(RNS) — This past Sunday, Kanye West appeared in front of perhaps his biggest church audience yet: Lakewood Church of Houston, pastored by Joel Osteen. West wore a blazer and crew neck sweater — a more conservative outfit than his typical fashion-forward attire. Answering a series of questions that felt more suited for a midday Christian talk show, West revealed a tidbit that goes a long way toward explaining why Kanye is Kanye.
“We actually grew with a church,” West said. “It was a pastor named Johnnie Colemon.”
With those words, Kanye’s interest in political commentary and his current spiritual trajectory suddenly became clear. The Rev. Johnnie Colemon, an African American female pastor, grew Christ Universal Temple, a megachurch on the South Side of Chicago, with her famed “Abundance Campaign.”
While Colemon’s theology often gets lumped into the classic leagues of prosperity gospellers, it belongs more properly within New Thought. This is a theology, which grew out of the 19th century American metaphysical movement, that encourages material wealth as a sign of God’s blessings and a focus on positive thinking — the notion that one’s mental state can manifest into daily living. In 1974, Colemon founded the Universal Foundation for Better Living, branching away from the core of New Thought because of blatant racism.
If Kanye’s understanding of God and Jesus are understood through the lens of African American New Thought, I would argue that his egotism, ostentation and even the tangents into seeming megalomania — onstage with Osteen, Kanye declared himself “the greatest artist God ever created” — have a historical and theological context.
If Colemon’s brand of New Thought is truly the foundation of Kanye’s beliefs, it makes sense that he sees his fame and fortune as positive manifestations of God’s blessings in his life. It makes sense that he would associate himself with Osteen, a preacher of prosperity gospel. And it explains why he associates himself with President Donald Trump.
In Trump, Kanye may see a person who, with no previous political or military experience, spoke his presidency into existence, much the way West spoke his spiritual community — the Sunday Services — into being.
The danger with such a theology is that it ignores the malicious market forces that serve to encourage poverty, white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia and trenchant immigration policies at the Southern border. If this theology were true, we should tell the children who have been separated from families and placed in cages to simply think more positively about their situation in order to be reunited with their parents.
But no amount of positive thinking can save prosperity gospel’s uncritical devotion to Western capitalism, and therein lies the rub.
Up until now, most of the discussion around West, the Sunday Service choir and his most recent album, “Jesus Is King,” has been a flat discussion about generic Christian beliefs, told mostly through the gaze of white evangelicals. The way Kanye spouts his own theology and the way it gets reinterpreted in social media posts and through media reporting offer a Pollyanna Christianity.
Such a sanitized Christianity, to quote Cornel West, “is just like everything else in America: highly packaged, regulated, distributed, circulated and consumed.”
That Kanye is a black man from the South Side of Chicago, influenced by an African American woman who split from a predominantly white denomination to start her own, isn’t a trivial piece of information. Rather, it's the fulcrum on which everything is balanced. Kanye should not be a racial prop for white evangelicals who ignore their own racial biases because he raps about Jesus. His complex story has an origin, and it isn’t the white evangelical church.
My hope is that the collective American conscience does not idolize Kanye’s self-professed conversion to the point of whitewashing his narrative. Although, at this point, such hope may already be an exercise in futility.
(The Rev. Joshua Lawrence Lazard is the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement at Duke Chapel at Duke University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)