene’ Viera, “...Steve Harvey[’s] first book “Act Like a Lady, Think Like A Man” sold over 2 million copies spending 64 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In fact, Harvey’s first book was the second-biggest non-fiction book of 2009...” I presume his latest book has sold a comparative number of volumes and I further would assert the presumption that the vast majority of consumers of this material would be black females who identify themselves as religious.
The foundational underpinning of our struggle to see Harvey in a ministerial light is couched under his own rhetorical preface (which is also consistent with jack-leg rhetoric contextually – jack-legs have been known to denounce and dismiss their affiliation with the ministry and/or the church based upon their interpretive suitability). Harvey’s rejection of the pastoral platform gives him an argument of convenience that entitles him to spew his theology out to the masses without bearing the burden of the critique that pastors receive as part of the territory. When various pastors have been caught in scandals similar to Harvey’s PAST struggles, Harvey was (and continues to be) exempt from the assault on the black ministers. Even those pastors and ministers who don’t subscribe to what Rev. Dr. DeForrest Sories recently referred to as “buffoonery in the pulpit” somehow still seem to get caught up in the matrix and oft times have become collateral damage of the actions of those who range in ministerial persona from ordained mega-preacher to jack-leg. However, Harvey’s rhetorical framework in concert with his past persona as mere comedian/actor/talk-show host gives him clemency even while reaping the benefits of the blind-sheepish follow-ship of many within the flock who would subscribe to Harvey for insight and inspiration more readily than those who have been trained in the fields in which Harvey moves between freelance writer and public speaker.
Harvey’s theology is prevalent in his commentary (and MOST of his commentary is PUBLIC). My disdain lies in his lack of ownership and directness. He makes a lot of money projecting his theology, indirectly under the veil of a comparative secular liberalism. He spews a prosperity gospel couched in neo-evangelism (i.e. if you would just turn to God... THIS too could be yours... THIS too could be you... I know God been good to me - implying that God is the fundamental source of his societal and monetary progression and upward mobility. He “preys” on the vulnerability of black women (especially RELIGIOUSLY affiliated black women) all the while eluding (avoiding) much of the theological and ministerial critique.
I just want him (and other public theologians by proxy) to call a spade a spade.
What Harvey (and several others, not limited to academics and interdisciplinary “learned” believers) does/do is miss the opportunity to expand the representation and our understanding of the platform and production of preaching and public theology. This, by default, reinforces the compartmentalized, stereotypical and shallow myth of the role of the minister that Ramsey and I both seek to deconstruct and expand.
Although some may argue that Harvey is an “easy target” in this regard I would respond with the notion that I am, arguably, only using Harvey to corral the sensitivity of the more learned and educated brothers and sisters of academia who have found it convenient to throw out the babe-in-Christ with baptismal font water. Even beyond Christianity I’m seeking to push back against anyone who would attempt to throw out all religious sensibilities (of any faith tradition) in the name of logic and rationality by implying that only fools believe in divinity (i.e. religion is merely the opium of the masses). What I want to suggest is that although the critique of religious institutions and extremists are valid and necessary, what we need to do is broaden the scope of what it means to be a religious believer, ministerial leader or person of faith in a way that doesn’t readily dismiss any and everything religious.
There are a series of emerging movements (arguably all of the liberation theology movements) that carry with them religious and spiritual sensibilities that are a lot less oppressive, more inclusive and deeply authentic, that doesn’t fit the compartmentalized and narrow-minded scope that artists and academics have stereotypically prescribed and appropriated to religious communities of all guilds.
The litmus test for relevant and righteous religious and spiritual sensibilities is not dogma or doctrine but instead love, mercy and justice. And here is where I am willing to let Harvey off of the hook (a little bit). One cannot faithfully discern his motives, especially not knowing him personally. I can, however look at his lack of formal ministerial training, educational and intellectual inadequacies and his own experiences with a shallow and short-sighted religious tradition that fostered the ethos for the emergence of a right-wing, neo-evangelical, prosperity gospel that calls for anti-intellectual engagement in the name of divinity.
I cannot however, let my brothers and sisters in academia off as easy. I am not attempting to presume that there are no prophetic voices in academia that stand in affirmation with those in the religious communities (or those who see their academic training and platform as a “calling”). What I do believe I can argue is, that there are a lot more skeptics (or the skeptics have a larger and louder voice) than those of us who stand as critical-thinkers, who seek to worship our God with all of our heart, soul and our MIND.
I trust that as we expand our understanding of what it means to be a preacher or even more so a practical “believer” we can encourage more prophetic voices from all disciplines to move us from the drought of injustice to the space where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.