White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s Still More to Know

White evangelicalism’s failure to support the civil rights movement during the 1960s is well-known. It’s an old story that has grown stale with the telling. As scholars and white evangelicals themselves have repeated it, the story has become encrusted in myth. Because finding examples of racism among white evangelicals in the 1960s is like shooting fish in a barrel, we might think that:

–There was no significant diversity of thought about the civil rights movement within white evangelicalism.

–Most white evangelicals weren’t exposed to evangelical alternatives and so, in a sense, didn’t know better.

–At some point after the fact, white evangelicals realized they had failed to act justly during the civil rights movement.

While there is a measure of truth to these ideas, added together they amount to a very misleading picture of white evangelicalism in this period. In fact, I would argue the inverse of these propositions is closer to the truth. If you’ve read David Swartz’s work on the evangelical left, you already have some sense of this.

What’s more striking to me is that you didn’t have to be a member of the evangelical left to be exposed to, or even espouse, pro-civil rights movement ideas. When I look at white evangelical publications of the 1960s, what jumps out at me is the pervasiveness of the white evangelical self-critique on questions of race and civil rights. In other words, rather than realizing after the fact that they had done wrong, white evangelicals were warning each other as events unfolded that they were losing credibility and failing to live out their beliefs.

Any white evangelical who was moderately engaged with evangelical debates of the time as expressed through evangelical publications would have been exposed to this critique. Even if they only read Christianity Today, they would have at least seen letters to the editor calling white evangelicals to repentance. And CT is not an adequate stand-in for the entirety of white evangelicalism. At the local level, students newspapers at white evangelical colleges often took much more aggressive pro-civil rights stances. At many white evangelical colleges, the predominant tone of their civil rights coverage was self-flagellation, lamenting the sins of white Christians.

And then there are national publications like Eternity magazine. It’s true that its circulation was smaller than Christianity Today’s, but it was no less evangelical, and it was more willing to call white evangelicals to task for the sin of racial injustice. What probably set Eternity apart from CT more than anything was the relative frequency with which it published black authors. The readers of Eternity were not of the left. They were conservative evangelicals. And they were hearing white evangelical self-criticism and black evangelical perspectives.

race and the church

Eternity Magazine, November, 1961.

Let’s look at one example of white evangelical self-criticism. After Eternity published an article in the spring of 1964 about a Philadelphia church that had integrated (“The Case of the Color-Blind Church”), a reader wrote:

Here we are in Christian America in the year 1964 and because a white Christian Church has twenty Negro members it rates a story in one of our leading religious journals.

Why should there be anything so unusual about a church opening its doors to everybody? Well, it is unusual and this is our sin. If our churches were truly Christian all of them would welcome minorities.

Who is to blame that most of our evangelical churches are not interracial? We all are. Our Christian colleges, seminaries, and Bible schools have fallen down miserably. Our leaders are timid and silent. Some are uninformed moderates and some are actually segregationist in spirit if not in deed.

Take a long look at the Negro. He is a human being, he has an immortal soul, he is subject to the joys and sorrows of all mankind. In God’s sight he is as valued as every other human being.

But in so-called Christian America with its vast program of evangelism, missions, and institutionalism only a handful of churches welcome members of another race and color. And even less than handful actively participate in the Negro struggle for equality and justice.

What does our  Lord think of our blindness and neglect? At the Judgment Seat we shall surely get the answer. We will find that much of our vaunted spirituality and activity is “hay, wood, and stubble” and that in racial discrimination we revealed how shallow and fickle is our devotion to Jesus Christ and his plain commandments.

It is almost certainly too late to gain the Negro’s respect and confidence. But it is never too late to repent, to seek God’s forgiveness, and then to do His will even if this leads to many strange and painful paths of duty.

This is a good example of the white evangelical self-critique because the writer is insisting that racial justice was not only a complicated political question—as the moderates would have it—but actually cut so close to the heart of the Gospel that it affected one’s final and eternal judgment (in which any good evangelical believed). This was hard-hitting.

Ok, so there was diversity of thought. The harder question to begin to answer is this: if this self-critique was so widespread, why was it so impotent? (Or was it?) The white evangelical mainstream in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump does not exactly look like a religious movement that learned its lesson. On the other hand, much has changed. I’m still puzzling this out.

Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

wheaton record 1964

The Wheaton College student newspaper reports on the results of the campus’s mock presidential election, November 5, 1964.

The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.

Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).

Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).

Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.

wheaton record 1964 protest

Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:

Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…

Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference.  The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people.  That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:

The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…

A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:

Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…

Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.

Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.

In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.

He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological  goals.

Black Lives Matter

jordan edwards

Jordan Edwards, child of God.

“And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life…
I’m glad that Jesus ain’t American
And that’s the reason why I care again…
And even though we get killed
I know that God got a greater plan
For the death and blood that we spill…”

“I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.”

howard thurman

“By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Howard Thurman

cone

“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”  James Cone

Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag
Is wrapped and dragged with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!

–Kendrick Lamar

Fruits of Christian Colorblindness

great idea

Yeah, this was a good idea.

It’s the kind of image you see flash across twitter every once in a while. A group of white drunk undergraduates think it’s funny to take a picture of themselves acting racist. This image is different because the men in question are not drunk (presumably) and are not undergraduates. They are leading faculty and administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nicola Menzie reports:

A White dean of a Texas seminary affiliated with a Christian denomination once known for its staunch defense of Black enslavement posted a controversial photo of himself and other White professors apparently dressed as gangsters on Twitter Tuesday.

Seen in the photo are the following Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty: David L. Allen, dean of the School of Preaching; Kyle Walker, the seminary’s vice president for Student Services and a professor of preaching; Barry McCarty, a preaching professor and Chief Parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention; Deron J Biles, a Dean Emeritus and a professor of Pastoral Ministries and Preaching; and Matthew McKellar, an associate preaching professor.

The participants in the photo and the President of the Seminary have since apologized. Amid the controversy, SWBTS even asked the Christian rapper Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our community.” Lecrae wisely declined to play the role of token Negro making white Christians feel better. Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why the photo is so problematic, and why pro forma apologies don’t go far enough:

Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.

In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.

Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.

But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.

Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.

On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”

Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”

His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.

Read the rest of Tisby’s article. Incidents such as these are some of the fruits of Christian colorblindness. Where this ideology flourishes, white-dominated spaces are often viewed as neutral or natural, and people of color are frequently silenced in the name of “Christian unity.” When an incident like this occurs and shatters the veneer of civility, colorblind Christians often fail to grapple with the broader context that made it possible. All too often, avowals of good intentions are substitutes for the hard work of institutional reform. Rather than wrestling with the possibility that Christian colorblindness is itself a perversion of the Gospel, leaders like Patterson describe confronting racism as a diversion from their main priority.

It’s probably going to take a long time for me to finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, when it’s finally done it’s likely to be as relevant as ever.

Opposing Police Violence Should Not Be Controversial

bad apples

Two “bad apples” the rest of the police department mysteriously failed to smell for years.

Conor Friedersdorf watches a new cell phone video of police brutality and comments:

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts … And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Read the whole thing. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have always tried to obscure the basic decency and reasonableness of black demands. They must do so, because admitting the reality of racial oppression raises too many questions about how they see the world and their place in it. Among those generally opposing BLM are white evangelicals, because in this, as in so many other ways, being white is more important to us than being evangelical.

The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

levittown

Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

Department of Injustice

sessionsWhile the daily news cycle features a deluge of political controversies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly setting out to implement the racist agenda he has advocated throughout his career. Adam Serwer gets us up to speed:

On March 31, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was cynically sold by his defenders as a champion of civil rights, ordered a review of the Justice Department’s approach to policing, asserting that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said federal investigations of police departments were bad for “morale,” and waved away the idea that police abuses could be systemic, rather than the actions of a few bad apples.

As attorney general, Sessions said he read a summary, but not the full Ferguson report, which found that “95% of Manner of Walking charges; 94% of all Fail to Comply charges; 92% of all Resisting Arrest charges; 92% of all Peace Disturbance charges; and 89% of all Failure to Obey charges” were filed against black residents. But on the basis of the summary alone, Sessions concluded that the report was “pretty anecdotal” and “not scientifically based.”

The refusal to believe police abuse could be systemic rather than individual is, in the aftermath of all the data collected by the very agency Sessions now leads, a form of denial. Nor can Sessions’s decision be justified by the familiar excuse that police reforms lead to higher crime rates—the notion that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is a normative standard that would eschew federal oversight of local police regardless of the crime rate or the gravity of any abuse that might occur.

Sessions is an advocate of an old false choice: some Americans have to choose between safety and the protections of the Constitution. You can have one or the other, but not both. Systemic police brutality is merely the price black neighborhoods have to pay for safety.

Serwer continues:

Sessions’s memo reads as an announcement that it is no longer the business of the federal government if American citizens’ rights are violated by those sworn to protect them and empowered with lethal force to do so. When local governments violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, Americans are supposed to be able to look to the federal government to protect those rights. Sessions has made clear that when it comes to police abuses, they’re now on their own. This is the principle at the heart of “law and order” rhetoric: The authorities themselves are bound by neither.

Sessions says American policing doesn’t have systemic problems. This is the language of the uninformed, but Sessions can’t plead ignorance. In his case, it’s the language of cowardice, a man unwilling to admit that he supports racism.

The Absurd Violence of American Policing

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/03/13/us/13noknock-images-slide-J9IC/13noknock-images-slide-J9IC-slide-v3.jpg

The aftermath of a no-knock raid in Cornelia, Georgia.

The New York Times today has a great investigation of the dangerous “no-knock” SWAT raids that occur all over the country. The article begins like this:

CORNELIA, Ga. — This town on the edge of the Appalachians has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.

At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.

The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.

The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Deputy Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about three feet inside the door.

It landed in a portable playpen.

It’s a long piece but worth the read. Policing is the most pervasive and intimate way in which Americans face real oppression at the hands of their government. But because this oppression is directed disproportionally at people of color and the poor, people who claim to be skeptical of government power are usually happy to support this kind of government overreach.

How can we stop these immoral and counterproductive uses of state violence? Attention to the issue has definitely waned as the 2016 campaign and now the Trump presidency have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We need to continue to draw attention to police misconduct and promote the goals of Black Lives Matter. One of the reasons Black Lives Matter is such a noble movement is that its solutions would both improve the lives of people affected by systemic racism and make police officers safer. But too many people refuse to see how violent policing produces toxic feedback loops of distrust and danger for police and residents alike. Indeed, in our gun-obsessed culture, many Americans seem to think safety is achieved through violence. God help us.