Here’s a roundup of the top headlines on some news sites this morning, from the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, CBS, BBC, and Wall Street Journal:
Reuters and the AP are leading with international news this morning. As you can see in these screenshots, most of the major news organizations are treating Ambassador Taylor’s testimony as an important news event. Most of the front pages briefly describe Taylor’s central claim and offer an easily accessible link to his testimony if readers want to see it for themselves.
A reader at these sites could click through these articles and quickly understand that a longtime civil servant claims the Trump administration tried to leverage foreign policy for political gain, and that his testimony corroborates other evidence that has come to light, such as the whistle-blower’s report and the phone call readout.
And now here’s the Fox News home page as of 7am:
It’s an alternative universe. The headline is an inscrutable mashup about the Trump Administration’s possible vendetta against John Brennan. A reader might scroll down and see the little link at the bottom describing what Taylor said, but that is beneath the much more prominent “TESTIMONY ‘DESTROYED'” headline. That headline, in turn, is merely a quote from Kevin McCarthy, a congressman with a history of false statements.
The visitor to Fox News would have a much harder time figuring out what actually happened yesterday, what Taylor said, and what context is relevant for understanding his claims. Instead of seeing the latest news, the visitor to Fox News has been given the party line. That, my friends, is what propaganda looks like.
John Wilson doesn’t like John Fea’s argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Fea argues that fear is the essential through-line in the story of evangelical political engagement. Wilson says, c’mon, isn’t everybody afraid these days?
Am I afraid of the legacy that Donald Trump and the court evangelicals will leave for the nation and the church? Yes. I am very afraid. But I also realize that I cannot dwell in this fear and, through the spiritual disciplines of my faith, respond to such fears with hope. In other words, I need to trust God more. As the writer Marilynne Robinson once said, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
But I should also add that any fear I might have about Trump, the court evangelical agenda, and their legacy is based on truth and facts. This is different from the fear I see among many of Trump’s evangelical supporters.
Most evangelical fear is built upon endless lies. These include the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, the straw man that all Democrats are socialists, Marxists, and atheists trying to undermine American liberty, the idea that impeachment will lead to a civil war, the belief that immigrants will kill us if they get too close, or the conviction that abortion will end if we just overturn Roe v. Wade. The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical Christians who I know and talk to on a regular basis believe one or more of these false claims. They get their talking points from Fox News and then read the Bible to make it fit with these talking points. They believe that there is a deep state–an illuminati working to undermine God’s anointed president. They are so afraid of Hillary Clinton that they think she should be locked-up. They believe that demonic forces are unraveling America. And if anyone offers an alternative view to these beliefs they will be castigated as a purveyor of “fake news.” Again, I have spoken at length to evangelical family members, readers of this blog, and members of my church who believe one or more of these things. I get their nasty e-mails, social media messages, and multi-part voice messages.
John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois. There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid. They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety. Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.
This is very good. There are elite evangelicals who try to claim that the rarefied spaces they occupy are the real evangelical spaces. I don’t think that’s an intellectually or morally serious posture. Fea has his hand on the pulse of the evangelical mainstream, while Wilson appears to be in denial.
But we also ought to be more specific than Fea is here. I’d ask Fea, for example, what is the demographic profile of these evangelicals he is hearing from? Are they white? Are they male? How old are they? The unqualified use of “evangelicals,” which appears at times in Fea’s book too, strikes me as problematic.
We need to be specific, because when we say evangelicals are afraid, it can come across as almost exculpatory. “Hey, they mean no harm, they’re just afraid.” In contrast, what I mean when I say white evangelicals are afraid is that their fear is directly connected to unchristian investments in power and hierarchy.
Thinking about the relationship between proximity to power and fear about losing power helps us to cut through the noise about whether some white evangelical fears are well-founded. The point is that regardless of how legitimate these fears are, lunging for power in the form of Donald Trump is a ridiculous response for which there is no excuse. It’s a response emanating from a place of power and privilege, a response from people who have learned to rely on these advantages (even if only psychological) to feel at peace in the world. The idea of being thrown back on their faith alone is terrifying.
Black evangelicals, in the face of a society far more hostile than anything white evangelicals have known, somehow have managed to avoid investing their political hopes in a Christ-hating demagogue. Imagine that.
In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?
On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.
But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.
Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.
When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,
I think your critique is valuable. But it’s too simplistic. I think it reduces evangelicalism to a set of hot-button cultural and political stances (which are indeed part of the story) while ignoring daily life and practice, piety and devotion, etc., as sources of identity.— Paul Putz (@p_emory) September 15, 2019
Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:
To me this sets up key Q: what is connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?— Kristin Kobes Du Mez (@kkdumez) September 15, 2019
In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.
Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.
Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.
Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?
To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?
Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).
The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.
In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”
They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.
For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.
To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.
Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.
But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.
The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.
I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.
It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.
Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”
I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.
It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.
[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.
I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”
The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.
What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.
The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.
White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!
And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.
I’m a pro-life Democrat. You wouldn’t know it from the positions of party leaders, but there are millions of us. Joe Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment last week signaled that, whoever wins the party nomination, millions of pro-life Democrats are unlikely to have their views represented in 2020. Indeed, activists appear to want to drive pro-life Democrats out of the party entirely.
What in the world is a pro-life Democrat to do? I second what John Fea said a couple months ago in a post about Jimmy Carter’s brand of pro-life politics: “I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:”
1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.
2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights. (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).
3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.
4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.
I think this is exactly right. To put it simply, let’s unpack the phrase, pro-life Democrat. I’m pro-life because I’m a Christian and cannot be otherwise. I’m a pro-life Democrat because I don’t believe patriarchy and free market radicalism have anything to do with protecting life; indeed, they are inimical to it.
I can’t make common cause with the right-wing anti-abortion movement. It is thoroughly embedded in the broader activist right, which tends toward dishonesty, racism, and sexism. The imperatives of capitalist extremism govern their activism, so that policies that would reduce abortions are not pursued simply because such policies would upset wealthy people.
But before I become too critical of right-wing activists for letting capital dictate the extent of their efforts against abortion, I can, as a pro-life Democrat, ponder my own similar position and my own complicity. Do I not speak up for fear of causing a break with Democratic activists with whom I otherwise agree? Do I fail to speak with appropriate moral conviction for fear of electoral or social consequences?
I do not believe the right-wing anti-abortion movement is promoting a helpful pro-life agenda, nor do I think overturning Roe v. Wade will usher in the utopia they imagine. But my alienation from the most viable and visible pro-life movement does not free me to sit on my hands. In fact, it adds to my responsibility to act creatively to protect life outside those right-wing channels.
I don’t pretend to know at this point what that should look like. I am already trying to pursue a lifestyle that I believe aligns with a Christian ethic of life, but I do not intend to trumpet those personal choices here. In this case I’m thinking more of public advocacy and financial support. What organizations are worthy of our money, our voices, our retweets? Yeah, I said it, retweets matter!
If any readers have given significant attention to these things or are already supporting an organization that you recommend, I’d like to hear about it. I’d like to put my money where my mouth is. Given the data we have on why women choose abortion, it seems intuitively obvious to me that we can significantly reduce abortions simply by empowering poor women. Imagine that.
Behold the President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse:
Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women. 2/3— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 24, 2019
I am not going to spend a lot of energy on Franklin Graham’s hypocrisy. It’s exhausting already. Most of us who are not in his bubble find it hard to credit that he cares a great deal about what the Bible says. Trump supporters should not expect their moral claims to be taken seriously in any case. But I do have other questions:
How do Graham’s anti-gay views position him in the evolving world of evangelicalism? Is he the old guard that’s passing away? Does he represent a committed minority that is not going to change any time soon?
There has been a lot of talk about generational change in evangelicalism, but “evangelicals are becoming more liberal and diverse and concerned about a broader range of moral issues” is the kind of evergreen story that seems to be written every year, and every year the consummation of this shift remains just beyond the horizon. I expect men (yes, men in particular) like Graham to continue to have a large platform for decades to come.
But my best guess is that they’ll speak for a smaller constituency. An anti-gay evangelicalism will necessarily be a marginalized community in many ways. But even if the evangelical mainstream was to become thoroughly pro-LGBT tomorrow, it’s not clear it would arrest the decline of the movement. The numbers for self-identified evangelicals by age cohort are brutal (as they are for mainline churches as well). American Christians are old, and getting older.
There’s no question that white evangelicals are becoming more accepting of LGBT rights. A solid majority now favors legal protections for LGBT people, a remarkable turnaround from the days when most evangelicals spoke openly about wanting to punish LGBT people for their “lifestyle.”
And younger white evangelicals are indeed leading the way: “A substantial majority (63%) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections, compared to less than half (45%) of white evangelical Protestant seniors (ages 65 and older).”
But this polling doesn’t actually tell us that many white evangelicals would disagree with Graham. They might not want gay people kicked out of their apartments, and they might think “homosexuality is not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Indeed, most white evangelicals continue to oppose gay marriage: “About one-third (34%) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today, while six in ten (60%) are opposed, including 30% who are strongly opposed. There are notable generational gaps among white evangelical Protestants: four in ten (40%) of those under age 50 favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27% of those ages 50 and over.”
There is clearly some measure of generational change, but none of these questions cut to the core claim Graham is trying to make: in his view, homosexuality is sinful. On that point, most white evangelicals of all ages agree with him.
Some evangelicals believe there’s a difference between supporting gay marriage as a public policy matter and gay marriage as sanctioned by churches. A large majority of white evangelicals (including younger generations) continue to see homosexual relations as morally wrong, according to the General Social Survey.
The 2016 survey found 75 percent of white evangelicals saying homosexual sexual relations are always or nearly always wrong. That number is down from 82 percent in 1996 and 90 percent in 1987. The survey does not show a large generational gap, however. In 2014-2016 surveys, 70 percent of Generation X/millennial white evangelicals said same-sex sexual relations are nearly always or always wrong, compared to 81 percent of baby boomers/older generations.
The future of evangelicalism could be pro-LGBT, but it seems at least as likely that pro-LGBT Christians will simply stop identifying as evangelical. White evangelicalism will be a smaller, older movement, and its historic grievances and blind spots will persist. For Franklin Graham, hatred and all manner of cruelty can be excused in service of larger political goals. But a man loving a man–well, that’s just too much. We have to draw a line somewhere!
I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).
But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.
As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.
A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:
77% approve of Trump’s job performance.
75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.
3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.
38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”
71% support building a wall on the border.
92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].
Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.
*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:
The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation
The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.
The Washington Post reports that Democrats may have a chance in the Mississippi Senate election after all:
JACKSON, Miss. — A U.S. Senate runoff that was supposed to provide an easy Republican win has turned into an unexpectedly competitive contest, driving Republicans and Democrats to pour in resources and prompting a planned visit by President Trump to boost his party’s faltering candidate.
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stumbled recently when, in praise of a supporter, she spoke of her willingness to sit in the front row of a public hanging if he invited her — words that, in the South, evoked images of lynchings. She has struggled to grapple with the fallout, baffling members of her party and causing even faithful Republicans to consider voting for her opponent, former congressman Mike Espy.
That Espy is attempting to become the state’s first black senator since shortly after the Civil War made her remarks all the more glaring. It has positioned him to take advantage not only of a substantial black turnout but of a potential swell of crossover support from those put off by Hyde-Smith’s campaign.”
Count me skeptical, and not just because Trump voters seem unlikely to have moral qualms about becoming Hyde-Smith voters. Espy’s best chance to win was an improbable threading of the needle in which he somehow energized black voters while nobody else noticed. But Hyde-Smith’s comments have people paying attention, and that’s probably bad news for Espy.
To understand why it’s bad news, we have to understand how a jealous regard for Mississippi’s image is a potent political force in the state. For generations, white Mississippians have resented the way their state is portrayed in national media. They have sought to defend Mississippi’s reputation against what they see as a spurious caricature: racist, backward, ignorant.
In the American imagination, it seems that it’s always the summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Corrupt sherrifs with their thick southern drawl, hot sticky air, fields of cotton, the shacks of the poor, the threat of violence just under the surface. For their part, many white Mississippians insist the state has changed and that the past should be left alone.
There is something to be said for the idea that America writ large, in seeking to claim innocence that it does not in fact possess, needs Mississippi, its supposed antecedent. Maybe we do look down at Mississippi so we don’t have to look at ourselves. But whether or not Mississippi gets a raw deal in the national imagination, white Mississippians’ perception that outsiders do not understand the state (at best) or hypocritically slander it (at worst) is politically potent.
The recent developments in the Senate campaign are likely to awaken that powerful political force. A black man and a white woman are running for Senate in Mississippi, and suddenly the national media is talking about lynching. The President of the NAACP is denouncing the Republican candidate. Prominent black Democrats are coming to the state to campaign. All of these factors will probably fuel white Mississippians concerns that Mississippi is again being treated unfairly. They won’t vote for the black candidate who is allied with those critical outsiders. They’ll vote for the white candidate who embodies a state unfairly maligned.
There is also an absence of historical context in the way some media reports are describing the Democrats’ underdog status in Mississippi. The Post notes, for example, that Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since 1982. It fails to inform its readers that that Senator was a white supremacist! This additional context tells us something about the dramatic partisan realignment of the South and of the transformation of the Democratic Party. It also underscores the scale of the Democrats’ task. A modern Democrat has never represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.
During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.
The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:
1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists
2. Calm tensions
3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”
To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.
This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.
But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.
And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.
It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.
But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.
Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.
We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.
It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.
* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.
A newly released poll of Iowa’s 4th congressional district has white nationalist Congressman Steve King up only 1 point over his opponent, J.D. Scholten. Though this is a very conservative district and Scholten is the underdog, there is a real opportunity here to defeat the most openly racist member of Congress in the United States.