The Pervasive Racism of White Evangelicalism

jesus of the people

Jesus Christ. White evangelicals should meet him.

After the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal yesterday to denounce white nationalism and the alt-right caused a firestorm, a revised resolution is to be submitted today. Emma Green reports this morning that some SBC leaders are claiming the events of yesterday were really just a “procedural snafu.” This claim seems hard to square with the fact that the resolution didn’t even make it out of committee. The Resolutions Committee had the text in hand in advance. They considered it. They rejected it. I wasn’t there so maybe I’m missing something.

This is a developing story and what exactly happened will probably become clearer in the days ahead. But you can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. The damage has been done. Many fair-minded observers will see the first vote in the Resolutions Committee as a reflection of what many white Southern Baptists really think, and the second vote today as a gesture of political expediency to avoid bad press. Some might think that interpretation ungenerous, but it’s certainly not unreasonable.

Words and symbolism are not fitting substitutes for action, and in the grand scheme of things passing this resolution won’t have large material consequences. But not passing it communicates an astonishing message. White Christians were unwilling to denounce the very negation of the God they claim to worship. They communicated their priorities with unyielding clarity. Now, they will ask us to believe that Christianity is more important to them than nationalism or whiteness, even though their actions tell us the opposite.

I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what language in the resolution bothered the convention, but it can be surmised. It seems likely that the resolution’s broad language hit too close to home for Southern Baptists who had already embraced the racist candidacy of Donald Trump, and in doing so allied themselves with the small but vocal white supremacist movement. So the failure of the resolution points back to a bigger problem: the ongoing en masse refusal of white evangelicals to give account for their decision to aid and abet racism in the last election. That’s the vote they chose, and we don’t need to re-litigate it. But they owe it to their brothers and sisters of color to explain how they’re working now to take responsibility and stand against the racism of the political coalition they joined.

The Southern Baptist Convention famously apologized—in 1995—for its support for slavery. The juxtaposition of that apology and yesterday’s cowardice is fitting. I know so many white Christians who are more than happy to denounce slavery and Jim Crow. They’re happy, in other words, to denounce forms of white supremacy that are no longer operative. But when you need allies in the fight against racism as it actually exists today they’re nowhere to be found. Ask them about police brutality, exclusionary zoning, segregated schools, white nationalism, Donald Trump. Suddenly they sing a different tune: “Wait a minute, I’m invested in those things!”

Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon. That message speaks to white Americans in the form of a choice most of us have yet to honestly face: Jesus declares that we can invest in whiteness or follow him. We cannot do both. If you’re unwilling to denounce racism in its current forms—you know, the kind that actually helps you and enables your standard of living—stop calling yourself a Christian. Stop it.

This is a good moment to return to something I wrote a couple weeks ago:

I happened to be visiting at a white evangelical church on the Sunday after the riots in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. To his credit, the pastor asked his congregation to try to understand the pain of black Americans and to pray for peace. Unfortunately, his prayer did not name any of the injustices that make peace impossible. The pastor asked his congregation to listen to black Christians, but he did not call on them to do their part to remove the injustice. So while asking for understanding and sympathy, the pastor allowed his white congregation to imagine themselves as mature Christians patiently dealing with the apparently inexplicable emotions of weak black Christians.

It gets worse. The pastor’s prayer was resolutely vague about why all this conflict might have been happening. I don’t recall any mention of the justice system, police brutality, or economic oppression. While avoiding phrases like that, the pastor did manage to name one specific problem. He prayed against the problem of “black crime.” I wish I had a transcript of the prayer. I don’t recall all the details. But that phrase—“black crime”—amid a vague prayer that did not name white racism, is seared into my memory.

People no doubt left the church that day thinking they were enlightened and compassionate. A few mentioned to me how nice the prayer was, thinking I would be happy that such a prayer had been offered in a white evangelical church. On the contrary, I was struck by the yawning chasm between the pastor’s good intentions and the action that moment actually required. A bunch of white Christians—people who benefit from America’s racist society—had gathered to worship God in a moment of racial crisis and had not been moved out of their comfort zone at all. Indeed, their supposed spiritual maturity had been affirmed.

It’s hard to describe how racism is transmitted in white evangelical churches, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. This is the point where people interject and say I’m being unfair and that it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated! Racism takes all kinds of things in its maw; it is, as George Frederickson memorably put it, a scavenger ideology. What does this scavenger quality look like in white evangelical churches? It often looks like narratives of Christian nationalism.

For many white evangelicals, a story of national decline—from Christian foundations to secular liberal disintegration—is the basic framework through which they interpret events. It’s axiomatic. For this story to have any coherence, the totality of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ experiences must be written out of it. Some of the history curriculums popular among Christian homeschoolers and private Christian schools do exactly that.

If the experiences of people of color are true, this country isn’t what many white evangelicals thought it was. For many of us, that is too shattering to contemplate. So telling white evangelicals to stop being racist kind of misses the point. To actually see and believe the experiences of people of color involves a radical rupturing of their view of reality. C’mon, do you want your grip on reality shaken?

In ordinary white evangelical church services, there are more subtle clues. A prayer might be offered in thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy in this country. The subtext of many of these prayers is that these freedoms are a blessing from God that can be taken away if the nation doesn’t turn back to him. Not only do such prayers echo the Christian nation declension narrative, they don’t speak to the experiences of people who are oppressed in this country right now. Thankfulness is of course a good thing. But prayers of thanks for what we have—combined with a note of worry for what might be taken away—are often the satisfied prayers of the comfortable. While we’re over here worrying about losing our rights, other Americans are trying to get them in the first place.

The mixing of God and country takes place against a backdrop of material entitlement and individual self-absorption. Anecdotally, I can attest that white evangelicals routinely speak about the hard material realities of life—homes, schools, jobs—with the anti-Christian rhetoric of the general American public. Safety first, family first, comfort first. Take specific concrete actions in your own life against the American Dream and watch white evangelicals be the first to criticize you. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

To wrap this up, let’s return to the Trump phenomenon. When Trump says Make America Great Again many white evangelicals hear a religious message. And it’s so enthralling that they are often unable to see that outside their bubble their support for him appears hateful. Much of white evangelicalism has become a religion of incumbency. We have and we hoard and we lament what we’ve lost and we fear what we might yet lose. We so easily identify with the powers of this age—the police, the military, the American Empire—over the oppressed people to whom God has given the gift of faith. We’re a religious movement that loves Donald Trump and hates Black Lives Matter. Despite all the good white evangelicals do in their local communities, as a collective political force white evangelicalism is hateful and oppressive.

I don’t stand outside this religious movement. I am implicated in it, a contributor to it. I must account for all the ways in which I promote racism and injustice in my actions and inaction, including my political behavior. I continue to hope that white evangelicals will repent broadly and deeply. I hope we will realize that the principles we claim to believe apply to racism just as well as to any other human problem.

The truth is not to be feared; it sets free. Those who hide their sins do not prosper, but the repentant find mercy. In other words, Jesus is powerful enough and good enough to save even white evangelicals like me.

Southern Baptist Convention Refuses to Denounce White Nationalism

Today, at the SBC’s annual meeting, a resolution condemning the alt-right and white nationalism has been rejected. I’m putting the full text of the resolution below so you can see exactly what the SBC rejected:

WHEREAS, Scripture teaches that from one man God made every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:26); and

WHEREAS, the prophet Isaiah foresaw the day when the Lord would judge between the nations and render decisions for many people (Isaiah 2:4); and

WHEREAS, the Psalmist proclaims the Kingdom is the Lord’s, and He rules over the nations; and

WHEREAS, the promise of heaven includes the eternal blessings of the Tree of Life for God’s people, which includes the healing of the nations that comes from the leaves of that tree; and

WHEREAS, the supreme need of the world is the acceptance of God’s teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love; and

WHEREAS, all Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and

WHEREAS, just societies will order themselves as free men and women and organize at various times and for various purposes to establish political order and give consent to legitimate government; and

WHEREAS, the liberty of all nations to authorize such governments will, at times, allow for the rise of political parties and factions whose principles and ends are in irreconcilable conflict with the principles of liberty and justice for all; and

WHEREAS, there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing; and

WHEREAS, this toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as “White Nationalism” and the “Alt-Right,” must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples; and

WHEREAS, the roots of White Supremacy within a “Christian context” is based on the so-called “curse of Ham” theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years—echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos—which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation. The SBC officially renounces the “curse of Ham” theory in this Resolution; now be it therefore

RESOLVED, that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, AZ, June 13-14, 2017, denounces every form of “nationalism” that violates the biblical teachings with respect to race, justice, and ordered liberty; and be it further

RESOLVED, that we reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called “Alt-Right” that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system; and be finally

RESOLVED, that we earnestly pray, both for those who lead and advocate this movement and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of their perverse nationalism, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people and tongue.

This is what the Southern Baptist Convention rejected today. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile responded on Twitter this evening. I’ve storified it but can’t get the embed code to work. Check it out.

White Student Upset Black History Month Doesn’t Feature More White People

On white evangelical college campuses, Black History Month can produce the perennial complaint, “Well, why isn’t there a White History Month?” This argument is evergreen. I distinctly remember this discussion taking place one February during my years at Moody. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone quite as creative as the writer below. She didn’t seem to object to Black History Month as such. She just wanted Black History Month to be more, well…white:

black history month

After her singular letter to the editor appeared, the black student organization invited this student to dinner. She went to dinner, but stuck to her guns. Black History Month was ok in principle, but the version put on by the black students didn’t do enough to acknowledge the achievements of white people. Our desire to be at the center of attention will brook no exceptions!

William Pannell on White Evangelicalism

pannell

William E. Pannell

I just came across an old 1985 interview with William Pannell, a black evangelical who was a longtime professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Here he is not mincing words about the ideology of most white evangelicals:

The curious thing in American culture, that [George] Marsden points out in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture, is that white, North American, conservative, evangelical types have this conflict working: On one hand they want to say that this world is a sinking ship and want to do evangelism to get people off this “sinking ship” before it goes under, and on the other hand they are always voting conservative to maintain their property rights and the status quo. That’s the problem, that’s the contradiction. It is difficult to deal with but it is very real. I think it is a real challenge to the so-called Christian institutions.”

It’s still true. Funny how we manage to be so otherworldly about other peoples’ suffering and so pragmatic about our own interests.

On The Origins of a Dumb Meme

warren

Have you ever heard a Christian say that racism is a sin problem not a skin problem? Cute, right? This phrase has some nifty alliteration going for it, but that’s about all. I still can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean. As soon as you generalize the idea to other topics its emptiness seems apparent. “Greed is a sin problem not a money problem.” Yeah ok, but the money thing seems kind of important.

(My best theory for what the “sin not skin” statement actually does comes from my wife Alicia. Her idea is that the phrase removes the power dynamic of white supremacy by labeling it generic sin. It makes us all sinners in the same colorblind boat. The phrase allows us to speak against racism while absolving white people of any particular responsibility.)

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had seen this phrase before. Like way before. So I went back to try to find it, and here it is in a letter from 1968:

1968 sin not skin

Wheaton College Archives

The context: it was the Spring of 1968. After Dr. King’s death Wheaton College hosted a memorial service. When word got out, a lot of alumni and friends of the college were upset, including this particular woman in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. She had sent two of her children to Wheaton, and her pastor was also a graduate. She loved the school and did not want to see it leave the straight and narrow. She wrote to Wheaton’s President to see if the rumor about the King memorial service was true. She also wanted to emphasize that she knew black Christians who didn’t support all the marching and agitating and rabble-rousing of people like King. Here’s the larger quote in which the sin not skin phrase appears:

As a church we have been working with an inter racial organization known as CURE — Christians United Reaching Everyone. I had the opportunity to ask one of the Colored brothers Rev Andrew Bluford what he thought of Dr King and he said, “humanly Dr. King was doing a job.” He went on to say that Dr King never tried to reach his people thru a Crusade or mentioned Sin. And he said you leave Christ and Sin out of your program and you have nothing but a social organization. Rev King was not held in esteem by this group of Colored brethren. Rev Bluford said the problem is not skin but sin and Christ is the Cure.”

I have little reason to doubt the basic veracity of this woman’s testimony. There certainly were black Christians who did not approve of the civil rights movement, or at least its tactics. And CURE really was an interracial Christian organization that existed in Philadelphia at that time, and its public statements tended to fit with the sensibility we see in this letter: that racial progress will come through spiritual regeneration more than through social reform.

So I suspect that Reverend Bluford, in about 1967 or 68, really did tell this woman that racism was a sin problem not a skin problem.

Then I got to thinking. If a black pastor in Philly was using this phrase in the 1960s, where did it come from and how long has it been around? I did some more searching and couldn’t come up with anything else. I can’t find the phrase or even a derivative of it anywhere before 1968. But I bet it’s out there. There are lot of old fundamentalist magazines and denominational publications I’ve never looked at.

Can anyone find an earlier usage of this phrase? I can’t offer you a large cash prize but you can buy yourself a cookie or something, ok? Besides, the joy of historical exploration is its own reward.

Southern Baptists Beclown Themselves

moore

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a Christian before he is a political lobbyist, and that has many white Southern Baptists concerned. The backstory is that Moore kept his integrity during the election while criticizing religious right leaders for prostituting themselves. This made a lot of Southern Baptists angry. There was a lot of speculation that Moore was about to be fired a couple months ago. That didn’t happen. Moore apologized and the rift seemed to close somewhat. But this was definitely a “to be continued” story.

The Wall Street Journal (paywalled) reported yesterday that there are still lingering animosities even months after Moore’s apology. Some churches are still withholding their monies from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And some Southern Baptists are upset that Moore seems to have no influence with the new administration. What’s the point of a public policy arm if it doesn’t really speak for the majority of the denomination and doesn’t have the ear of Republican leaders? The Journal writes:

After years of feeling shut out during the Obama administration, evangelicals are now enjoying far greater access at the White House. Mr. Moore, however, has been shut out, according to evangelicals who work in Washington. A White House spokeswoman said Mr. Moore didn’t appear to have visited since Mr. Trump took office.

While other evangelical leaders were in the White House Rose Garden last month, he was at a conference about orphans in Nashville, according to his Twitter feed.

What a sucker. Paying attention to orphans while there is political power to be courted in the nation’s capital. How could Russell Moore be so stupid?

Here’s a special Southern Baptist quiz for you. Who’s more offensive:

a) A racist, proud, dishonest, greedy, cruel, selfish, Christ-hating sexual predator?

b) Russell Moore?

That’s easy. Russell Moore is way more offensive.

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity to Promote Diversity

a

When you google “Christian unity” you get lots of sappy pictures like this.

A few days ago I shared an example of a white evangelical student using the rhetoric of Christian unity to silence the concerns of black students. Today I offer an example of a Hispanic evangelical student writing about Christian unity in a very different way. This time the example comes from the Spring of 1994. At this particular college, chapel had become controversial. As the student body became increasingly diverse, the chapels continued to reflect a white middle-class culture. This was a big problem considering that chapels were mandatory daily gatherings meant to unite the community in worship. It also was a symptom of broader problems, this student believed. She wrote:

The Bible does not call us to love and accept each other when we become like each other and when there are no differences. Rather it calls for love and unity in spite of our differences.

As Christians we should strive, not only to tolerate each others differences, but to embrace them as our own, and it can be done. Many students, such as myself, have done it when we came to [this] College from a strictly Spanish-speaking church where hymns are not the norm. Although at first I found this worship style awkward, as I was exposed to it I grew to love it as my own…

One of the deepest convictions that I have is that actions speak louder than words. The actions taken this year by the administration speak loudly, they scream. They say that the Asian, African-American, and Latino student have not yet been embraced in every way in [our] College, and will not be embraced until the lies which say that we are inferior people and we need to become “Europeanized” or “Americanized” are accepted. Minorities have two deeply significant choices to make early in their…experience [here]; either we go through our four years frustrated, with the understanding that we are receiving a “half-truth” education, or we kill off any trace of our heritage in order to fit in or feel that we have progressed. You can find evidence of that among our students.

Believers need to understand that Christian colleges are doing this all over the country to “minorities” time and time again. We then wonder why so many are despising the Gospel. I wish I could say that it is only because of man’s depravity but I think that it is also due to the fact that for too many Christians, the Gospel is something that is more political and American than anything else. I fear that it has become a means for political and economic gains which do not take the poor and oppressed of our backyards into consideration. The Gospel has been made irrelevant to the oppressed…

The easy way out of this is to tell “minorities” that if they are not happy here they should leave. However, to ask someone to choose between (1) a higher education which might affirm one’s cultural identity while attempting to destroy one’s spiritual foundations or (2) an education which affirms one’s spiritual foundations but degrades cultural identity is not an easy choice. It is also not a choice which a Christian should ask a brother to make.”

This is often what it looks like when evangelicals argue about race and culture. Their Bibles are never far away. They bring their theology to bear. The discussion may become overtly political. But it is almost always ecclesial too. People are wrestling with what the “Body of Christ” is actually supposed to look like.

Both this student and the white student I wrote about the other day are talking about what it means to be united together in Christ. But their conclusions are dramatically different. For this student, unity means reckoning with real differences and sharing power. For the colorblind student, very similar unity language becomes a tool to deny the power dynamics involved.

We might also think about the boundaries of evangelical identity in the context of this letter. Here’s a Hispanic student who wanted the evangelical theological training she was receiving, but felt that the cultural cost of the education was extremely high. Even as she embraced an evangelical world, she received the message that good evangelicals didn’t act or think like she did. As a result, she and others faced the horrible choice of submerging “any trace of our heritage” just to belong.

White evangelicals often wonder when evangelicals of color will stop “complaining” and we can stop talking about these things. That misunderstands the project. The discussion is permanent, because our differences are real and unity will always be hard work. That’s not to say things can’t get better. One measure of change would be this: when the costs of belonging to the Body of Christ are equally borne by all.

Notes from the Classroom: Using Fiction to Teach History

baldwin

This is a help wanted post! As a new teacher I want to experiment and try different strategies to reach my students. This fall I’m going to assign two works of fiction for my course The Making of American Society. I’ve never really taught fiction aside from leading TA discussions on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I frankly don’t know what I’m doing.

Got any tips? Suggestions? Things you wish you knew before you tried to teach a novel?

That I don’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean I don’t have reasons for turning to fiction for this course. As I mentioned before, nearly a third of this class will be a study of evangelicalism. Most of the students will probably know evangelicalism, if at all, as a political phenomenon. The textures and nuances of evangelicalism are likely to be opaque to many of them.

I really want to give students a window into the interior lives of evangelicals, and that seems to warrant using fiction. I want students to grapple with people who really believe in their bones that Jesus is coming back, that there’s a final judgment, that there really is a lake of fire to which they might go in the end. It would be easy enough for many students to see such people as objects of curiosity or ridicule. I want to confront them with a view from the inside. I want to give them an experience of stepping into a world where these beliefs are not propositions to accept or reject, but simply what is so—“Thus saith the Lord”—the ground of reality itself.

At the same time, it’s important that the text have artistic merit and historical significance. Unfortunately, these considerations probably eliminate the vast majority of fiction written by evangelicals. And a lot of books written about evangelicals don’t capture their interior life. I read The Damnation of Theron Ware, which nicely captures some of the challenges to evangelical faith—like higher criticism—arising in the late nineteenth century. But I felt like I was still only seeing evangelicals second-hand. The central character, the young pastor Theron Ware, seems to be going through the motions from the start. The animating impulses of evangelicalism may be present in his congregation, but they don’t move him.

I haven’t even read Elmer Gantry yet, which seems to be another obvious candidate. But my sense is that its scathing and satirical tone would work against what I’m trying to accomplish.

All of this leads me to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. More than any other serious work of literature I can think of, Baldwin’s story allows the reader to glimpse the inside of this religious world. And since it’s about black Pentecostals, it also raises interesting teaching questions about how we think about evangelicalism and define its boundaries.

Though Baldwin had some scathing words for religion during his life, the text of Go Tell It On The Mountain is, as I read it, wonderfully ambivalent. Baldwin writes from the inside as one who has experienced the all-consuming religious world that he portrays. The result, I think, is open to a lot of interpretations. The book is full of guilt, shame, and repressed sexuality. One might conclude that this religion is an oppressive force. On the other hand, there are notes of longing and understanding and hope that might lead one to conclude that this religion is liberating, especially for poor black southerners caught up in the Great Migration. Whether Baldwin describes the religion of his youth as a force for good or evil, he undoubtedly describes it with extraordinary understanding and without condescension. That makes it worthwhile.

I can remember being taught two novels outside of english/literature classes in my undergraduate years: The Jungle and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. In both cases it was a really positive experience. The books gave me characters and ideas to latch on to and connect to broader themes about feminism, muckraking, progressivisim, immigration, and so on. Long after I had forgotten lecture content, the immersive world of the novels gave me some (hopefully accurate) sense of what American society was like in the early twentieth century. Hopefully my students will be able to say the same!

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity To Silence Black Students

I’m in the archives today and have an interesting find to share.

White evangelical colleges were not entirely immune from black radicalism sweeping college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one white evangelical college* in the fall of 1970, the new black student organization observed Black Solidarity Day and had blunt words of criticism for their college. In a public panel discussion, black students critiqued white missionaries, the college administration (why no black faculty?) and the white-centric curriculum. As if anticipating the response they would get for speaking so honestly, one black student wrote, “we are loved for being ignorant and hated for being militant.”

One white student responded with a ringing defense of Christian colorblindness:

A few things to notice from this letter:

–The basis of colorblindness is not the Constitution or the American Way as it would be in mainstream conservative rhetoric. Here, it’s grounded in what Jesus has done. Rejecting racial distinctions is not just what good Americans do; it’s what good Christians do.

–In this framework, the explicit discussion of race is not seen as a threat to white advantage (at least, not consciously) or a danger to the American system. The stakes are actually higher than that. Racial consciousness is seen as a threat to the unity of the body of Christ, an assault on the very meaning of Christian community.

–Material conditions and power relations are completely ignored. The writer has nothing to say about whether or not there should be black faculty or a more balanced curriculum. There isn’t any space for that conversation to even occur for this writer, because it would mean grappling explicitly with racial identities.

–The writer comes awfully close to calling into question whether the black students are even Christians. A true believer, he implies, would not talk as they had done. In the name of Christian brotherhood, this writer would have black students be quiet about the realities of their experience and conform to his standards.

The rhetoric of Christian colorblindness often sounded good. It still does. Christians do believe that Jesus died for us all and has broken down barriers of hostility. But pay careful attention to the purposes for which this rhetoric is deployed. Does it liberate, or silence?


*Since I just found this in the archives today and have a lot more to learn about this institution I’m not revealing individual or institutional identities here. I do know that this particular institution has been unusually aggressive in seeking change in recent decades. In any case, the point is not to disparage a specific institution but to suggest that this document is representative of broader dynamics in white evangelicalism in the 1970s.