In White Evangelical Attitudes Toward Politics, Echoes of the Civil Rights Era

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Earl Stallings, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, shakes hands with black worshipers on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings was one of the “white moderates” who called for an end to civil rights protests and whom King wrote against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. After this picture was published nationwide, Stallings received many appreciative letters from white Christians praising him for his courage in welcoming black activists to his church.

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.

Donate to J.D. Scholten

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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.

Let’s not let this chance go to waste. Please consider making a donation to Scholten. It’s fast and easy.

And if you happen to know anyone in northwest Iowa, give them a call!

In General, White Evangelicals Like Racism

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White evangelicals tend to support racism. They usually like it when they see it. And in general, they think anti-racism is unchristian.

You won’t find any of this out by asking abstract questions about racism. White evangelicals, like everyone else, know how to give the correct answers to abstract questions. But ask them about specific people and movements, and they’ll quickly tell you the real story.

And this makes sense. It is easy to claim support for abstractions. But in real life, it turns out people are complicated and flawed and everything is messy. So those anti-racists are going to say some things you don’t like. That racist President might have other policies that appeal to you. But do you know the score? Can you see the big picture enough to know that flawed anti-racist movements are better than pro-racist ones?

Most white evangelicals can’t see that. The latest data comes from the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey. Here are a couple highlights:

While most Americans, including 75% of black Protestants, believe Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups (hint: this is the correct answer) only 26% of white evangelicals believe this.

While most Americans, including 84% of black Protestants, believe that police killings of black men are part of a larger pattern of how police treat African Americans, 71% of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents.

While 64% of Americans and majorities of all other major religious groups believe the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States will be mostly positive, a majority of white evangelicals say this will be mostly negative.

There could be more interesting nuggets in the data but it appears PRRI hasn’t provided the crosstabs. This comes on the heels of a big survey of evangelicals by Lifeway Research and the Billy Graham Center Institute. Rather than defining evangelicals by self-identification, that survey used a set of theological affirmations. In theory, that might produce a more truly evangelical sample. And while the Billy Graham Center Institute sought to use the data to rehabilitate the reputation of evangelicals, it too produced some damning results.

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities,” 42% of white evangelicals said yes. Most white evangelicals are not disturbed by racial hatred.

Such data only reaffirms what should already be abundantly clear. Evangelicals of color have shared their experiences repeatedly and have exposed the rampant racism of the white evangelical church. But, as many can attest, such exposure does not cause most white evangelicals to question their racism. It causes them instead to question the sincerity of the anti-racists’ faith.

As most white evangelicals militantly refuse to align their lives with the Gospel, those who seek to follow Jesus must continue to pray that the evil complacency of this religious community would be shattered. At the same time, it is not enough to point out the flaws. We must point positively to Jesus Christ, who really is the savior of the world, who is good news to the poor and oppressed, who offers forgiveness to all and terror to those who excuse hatred of human beings made in his image.

White Racism Is The Greatest Threat to American Democracy

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There is no greater threat to the safety of the American people or to the construction of a free society in the United States than white racism. It has always been this way. White racism fueled the slave society that devoured the bodies of human beings like so much kindling for the fire. White racism threw the country into the abyss of civil war, leaving 750,000 people dead. White racism powered the largest, deadliest, and most enduring terrorist organization in American history.

White racism closed ballot boxes in pursuit of power and split bodies open for sport. White racism built walls of concrete and imagination, bordering minds and communities, closing off opportunity, condemning the Einstein you never heard of to die in a dank prison cell.

White racism gives to Americans the most tangible knowledge we have of the reality of human depravity. It is the purest evil we know. White Americans, especially, live constantly in the intimate paradox of familiarity and denial of this knowledge. The manifestation of this intimate paradox is seen in our defensiveness, in our rote insistence that racism is both awful and, somehow, powerless in the face of our good intentions.

In recent days we’ve seen a Trump-loving man espousing white supremacy mail pipe bombs to Democratic politicians; a white man attempt to break into a predominantly black church before murdering two black people in a grocery store and allegedly declaring, “Whites don’t kill whites”; and now, today, an attack on a Jewish synagogue by a man reportedly enraged at Jewish efforts to welcome refugees.

Next Tuesday Republican voters in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will vote for Steve King, all the while imagining that they oppose the violent racism we’ve witnessed this week. I wish they did. But that would require aligning their actions with their professed intentions. It is sobering to realize that the vast majority of these people are entirely sincere. Indeed, it is through reckoning with their sincerity that we can glimpse how whiteness works.

White Americans learn from an early age to lie to ourselves. We acquire this skill alongside language and basic motor functions as a necessary part of being able to move through the world at ease with ourselves. Because we’ve learned that racism is Very Bad™ we must insist that it does not stain us. Yet because we are actually quite familiar with its rhythms and logic—learned as we navigated the built environment itself, went to school and home and church, taken in through jokes and side remarks, understood in what was unsaid— we must insist that racism is something like being impolite.

Racism is too bad to attach itself to us; it is too familiar to be that bad. And so white racism in the white American imagination is imagined as rudeness or mean-spiritedness, rather than a deadly evil that destroys lives by the thousands.

So while Steve King talks about his white supremacist convictions with all the subtlety of a blaring fire alarm, Republican voters will support him. And while Donald Trump spews toxic mixtures of racism, violence, and conspiracy theory, those who share his views take it to heart and are emboldened to murder people. We saw it last year in Charlottesville. We’re seeing it again this week.

Meanwhile, ordinary white people in places like rural Iowa, people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, will go on lying to themselves, imagining that that they don’t bear responsibility for this week’s events. They’ll go on saying they support Trump’s policies but not some of his rhetoric, as if racist incitement to violence is a minor matter of etiquette. They’ll go on playing roulette with other people’s lives, never having to face the lies that let them live in peace. More people must die, they have decided, so that we white Americans can live comfortably in our own skin.

In the 1960s, What Did Spiritual Equality Imply?

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This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).

It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.

But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.

As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.

Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.

I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.

The Sickening Racism of Northern White Evangelicals in the Jim Crow Era

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How did white evangelicals outside the South encounter black people or black culture during the era of Jim Crow? Judging from anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, it seems as though the primary point of contact was through music—the so-called “Negro spirituals.”

I’ve just seen a particularly striking example of how white evangelicals of this era might use an imagined version of black culture as a source of humor, entertainment, and cheap sentiment. A student literary society at a white evangelical college put on a program in 1928, described below:

The first selection is a piano arrangement of Southern songs. Their crooning melody stirs every heart. We seem to visualize a group of darkies around a cabin door beneath a harvest moon, and to hear the soft strumming of a guitar. This vision is then described in reality in an educational talk on Southern life by one who has been a missionary among the mountain folk of Kentucky. A lullaby for pickaninnies, sung by one of our members, delights us next.

Thus far there has been a sentimental tone to our program. Now a humorous note appears in a reading on that subject so near to the negro heart (and stomach): watermelons. Intermittent chuckles are still heard as the secretary announces a negro spiritual by the male quartet. The bass rumbles, the tenor pleads, the baritone calls triumphantly, the plaintive tune delighting yet gripping the audience. Another reading, this time from that friend of white as well as black children, Uncle Remus, is greeted by reminiscent smiles and applause. A negro mammy’s song sung with clarinet obligato closes the program.

What’s striking to me is the utter isolation and indifference exhibited here. In an era of lynching and grinding oppression, they’re able to wring entertainment and sentimentality out of the imagined lives of black people. They appear to know nothing about the actual circumstances of African Americans and they’re so far from caring that they don’t even know it.

Writing a Dissertation? Take Time To Remember Why You’re Doing It.

It is remarkable to think about how often we approach our work in a spirit of fear. At least, that’s my story. The fears run along well-worn tracks at this point: I’ll never finish this dissertation; I don’t have what it takes; it’s so big one day of work isn’t going to make a difference; and at the end of it my reward is an impossible job market.

There are joys to consider: I love to explore the past and learn new things; writing is really hard but it’s also really rewarding to create something that didn’t exist before; history is a longtime hobby of mine and now I get paid to do my hobby! Not to mention this is my God-given vocation.

But sometimes all the joys are overshadowed and you’re left with the fears. On those days, you might need to do something else entirely, or do something that I call dissertation-adjacent. It may not be the most productive use of your time. It may not move the ball forward very much. But it may be a means of finding your way back into the material with a new spark. You’ve got to remember why you went into this in the first place, and if you can’t remember, maybe you should just stop for a while.

Today was a dissertation-adjacent day for me. Or at least, it started out that way. My dissertation looked like a big giant monster that wanted to eat my soul. So I did something else. I started trawling through old student newspapers from an evangelical college. At some point I ought to look at these particular newspapers anyway, but they’re certainly not at the top of the writing or research agenda this summer. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this today. But it was a way to try to recover the spark. And besides, I might find some useful material.

I ended up with a lot of useful sources, a new chapter outline, and some great quotes. Joy.

I’ll share an example. In the early 1970s there is a particular genre of article from black students at evangelical colleges that keeps appearing at a lot of institutions. These students are trying to find some way of communicating to the white students that it is really hard to be black there, and that the campus needs to change. Part of what makes these letters so poignant is that they are, on the one hand, a unique product of this particular radical moment when young black people were taking new pride in their identities and, on the other hand, often read as though they could have been written yesterday (because white evangelical environments remain oppressive today).

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This particular black student began modestly: “I am not a writer,” he wrote. But he had a lot to say nonetheless. Here are some choice lines:

If only for a moment the true and living God would allow and grant to you, to your world, and this community the insight, the vision to see the living, the creeping, the stalking devastation brought into existence, given life and perpetually sustained by you, by your world and the character of your world. That character is Imposition. You have imposed your whiteness over and upon my blackness in your oak-like concepts, ideals and values…

How have you done this? Please try this question, is there anything black in, of or about [this] College besides its six black students or did you know how many of us there were? Why is this?…

few of you will understand this statement: THE AFFIRMATION OF OUR BLACKNESS AND OUR HUMANITY IN BLACK IS A BEAUTIFUL, LONG AWAITED GIFT FROM GOD.

And now I remember why I’m doing this.

Is This A Normal Southern Baptist Church?

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Stephanie McCrummen’s profile of a southern baptist church in Alabama is getting some attention this morning. I’m not sure what to make of it. She talked to a lot of people in the congregation. Here’s an excerpt:

What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.

Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”

It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.

There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.

“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”

The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”

“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”

As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.

“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.

So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.

There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.

“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”

There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”

And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how McCrummen came to write about this particular church and what her own background is. If this was an academic religious studies article, it might be preceded by some elaborate handwringing about her own beliefs and cultural location and how those affected her work and interactions. Instead, because this is a profile in the Washington Post, the reporter is more or less invisible even as she crafts a narrative with a strong undertone of contempt. I’m not saying the contempt isn’t deserved, but I think there are real ethical questions here.

As for the congregation, the main thing I wonder is if it is representative of southern baptist churches today. It seems like many of the most outlandish quotes came from elderly people. Whether it’s representative or not, for this congregation we can say this:

–Abortion is really important.

–Hillary hatred is alive and well.

–There is an enormous amount of fear about Christians losing their place in America, or even their lives.

–Theological ignorance, even to the point of heresy, is common. Christian nationalism heightens their fears and turns them away from Christianity.

–Many feel conflicted about supporting Trump, but not necessarily for the reasons anti-Trump people oppose him. Even people who expressed discomfort did not name his racism as one of their qualms. Others suggested that racism was one of the things they most appreciated about him.

So: fear, racism, ignorance, Christian nationalism, and some concern for the unborn. It’s a damning portrait.

Are You Raising Racist Kids?

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This is what I call bad parenting.

Do you want your kids to grow up to be colorblind, or do you want them to be anti-racist? There is a difference. A lot of well-meaning white parents are unwittingly raising their kids to be colorblind racists rather than anti-racists. Here are some do’s and don’ts for parents of white kids.

Do teach them that race is a silly idea people made up. Don’t teach them race doesn’t matter.

Do put them in environments that will show them they are white. Don’t discourage their questions and explorations when they begin to realize this.

Do expose them to race through the rhythms and structures of their daily lives. Don’t expose them to race through contexts of charity and pity.

Do teach them race as a product of history. Don’t teach them race as a product of biology.

Do teach them to value other cultures. Don’t let their own culture be normal or invisible.

Do teach them that racism is about power and resources. Don’t teach them that an absence of racial prejudice in their hearts makes them anti-racist.

Do teach them that they have advantages because of their race. Don’t teach them that everyone has equal opportunities.

Do teach them that race profoundly affects them. Don’t teach them that race is something only people of color have or deal with.

Do teach them the history of white supremacy. Don’t sacrifice historical accuracy to protect feelings of patriotism or white innocence.

Do teach them to take responsibility. Don’t teach them to feel guilty.

Each of these can be unpacked and reflected on. Many well-meaning white parents have their own issues to work through before they can instill these things in their kids. What do you do when your kids take note of race? Do you subtly send the message that you’re uncomfortable and don’t want to talk about it? Or are you equipping them to understand that what they see is a result of history and power and that they have the responsibility to fight against racism?

Many good parents struggle with these things and are accidentally training their children to misunderstand their world. But we can learn and do better. On any other issue, we can readily admit we’re not perfect parents. But for some reason we want to pretend we have never ever instilled negative racial messages in our children. I’m sure I have. There’s no need to feel defensive or guilty.

Now, if you’re a parent who thinks white people don’t have advantages and this is all liberal gibberish, that’s a different story.  You’re actively harming your children and you need to reckon with why and how you came to depend upon lies to make yourself feel ok in the world. It is much more liberating to face the truth.

Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.