On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”
This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.
In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.
Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.
It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.
Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.
I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.
On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?