Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla

In 1974, C. René Padilla shook up the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with his criticisms of American evangelicalism. Here’s an excerpt that remains relevant today:

A Church that is not faithful to the Gospel in all its dimensions inevitably becomes an instrument of the status quo. The Gospel is meant to place the totality of life under the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, not to produce cultic sects; it is an open break to the status quo of the world. Therefore a Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world — in relationship to the world of men as well as in relationship to the world of creation — is not the Christian Gospel, but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day.

This kind of gospel has no teeth — it is a gospel that the ‘free consumers’ of religion will want to receive because it is cheap and it demands nothing of them…The gospel of culture Christianity today is a message of conformism, a message that, if not accepted, can at least be easily tolerated because it doesn’t disturb anybody. The racist can continue to be a racist, the exploiter can continue to be an exploiter. Christianity will be something that runs along life, but will not cut through it.”

The Power of a Good Biography

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I’m reading George Marsden’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, and it’s reminding me of being a kid. When done well, biographies can be incredibly immersive experiences, far more so than any movie or television series (in my humble opinion, of course). When I was young biographies were key entry points into history and they made my imagination run wild. It was, and still is, hard to believe that other people have existed and lived different lives from mine. (Think about it).

Entering into the life of a person in another time and place and following it through to its conclusion can be extremely sobering and inspiring. It also has the happy effect of assuring me that I’m thoroughly average, will always be average, and can bask in the freedom of not being A Great Man of History.

I think I would like to write a biography in the future. But I am puzzling over the ethical dilemmas of the genre. I remember when I finished my master’s thesis (which, though not strictly a biography, had some biographical features and focused in particular on John Stennis) the chair of the history department asked me, “Wait, do you like this guy?” Because Stennis was a white supremacist it was a loaded question! And I thought the answer ought to have been obvious, but perhaps it wasn’t. I had tried very hard to understand Stennis, and I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a historian understanding their subjects too well. But…who we try hardest to understand is an important choice, one with consequences.

At the outset of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden asks us to try to understand Edwards in his time. He wasn’t an American or an evangelical, and he couldn’t imagine social hierarchy as anything but a good thing. So far so good. But I’m not sure Marsden’s commendable sensitivity to understanding Edwards extends very well to other actors in the book.

As much as I feel I understand Edwards, so much of the world around him seems largely invisible in this book (so far; I’m 300 pages in). Why are the Indians so opaque? Why are the enslaved so invisible? To say that they were so for Edwards for long stretches of his life tells us a little about Edwards but isn’t itself a reason to render them so in a new history.

These are old qualms that have been much discussed and argued over, but I’m still confused about them. And it seems to me that biography may be a genre particularly vulnerable to this problem. Nonetheless, I see why Marsden won the Bancroft Prize. It’s a great book.

Jonathan Edwards strikes me as the sort of person I want to encounter from the safe distance of the printed page and several hundreds years. From that distance he is quite fascinating. I don’t know that I would have wanted to hang out with him. He was incredibly intense about everything.

That reminds me: the other biography I’m just now getting into is Victor Sebestyen’s new life of Lenin. If only to prove that you can always make connections between things, I would say what makes Edwards and Lenin similar is their singular focus to see their principles through to their conclusion (I admit the results were considerably bloodier in Lenin’s case).

Back to Edwards: I didn’t know anything about him beyond the sorts of things you read in general surveys of the era. (Indeed, the dirty little secret of this whole enterprise I’m engaged in is that I don’t yet know much about the history of evangelicalism!). I’m fascinated by the way Edward’s views appear to scramble and upset so much of the evangelical tradition that in one way or another claims some descent from him.

He was a revivalist who believed deeply in hierarchical authority. He sought and achieved ecstatic spiritual experiences, and he was obsessed with reason. He brooded over the machinations of the Devil and the depravity of people, and he believed the millennium might be close at hand.

I’m especially interested in Edwards’ views of the relationship between church and state and of God’s plan for New England. Do we see in Edwards the “poisoned root” I referred to the other day? I need to know more.

A White Evangelical Historian Weighs In On Gerson’s Article

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You’ll want to read this.

John Fea, professor of history at Mesiah College, is one of the more thoughtful commentators around combining a historical perspective and evangelical faith as he brings his expertise to bear in the public sphere. He’s the guy who coined the phrase court evangelicals and he’s got a book (see above) coming out later this year that’s sure to be insightful.

Here’s some of what Fea has had to say so far about Michael Gerson’s article in the Atlantic. Like me, Fea noticed that Gerson’s 19th century golden era of evangelicalism was seen with rose-colored glasses:

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Fea also shared some more personal reflections the piece inspired:

Like Gerson, I have come to the conclusion, after much soul searching in the wake of November 8, 2016, that the word “evangelical” is worth defending.   I still believe in all the things that the word stands for–the “good news” of the Gospel, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need to engage with the world from the perspective of these beliefs.

I appreciate Gerson’s autobiographical reflections about his evangelical upbringing.  I also spent some of the most formative years of my life within evangelicalism.  But unlike Gerson, I was not a cradle evangelical.  I converted as a teenager.   While I am fully on board with Mark Noll’s assessment of evangelical thinking in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I can fully say that my conversion is what actually led me to pursue an intellectual life and instilled me with a sense of vocation that continues to animate my work.  My Catholic upbringing played an important role in my moral formation, and I will always be a fellow traveler with my Catholic brothers and sisters,  but it was evangelicalism that brought meaning and purpose to my life.   It still does–at least on the good days.

I know that many former evangelicals read this blog.  I understand that they are angry and bitter and critical.  I see it in their posts and comments and published pieces.  I saw it in the way they responded to the death of Billy Graham.  I get it.  I don’t know how folks can live with such anger and bitterness, but I get it.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a lot of issues with evangelicalism.  I have had my own moments of anger and bitterness.  But I see those disagreements, to borrow from Noll, as “lovers quarrels.”

I wouldn’t say this on every day, but it’s a lovers quarrel for me as well. Disavowing evangelicalism is a little bit like disavowing my personhood.

White Evangelicals Respond To Gerson’s Article

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Michael Gerson reacting, I imagine, to white evangelical criticism.

In the wake of his Atlantic cover story, Michael Gerson has been on the interview circuit, appearing on NPR and Face the Nation and lots of other places. You might think that white evangelicals would be happy about this. Look, here’s a white evangelical who has attained elite status and is able to speak to the most pressing issues of the day from his prestigious position as a Washington Post columnist, and now he has a big cover story in one of the nation’s most storied magazines.

The problem, of course, is that Gerson is using his position not only to explain evangelicalism to the wider culture, but to critique it. Most white evangelical media seems to be doing its best to ignore Gerson’s article, but I did manage to find a few responses. It goes without saying that I disagree with these, but I present them here in the interests of understanding where they’re coming from.

Tony Perkins says Gerson gets a platform because the mainstream media is eager to “shame” evangelicals:

“You are going to hear this repeatedly … for the rest of his term [and] you are certainly going to hear it going into this midterm election,” Perkins said. “This is designed to shame evangelicals. Of course, ‘Face the Nation’ is giving a platform to Gerson and any other Republican who will … bash an element of the voting population that has been very instrumental in the president being successful in getting into office and maintaining and continuing his policy, his agenda.”

Perkins said media outlets like CBS are giving these platforms because they want to “shame these evangelicals into the corners of society where they will be quiet and they won’t be involved.”

Michael Brown sees the hypocrisy charge and lobs it back at Gerson:

Haven’t black evangelicals consistently voted for pro-abortion, pro-LGBT candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Haven’t some African-American mega-churches even prayed by name for the election of candidates like Obama and Al Gore? Why then weren’t they called on the carpet for hypocrisy? Why aren’t they guilty of tarnishing the evangelical tradition?

Personally, I believe we all have blind spots and there’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. And I think leaders like Van Moody and Franklin Graham would profit greatly by spending time with each other, if they haven’t already. Let us hear one another out, let us share our respective perspectives, and let us commit to being holistic in our ethics and concerns, with the help of God.

But I’m a little suspicious whenever left-leaning Christians (and/or the leftist secular media) raise charges against white evangelicals, people who just happen to be strong social conservatives.

Perhaps the bigger issue is not our alleged hypocrisy but rather our counter-cultural convictions? Could this be where the conflict really lies?

Perkins and Brown both seem to unwittingly offer more evidence for Gerson’s claims. But, in a considerably more thoughtful piece, David French says Gerson has underestimated the real changes in recent years that caused reasonable concerns for social conservatives:

While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions…

This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture…

Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.

French has some credibility as a “never Trump” white evangelical who has paid genuine personal costs for his opposition to Trump. (He and his family have been brutally attacked by the white supremacist right). I hope that French and Gerson will talk to each other, because they may find themselves in more substantial agreement than it first appears. If I read Gerson right, he is not concerned with relitigating the political calculation of the 2016 election as much as exploring the dynamic French himself deplores: evangelicals who submit abjectly to Trumpism. Gerson thinks the decay is further advanced than French believes, but they’re not terribly far apart.

And if you meditate on French’s last line, you can quickly arrive at Gerson’s gloom. Because another way of saying that white evangelicals are “not exceptional at all” is to say that they make it appear as though the gospel isn’t true.

The Collapse of White Evangelicalism: Was It Poisoned at the Root?

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The King’s Business lampoons Bolsheviks and Darwinists, 1925.

If you haven’t yet read Michael Gerson’s cover story on the decline and fall of evangelicalism in the latest edition of the Atlantic you should go read it. It is historically and theologically informed, and Gerson’s own evangelical background gives it a useful personal weight.

Gerson tells an evangelical declension story that is in broad strokes like the one I told my Temple students last year. Understanding the contemporary moral collapse of white evangelicalism, Gerson tells us, “requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.” This is exactly right. I told my class that American evangelicalism is a movement haunted by the lost glories of its past. It is driven by the fears, resentments, and nostalgia that this extraordinary sense of loss creates.

Gerson describes a nineteenth century evangelicalism that is confident, post-millennial (we’re going to usher in the Kingdom and then Jesus will come back), pulsing with abolitionist fervor and dreams of social renewal. I described this for my class as well, but I paired it with the realities of a white supremacist and pro-slavery evangelicalism that Gerson conveniently ignores. His declension story is real, but it looks more simple and obvious if you exclude the South.

Most white evangelicals couldn’t tell you the history of their loss with any accuracy. But the story is in their theological and cultural bones. It’s in the memory of their community. They know the country was theirs, and it’s not anymore. In Gerson’s words:

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

And so here we are. Today’s white evangelical mainstream has inherited the reactionary spirit of fundamentalism, while little of the earlier positive evangelical social ethic has survived.

Gerson is  insightful in his discussion of the battle lines fundamentalists chose to draw. He asks, what if fundamentalists had opposed social Darwinism instead of Darwinism? Another way of putting this is to ask, what if fundamentalists had actually held to the orthodoxy they claimed? What if they had opposed hatred and dehumanization? It’s a great thought experiment but it’s also a little bit like asking what would have happened if fundamentalists had been completely different sort of people from who they actually were. We quickly find ourselves moving back into the tangled maze of decades and centuries of causation and contingency.

But Gerson is surely right to see the battle over evolution as one of enduring importance. In generation after generation, it has contributed to an evangelical epistemology that is based not on expertise or evidence as much as identity. When people are taught that science cannot be trusted, it contributes to a broader disposition in which the key question to ask when you want to evaluate a claim is not what the claimant knows but what she believes. “Are you a Christian?” becomes at least as important as “What is your evidence?” However you feel about identity politics, an identity epistemology is considerably more radical and all-encompassing.

A question that has been lingering in my mind is whether the poisoned root of all this can be discerned in the 19th century moment of evangelical triumph. Gerson alludes to this briefly, but doesn’t draw out the implication I’m getting at. He writes,

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes.

Fundamentalists may have cut themselves off from much of their 19th century inheritance, but they kept a version of this conflation of the United States and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the seed of the decline was present at the height of evangelical dominance. A movement that had not bound its identity to the nation’s would have nothing to fear when it lost the nation.

Without that basic error, it’s hard to believe Gerson would have an article to write. For one thing, Trump wouldn’t be president.

In the coming months I want to explore the deeper tensions American evangelicals have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. I’m almost entirely ignorant about this, but one of the core questions coming out of the reformation was whether the ideal society was coextensive with the church, or whether the church was a separate organism called to be apart from society. I want to know more about how 18th century struggles over religious disestablishment relate to popular 19th century conflations of kingdom and country. Though legal religious establishment had been abolished, was not evangelicalism a kind of establishment in practice?

Losing that authority was a trauma whose aftershocks we are feeling today. And yet, I wonder if this story is too simple and present-minded. A few years ago, Gerson would not have written this article. A few years ago, we might have looked to different parts of the evangelical past as the key to understanding its present. What stories will we be telling ourselves a few years from now?

Evangelical Theology Can Be Anti-Racist

This is a follow-up to the last post. The Times mentioned a sermon Pastor Robert Morris preached last October. Here is that sermon:

You probably don’t have the time or inclination to watch it so I’ll try to make my comments intelligible whether you’ve watched it or not. Then I’ll compare it to a talk from another white evangelical figure, Timothy Keller.

Morris’s sermon is a fascinating mixture of provocation (he says he’s talking to “ignorant white people”), folk beliefs (races come from Noah’s sons), and inspiring one-liners (you have to take the time to see things from others’ perspectives). He wraps it all up in familiar evangelical tropes about the need for revival.

Morris seems to have given little thought to what race is. As best I can tell, in Morris’s schema race = skin color. And those skin colors/races came from Noah’s sons. One was black, one was white, and one was brown. We know this, Morris says, because of the meanings of their names. Ham, he says, “means hot and black.” No, it doesn’t.

From there he turns to a bizarre discussion about how “a dark skinned person does better in a hotter climate.” This was one of the major points apologists for African slavery made. In all of this, he appears to be completely unaware that he is brushing up against centuries of white supremacist and pro-slavery thought. He is not advocating the so-called “curse of Ham” defense of slavery here, but he’s coming far closer to it than he probably realizes. His adoption of erroneous centuries-old etymological assumptions about the meaning of “Ham” combined with a literal interpretation of Noah’s descendants as the origin of race seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that black people were in fact cursed. I’d like to hear him talk about this more. I doubt he’s aware of the implications of his words.

Morris goes on to try to shock his audience with the idea that Adam and Eve were brown and there are black people in the Bible. This is the Christian parallel for the worst sort of Black History Month celebrations, where we locate random “contributions” from black people without dealing with the bigger picture.

One might have hoped that Morris would bring real theological reflection to his task and explain how an evangelical interpretation of scripture is brought to bear on racism in our time and place. Instead, specificity of any kind is Morris’s greatest enemy. He wants to speak as broadly as possible, so as to appear to say a lot while saying very little. So of his seven points we get things like, “racism is evil.”

And you can forget application. We need things like “healing” and “understanding” and “revival.” Everything was interpersonal. You won’t hear anything about power. If anyone in that church walked out knowing what they were actually supposed to do they’re much better mind-readers than I.

I believe Morris was well-meaning. Does that make it better or worse?

Now, in contrast, here’s Tim Keller giving a talk on “Racism and Corporate Evil.”

I won’t dwell on this at any length. But the contrasts are huge, and it’s not just because Keller is actually engaging with serious people who have thought about these issues (he discusses Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz). The bigger contrast is that Keller is being more evangelical than Morris. It’s very hard to find in Morris’s sermon a robust sense of the gospel and how it shapes Christian understanding of race. For Keller, that’s the whole point.

In Keller’s talk, whether you agree with it or not, you have to reckon with it as a serious attempt to think about racism in the context of an evangelical reformed view of the gospel. As Keller builds his case, he shows how it is precisely his evangelical view of sin and grace that compels him to think in terms of corporate responsibility. Thus the Christian who claims to believe that “in Adam all died” but then turns around and says “I never owned slaves, why do I have any responsibility?” is not connecting the gospel to American life.

From a cultural and political point of view, Morris is the true evangelical figure in this comparison. But from a theological perspective, Keller’s more sophisticated argument is also the more evangelical one. Where Morris offers vague tropes infused with lingering assumptions of southern white culture, Keller shows that taking responsibility for systemic injustice is a logical consequence of his evangelical theology.

We don’t need to try to convert congregations like Pastor Morris’s to political liberalism. That’s not the point. But maybe we can try to persuade them to take Christianity more seriously.

The “Quiet Exodus” from White Evangelical Churches

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

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

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

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

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

What did leaders of these movements think they were doing?

What did laypeople in the pews think they were doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Billy Graham

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Here’s how historians (and a few smart pundits) are remembering Billy Graham.

Melani Mcalister says Graham helped to take evangelicalism global:

He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.

There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.

Mark Noll and George Marsden think about historical context and Graham’s influence:

Noll: My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.

Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people.

Matthew Avery Sutton says Graham was a failure:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.

John Turner says Graham took evangelicalism mainstream but also politicized it:

Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.

Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.

Jonathan Merritt praises Graham for distancing himself from the Christian Right later in his career:

Today, when Mr. Graham passed from this life into the next, we lost perhaps the last true evangelical statesman. Filling the space he vacated is a new crop of religious leaders who would do well to live as Mr. Graham did — resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the Gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.

America’s preacher has left us, and we need him now more than ever.

George Will says Graham was no prophet:

Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

Michael Gerson says Graham was “consumed by grace”:

Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century — a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?

Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit — the place of his calling from an early age — he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.

In my fundamentalist childhood, I remember Graham being variously an object of suspicion (for his ecumenism) and admiration (for his commitment to preaching the gospel). Encountering him as an adult, a Christian, and a historian is a different and complicated experience. His flaws are apparent, but I can’t judge him harshly. He grew toward goodness. On many days, that’s more than I can say for myself.

Billy Graham Has Died

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Advertising the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that made Graham a national figure

Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.

He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.

In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,

If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.

The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.

Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.

But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.

As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.