The “Quiet Exodus” from White Evangelical Churches

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Pastor Robert Morris, Gateway Church, Dallas. Ilana Panich-Linsman, NYT.

The New York Times has an interesting read today on the “quiet exodus” of African Americans out of predominantly white evangelical churches. It’s an anecdotal piece, but it comes with this dynamite quote from Michael Emerson:

“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”

Anyone who’s interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and race has at least heard of Divided by Faith. It’s a great book. Emerson’s opinion carries real weight. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. It raises some questions.

On what were the movements for reconciliation and integrated churches really based? A movement that can be shattered by an election clearly wasn’t as robust as people thought.

What did leaders of these movements think they were doing?

What did laypeople in the pews think they were doing?

What did white Christians think was happening? What did black Christians think was happening?

How do these nominally integrated churches continue to make white racists feel comfortable?

Are there consistent differences between the sorts of black Christians who join predominantly white churches and those who do not?

How did white evangelicals cover up their past, and how conscious were they about the coverup? The links between the white supremacist Christians of prior generations and the leading pastors of today are not just ideological or theological; they’re tangible and personal!

Just as surely as southern white evangelicals now know that God is colorblind, they knew 60 years ago that he had established the races and did not want them to mix. How exactly did one unchristian folk theology replace the other?

How much of the “reconciliation” movement has been cynical? In the post-civil rights movement era, diversity is a consumable experience. People like a little color in their religion. Even white evangelicals can see that.

White evangelicals’ vote for Trump revealed that the racial reconciliation movement was a) really small, and/or b) not actually anti-racist. I’d say both. The article tells us about how Robert Morris, pastor of a megachurch in Texas, dealt with racism after the 2016 election. It perfectly captures the selfishness and arrogance of the white evangelical mainstream:

As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Pastor Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.

“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”

In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s. Pastor Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.

The response, Pastor Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive,” and indeed the reaction on Facebook suggests as much. Pastor Lewis remembers a black woman weeping in her seat, and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshipers questioning how their church truly felt about racism…

The message was not better received among the black worshipers who had already left the church. It did not, several said, address the enduring structural legacy of racism, instead adhering to the usual evangelical focus on individual prejudice. Most significantly, they said, it gave no sense that Pastor Morris had ever wrestled with his support of Donald Trump.

“I wasn’t wrestling,” Pastor Morris said of his feelings in 2016, going on to explain that he was not wrestling now, either. “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”

There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.

“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”

A few thoughts:

–No real plans. No restitution. No redistribution. No change in power. No theological change. People are somehow “going to get past” the “anger” and “hurt” and that’s all that matters. Once the black people calm down the white people can be comfortable again.

–Yes, it’s personal to your “black pastor friends.” Why isn’t it personal to you? You’ve got all sorts of advantages because you’re white, you’re seeing people around you being dehumanized and you’re a Christian pastor, and somehow it’s “history” to you.

–That sermon put an awful burden on people of color in the congregation. Many no doubt handled it with grace. Some probably enjoyed it. But the method seems burdensome, and misses the point.

–He titled the sermon “A Lack of Understanding,” and now turns around and wants to clarify that he doesn’t regret voting for Trump or encouraging his congregation to vote for Trump. They were merely “electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most.” He condemns himself. I bet Mr. Morris imagines that he has a “pro-life” outlook on things.

–He reveals himself as either a liar or a fool. He says, “I do believe after spending time with [Trump] that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.” In other words, my sermon was about trying to understand how black people feel, but I did not mean that my thinking should change. My opinion is the only one that really matters.

–Then he lays out a politics of church supremacy. The church will somehow solve racism. It’s not the government’s job. (I will respect that position as soon as you hold to it on more than one issue).

I’ve continued to hope against hope that the church will move against racism. It certainly won’t do so under the leadership of people like Pastor Morris. All of this would look different if there was a legitimate debate to be had about Trump’s racism. Since it is a known quantity, those who deny it, like Pastor Morris, are twisting a knife into their fellow Christians. Megachurch pastors don’t get to plead ignorance. People like this should not be in any position of church leadership.

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