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?
2 thoughts on “White Evangelicals’ Faulty Theology of the City”
I wish I had some insight about the origins of those negative connotations! When I was prepping for my Christianity in America class, someone recommended Diane Winston’s Red-Hot and Righteous: the Urban Religion of the Salvation Army about that denomination’s arrival in NYC. I didn’t end up using it, so I can’t speak to whether or not it would help here, but that’s what came to mind. I’m guessing the modern connotations go back to this period, but I’m wondering if, in some way, you could take it back to the late colonial period or early republic: evangelicals going to the countryside or frontier for camp meetings because the established churches in the big towns and cities wouldn’t let the revivalists speak?
In more contemporary life, my wife recently heard this “fallen city” narrative recently from a women who had just left a highly-evangelical area for Seattle because she and her husband ‘wanted to be among the lost who need witnessing.’
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This is really fascinating. Thanks for the tip! I hadn’t thought of the great awakening angle. I’m not sure if there is something to that or not, but it does sound plausible, at a glance.