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Author: Jesse Curtis
The Bad History in Randall Balmer’s “Bad Faith”
On June 24, 2022 the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and white evangelicals swooned. The Christian Right, founded nearly half a century ago in a groundswell of zeal to protect the unborn, at long last had achieved its ultimate aim. After all, wasn’t this the whole reason the Christian Right emerged in the first place?
Not so fast, says the historian Randall Balmer. In reality, Balmer says, when the court handed down its sweeping Roe decision in 1973 white evangelicals shrugged. They considered abortion a Catholic concern. Balmer argues the real root of the Christian Right was not Roe, but a rather more obscure court case: Green vs Connally, a 1971 district court ruling that declared segregated schools were not entitled to tax exemption. When the IRS later moved to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, white evangelical elites reacted with alarm. To prove it, Balmer has Christian Right leaders on the record boasting that the tax exemption case was the foundation of their organizing. What Balmer calls the “abortion myth” came later to hide the disturbing truth: the pro-life movement was never really about protecting life; it was about protecting racism.
Balmer’s argument has probably become the most popular academic account of the origins of the Christian Right. He has been telling this story for many years, but the real breakthrough to public awareness came with a widely shared 2014 Politico op-ed. I heard him deliver the same argument in person at a small conference in 2017. Recently, I was surprised to hear my own relatives repeating Balmer’s claims. Now, in Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, Balmer has given his story its most comprehensive treatment yet.
The book is compelling in its simplicity and explanatory power. Alas, it’s so simple that it crumbles upon inspection. Credulously taking self-interested political elites at their word, Balmer’s popular story portrays a world of backroom cunning and strategic masterstrokes that awakened the sleeping giant of the evangelical masses. Yet it fails to adequately explain why the tax exemption case never served as a locus for mass organizing in the way that abortion so obviously and so successfully did. It fails to explain why the 1978 midterm elections demonstrated the electoral dynamite of abortion politics at the grassroots before evangelical elites caught up with the gathering wave. It fails to mention that Bob Jones University was an extreme outlier in evangelical higher education. The vast majority of evangelical colleges had already integrated in the 1960s and were happily in compliance with new federal rules. Indeed, part of the identity of these more mainstream evangelical institutions was precisely that they weren’t like the extremist and fundamentalist Bob Jones.
Balmer’s popular story also glosses over early and obvious signs of white evangelical pushback against Roe. Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of white evangelicalism, immediately blasted Roe as a decision “for paganism, and against Christianity,” and speculated that the court’s reasoning could enable “mass extermination of undesirables.” The editors darkly warned that the court’s turn against “the laws of God” might herald a day when the American state would persecute evangelical Christians. The same issue hinted that the court’s decision could lead conservative Catholics and Protestants to overcome their historic divisions in order to “fight abortion.” This is hardly the shrug of Randall Balmer’s imagination.
And so, while challenging the Christian Right’s founding myths, Balmer’s popular story introduces a new myth of its own. Call it the myth of pro-life insincerity: this myth tells us that one of the most successful activist movements in modern American history is somehow not about what it appears to be about, is really little more than a cover for elite-driven racist reaction. (In an aside toward the end of the book, Balmer alleges that he does not doubt the sincerity of pro-life activists. In response I’ll just note once again that the book is called Bad Faith). This enormous condescension serves no useful purpose. It does not help historians understand the complexity of the past or present. It does not help citizens engage in good faith dialogue or find common ground. It does not even help advocates for reproductive rights, who, after all, would do well to take the true measure of their opponents and understand the forces arrayed against them.
In reality, far from being a nefarious or simple racial reaction, the rise of the Christian Right was overdetermined: a collective outpouring of opposition to dozens of profound changes in American life, from the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s to the growing push to secularize public space. For opponents and supporters alike, abortion became entangled with broader questions of family, gender, and sexuality. On these questions, many Americans believed Democrats had become hopelessly out of touch. As the cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote, “Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression, denunciation of the ‘patriarchy’” and on and on. However unfair Lasch’s caricature was, it accurately captured conservative perceptions of a disintegrating moral order. By the 1980s, it was utterly mainstream to assume that morals had declined, that families used to be stronger, that America was in danger of losing a defining Christian character. Politicians who dared to ignore this groundswell did so at their peril.
I am not making a new claim here. Historians such as Robert O. Self and Daniel K. Williams have given us complex narratives that amply demonstrate the multi-causal rise of the Christian Right. That it took some years after the earthquakes of the 60s and 70s for this revolt to gain partisan organization is hardly surprising. Putting this all down to race is the kind of just-so causation story that freshman undergraduates in my history classes are taught to avoid. The simple story flatters the prejudices of those of us who want to believe the worst of the Christian Right. But the past is more complex than that, and the best historical scholarship has already given us better stories.
Balmer’s myth remains important, however, because it is representative of the deeper myths we tend to believe about evangelicalism. Imagine, if you will, a history of the civil rights movement that ignored the black church. Imagine a history of gay rights that ignored gay culture. Imagine a history of the feminist movement that acted as if white feminists were the only voices in the room. Scholars who tell narrow, top-down, elite-driven stories of these movements are unlikely to be taken seriously. But precisely these kinds of stories continue to drive the discussion around evangelicalism. Popular discourse about evangelicalism exhibits an astonishing indifference to the religious and social bases of evangelical identity. Furthermore, despite thick continuities through over two centuries of American evangelicalism, the myth persists that politically mobilized white evangelicalism is a strange new product of the 1970s. Despite the centrality of evangelicalism to American culture, the myth persists that to speak of white evangelicals is, by definition, to speak of political reactionaries. Outside the specialist subfield of the history of evangelicalism—where great work is being done!—simplistic political stories reign supreme as the only stories worth knowing about evangelicals.
So it is no coincidence that centering the Bob Jones tax case as the supposed origin of the Christian Right makes white evangelicals look like quaint and easily manipulated reactionaries. This is the main reason people want to believe the story! Pundits have been insisting that white evangelicals must occupy this reactionary role ever since the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s. Unhappily for the apostles of American secularization, white evangelicals keep refusing to play the part assigned to them. Instead of being hapless yokels unable to cope with modern life, the fundamentalists and their white evangelical descendants have consistently proven to be among the most nimble, adept, and pragmatic activists on the American scene. This ought not be surprising. After all, evangelical Protestants were in many ways the establishment in the 19th century, and they have never forgotten that fact. Indeed, they have been trying to take America back for God and reassume their rightful place ever since the Protestant consensus in American life began to splinter over a century ago.
As the historian Matthew Avery Sutton has demonstrated, the idea that white evangelicals ever retreated from the public square is a myth. No sooner had mass consumer culture emerged than white evangelicals were some of its most eager users, employing spectacle, celebrity, sports, radio, and television to advance the gospel and grow their movement. In the decades after the Scopes Trial, while pundits imagined that fundamentalist religion had been consigned to its rightful marginal place, in fact white evangelicals were engaged in a flurry of institution-building, from colleges and missionary societies to evangelistic organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade to umbrella advocacy groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. From the fusion of evangelical revivalism and cold war politics in the 1950s to the unmooring of social consensus in the 1960s, white evangelicals remained at the center of American life, seeking through private activism and public policy to save souls and restore a Christian nation.
Race and Evangelicalism: A More Complex Story*
So to understand our current moment, we need to tell more complex stories about this evangelical past. Race does matter a great deal to this history, but in a far more interesting and peculiarly evangelical way than the simple story allows. There’s no question that the civil rights movement disrupted and challenged evangelicalism, as it did all of American society. But here, again, the nimbleness and pragmatism of evangelicalism quickly became apparent. During the civil rights era, black evangelicals became much more prominent in the evangelical world. They tried to break through the exclusionary borders of white evangelicalism, and they used the words of scripture as their calling card. After all, didn’t the Bible say that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free? The black evangelist Howard Jones declared, “The church must demonstrate the truth that as Christians we are one in Christ, regardless of race and nationality, and that all racial barriers lie shattered at the foot of his cross.”
In the context of the overt structures of Jim Crow segregation, black evangelicals’ calls for colorblind inclusion became powerful and effective challenges to the evangelical status quo. In response, white evangelicals gradually discarded theologies of white supremacy and embraced a kind of Christian colorblindness: all our equal and united in Christ and we should focus on our identity in Christ, not race. The gospel was colorblind. This theology emerged not as a partisan political maneuver, but as the result of a nationwide reckoning among evangelicals as they sought to grow their movement and make it appealing to the American mainstream in a rapidly changing racial landscape. To show this spiritual equality in practice, white evangelical institutions became more inclusive. Billy Graham hired Jones as the first black evangelist for his team. White evangelical colleges proactively recruited black students. Churches that had been proudly segregated for decades now threw open their doors. These were big and important changes.
Howard Jones, for one, thought that the new colorblind gospel was a mortal threat to the discrimination he had experienced in white evangelical spaces. But by the late 1960s, a far more ambiguous reality was coming into view. The idea of unity in Christ could be used to press for inclusion, but white evangelicals quickly discovered it was also a potent tool to avoid racial discussion and reform in a new era of official equality. All too often, black and white evangelicals who dared to demand change found the colorblind gospel thrown back at them: if we’re one Christ, why are you talking about these divisive racial things? In the ensuing decades, evangelicals would deploy theologies of racial colorblindness to elevate black voices and to silence them, to press for change and to hold the line, to break down barriers and to rebuild them.
In the face of this complexity, the popular story centered around Bob Jones University imagines reactionaries pining for the good old days of Jim Crow. That gets it exactly backward: it was precisely the declining need to defend a regional system of segregation that enabled evangelicals to unite across historic regional divides and experience explosive growth in their movement. In the decades after the civil rights movement white evangelical churches grew by leaps and bounds. Southern Baptists added over two million people to their member rolls between 1970 and 1985. The Assemblies of God and the Evangelical Free Church tripled their numbers. While overtly racist fundamentalist churches became increasingly marginalized and liberal Protestant denominations declined, white evangelical denominations embraced an ambiguous colorblind gospel that was exceptionally well-tuned to appeal to America’s burgeoning suburbs. Far from being simple reactionaries, white evangelicals became creative religio-racial entrepreneurs who successfully positioned themselves in the mainstream of America in an age of colorblindness.
Undergirding these ostensibly colorblind congregations was a church growth industry that deliberately invested in whiteness in order to spread the gospel. Drawing on missionary theory developed in caste-conscious India in the 1930s, evangelical church growth experts taught that people like to worship with people like themselves. Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement, wrote in 1955 that “It does no good to say that tribal people ought not to have race prejudice. They do have it and are proud of it. It can be understood and should be made an aide to Christianization.” McGavran had in mind an attack on paternalistic western missionary strategies that disrupted indigenous social bonds in the Global South. He did not want people to feel that becoming a Christian meant becoming a western individualist. In places like India, this meant that the invitation to become Christian should not compel people to relinquish their caste identities. Rather than understanding caste as an obstacle to the formation of Christian churches, McGavran believed missionaries had to start seeing castes as pathways for God’s work. Christianity could spread further and faster along caste lines than across them. As McGavran developed these ideas from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was quite explicit that this “peoples” based approach did not apply to the individualistic and modern United States.
But the events of the 1960s transformed the evangelistic calculus. In the wake of black power and the revival of white ethnic identities, McGavran and his disciples concluded that Americans, too, had deep-seated bonds of race, language, and belonging that could be harnessed to spread the gospel. Defining whiteness as merely another part of the American mosaic, evangelical church growth experts updated McGavran’s “peoples” approach and applied it to the United States. They declared that the “homogeneous unit principle” taught that American churches would grow fastest if people did not have to cross barriers of race, class, or language. By the middle of the 1970s, this approach had become the hottest trend in evangelical church startups. Spread through ubiquitous pastoral seminars and influential institutions like Fuller Seminary, the ideas of the Church Growth Movement became commonsense in the white evangelical mainstream. This was pragmatism on steroids in pursuit of the ultimate goal: salvation of souls. And here we must pause and take seriously the ideas animating evangelical activists. McGavran knew that all human beings faced an eternal destiny, and only the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection could save them. It was incumbent upon evangelicals to use the best possible methods to bring the greatest numbers of people into the Christian fold. What could be more important than that?
The homogeneous unit principle even enabled Southern Baptists and other evangelical denominations to launch thousands of new Hispanic, Asian, and black congregations during the 1980s and 1990s, proving more successful than most liberal churches in actually including people of color within their denominations. Yet whether this was healthy pluralism or an updated form of segregation remained an open question. In any case, church growth experts taught that questions of social justice were of secondary concern next to the overriding importance of growing churches. And so in an age of white flight, most white evangelical pastors and church planters focused on a target demographic that almost guaranteed church growth: the white middle class in growing suburbs. One of the most famous and influential of these pastors, Rick Warren, trained under the leading church growth thinkers of the era and cited McGavran as one of his main influences. He founded his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, precisely because it was a booming region full of his target demo. Warren and his leadership team created a composite character to focus attention on the precise kind of person they wanted their church to reach: “Saddleback Sam” was a wealthy white man.
Black evangelicals were quick to point out the irony of these race-conscious church growth strategies. While white evangelicals were in fact making a racial bet and investing in whiteness in the name of spreading the gospel, on the ground in local homogeneous churches race seemed to all but disappear. What was left was a privatized faith where white identity could all too easily blur with Christian identity. Black evangelical pastors such as Clarence Hilliard warned that “Specialists in getting quick, easy decisions for a strange, mystical, theologically white Christ are rapidly increasing.” In his view the church growth craze failed to challenge believers to take up their cross and confront the racist structures of American society. Instead, American Christians got a comfortable Jesus and a ticket to heaven. The Black evangelical activist and community organizer John Perkins took in the same scene and called white evangelicalism “the most segregated, racist institution in America.” Perkins wasn’t taking issue with the Christian Right. He was talking about more fundamental structures of evangelical life and thought. While white evangelicals treated their movement’s success as a sign of God’s blessing and their own devotion to the gospel, Perkins declared that a gospel that didn’t confront American racism was “no gospel at all.”
But Perkins found it was hard to argue with success. By the 1980s, white evangelicals were beginning to get a heady sense of their own power. The simple story tells us this was the age of Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution. The more important story tells of burgeoning member rolls in local churches as pastors paired a colorblind gospel message with targeted appeals to the white middle class. Self-assured in their ownership of the gospel and their theological rigor, white evangelicals felt emboldened to expand their influence by any means necessary. They had proven themselves eager adopters—as they had been for two centuries!—of the latest technological tools and cultural trends in a bid to grow their movement and take America back for God. As they faced the new millennium, white evangelicals nursed intoxicating dreams of a third Great Awakening and an America restored in a new age of revival.
Two decades of rapid change have dealt a severe blow to this evangelical confidence. Sweeping cultural transformations from gay marriage to the rising salience of transgender rights made many white evangelicals feel like strangers in their own country. Church growth abated as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation surged. Declining church membership and lost cultural authority were nothing less than a crisis for a movement that had imagined revival just around the corner. As white evangelical ascendance turned to decline, confidence morphed into fear. In this context, many evangelicals saw the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe as one of the few bright spots on a dark horizon.
Being pro-life had become a key marker of evangelical identity and belonging, yet in their self-imposed isolation from black Christians, white evangelicals had crafted an exceptionally individualistic and narrow conception of a pro-life ethic. And they insisted that this peculiar ethic was God’s law that must govern the country. The possibility of an interracial and bipartisan pro-life coalition that concerned itself with gun violence and health care and poverty as well as abortion foundered on the refusal of white evangelicals to take seriously the black evangelical voices in their midst. White evangelicals had not come to know how one might be a faithful Christian without power, how one might seek the public good even in the face of public hostility. In short, white evangelicals did not learn what they might have from the black church: how to live in a hostile world without fear and without the need to dominate others. If evangelicalism could not with its own resources make America a Christian nation, white evangelicals would look to harness the power of government to compel Americans toward righteousness. For black evangelicals, this lunge for power was familiar. They had already seen white evangelicalism’s ruthless pragmatism up close. Now the rest of the country became aware of it through the movement’s deathlike embrace of Donald Trump’s anti-democracy movement.
White evangelicalism is a tradition haunted by loss: the loss of influence, the loss of a prior moral order, the loss of an imagined Christian nation. The white evangelicals who have coalesced around Trump are not pining for a new Jim Crow, as a narrative of simple racist reaction might imply. Instead, they seek a new Christian order, even if its form is authoritarian. It is this Christian nation, not a pluralist democratic one, that most white evangelicals seek to create. And that’s why the crisis of evangelicalism is a crisis of American democracy.
*This section is drawn from my book.
Sweet’s Apology Shuts Down the Conversation Rather Than Continuing It
I read James Sweet’s AHA President’s column before I knew about the firestorm it created. He has since appended an apology to the essay. I believe this is a mistake.
In the privacy of my own thoughts, I believed he was making an important point about the dangers of allowing contemporary agendas to overtake the nuts and bolts of historical work: complexity, change over time, the value of studying the obscure and “irrelevant,” the surprising insights that come from being willing to really listen and learn from the “foreign country” of the past.
Sweet’s concerns about presentism in the historical profession resurface a perennial debate that is vital to the discipline. If we ever stop seeing the tension between our agendas and a messy past that does not yield to our projects, we’ll have lost something important indeed. We should be glad for the curmudgeons who remind us of this fact.
Yet there are a couple basic points that should have given Sweet pause before he sent his think piece off for publication.
Our profession is under enormous pressure to justify its existence. History departments are being consolidated or even shuttered outright. Competition for enrollments is intense. I would love to teach a proudly “irrelevant” course. But if I can’t get undergraduates to enroll in it, it’s not going to happen. Under these circumstances, the profession’s drift toward what is deemed “relevant” is probably much more than an ideological disposition. It’s a survival strategy. Sweet may well be right that it’s a strategy that risks undercutting our very reason for being, but he would have done well to consider the systemic pressures the profession faces. Putting the whole trend down to ideology seems like sloppy thinking.
The second and more vital point that Sweet was strangely silent about strikes at the heart of his essay. Presentism was a feature of the professionalization of the historical discipline! The emergence of our field was bound up in national and racial mythmaking. It was routine for historians to shape the past and distort it to fit their nation-building projects and racial myths. Presentism isn’t a new problem. It’s the discipline’s original sin.
Presentism’s temptations vary with the times, but the basic allure is always there. After all, historical thinking is an unnatural act. We must talk about presentism now not because it is novel but because it is always a threat to the integrity of the discipline.
The problem with Sweet’s essay is not that it’s immoral or “caused harm.” The problem is that its ideas are muddled. It’s an essay about presentism that lacks historical context! Its critique of a discipline drifting toward obsession with the recent past is awkwardly grafted onto a commentary on the 1619 Project. Worse, Sweet paints in broad strokes here and lacks the analytical specificity of other historians who have already criticized the 1619 Project far more cogently.
Ironically, Sweet’s apology illustrates the dangers to the profession more clearly than his original essay. The apology slips the whole controversy into the frameworks of contemporary intra-left discourse rather than intellectual exchange. Sweet’s abject apology is full of morally loaded words, but does not actually concede any intellectual ground. He does not invite more debate and offer substantive response to critics. Instead, by moralizing the conversation, he shuts it down. Sweet shouldn’t apologize. He should explain which arguments are causing him to reconsider his ideas. When he is ready, he should clarify how his thinking is changing.
I’m about to start a new semester with undergraduates. I tell them I’m committed to an open classroom where every voice matters and dialogue can occur across deep disagreement. I tell them we can say to each other, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why,” while honoring the personhood of the individual with whom we disagree. Dialogue is messy. We will say things we would phrase differently upon reflection. We will offend each other. But students need to know that all this can occur under the rubric of sharpening each other’s thinking. It doesn’t have to be a morally loaded high-stakes game of guilt and harm.
One does expect the President of the American Historical Association to have more thoughtful arguments than are featured in an undergraduate classroom discussion. But the answer to sloppy thinking is not the language of harm and apology. I tell my students that interpretation and disagreement are at the center of the historical enterprise. But after this sorry spectacle among professional historians, my students would be right to wonder if I’m telling them the truth.
What We Still Get Wrong About White Flight—And Why It Matters
This week I went with my son on a church mission trip to Detroit. After living most of my adult life in segregated black neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia it was more than a little unsettling to approach Detroit from the position of a white short-term mission-tripper from a small town. In Philadelphia I often spoke to short-term mission teams to orient them to the historical and racial context of what they would experience during their week of volunteering in the city. To be on the other side and be spoken to was a healthy blow to my ego.
Our time in Detroit was also a reminder of why it’s so important that we talk accurately about the past. One evening we went to the site where the 1967 Detroit uprising began. Our guide, a white woman in her sixties, said she vividly recalled hearing the news of the riot when she was a child. She told us that police mistreatment of black residents and lack of opportunity were primary causes of the rebellion. So far so good. I was glad she spoke clearly about this. Then she told us that on the eve of the rebellion Detroit was a vibrant and bustling city but that the riot caused a fundamental shift.
“That was when white flight began,” she said.
This historically false claim may have tragically undercut all the good she was trying to communicate to us. I’ll explain first why it’s false and then explain why this particular false statement is so consequential.
By the time of the uprising, Detroit had already been weathering two decades of economic restructuring as postwar industry moved out of central cities. As factories built in urban cores in the early twentieth century became obsolete, companies decentralized their operations, building more modern and automated facilities in spacious suburbs. They looked even further afield to other states in search of more pliant workforces in places where unions held less power. Industry spread out. Capital moved. In the twenty years before the uprising, Detroit lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs! Hundreds of thousands of white residents had already left and the city had entered into an era of sustained population decline that has continued to the present day. Indeed, the very neighborhood where the riot began was nearly all white twenty years before, but flipped to all black during the 1950s.
In short, the 1967 uprising was the exclamation point on two decades of economic restructuring and white flight, not the sudden start of something new. The uprisings of the 1960s only added fuel to fires that had started burning decades earlier. Tom Sugrue made all of this painfully clear over a quarter century ago in The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Describing the 1967 rebellion as the starting point of white flight has deeply troubling implications. The volunteers who hear this narrative are left with only one logical conclusion: a sensational act of black violence touched off Detroit’s catastrophic decline. This leaves impressionable visitors to the city ill-equipped to interpret the economic devastation they see around them. Faced with this seemingly incomprehensible hollowed-out city, they may resort to well-worn tropes of contempt on the one hand, and pity on the other. The conservative-minded volunteer may blame the people in these places for their poverty. The liberal-minded person may pity them. Both may fail to understand the forces that made these neighborhoods.
They are even less likely to be able to see these oppressed places as sites of ordinary community, where neighbors help neighbors, children play, and, against the odds our society imposes, people build lives for themselves and fulfill their dreams. Here’s how you know you’re operating in the contempt/pity paradigm: you can visit the place for a week but you can’t imagine living there. But really, these places are very livable! The forces of oppression are not total, and people can and do make homes for themselves in the places society has tried to leave behind.
So if the uprisings of the 1960s didn’t cause white flight, what did? The wrenching economic changes of the era were only part of it. The stark fact is that the mere presence of a black family moving into a neighborhood was enough to cause white flight. Banks, realty companies, governments, and churches all conspired to make white flight worse, but we must not evade the simplicity of what happened in the texture of peoples’ daily experience. Millions of white homeowners simply refused to have black neighbors. The white housewives in the infamous Crisis in Levittown documentary spoke for millions when they said things like this:
“If there are too many colored people around here I definitely will get out…”
“Well I just could not live beside them. I don’t feel that they should be oppressed, but I moved here — one of the main reasons was because it was a white community — and that’s the only place I intend to live. If I have to leave Levittown I will do so.”
These women declared their intentions in 1957, years before the uprisings of the 1960s. This intractable white hatred is what hurled American cities into crisis in the twentieth century. The economic restructuring of the postwar world was always going to be difficult. Cities across the western world faced similar changes and periods of decline. But in the United States white racism guaranteed that instead of facing these challenges together we would face them apart and make them worse. And we would offload the costs of the new economy on the very people with the fewest resources. Like millions of European immigrants, black migrants came to northern cities in search of the American Dream. But they were treated differently than any immigrant group. As white businesses and residents fled, they pulled up the ladders of opportunity behind them.
White flight was not a response to black violence. White flight was a riot itself. We’ve got to get this history right so that we at least have a fighting chance of seeing what is right in front of our noses when we go on a “mission trip” to “the inner city”: the people living in these places are utterly ordinary. They are not to be feared, pitied, or romanticized. They are not so different from us in their hopes and dreams for their children, but probably quite a bit more clear-eyed than you and I about the sickness still lurking in America’s soul.
Thoughts for Sunday: God as Ground of Being
From Martin Laird, Into The Silent Land:
Union with God is not something we acquire by a technique but the grounding truth of our lives that engenders the very search for God. Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience through most of our lives a sense of absence or distance from God is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word. This illusion of separation is generated by the mind and is sustained by the riveting of our attention to the interior soap opera, the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads. For most of us this is what normal is, and we are good at coming up with ways of coping with this perceived separation (our consumer-driven entertainment culture takes care of much of it). But some of us are not so good at coping, and so we drink ourselves into oblivion….
The grace of salvation, the grace of Christian wholeness that flowers in silence, dispels this illusion of separation. For when the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God.…
Some who are tediously metaphysical might worry that all this talk of union with God blurs the distinction between Creator and creation. Far from blurring this distinction it sets it in sharper focus. John’s Gospel says we are the branches and Christ is the vine. The branches are not separate from the vine but one with it. If the branch is cut off, you won’t have a branch, for it soon shrivels away. A branch is a branch insofar as it is one with the vine. From the branch’s perspective it is all vine. Speaking of this transformation of consciousness that marks the moving into awareness of our grounding union with God, Meister Eckhart says, “All things become pure God to you, for in all things you see nothing but God.”
What We’re Doing When We Call A Neighborhood “Bad”
My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.
Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.
A poor person’s land might produce much food,
but it is unjustly swept away.
Those who mock the poor insult their maker.
We recently moved from a “bad” neighborhood to a “good” neighborhood. Or so I’m told. What exactly are wealthy and middle-class Christians doing when we call a neighborhood “bad”?
1 We’re hiding how the world works
When we say a neighborhood is bad we’re making a commentary about class, crime, schools, and, very often, race. “Bad” is not our shorthand for how these factors actually work. It’s our blunt instrument to hide all the most pertinent questions.
Why is it socially acceptable for local, state, and federal governments to deliberately create communities of concentrated poverty?
Why do police fail to keep some communities safe?
Why do white parents fallaciously use race as a heuristic for school quality?
Why have wars on drugs and crime targeted people based on their race and class positions rather than focusing on drugs and crime?
Why did white people, businesses, and all levels of government deliberately segregate our metropolitan areas on the basis of race?
Why do middle class and wealthy people oppress the poor by supporting restrictive zoning and opposing investments in public goods?
Why are racism and classism so socially acceptable in middle-class white communities?
We’re just getting started. We might ask dozens more questions. But when we say that a neighborhood is “bad” we are not calling these questions to mind. We are, instead, refusing to ask them. When we call a neighborhood bad we are naturalizing that condition and making a commentary about the people living there. We are telling a lie.
2 We’re rejecting how God’s kingdom works
The discourse of “bad” neighborhoods doesn’t just hide an enormous number of implicit ideological and historical claims. It also make a theological statement. With casual cruelty and complacency, it suggests that the way the Christian scriptures talk about wealth, poverty, and faith are not meant to be taken at all literally. We assume that the divestment Jesus demanded of the rich young ruler has little bearing on us.
Isn’t it just possible that when James said God has arranged the world to work in such a way that the materially poor are rich in faith, he actually meant it and the world really does operate in precisely this way?
Isn’t it possible that when the Apostle Paul said that God has chosen what is weak and despised in the world to shame the strong, he really meant it? When he told the Corinthians that not many of them were rich or important, couldn’t it be that he described not only their particular situation but a common theme running through God’s upside-down way of doing things?
When we say that a community is “bad” we are probably saying something about how safe it seems to be there, how nice it is to raise children there, how readily one might find a good job there and make money. Our units of measurement have nothing to do with the things Jesus told us.
Take a community that is rich in faith, vibrant in neighborliness, God-blessed in its orientation to people rather than things, but has a higher than usual crime rate. That community is “bad.” In contrast, a neighborhood oriented to things, tasks, and success that also happens to be wealthy and safe is “good.”
What does it mean when the standard discourse among middle class American Christians calls spiritually barren places “good” and spiritually rich places “bad”? Part of the problem, of course, is that our classist and racist imaginations cannot comprehend the facts of ordinary life in “bad” neighborhoods. What God has called good we call evil.
This unconscious hostility to the kingdom of God is so common among American Christians that parents who purposely raise their children in a “bad” neighborhood are likely to be called foolish, if not guilty of child endangerment. Meanwhile, parents who raise their kids in spiritually impoverished neighborhoods imagine that we are giving our children the best upbringing our money can buy. We are molding our kids to be striving, success-oriented collectors of things, human doers who disdain the kingdom and the people who inhabit it.
But at least we didn’t expose them to a bad neighborhood, right?
What Do You Want for Your Students On Day One?
I still can hardly believe I’m here. Today was the first day of classes for the Fall semester at Valparaiso University. What do you want students to get out of the first day? For me, it boils down to three things: I want them to feel welcomed (especially if they’re freshman); I want them to make some kind of human connection with me/each other; and I want them to begin to get a sense of what the course will be like. Preferably all of this can somehow happen in the context of exploring big-picture themes and questions the course raises. That’s a lot for day 1!
In my two history classes today, one of the things I asked students was who they would like to have a coffee with if they could meet anyone, living or dead, from the period of time the course is covering. A lot of students choose world-historical figures in response to this question–FDR, JFK, MLK, Erwin Rommel (Yes they did!). One takeaway after students are done sharing might be that they feel an implicit pressure to choose someone like that, someone they think of as being properly “historical.” But, as I tell them, they might have chosen a celebrity, and Instagram influencer, a relative, or anyone at all. History encompasses all of this. History isn’t just serious stuff, and the history of the ordinary matters, too.
I think this exercise was fairly boring and not particularly effective, especially with on-edge freshman students. I need to think of a way to spice it up next time. The “who you would have coffee with” question was the first of three. The other two questions students will return to me Friday: 1 ) how can I help you? (ie., what has worked for you in the past? what are you nervous about? what do you need from me?) 2) What are your goals for yourself in this course? It seems to me that both of these questions are at the core of the learning process, but we often leave them implicit. Also, students who express a serious goal have provided us with a great feedback tool for the rest of the semester, as we can refer back to that goal in future assignments (this won’t work for students who just make a goal up. It’s fine if they don’t have a specific goal).
I also want students to invest in the course, to feel that their interests play a role in shaping what the course will be. I set forth a few questions that, in my judgment, animate the course. But the course can change! So I asked them what questions they have about American history, what they would like to know more about. Some responses:
Are we more anxious than we used to be because of the media?
Have we ever been united?
Has America ever been the moral leader of the world? Should it be?
Why do gas prices fluctuate so much?
What is happening in Afghanistan?
How many wars could have been avoided with advance tech/communication, or are they inevitable? (my rejoinder: how many wars have been started with such technology! We’ll also be tackling that word inevitable for sure)
How does Covid compare to past pandemics?
What are the origins of contemporary problems?
What similarities are there between past and present?
Why was the space race so important and why haven’t we gone back to the moon?
Where do we go from here? (political turmoil)
What have we learned from the past? Have we learned?
This is potentially useful, but some students probably felt like they didn’t have any questions and were just trying to come up with something random. This exercise would be more effective if I leaned into the difficulty of asking questions and explained that this is central to historical thinking. An impressive thinker doesn’t have all the right answers. They have cultivated the ability to ask questions.
Finally, for the Core humanities class that all freshman have to take at Valpo [title this fall–The Human Experience: Empathy and Dialogue] I began the class with a new song from the Killers (“West Hills”). A risk! With almost no introduction I just told them to sit back and listen to the song and consider how it invited them into empathy and dialogue. I was pleased with the discussion it generated among strangers. At the same time, it told students a little bit about me, because I like The Killers and I don’t care who knows it! In the future, students will be able to nominate their own song to play at the beginning of class, on the condition that they facilitate a brief discussion about how it evokes the theme of empathy and dialogue. We’ll see if I get any takers. I think music is tailor-made for this stuff.
So, first day is done! Onward!
The Bible Told Them So: A Conversation with J. Russell Hawkins
J. Russell Hawkins is Professor in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University and author of the new book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought To Preserve White Supremacy.
What question(s) led you to write this book?
Honestly, answering this could easily turn into a book itself, so I’ll try to keep it brief. I wrote this book, in part, to answer questions about my own history. I grew up very much a part of the white evangelical subculture in the 1980s and 90s. I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night. I sang along with Psalty and listened to the Music Machine on vinyl. I wore witness wear, subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine and saw my fellow Christian high school students at the pole each September. But this evangelical world was only part of my formation. I also grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, attended racially diverse public schools from K-12, and grew up playing on racially diverse sports teams. The racial diversity of a good part of the rest of my lived experiences stood in stark contrast to the homogeneity of my church on Sundays and Wednesdays. And as I grew older, I began to be struck by how attitudes and conversations about race in my church were much different than in other areas of my upbringing. Conversations about race with white Christians were often met with defensiveness, or hostility, or hushed tones. They were usually short, with the implied message that it was better not to talk about such things. Occasionally, I even heard explicitly racist comments or jokes at church. Now, to clarify, these things didn’t register with me as they were happening. It wasn’t until later while I was in the midst of my graduate studies and started wrestling more seriously with questions about race and religion in American history that I found myself wanting to make sense of why so many white evangelicals seemed so weird about race compared to people I knew who weren’t part of that evangelical world. I decided that if I was going to figure this out I would need to find a period of history when white evangelicals were talking about race and figured the civil rights era held promise for southern white evangelicals going on the record about their racial beliefs. And it turns out, it did. So while I’m not a direct descendant of the southern white evangelicals I cover in my book, I do believe a lot of the tendencies I have experienced in evangelicalism around race have roots in the civil rights period.
What is the argument of The Bible Told Them So?
I’m essentially putting forward two big arguments in the book. The first is that a critical mass of southern evangelicals were motivated to resist the civil rights movement because of their religious beliefs. These Christians read the Bible to say that God had designed the segregation of the races and doing away with Jim Crow violated God’s plan. I show in the book how such ideas were derived through a particular reading of the Bible and how the subsequent segregationist theology that arose from this hermeneutic was articulated, defended, and deployed throughout the classical period of the civil rights movement (1954-1965). The second argument is that this theological system wasn’t abandoned after 1965, rather in morphed into new forms to maintain segregation. As southern society was forced to change around them, these southern evangelicals who adhered to a theology of segregation had to change the way they articulated such commitments. I argue that they began using rhetoric of colorblindness and a defense of the family as tools to maintain segregation by the 1970s.
I especially want to zero in on that colorblindness angle. The idea that colorblindness follows hard on the heels of the civil rights movement is not new. But you draw a direct link between the rhetoric of segregation and the rhetoric of colorblindness in a way that seemed fresh and new to me. Can you explain the significance of that?
Yes, usually we think of colorblindness as emerging after Jim Crow’s defeat, or as you say, colorblindness follows hard on the heels of segregation as white folks are trying to make sense of their new post-segregation reality. But what I found in my research were Christians who adopted the language and tools of colorblindness as a strategy of maintaining segregation rather than a response to integration. Colorblindness for these white Christians wasn’t so much about making sense of a new reality. Instead, it was using a particular kind of rhetorical device to maintain the segregation they had been practicing in their institutions all along (or since emancipation in the case of churches). So as some Christian institutions and denominations started to make halting moves toward integration in the mid to late 1960s, there were white Christians who started saying that all this attention to race was problematic and the church and religious institutions would be better off if they just ignored the issue of race altogether. But, these were the same people who had said a decade earlier that God made the races distinct and declared in Scripture that they should be segregated. So it was almost as if these folks could see the writing on the wall and colorblindness for them became the final defense of a segregated system they believed God desired.
In chapter 4 you detail the rise of colorblindness during the integration battle in the Methodist Church. I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between colorblindness in American politics at that time (with all the energy around affirmative action and busing) and colorblindness in the church. Were white Christians simply seizing on this concept that was out there in politics? Or were they developing a distinctive brand of colorblindness? In other words, do you think there was something Methodist about this colorblindness?
I do think the colorblind defense I highlight in chapter 4 was a parroting of some of the rhetoric found increasingly in American politics at that time. But, again, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the white Methodists I cover were using this colorblind argument for the explicit purpose of avoiding the integration of their denomination, which had been segregated since 1939. The reason I think it’s so important to emphasize the linkage between early uses of colorblindness and the defense of segregation in the church is because of how ubiquitous the language of colorblindness would become among evangelicals within a generation after 1970. (Can’t wait for your book to tell this story.) As you know, white evangelicals today are especially fond of the language of colorblindness when it comes to matters of race. And while there are ample critiques of colorblindness, I think one of the most powerful indictments we can make against colorblind rhetoric is to show that in its earliest iteration it was wielded by white Christians who wished to maintain Jim Crow-style segregation in their churches and religious institutions. So we shouldn’t be surprised that a white evangelical subculture who embraced the language of colorblindness remains hyper-segregated along racial lines. Colorblindness has helped in part maintain the very segregation it’s early adopters had hoped and prayed for.
Why does this history matter now?
I don’t think there have been very many days that have gone by in the past six months (Past year? Past four years?) when the importance of this history hasn’t been abundantly clear. I think especially with the unrelenting focus on CRT in American society in general and the backlash to “wokeness” among many white evangelicals in particular, the issue of race continues to hold immense salience. I’m hopeful my book can provide some additional light on how we got here.
What Can We Learn from Pauli Murray?
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in Pauli Murray, the black civil rights and women’s rights activist. Patricia Bell-Scott’s portrait of Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was published in 2016. Rosalind Rosenberg’s exquisitely detailed biography came out in 2017. A new edition of her memoir was republished in 2018. Last year yet another scholarly biography came out. A major documentary of Murray’s life premiered this year.
Murray appeals to us now for many of the same reasons she faced marginalization during her life. A black woman who recognized early on how race and sex were interlocking forms of oppression–Jane Crow, she called it–Murray was an unsung influence in both the civil rights and women’s movements. Not only that, her long struggle with her own gender identity and sexuality strikes a chord with us now.
“I will resist every attempt to categorize me,” she wrote in 1945. Readers must have thought she was just talking about race. Her private struggle to come to terms with her sense of herself as a man in a female body make her words more poignant than readers could have known at the time. Had she been born a century later, perhaps Murray would have identified as a transgender man. (What pronouns we ought to use when referring to Murray is a matter of some controversy). In her own time, such categories didn’t exist. Even if they had, perhaps Murray would still have said, “I will resist every attempt to categorize me.”
If the reactions of the students in my Black Politics and Black Power course are any indication, Murray’s ethos speaks powerfully to young people today. We read her 1945 piece, “An American Credo” in class.
Many of the students were enthralled. What can activists today learn from Murray’s “American Credo”? It’s one snapshot in time and doesn’t do justice to the totality of Murray’s thought and the way she changed over time, but here are three takeaways.
Claim America for yourself
It is fashionable today to point out America’s hypocrisy and injustice. Drawing on the black nationalist tradition and other radical movements, some activists describe the United States as a place that never has been and probably never will be a home for black people. These activists draw on a venerable tradition stretching back to Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey, and many others. Activists in this tradition have often been prophets in the wilderness speaking the hard truths the powerful do not want to hear.
But for those who want to change this country rather than make a new one, there are costs to ceding home field advantage to the racists. (In some cases, this cession has been shamefully explicit: witness Marcus Garvey’s attempted rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan). Most Americans consider themselves patriotic and have deeply felt attachments to the land of their birth. This patriotism might be even more deeply felt among many black Americans, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the country they have done so much to build. Not for nothing have black writers often described themselves as scorned lovers.
Those bonds of attachment ought to be leveraged for racial justice, not surrendered to the meanness of narrow nationalism. It is telling that a speech like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852) is a touchstone in our moment while other Douglass speeches like “Our Composite Nationality” (1869) are little remembered. Historical context compels us to admit that the political economy of 1869–with slavery abolished and citizenship enshrined in the constitution–has more in common with our time than the slave society Douglass scorned in 1852. Yet Douglass’s audacious patriotism of 1869 is not in vogue today.
In “Our Composite Nationality” Douglass refused to cede America’s founding and its future to the forces of racism and reaction. Instead, he demanded and prophesied that America’s destiny was to be a home for all the peoples of the world where people of all races and creeds could live together in complete equality. Which Douglass was more radical? The outsider of 1844 exposing the nation’s empty promises and shallow pretensions? Or the insider of 1869 with the audacity to claim ownership of the nation’s meaning and bend its trajectory to his will?
Murray operated more in the mold of Douglass circa 1869 than 1852. “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” Murray wrote. “And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, ‘I love this cultured hell which tests my strength.'”
Murray was not naive. She was not blind to the country’s failures. Instead, what we see here is a dogged insistence that America belongs to me. Its symbols and legends, its emotional resonance and power to inspire–they all are mine. I insist on defining America’s trajectory. “And so,” Murray declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition through the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.”
Hold the moral high ground
The pull to get even, to give to your enemy what they deserve, is a basic human impulse. We all know it. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we’ve probably acted on this impulse more times than we’d care to remember. And in the history of societies and nations, this drive for revenge, the thirst to meet violence with violence, is part of the sad story of many cycles of war and hatred.
People who transcended this impulse are remembered as some of the great saints and sages of human history. And, in the 20th century, we remember political figures who combined this spiritual insight with a practical program of action that delivered tangible results for their people–Gandhi, King, Mandela. We can add Pauli Murray to their number.
Murray wrote that her struggle against segregation required “an individual revolution” in her thinking. “I cannot be rent asunder by harboring personal prejudices or racial resentments. I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice or hatred is an emotional waste.” Murray understood that systems of oppression are always working to bring us down to their level. If I give free reign to my hatred and desire for revenge, if I look around me for scapegoats on which to vent my rage, I become spiritually and psychologically lost. Murray tried to remember that her oppressors were people, like her. “I seek to destroy an institution,” she wrote, “a disease–not a people.”
Oppression seeks to break human spirits. Resistance to it must always be spiritual (though, of course, not only spiritual). Murray took this spiritual imperative so far that it included “inviting the violence [of segregation] upon my own body. For what is life itself,” she asked, “without the freedom to walk proudly before God and man and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression?”
Make your methods as noble as your goals
A common conceit of ideologues is that peace and justice will reign once they have gained power, but in the meantime some harsher methods are required. This isn’t how human beings or human societies work. We can’t turn off the hatreds we’ve unleashed like turning off water from the faucet. Those who desire a future of peace and justice must act in alignment with that vision now. The methods we use now are the methods we will continue to use if we gain power.
I’m reminded of one of Murray’s contemporaries, the civil rights activist Ella Baker. She was one of the best recruiters the NAACP ever had, but she resigned her post rather than submit to the top-down leadership style of the organization. She insisted that an organization struggling for a democratic society must itself be democratic. In a similar way, Murray did not agree with radicals who sought to overthrow segregation by any means necessary. For Murray, means and ends were organically connected.
“I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force,” Murray wrote. Not only would that be wasteful of human life, it wouldn’t work. Instead, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”
In our era it sometimes seems that we’re drawing ever smaller circles. Murray shows us a better way.
A meditation from the Psalms
The Lord watches over black people,
his ears listen to their cries for help.
But it doesn’t feel like it! How long, oh Lord?
How long must my neighbors, students, and friends have sorrow in their hearts every day?
Look at them! Answer them!
The Lord’s face is set against white supremacy,
to eliminate even the memory of it from the earth.
When black people cry out, the Lord listens;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
My heart is broken in 1,000 pieces, a black mother said.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
he saves those whose spirits are crushed.
I just need everyone to know that he is much more than this, a black mother said.
The righteous know this, but the wicked do not understand.
Only a little while longer, and the wicked will be cut off!
White people plot against the righteous,
But my Lord just laughs at them
because he knows that their day is coming.
Black people will inherit the land,
not one of their bones will be broken.