What Can We Learn From Three Generations of Black Evangelical Protest Books?

In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.

The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.

The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.

The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).

This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?

Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.

With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:

Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.

To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.

But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.

In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.

Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.

This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.

We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?

White Evangelicals Don’t Know Their Inheritance

Pentecostal leaders, 1911. credit:https://iphc.org/gso/2016/03/10/unity-made-visible/

Though not the largest or most well-known of the Pentecostal denominations, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) is thoroughly in the evangelical mainstream. It is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and is resolutely conservative in its doctrine. The denomination supports an institution of higher education, Emmanuel College, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Among the most important early leaders of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was G.F. Taylor. He was the editor of the denomination’s official organ, The Pentecostal Holiness Advocate. Late in 1918, he added an additional job to his portfolio, accepting the position of superintendent of the new Franklin Springs Institute in Franklin Springs, Georgia, the school that would eventually become Emmanuel College.

In a recent piece celebrating the centennial, the general superintendent of the IPHC described how Taylor’s trust in God brought him to Franklin Springs and established the area as a center of the young IPHC movement. “I know not where I shall go,” Taylor wrote, “neither am I concerned about that part of it; I have such an assurance that I am in the will of God for me, that I know God will provide a place for me.”

Indeed, it appeared that God blessed Taylor’s work. According to a recent article on the denomination’s site, Taylor wanted Franklin Springs to be “a place where people could come for spiritual renewal, biblical training, and a deeper understanding of God’s Word. By 1923, the campus comprised a publishing house and post office and had become a central hub for the Pentecostal Holiness Church.”

Taylor also helped to lead yearly camp meetings, a kind of extended series of revival services then common in many Pentecostal and fundamentalist circles. In the late summer of 1923 Taylor presided over the sixth annual Franklin Springs camp meeting. After the camp meeting was over Taylor picked up his pen to report on what had happened.

The meetings had gone really well, in part because the Lord had blessed them with two tents that year. With more seating capacity than ever before, Taylor estimated that they had as many as 1,500 people in attendance at one time. But what most stood out to Taylor was “the spirit that prevailed” throughout the camp meeting. The workers got along with each other. The “singing was by far the best we have ever had,” and the “preaching was certainly of a high order.” Taylor felt that “the power of the Spirit” was evident in the sermons.

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, “dozens and scores of people” responded to the altar calls. “Some were saved, some sanctified, some filled with the Spirit, and some healed.” The Lord did a mighty work. Taylor only wished that more people had responded, lamenting that “great multitudes stood back from the altar.” Nonetheless, Taylor trusted that the “seed sown” in hearts would “bring forth fruit” in due time.

One night of the camp meeting, they raised an offering for Taylor’s school. They were blessed by “representatives from the Ku Klux Klan” who “came forward in their robes and presented an offering of $50.00” and a letter that was read aloud to the camp meeting.

Taylor explained that he was not a member of the Klan, and indeed could not be because he did not believe in secret societies. But “So far as I know,” he explained, “The Klan’s one great purpose is to prevent the Catholic Church from taking control of our government, and in this they certainly have my prayers and best wishes.”

In any case, he went on, “I highly appreciate the offering they gave us, and the expression of sympathy and cooperation in the letter written us.” Because the letter seemed to have generated considerable enthusiasm and interest, Taylor decided to print it in its entirety. After all, he said, “We do not believe in secret orders, but I see no objections to the other principles expressed in the letter below.” Here is that letter:

Praise the Lord for his wondrous work!

“They’re People Just Like Us”

In 1993, Christianity Today reported that a wealthy all-white suburban Atlanta church was committing half a million dollars and 600 volunteers to help “revitalize the low-income African American neighborhood” of Summerville. As part of the effort, one Sunday morning a busload of wealthy white suburbanites attended an African American church service.

“When the service is dismissed,” CT reported, “a question hangs over everyone: Will people connect over cookies and coffee in Fellowship Hall?” (Yes, it’s ok to laugh at how CT frames this drama; it’s funny!) As the bus headed back to the suburbs, there was unanimous agreement among its occupants that a connection had indeed been made (how the ordinary members of the black church felt about it is left to our imagination). Here’s how one of the white visitors put it:

I was surprised at how much we had in common. They’re people just like us. They seem to have the same concerns we do, such as wanting their kids to be the best they can be or wanting to learn more about God.

Your mileage may vary, but I found this passage chilling. A white person took a field trip to a black church and discovered that African Americans are ordinary people. This persistent and recurring need for white people (it’s not just evangelicals) to learn, discover, and state the obvious is one of the most chilling evidences of how white supremacy distorts the imagination and places an experiential and moral gulf between human beings.

It reminds me, of all things, of Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking 1941 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma. I hope I’m being fair to Myrdal, but basically he believed white and black Americans inhabited the same ideological world, sharing a belief in what he called “The American Creed.” He thought if white Americans better understood how African Americans were really treated, and how that treatment violated the creed of equality and opportunity for all, they would favor “a better deal” for black Americans.

The black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier found much to like in Myrdal’s work, but he doubted whether “the problem is on the conscience of white people to the extent” Myrdal implied. Had not history shown that white Americans were content with the status quo as long as black discontent did not spill into the open? While Myrdal imagined an American Creed that everyone shared, Frazier was more pessimistic: “for many whites the Negro lives in an entirely different social world or is not a part of the same moral order.”

Frazier’s insight is a profound one. It still stands. White Americans live with the devastating consequences of racial discrimination by imagining that it happens to people who are in some fundamental way different from ourselves. Discarding this lie can disrupt our whole lives. When we see others as human and as part of our moral order, our view of ourselves and our country changes. Many of us are not willing to take that risk.

Previewing My Summer of Learning about Early Christianity

On a bit of a whim I’m hoping to delve into the history of early Christianity this summer. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in learning about my faith beyond the fundamentalist roots in which I grew up. In the old days, learning about social contexts, historical developments, and critical scholarship on the Bible would have been scary. In more recent times it’s not only fascinating to me, it’s devotional. God is unlikely to be particularly impressed by my knowledge, nor shaken by my doubts. So it’s fun to learn more.

The following list reflects what happened to be on Temple’s shelves on the last day before Paley Library’s permanent closing. So this is not a recommended way to build a reading list. But I’m going to start with this:

It’s pitched as an accessible book for students and laypeople, which is probably exactly what I need to orient myself to the historical context and the field.

This one looks like a fun follow-up:

I’m also kind of excited about this comparative collection surveying the rise of Christianity and Buddhism, respectively:

I imagine these two books will speak to each other:

And then there’s kind of a grab bag of random stuff:

Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity
Image result for The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity
Being Christian in Vandal Africa by Robin Whelan

If all goes well, I’ll know a lot more about Christianity by the end of the summer! And I figure previewing my study marginally raises the chances that I’ll actually follow through.

Historians: prophetic preachers of an American civil religion?

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That phrase comes from Rachel Wheeler’s piece in the latest issue of Perspectives. Wheeler writes:

The ideological and religious right have been phenomenally successful in laying claim to the myths and symbols of America, distorting them to the point of caricature. Historical scholarship now draws vicious fire from pundits on the right who see campuses as hotbeds of anti-American, liberal orthodoxy, even as it has achieved wide dissemination among the cultural left. But, informed by historians’ efforts at deconstructing American myths, some quarters of the left veer into a dystopian iconoclasm. This first crystalized for me as I followed reactions to the immigrant family separation crisis on social media last summer. Proclamations of “This is not who we are” from one quarter of the left were quickly met with reminders of slavery, Indian boarding schools, Japanese concentration camps: “This is exactly who we’ve always been!”

Here is the problem: meeting MAGA fundamentalism with dystopian iconoclasm only affirms the central claim of today’s right wing: that America’s soul is white and Christian, disagreeing only over whether that is cause for celebration or lament. Yet iconoclasts rarely persuade the iconophiles. Pathologists do not cure cancer, and prosecuting attorneys do not rehabilitate the criminal. It is not their job. Which brings me back to the question, in the context of American civic life: What are we history professors for?

This is a real problem. Imagine if leftist-historian twitter had existed when Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. When King dared to write,

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

There would have been a bunch of us screaming from the sidelines, “Don’t you know the founding fathers were scared of democracy? Don’t you know the Declaration of Independence was hypocritical propaganda? Don’t you know Judeo-Christian is problematic?” Seriously though, it’s precisely because of stuff like this that some of the historiography downplays King as patriot and Christian in preference of King as radical. (Of course, he could be all three, and more).

Much like Jill Lepore at the OAH meeting last month, Wheeler believes we must take it upon ourselves to supply national myths for a public that is hungry for them. And so she asks:

What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.

To that I say…yikes! Can I stand in the mushy middle and say Wheeler has identified a significant problem but I’m not sure I like her solution?

Wheeler thinks the way forward is to see the oppressed and persecuted in the American story as essentially and fully American. They are not victims at the hands of “real America” (i.e., white supremacy or some such). They are constitutive of the nation. This is fine as far as it goes, but it seems like it’d be hard to find a historian working today who disagrees with it. In any case, it’s not clear to me that national histories, whatever their frame, can ever adequately get us out of this myopic trap where students move between the poles of America is awesome! andAmerica is awful!

One way out of that trap is to use transnational and global history. The wider our lens, the harder it becomes to sustain a sense that the United States is uniquely good or bad. I don’t know; maybe Wheeler thinks this is part of the problem. But I think it has to be part of the solution.

In all kinds of ways, these broader frames upset those who seek to cast the United States as an angel or devil. For example, the immigration story on which so much of American identity is built looks considerably less special when one realizes how many millions of people were moving to other places at the same time. On the other hand, American capital’s oppressions in the twentieth century look considerably less villainous when one realizes that other societies were murdering millions of their citizens in the name of class liberation.

Though I’m somewhat skeptical of Wheeler’s approach, thinking through the issues she (and Lepore) are raising can help historians to realize how thoroughly ideological our deconstructing work already is. My impression is that many of us approach our country’s history with the disillusionment of an adult who’s lost their childhood faith. We can’t get it back, and we don’t even want to at this point, but we sure as hell are angry about it.

Such an attitude shows how little we’ve learned from our own lessons. If in our classrooms students learn that the United States has not been the moral exemplar to the world they may have imagined, we ourselves ought to have learned by now that it has been a place of hope, opportunity, and inspiration for many. If such a diversity of stories make us uncomfortable, then we really are just angry deconstructionists with nothing to offer the public.

A 9-Year-Old’s Poem

This is a poem my 9-year-old son wrote this afternoon. Seriously, he wrote it really fast:

The fire burned

They were too late

We never knew it would

cross the river

People fled

but one stood up

Raised everybody’s spirits

as we rose

we scratched the sky

But two stood out

You could barely tell the

difference of height

The great city of Chicago

LGBT Rights and the Future of Evangelicalism

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Behold the President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse:

Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women. 2/3— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 24, 2019

I am not going to spend a lot of energy on Franklin Graham’s hypocrisy. It’s exhausting already. Most of us who are not in his bubble find it hard to credit that he cares a great deal about what the Bible says. Trump supporters should not expect their moral claims to be taken seriously in any case. But I do have other questions:

How do Graham’s anti-gay views position him in the evolving world of evangelicalism? Is he the old guard that’s passing away? Does he represent a committed minority that is not going to change any time soon?

There has been a lot of talk about generational change in evangelicalism, but “evangelicals are becoming more liberal and diverse and concerned about a broader range of moral issues” is the kind of evergreen story that seems to be written every year, and every year the consummation of this shift remains just beyond the horizon. I expect men (yes, men in particular) like Graham to continue to have a large platform for decades to come.

But my best guess is that they’ll speak for a smaller constituency. An anti-gay evangelicalism will necessarily be a marginalized community in many ways. But even if the evangelical mainstream was to become thoroughly pro-LGBT tomorrow, it’s not clear it would arrest the decline of the movement. The numbers for self-identified evangelicals by age cohort are brutal (as they are for mainline churches as well). American Christians are old, and getting older.

There’s no question that white evangelicals are becoming more accepting of LGBT rights. A solid majority now favors legal protections for LGBT people, a remarkable turnaround from the days when most evangelicals spoke openly about wanting to punish LGBT people for their “lifestyle.”

And younger white evangelicals are indeed leading the way: “A substantial majority (63%) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections, compared to less than half (45%) of white evangelical Protestant seniors (ages 65 and older).”

But this polling doesn’t actually tell us that many white evangelicals would disagree with Graham. They might not want gay people kicked out of their apartments, and they might think “homosexuality is not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Indeed, most white evangelicals continue to oppose gay marriage: “About one-third (34%) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today, while six in ten (60%) are opposed, including 30% who are strongly opposed. There are notable generational gaps among white evangelical Protestants: four in ten (40%) of those under age 50 favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27% of those ages 50 and over.”

There is clearly some measure of generational change, but none of these questions cut to the core claim Graham is trying to make: in his view, homosexuality is sinful. On that point, most white evangelicals of all ages agree with him.

As Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote:

Some evangelicals believe there’s a difference between supporting gay marriage as a public policy matter and gay marriage as sanctioned by churches. A large majority of white evangelicals (including younger generations) continue to see homosexual relations as morally wrong, according to the General Social Survey.

The 2016 survey found 75 percent of white evangelicals saying homosexual sexual relations are always or nearly always wrong. That number is down from 82 percent in 1996 and 90 percent in 1987. The survey does not show a large generational gap, however. In 2014-2016 surveys, 70 percent of Generation X/millennial white evangelicals said same-sex sexual relations are nearly always or always wrong, compared to 81 percent of baby boomers/older generations.

The future of evangelicalism could be pro-LGBT, but it seems at least as likely that pro-LGBT Christians will simply stop identifying as evangelical. White evangelicalism will be a smaller, older movement, and its historic grievances and blind spots will persist. For Franklin Graham, hatred and all manner of cruelty can be excused in service of larger political goals. But a man loving a man–well, that’s just too much. We have to draw a line somewhere!

Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

Tom Skinner Was Not The Evangelical Radical You’re Looking For

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The black evangelist Tom Skinner has often been portrayed as a kind of radical figure who challenged white evangelicals to confront racism. His speech at the 1970 Urbana Conference is particularly famous (that is, famous in the small world of black evangelical history).

It seems to me this reputation glosses over significant changes over time and evolution in Skinner’s thought. When he burst on the scene in 1966, he was a more complicated figure than the radical image implies. His views in 1970 should not be retroactively applied to the 1966-1968 period. Here’s an excerpt from an in-progress draft of a dissertation chapter:

Skinner represented a new kind of bridge figure between white evangelicalism and African Americans. It had long been the case, as Bob Harrison complained, that black Christians were encouraged to minister among their own people and steer clear of challenging white entitlement to spiritual authority. But white evangelicals did not imagine Skinner’s evangelistic crusades through the traditional parameters of segregated ministries. In fact, when Skinner came to town for a crusade, local white evangelical college students were encouraged to help out. Simply by supporting Skinner they were doing something meaningful about the nation’s racial troubles. He was less an outcast from white evangelicalism, as Harrison had sometimes felt himself to be in the 40s and 50s, and more an ambassador. Said Christianity Today, “Skinner has created a great deal of interest among evangelicals who worry vaguely that they might be missing the boat.”[1] In this project Skinner’s blackness was crucial and revealing of the ways the civil rights movement had upset racial norms in evangelicalism. Bob Harrison’s blackness had made him an outsider. Skinner’s blackness enabled him to act as a liminal figure, a provisional insider in two religio-racial communities at once. By the summer of 1967, Christianity Today was telling its readers that Skinner deserved their “fullest support.”[2]

Skinner was not afraid to make white evangelicals uncomfortable. They were “almost totally irresponsible” in their avoidance of their black brethren, and it was only the pressures of the civil rights movement that had belatedly stirred them from their complacency. He blasted white evangelicals who piously intoned that “Jesus was the answer” while refusing to get involved in the problem. Skinner believed Jesus was the answer too. But he had skin in the game, and he expected other evangelicals to join him. Yet it was precisely this supplicatory undertone that made Skinner’s criticisms manageable. For all the discomfort his words could cause, he did not doubt that white evangelicals had the correct theology on the point that mattered most, and he asked them to help him bring their theology to the ghetto. Christianity Today approvingly noted that Skinner “plays down social insurgence in his sermons because he feels that reform may take ‘sixty years’ but that regeneration through Christ can help now.”[3] To put it baldly, converted Negroes were not rioting Negroes.

Remarkably, Skinner’s criticisms of white evangelicals were tame compared to his open contempt for the black church. He described most black churches as bastions of excessive emotionalism and spiritual immaturity, led by ministers given over to sexual immorality and hypocrisy.[4] As a result, he claimed, “There is hardly any Christian witness in the ghetto.”[5] There’s little reason to suppose Skinner’s hostility toward the black church was anything but sincere, but it also proved useful. It flattered white evangelical assumptions of religio-racial superiority….

I’m still working out where I’m going with this.


[1] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[2] “Summer of Racial Discontent,” Christianity Today, July 21, 1967, 27

[3] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[4] Skinner, Black and Free, 45-53.

[5] Skinner, Black and Free, 32.