In November 1922, the Pentecostal publication Gospel Trumpet published this observation:
Notice how familiar the frames of argument are to you. They’re all there:
–It’s not really about race in the end.
–If you don’t break the law you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
–Of course [fill in the blank] is bad, but we’ve made so much progress and most people are trying to help.
–Only in the U.S. would these people have such opportunities in the first place.
And they’re talking about lynching. The white Christian gaze could make even the most horrific atrocities seem like merely regrettable mishaps on the road of progress in the good ol’ USA. Defenders of contemporary American policing are just as blind as these white Christians were a century ago.
A movement for racial justice captures the nation’s attention and puts white evangelicals on the defensive. Shocking brutality spurs demands for reform, black evangelicals press for a more inclusive brand of evangelicalism, and white evangelical elites acknowledge the need for change. A major white evangelical periodical announces that the time for “platitudes” is over.1 Is this the moment white evangelicalism finally rouses itself to support black freedom?
I am speaking not of 2020, but of 1963. The white evangelical response to that epochal year of civil rights protest reveals enduring patterns in the ways white evangelicals engage racial issues and suggests the prospects for an anti-racist white evangelicalism in 2020 are dim.
The Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963 brought police brutality home to American living rooms through indelible images of dogs and fire hoses. In September, a terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four black girls dead. If some white evangelicals were too set in their ways to hear the anguished cries for change, perhaps the younger generation would lead the way. One white evangelical college student declared that there was no longer any “middle ground.” There were only two choices left: “One either actively protests injustice to the black man or hates him.”2
But white evangelicals seemed determined to test this proposition. Perhaps they could find a middle ground amid the storms of protest. White evangelical leaders were absent from the largest protest of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because, as one put it, “Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.”3
What was the evangelical way? Embracing systemic reforms and street protests carried the risk of cutting white evangelical elites off from their populist and conservative white constituency. In the pews, a powerful blend of God, country, and race made white Christian identity sacred. But white evangelical elites also worried that failure to act would discredit their movement with the rising generation. If reform threatened to splinter the evangelical coalition and stasis risked limiting its future growth, what could be done?
White evangelical elites found the answer in a path between reform and reaction. They increasingly spoke of the need for Christian love and unity across the color line, not as a complement to systemic reform, but as an alternative to it. While black evangelicals called for a church that knew no bounds of color and worked to meet practical social needs, white evangelicals declared that spiritual unity in Christ trumped institutional reform in both church and society. A revival of Christian love was the surest solution to America’s racial crisis.
This theology of race should be understood not as a simply reactionary stance but as a creative effort at evangelical coalition-building. Cross-pressured by conscience, evangelistic calculations, and disparate demands from without and without evangelicalism, white evangelical elites searched for an updated theology of race that could grow evangelicalism’s appeal in the new racial era that was dawning.
In the ensuing decades, the growth of predominantly white evangelical churches indicated the success of this strategy. Positioning themselves comfortably in the white mainstream in an ostensibly colorblind post-civil rights era America, white evangelicals promoted interpersonal kindness, voluntary church-centered initiatives and an evangelistic message that emphasized a personal experience of salvation with few social implications. This strategy not only helped hold together the white evangelical coalition, it enabled it to make inroads into some immigrant and African American communities.
White evangelical efforts to grow their coalition with an appealing racial message reached their peak in the 1990s with the so-called “racial reconciliation” movement. As Americans became skeptical of the capacity of government to promote racial progress, white evangelicals went on the offensive. Their longstanding message that racial healing was a matter of the heart rather than the state struck a chord. White evangelicals gained much positive media coverage for their willingness to tackle the nation’s enduring racial divisions when all else seemed to have failed.
In reality, white evangelicals were fine-tuning a decades-long strategy: a message of church-centered racial healing as a means of evangelical coalition-building. Major initiatives of that era, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for racism and slavery, had their origin not in racial justice activism, but in renewed efforts to bring people of color into the evangelical fold.
For half a century, white evangelical elites navigated shifting racial currents with a view toward maintaining the unity of their movement, preserving its credibility, and expanding it into new communities. But the last decade has made this balancing act difficult to sustain. Moments of mass protest and systemic reform—whether in 1963 or 2020—put the evangelical coalition under enormous strain. It is probably not possible for evangelical leaders to please at once the enthusiastic Trump supporter and the black lives matter protestor.
If the past is prologue, white evangelical elites are likely to try to thread the needle anyway. Crucial to their calculations will be the knowledge that there are far more Trump supporters in their midst than black lives matter activists.
To be sure, there have already been somehigh-profilegestures that suggest this moment might be different. But it is sobering to realize that white evangelical elites have been making progressive racial statements for decades. These statements temporarily roil the white evangelical base but tend not to move it in any enduring way.
There has been much chatter about 2020 as the new 1968. In that year of crisis the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “undertake to secure opportunities in matters of citizenship, public services, education, employment, and personal habitation” for African Americans and declared, “Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”4 Whatever became of that?
Behind the banner headlines made by denominational leaders and magazine editors, most white evangelical pastors’ message in this moment of crisis is likely to be pared down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to their white populist base. If their constituents cannot agree on the merits of racial justice protestors, at least they can agree to love each other and keep the church door open. This message might save the evangelical coalition from fracture, but it will not promote black liberation. Indeed, it was never designed to do that.
1 “Let’s Face up to the Race Issue,” Eternity, August 1963, 5-6.
2 Harold Bontekoe, “The Alternative To Hate,” Calvin College Chimes, September 27, 1963, 2.
3 “The Washington March and the Negro Cause,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1963, 27-28. See also, “Desegregation,” Covenanter Witness, September 11, 1963, 163.
4 “A Statement Concerning the Crisis In Our Nation,” June 5, 1968.
The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.
The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.
But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?
Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.
Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.
If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.
I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.
You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.
During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.
Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.
The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.
One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.
In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.
Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”
He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”
Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:
As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”
What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”
Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.
Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.
When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.
But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.
When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.
O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?
“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”
“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”
“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”
O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?
Growing up, I was taught to read the Bible literally and take the plain meaning of a text at face value if possible. But I don’t believe this is the approach we took to Mary’s Song:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
But first, some context. Some news outlets yesterday seemed to report this story naively, as though the house organ of the 81% has turned on Trump. Of course, that’s not what CT is and that’s not what happened.
Since its founding in 1956, CT‘s moderation (in tone as much as anything) always made it an awkward mouthpiece for a white evangelical movement whose mainstream was populist and reactionary. CT spoke not for the masses of ordinary white evangelicals but for a relatively highbrow audience of the educated evangelical elite.
Indeed, as a historian and researcher, I’ve come to take it as axiomatic that whenever I open the pages of Christianity Today, I must assume I am entering into an elite conversation rather than opening a window to the white evangelical id. This is true whether I’m reading about civil rights in the 60s, feminism in the 70s, or homosexuality in the 80s.
And it’s true in 2019, when CT calls for Trump’s removal from office. It is an important moment, but we should not assume it will make a significant impression on ordinary white evangelicals, who may never read anything CT writes anyway. But what of the white evangelical Trump supporters who do have some sense of the legacy of Christianity Today?
Here’s where my friend comes in. This is their response to CT’s editorial:
Christianity Today is no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians, regardless of it’s founder. Since the writer cites some of the founding principles put forth by Billy Graham, it should be very interesting to see Franklin Graham’s response. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long.
I suggest that this is likely to be a fairly representative response. I’d like to probe a little more about how and when CT lost its status in this writer’s mind as a “reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” It may have been yesterday!
The real tell here is the way the writer positions Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, suggesting that Franklin’s forthcoming attack on Christianity Today will tell us what we need to know about the magazine’s faithfulness to the legacy of its founder and to evangelicalism. Networks of relationships and identity, the authority of the Graham family name, substitute for any substantive claim of errors in CT’s commentary.
And, importantly, this authority is imagined. Franklin does not faithfully represent Billy’s views, but my friend seems to think that he does. In reality, Billy spoke openly of his entanglement with Nixon as a moral failure and one of the great regrets of his ministry. Franklin has been aggressively working against that aspect of his father’s legacy. He has tied himself resolutely to Trump, defended him at every turn, repeatedly made false statements, and continues to encourage white evangelicals to be partisan culture-warriors.
Of course, all of this is exactly why Franklin’s opinion counts. If Franklin were trying to carry on his father’s moderate post-Nixon approach to politics, my friend would simply add the Graham family to the growing list of people and sources “no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” Franklin’s opinion matters more than CT’s precisely and only because Franklin is belligerent and willing to take the fight to the libs.
In this framework, what counts as authentically Christian is a moving target. It’s constantly shifting with the political winds and the markers of orthodoxy laid down by conservative politics sites and Fox News hosts. CT is definitionally out of bounds for conservative Christians not because it has transgressed Christian ethics in any obvious way, but because it is insufficiently reactionary in its tone and politics.
In the white evangelical mainstream, advocating traditional Christian ethics is more controversial than supporting Trump. CT has taken a noble stand. Just how much this stance will reach into the nerve centers of the reactionary and populist mainstream remains to be seen. Let us pray CT’s influence grows.
On a historic day like this, it is all too easy for us to take refuge in moral sanctimony (“Can you believe how awful the other side is?”) or moral relativism (“Whose to say what is right on something as messy and partisan as impeachment? Let’s just agree to disagree”).
In reality, impeachment is a moral question, and defending Trump is an immoral answer to it. (Yes, I hear myself. I know I’m socially located and all the rest of it, but this is not a close call. Sorry!)
But we must not suppose that the lesson to take from this is one of Republican perfidy and Democratic virtue. On the contrary, the sobering truth is that we rarely do the right thing simply because it is right.
We are experts in aligning our perception of what is moral with our self-interest. When the two of them come into unavoidable conflict, it is self-interest that wins the day most of the time. Some people do escape this trap. We tend to remember them as saints and sages.
It is self-serving and unrealistic to suppose that the moral clarity of the event tells us a great deal about the moral stature of its participants. Republicans face the difficult choice of doing the right thing or protecting their self-interest. In choosing self-interest, they are merely doing what most of us do in most such situations. Democrats are in the much more enviable (and unusual) position of alignment between truth and partisan interest. We should not be sanguine about how they would behave if the shoe were on the other foot.
So today, I don’t want to deaden my conscience with the pretense that both sides in the impeachment struggle have equal moral claims. That’s an absurd proposition. It’s alluring because it allows us to better get along with others and think well of them. But it’s a cheap shortcut. The real challenge is to be openhearted and generous and kind without searing our conscience in the process. Trying to downplay the evils of Trump’s hatred against women, his cruelty and racism, might make some of your social circles more peaceful. But at what cost?
Neither do I want to reach for the self-righteous escape hatch. I recognize Republicans’ hypocrisy and self-interest precisely because I’m so experienced in my practice of these character flaws. Rather than assuming the moral clarity of this moment tells me something profound about the moral fiber of Trump supporters, I want to implicate myself in their unjust behavior.
The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.
My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.
I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.
When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.
I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.
My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.
The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?
We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?
Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.
But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?
My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.
During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.
But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.
The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…
This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.
Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…
For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…