During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.
The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:
1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists
2. Calm tensions
3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”
To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.
This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.
But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.
And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.
It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.
But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.
Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.
We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.
It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.
* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.