“The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.” One of America’s foremost pastors reflects on religion, race, and the pandemic.
Bishop T. D. Jakes is one of the most famous pastors in America. His multi-thousand-member Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House, is just one part of his platform; he’s recorded gospel albums, starred in television broadcasts, led several popular conference series, and published numerous books, including his latest, Don’t Drop the Mic. But all of that fame couldn’t prepare Jakes for the past year and a half, when his ministry has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the United States. Suddenly, he found himself inundated with calls and texts from desperate, grieving families. Meanwhile, he found himself making calls and sending texts to prominent white pastors all over the country who were stumbling through long-overdue conversations with their churches about race.
All of this has made Jakes think through his theology, he told me recently. The message of Christianity doesn’t align with “the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises,” he said. “Suffering is center stage to our faith.” This was a stark assessment coming from Jakes: Fairly or not, the pastor is often associated with a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that the faithful will be blessed by God with health and wealth. Jakes told me he’s spent the pandemic flipping through the Bible and reading about earlier times of disease and dying. This is how this feels, he thought.
Jakes has also had to think through who his allies are. Paula White, one of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent faith advisers, credits Jakes with building her reputation among Black Christians. For years, she was featured at his popular conference Woman Thou Art Loosed, and he spoke highly of her preaching abilities. Jakes told me he doesn’t consider her one of his mentees, and that she knows he takes a different view of politics than she does. Still, “I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree,” he said. “I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying, ‘Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.’” Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s what his new book is all about.
I talked with Jakes about the ongoing trauma of COVID-19 in his community, and whether white evangelicals have lost sight of Jesus’s teachings. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: In the past year, how many members of your congregation have either gotten sick with or died from COVID-19?
Bishop T. D. Jakes: I can’t even answer the question, because the number would be so high. It’s hard to even tabulate, because a lot of people in our church, when they pass away, they go back home to be buried.
But I can tell you that there were weeks that I was inundated with phone calls literally every day about somebody who either was sick or had passed away. What was numbers to everybody else—and the numbers were horrific enough—was people to me.
Green: I wonder if there was a moment when you realized, Oh, this is going to be a really major thing in the life of my community.
Jakes: When New York was bad—the numbers were so inordinately high—one day, I literally just lost it. I’ve done a lot of book signings on Fifth Avenue at Barnes & Noble. I’ve spoken in New York since I was a very young man. And I just wondered how many of those people who were at my services or at my book signings were in those bags. And I just started weeping.
To all people, being close to your loved ones when they pass is important. But to Black people, being able to have a funeral and eulogy is sometimes the only time day workers and frontline workers get to be important. It’s the only day other than a wedding day that everything is about you. To be denied that celebration of life—we call them homegoings, rather than funerals—I knew we would be devastated for years to come. The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.
Green: Where do you see evidence of that ongoing trauma in your community?
Jakes: Where do I not see it? Marriages imploding. Self-medication. Serious bouts of depression.
It has been devastating to all of America, but particularly to minorities. And that, coupled with the racial tensions—we were hit on so many different fronts at the same time. Our counseling department says we are getting 300 percent more calls than we were before.
Green: I wonder how, theologically speaking, you guide people through a time like this, when so many people have gotten sick or know someone who died. What do you tell people about what God wants when there’s so much dark stuff happening?
Jakes: It’s funny, because it really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.
It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, “Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.”
But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us.
Green: Obviously, the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor people, working-class people, people who have essential jobs who have been going to work consistently. I wonder if seeing that unequal impact of the virus has made you think differently about the policies and politics that led us to have such an unequal country.
Jakes: Can I be honest?
Jakes: That’s only a revelation to people who are far removed from it. [Laughs.]
Because the Church is a galvanizing place of all classes of people, this is something that we’re confronted with every week. It is amazing to me that we can live in the same city and have two completely different experiences. You can kind of be willfully blind to the pain of the people who are in your own city and have ladies’ meetings and come together to solve poverty around the world and not think a thing about poverty right in your own city.
Green: You know, when I hear you say that, I can’t help but hear an implication about the way certain other Christians—maybe white Christians in particular—live, with a kind of international orientation toward helping kids in Africa but not caring that much about helping people who are their neighbors in their own city. Am I hearing you right?
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that’s true in some cases, but I don’t think that they are a monolith. I’ve met pastors who cared, and who have joined hands and tried to help and serve, and who were first responders in times of crisis. But by and large, it makes people uncomfortable to look at complicated problems. And the problems in underserved communities are complicated by poor education, poor access to medical care, crime, and the distance in culture. As a whole, I think white evangelicals lost sight of “What would Jesus do?” because they only define Jesus in very narrow terms.
Green: Well, you’re going to have to say a little bit more about that.
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that social issues define the spaces where faith and politics and society intertwine—Roe v. Wade and same-gender-loving people. [White evangelicals] don’t always put the same level of weight on the poor, the disenfranchised, or criminal-justice problems. They don’t see that as important.
Green: Just to be clear, I take it that theologically speaking, you might not disagree with, say, a conservative Southern Baptist pastor on abortion or same-sex marriage. But you’re saying that there’s a difference in emphasis.
Jakes: Yes, there’s a great deal of difference—you’re exactly right. There’s a great deal of difference in emphasis.
To raise the concern for the unborn above the born—to fight for the life in the womb and not in the prison or in the school systems—if life is valuable, then after the mother pushes out the baby, that life should still be that valuable.
Watch: Atlantic staff writer Emma Green in conversation with T.D. Jakes
Green: At least at the margins, President Trump picked up support in 2020 from Latino communities and Black people, especially among men. I wonder if you saw that in your community.
Jakes: You know, I think it’s an oversimplification to think that color dictates the way we think or vote. Black people as a whole tend to be conservative on certain issues.
Still, I was as surprised as the rest of the nation about the inroads he made among Black males.
Green: One of your mentees, Paula White, was one of President Trump’s most prominent faith advisers and supporters. I wonder what you thought of that.
Jakes: Well, I mean, first of all, I wouldn’t describe her as a mentee. She had had years of ministry experience before she met me. During the period when she was working closely with me, President Trump wasn’t an issue. And by the time she had moved into that area, I don’t think that she really considered herself a mentee of mine. We certainly still have an amiable relationship, but our views on politics are certainly different. And she knows that.
Green: Did you all talk about President Trump?
Jakes: I haven’t talked to her in quite a while. I mean, she got pretty busy. And I was pretty busy.
Let me be clear: She knows that our views about politics are very different. But you know, I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree. I think that’s the problem in our country right now: We’ve become tribalistic. Everybody who disagrees with anybody is demonized.
The only real hope we have as a people is to talk to people who are different. And I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying “Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.”
Green: I wonder if you’ve sensed more of an openness among white pastors—who, maybe even a few years ago, would have avoided tough conversations on race—to have those kinds of conversations.
Jakes: Where I’ve tried to focus is on the white pastors who spoke out and tried to say something positive that was misunderstood. And I literally got on the phone with some of them and encouraged them to keep talking. Their immediate reaction was “I got it wrong; I’m not going to broach that subject again. I’m going to stay away from it. I’m just not going to talk about it.” And if we do that, we’ll never get better. We have to keep talking.
Green: Can you tell me who that was, who you called up?
Jakes: I knew you were going to ask me that. I can’t divulge that—I think that would be unethical. But I can say it was several.
The reason I did it is because they were hurt. They were wounded. They didn’t really mean to enrage people who were already enraged. They were trying to fix it, and they didn’t have the language to communicate across the board. When you come up speaking to a congregation where the amens come free and you start speaking to a global audience, there are people who feel just as strongly in the opposite direction.
Green: I think the question of how people react to certain language really matters. I’ve noticed, in these conversations happening in the past year or so about race and the Church, that some very conservative white Christians are willing to say “I believe Black lives matter” but then explicitly distance themselves from Black Lives Matter, the organization, or any kind of political action. Why do you think there’s so much hedging in conversations about race in the Church?
Jakes: I think the peaceful demonstrations that took place about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter were extremely gratifying because I remember the civil-rights movement. You did not see a lot of white people marching with Black people in the streets. This time, you saw, sometimes, more white people marching than Black people. I think we need to pause and underscore how far we’ve come, that we could see crowds of people who chose not to be blind, who do care, who did march and wrote pieces and did things that were positive. That, to me, is the big story.
Mr. Jones and Me: Younger Baby Boomers Swing Left
Were you more into punk than the Beatles? Were you less likely to protest the war than streak? You might be a Generation Joneser.
I think it was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock last summer that finally pushed me over the edge.
All summer long we’d been reliving the ’60s. Again. There were the boomers, reminiscing about Howdy Doody, Vietnam, the Summer of Love.
Watching all of this, I thought, well, damn. I don’t have anything in common with these people at all. Which is awkward, because I too am a baby boomer.
Or so I thought. Because then a friend of mine — born, like me, in 1958 — told me that we’re not boomers. We’re Generation Jones.
It was a term I’d never heard before, although a quick internet search revealed that yes, Generation Jones is an actual thing. It refers to the second half of the baby boom, to a group of people born roughly from 1954 to 1965.
We might be grouped with the baby boomers, but our formative experiences were profoundly different. If the zeitgeist of the boomers was optimism and revolution, the vibe of Gen Jones was cynicism and disappointment. Our formative years came in the wake of the 1973 oil shock, Watergate, the malaise of the Carter years and the Reagan recession of 1982. Above all, we resented the older boomers themselves — who we were convinced had things so much easier, and in whose shadow we’d been forced to spend our entire lives.
The fact that most people have never even heard of Generation Jones is the most Generation Jones thing about Generation Jones.
But if you identify more with punk, funk or disco than, say, Elvis, Buddy Holly or the Beatles, you’re a Joneser.
Is “Leave It to Beaver” kind of a hazy memory, while “The Brady Bunch” is crystal clear? You’re a Joneser.
Were you too young for the draft (which ended in 1973) but too old to have to register for it (starting in 1979)? Was there a time when you cared more about CB radio than Twitter? Did you wear Earth Shoes? Were you less likely to protest the war than to streak? Hello, Mr. Jones.
“Older boomers may have wanted to change the world,” Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in these pages in 2014; “most of my peers just wanted to change the channel.”
The term was coined in 1999 by Jonathan Pontell, a cultural critic, who likes the double meaning of “Jones”: not only the anonymity of it, but also the sense of yearning. And in an interview last week, Mr. Pontell told me he thinks that Generation Jones may play a crucial role in the 2020 election.
Unlike older boomers, members of this generation are reliably conservative, perhaps because the traumas of the 1970s led us to distrust government. But Mr. Pontell thinks that Jonesers are now tipping to the left, for two reasons. First, Mr. Trump’s fumbling response to the Covid-19 crisis has hurt him with Jonesers, who are part of the demographic most at risk from the disease. And then there is Mr. Trump’s cruel mocking of Joe Biden’s senior moments. “There are lots of seniors out there that also have senior moments,” Mr. Pontell says. “They don’t really like the president mocking those one bit.”
Donald Trump (who is, it should be noted, an older boomer) has been a fraud on so many levels, but if there’s anything authentic about him, it’s his air of grievance. It may have been this, Mr. Pontell says, that made Jonesers vote for him in 2016. Hillary Clinton, to them, was the epitome of older baby boomer entitlement, and if Mr. Trump stood for anything, it was for the very things Gen Jones most identifies with: jealousy, resentment, self-pity.
There’s a word in Ireland, “begrudgery.” Padraig O’Morain, writing in The Irish Times, says: “Behind a lot of this begrudgery lies the unexamined and unspoken assumption that there is only so much happiness to go around. And guess what? The others have too much and I have too little.”
I turned to the feminist author Susan Faludi — a fellow Generation Joneser, born in 1959 — for more insight. “I recognize the yearning/resenting description of that cohort,” she told me. “Personally, I’ve always been in the yearning category — a modern-day Miniver Cheevy, ‘born too late’ to be in the thick of the ’60s social justice movements, which I shamelessly romanticized. As a girl, I had, God help me, a suede fringe vest and a hippie doll that came with a sign that said ‘You Turn Me On!’”
But many Jonesers feel bitterness about the 1960s, Ms. Faludi said, not nostalgia: “Researching my book ‘Stiffed,’ I met many angry baby boomer men — laid-off workers, evangelicals, militiamen — who felt they were slipping down the status ladder and blamed civil rights, antiwar, feminist and L.G.B.T. activism for their misery.”
Jonesers expected that as adults, we’d inherit the same wide-open sense of opportunity as our older brothers and sisters. But when those opportunities dried up, we became begrudgers instead — distrusting of government, nervous about change and fearful that creating opportunities for others would mean a diminishment of our own.
And so instead of changing the world, we’ve helped to create this endless mess — a result of the choices we’ve made, and in the voting booth not least.
Damn. The more I think about it, the more I think I don’t relate to Generation Jones either.
But maybe not relating is what Generation Jonesers do best.
“In a way,” Ms. Faludi asked me, “aren’t we all Generation Jonesers now, all still living in the unresolved rain shadow of the ’60s, still fighting the same issues, still shouting the same chants (‘What do we want?…’)?”
Maybe. But I’m hoping that this tumultuous, traumatic spring is finally the time Generation Jones — and the rest of the country, too — embraces the idea of transformational change. It’s been 50 years now. Couldn’t 2020, at long last, be the year we end the 1970s?
We’ll soon find out. Something’s happening here, and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
Trump Fear Stoking Playbook
I think as long as Trump plays to their fears and racial grievances they will stand by him. Play any of his speeches, any at all and if you distill them to their basic messages it would go as follows:
- Trump is the greatest
- Anything bad that happens to him is always someone else’s fault and there is always someone out to get him
- They (white Americans) are the “real” Americans
- “Real” Americans are the real victims of a government and liberal left that wants to punish them for being conservative/ christian/ white
- They (minorities and non white immigrants) are mostly criminals who want to take the America you know and change it forever into something worse
- Only Trump can protect the “real” Americans and keep the “others” at bay
That is basically every Trump speech ever in a nutshell. He knows his target audience well and plays on their grievances and fears constantly. Trump knows he doesn’t need to control the whole Republican base but just enough to play kingmaker in the primaries and he has control of the party.
Why is everyone so concerned about Tucker Carlson and the “Great Replacement” theory of ‘white genocide’ which seems to be taking over the Republican party?
The “Great Replacement” theory is something that has been talked about for a while in Europe and is a big deal there. I know as I have friends and relatives who talk about it and use it as a way to justify limiting immigration. So it is not a nothing thing.
Tucker is leading the charge and expect to see more of the ‘replacement’ theory in the future and most of all for him and $$, he and the Murdochs will get viewers on this one
The changing demographics of the US, Trump’s decisive loss, the diversity of the Democratic party and the stroking of white angst, mean people like Tucker are going to be pounding this more and more in the future.
In Europe the debate is a struggle, some countries are openly against any form of immigration like Hungary and even the UK’s Brexit turn is clearly at least in part to limit immigration.
The Great Replacement or white genocide theory is something you all can look up but basically it is a fear of being out populated by non white, non Christians though you could put in anything in the US other than white evangelicals are not welcome.
In my circle, if you are not Republican for instance you are a baby killer so it can become extreme and this is just the latest in a multi century nativist approach in the US that will be rearing it’s head up again and again.
Ultimately the importance to the US will be to use this to limit immigration which is what it has done in Europe. That I don’t see changing in fact ‘replacement theory’ will gather steam in the US in the next few years and will become one of the next code words for anti anything other than white evangelical Christians.
Welcome America to the next version of culture wars that are gradually engulfing the world. On the opposite side you are going to have ‘American’ values which will be about evolving values which are inclusive and moving towards secularism and away from religion and race and even European culture as a background.
Much will be made of this in the future but now that Tucker has introduced this and Murdoch’s son has provided tacit endorsement, it matters not that it is considered also anti-semitic by the ADL, what matters is Republican voters will gladly embrace this as their next theory to support in the wake of Trump losses which mean even more voter suppression and an increasing reliance on those Trump/McConnell judges and SCOTUS to ‘protect’ them in the future.