The Pervasive Racism of White Evangelicalism

jesus of the people

Jesus Christ. White evangelicals should meet him.

After the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal yesterday to denounce white nationalism and the alt-right caused a firestorm, a revised resolution is to be submitted today. Emma Green reports this morning that some SBC leaders are claiming the events of yesterday were really just a “procedural snafu.” This claim seems hard to square with the fact that the resolution didn’t even make it out of committee. The Resolutions Committee had the text in hand in advance. They considered it. They rejected it. I wasn’t there so maybe I’m missing something.

This is a developing story and what exactly happened will probably become clearer in the days ahead. But you can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. The damage has been done. Many fair-minded observers will see the first vote in the Resolutions Committee as a reflection of what many white Southern Baptists really think, and the second vote today as a gesture of political expediency to avoid bad press. Some might think that interpretation ungenerous, but it’s certainly not unreasonable.

Words and symbolism are not fitting substitutes for action, and in the grand scheme of things passing this resolution won’t have large material consequences. But not passing it communicates an astonishing message. White Christians were unwilling to denounce the very negation of the God they claim to worship. They communicated their priorities with unyielding clarity. Now, they will ask us to believe that Christianity is more important to them than nationalism or whiteness, even though their actions tell us the opposite.

I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what language in the resolution bothered the convention, but it can be surmised. It seems likely that the resolution’s broad language hit too close to home for Southern Baptists who had already embraced the racist candidacy of Donald Trump, and in doing so allied themselves with the small but vocal white supremacist movement. So the failure of the resolution points back to a bigger problem: the ongoing en masse refusal of white evangelicals to give account for their decision to aid and abet racism in the last election. That’s the vote they chose, and we don’t need to re-litigate it. But they owe it to their brothers and sisters of color to explain how they’re working now to take responsibility and stand against the racism of the political coalition they joined.

The Southern Baptist Convention famously apologized—in 1995—for its support for slavery. The juxtaposition of that apology and yesterday’s cowardice is fitting. I know so many white Christians who are more than happy to denounce slavery and Jim Crow. They’re happy, in other words, to denounce forms of white supremacy that are no longer operative. But when you need allies in the fight against racism as it actually exists today they’re nowhere to be found. Ask them about police brutality, exclusionary zoning, segregated schools, white nationalism, Donald Trump. Suddenly they sing a different tune: “Wait a minute, I’m invested in those things!”

Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon. That message speaks to white Americans in the form of a choice most of us have yet to honestly face: Jesus declares that we can invest in whiteness or follow him. We cannot do both. If you’re unwilling to denounce racism in its current forms—you know, the kind that actually helps you and enables your standard of living—stop calling yourself a Christian. Stop it.

This is a good moment to return to something I wrote a couple weeks ago:

I happened to be visiting at a white evangelical church on the Sunday after the riots in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. To his credit, the pastor asked his congregation to try to understand the pain of black Americans and to pray for peace. Unfortunately, his prayer did not name any of the injustices that make peace impossible. The pastor asked his congregation to listen to black Christians, but he did not call on them to do their part to remove the injustice. So while asking for understanding and sympathy, the pastor allowed his white congregation to imagine themselves as mature Christians patiently dealing with the apparently inexplicable emotions of weak black Christians.

It gets worse. The pastor’s prayer was resolutely vague about why all this conflict might have been happening. I don’t recall any mention of the justice system, police brutality, or economic oppression. While avoiding phrases like that, the pastor did manage to name one specific problem. He prayed against the problem of “black crime.” I wish I had a transcript of the prayer. I don’t recall all the details. But that phrase—“black crime”—amid a vague prayer that did not name white racism, is seared into my memory.

People no doubt left the church that day thinking they were enlightened and compassionate. A few mentioned to me how nice the prayer was, thinking I would be happy that such a prayer had been offered in a white evangelical church. On the contrary, I was struck by the yawning chasm between the pastor’s good intentions and the action that moment actually required. A bunch of white Christians—people who benefit from America’s racist society—had gathered to worship God in a moment of racial crisis and had not been moved out of their comfort zone at all. Indeed, their supposed spiritual maturity had been affirmed.

It’s hard to describe how racism is transmitted in white evangelical churches, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. This is the point where people interject and say I’m being unfair and that it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated! Racism takes all kinds of things in its maw; it is, as George Frederickson memorably put it, a scavenger ideology. What does this scavenger quality look like in white evangelical churches? It often looks like narratives of Christian nationalism.

For many white evangelicals, a story of national decline—from Christian foundations to secular liberal disintegration—is the basic framework through which they interpret events. It’s axiomatic. For this story to have any coherence, the totality of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ experiences must be written out of it. Some of the history curriculums popular among Christian homeschoolers and private Christian schools do exactly that.

If the experiences of people of color are true, this country isn’t what many white evangelicals thought it was. For many of us, that is too shattering to contemplate. So telling white evangelicals to stop being racist kind of misses the point. To actually see and believe the experiences of people of color involves a radical rupturing of their view of reality. C’mon, do you want your grip on reality shaken?

In ordinary white evangelical church services, there are more subtle clues. A prayer might be offered in thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy in this country. The subtext of many of these prayers is that these freedoms are a blessing from God that can be taken away if the nation doesn’t turn back to him. Not only do such prayers echo the Christian nation declension narrative, they don’t speak to the experiences of people who are oppressed in this country right now. Thankfulness is of course a good thing. But prayers of thanks for what we have—combined with a note of worry for what might be taken away—are often the satisfied prayers of the comfortable. While we’re over here worrying about losing our rights, other Americans are trying to get them in the first place.

The mixing of God and country takes place against a backdrop of material entitlement and individual self-absorption. Anecdotally, I can attest that white evangelicals routinely speak about the hard material realities of life—homes, schools, jobs—with the anti-Christian rhetoric of the general American public. Safety first, family first, comfort first. Take specific concrete actions in your own life against the American Dream and watch white evangelicals be the first to criticize you. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

To wrap this up, let’s return to the Trump phenomenon. When Trump says Make America Great Again many white evangelicals hear a religious message. And it’s so enthralling that they are often unable to see that outside their bubble their support for him appears hateful. Much of white evangelicalism has become a religion of incumbency. We have and we hoard and we lament what we’ve lost and we fear what we might yet lose. We so easily identify with the powers of this age—the police, the military, the American Empire—over the oppressed people to whom God has given the gift of faith. We’re a religious movement that loves Donald Trump and hates Black Lives Matter. Despite all the good white evangelicals do in their local communities, as a collective political force white evangelicalism is hateful and oppressive.

I don’t stand outside this religious movement. I am implicated in it, a contributor to it. I must account for all the ways in which I promote racism and injustice in my actions and inaction, including my political behavior. I continue to hope that white evangelicals will repent broadly and deeply. I hope we will realize that the principles we claim to believe apply to racism just as well as to any other human problem.

The truth is not to be feared; it sets free. Those who hide their sins do not prosper, but the repentant find mercy. In other words, Jesus is powerful enough and good enough to save even white evangelicals like me.

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