The Bad History in Randall Balmer’s “Bad Faith”

On June 24, 2022 the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and white evangelicals swooned. The Christian Right, founded nearly half a century ago in a groundswell of zeal to protect the unborn, at long last had achieved its ultimate aim. After all, wasn’t this the whole reason the Christian Right emerged in the first place?

Not so fast, says the historian Randall Balmer. In reality, Balmer says, when the court handed down its sweeping Roe decision in 1973 white evangelicals shrugged. They considered abortion a Catholic concern. Balmer argues the real root of the Christian Right was not Roe, but a rather more obscure court case: Green vs Connally, a 1971 district court ruling that declared segregated schools were not entitled to tax exemption. When the IRS later moved to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, white evangelical elites reacted with alarm. To prove it, Balmer has Christian Right leaders on the record boasting that the tax exemption case was the foundation of their organizing. What Balmer calls the “abortion myth” came later to hide the disturbing truth: the pro-life movement was never really about protecting life; it was about protecting racism.

Balmer’s argument has probably become the most popular academic account of the origins of the Christian Right. He has been telling this story for many years, but the real breakthrough to public awareness came with a widely shared 2014 Politico op-ed. I heard him deliver the same argument in person at a small conference in 2017. Recently, I was surprised to hear my own relatives repeating Balmer’s claims. Now, in Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, Balmer has given his story its most comprehensive treatment yet.

The book is compelling in its simplicity and explanatory power. Alas, it’s so simple that it crumbles upon inspection. Credulously taking self-interested political elites at their word, Balmer’s popular story portrays a world of backroom cunning and strategic masterstrokes that awakened the sleeping giant of the evangelical masses. Yet it fails to adequately explain why the tax exemption case never served as a locus for mass organizing in the way that abortion so obviously and so successfully did. It fails to explain why the 1978 midterm elections demonstrated the electoral dynamite of abortion politics at the grassroots before evangelical elites caught up with the gathering wave. It fails to mention that Bob Jones University was an extreme outlier in evangelical higher education. The vast majority of evangelical colleges had already integrated in the 1960s and were happily in compliance with new federal rules. Indeed, part of the identity of these more mainstream evangelical institutions was precisely that they weren’t like the extremist and fundamentalist Bob Jones.

Balmer’s popular story also glosses over early and obvious signs of white evangelical pushback against Roe. Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of white evangelicalism, immediately blasted Roe as a decision “for paganism, and against Christianity,” and speculated that the court’s reasoning could enable “mass extermination of undesirables.” The editors darkly warned that the court’s turn against “the laws of God” might herald a day when the American state would persecute evangelical Christians. The same issue hinted that the court’s decision could lead conservative Catholics and Protestants to overcome their historic divisions in order to “fight abortion.” This is hardly the shrug of Randall Balmer’s imagination.

And so, while challenging the Christian Right’s founding myths, Balmer’s popular story introduces a new myth of its own. Call it the myth of pro-life insincerity: this myth tells us that one of the most successful activist movements in modern American history is somehow not about what it appears to be about, is really little more than a cover for elite-driven racist reaction. (In an aside toward the end of the book, Balmer alleges that he does not doubt the sincerity of pro-life activists. In response I’ll just note once again that the book is called Bad Faith). This enormous condescension serves no useful purpose. It does not help historians understand the complexity of the past or present. It does not help citizens engage in good faith dialogue or find common ground. It does not even help advocates for reproductive rights, who, after all, would do well to take the true measure of their opponents and understand the forces arrayed against them.

In reality, far from being a nefarious or simple racial reaction, the rise of the Christian Right was overdetermined: a collective outpouring of opposition to dozens of profound changes in American life, from the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s to the growing push to secularize public space. For opponents and supporters alike, abortion became entangled with broader questions of family, gender, and sexuality. On these questions, many Americans believed Democrats had become hopelessly out of touch. As the cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote, “Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression, denunciation of the ‘patriarchy’” and on and on. However unfair Lasch’s caricature was, it accurately captured conservative perceptions of a disintegrating moral order. By the 1980s, it was utterly mainstream to assume that morals had declined, that families used to be stronger, that America was in danger of losing a defining Christian character. Politicians who dared to ignore this groundswell did so at their peril.

I am not making a new claim here. Historians such as Robert O. Self and Daniel K. Williams have given us complex narratives that amply demonstrate the multi-causal rise of the Christian Right. That it took some years after the earthquakes of the 60s and 70s for this revolt to gain partisan organization is hardly surprising. Putting this all down to race is the kind of just-so causation story that freshman undergraduates in my history classes are taught to avoid. The simple story flatters the prejudices of those of us who want to believe the worst of the Christian Right. But the past is more complex than that, and the best historical scholarship has already given us better stories.

Balmer’s myth remains important, however, because it is representative of the deeper myths we tend to believe about evangelicalism. Imagine, if you will, a history of the civil rights movement that ignored the black church. Imagine a history of gay rights that ignored gay culture. Imagine a history of the feminist movement that acted as if white feminists were the only voices in the room. Scholars who tell narrow, top-down, elite-driven stories of these movements are unlikely to be taken seriously. But precisely these kinds of stories continue to drive the discussion around evangelicalism. Popular discourse about evangelicalism exhibits an astonishing indifference to the religious and social bases of evangelical identity. Furthermore, despite thick continuities through over two centuries of American evangelicalism, the myth persists that politically mobilized white evangelicalism is a strange new product of the 1970s. Despite the centrality of evangelicalism to American culture, the myth persists that to speak of white evangelicals is, by definition, to speak of political reactionaries. Outside the specialist subfield of the history of evangelicalism—where great work is being done!—simplistic political stories reign supreme as the only stories worth knowing about evangelicals.

So it is no coincidence that centering the Bob Jones tax case as the supposed origin of the Christian Right makes white evangelicals look like quaint and easily manipulated reactionaries. This is the main reason people want to believe the story! Pundits have been insisting that white evangelicals must occupy this reactionary role ever since the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s. Unhappily for the apostles of American secularization, white evangelicals keep refusing to play the part assigned to them. Instead of being hapless yokels unable to cope with modern life, the fundamentalists and their white evangelical descendants have consistently proven to be among the most nimble, adept, and pragmatic activists on the American scene. This ought not be surprising. After all, evangelical Protestants were in many ways the establishment in the 19th century, and they have never forgotten that fact. Indeed, they have been trying to take America back for God and reassume their rightful place ever since the Protestant consensus in American life began to splinter over a century ago.

As the historian Matthew Avery Sutton has demonstrated, the idea that white evangelicals ever retreated from the public square is a myth. No sooner had mass consumer culture emerged than white evangelicals were some of its most eager users, employing spectacle, celebrity, sports, radio, and television to advance the gospel and grow their movement. In the decades after the Scopes Trial, while pundits imagined that fundamentalist religion had been consigned to its rightful marginal place, in fact white evangelicals were engaged in a flurry of institution-building, from colleges and missionary societies to evangelistic organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade to umbrella advocacy groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. From the fusion of evangelical revivalism and cold war politics in the 1950s to the unmooring of social consensus in the 1960s, white evangelicals remained at the center of American life, seeking through private activism and public policy to save souls and restore a Christian nation.

Race and Evangelicalism: A More Complex Story*

So to understand our current moment, we need to tell more complex stories about this evangelical past. Race does matter a great deal to this history, but in a far more interesting and peculiarly evangelical way than the simple story allows. There’s no question that the civil rights movement disrupted and challenged evangelicalism, as it did all of American society. But here, again, the nimbleness and pragmatism of evangelicalism quickly became apparent. During the civil rights era, black evangelicals became much more prominent in the evangelical world. They tried to break through the exclusionary borders of white evangelicalism, and they used the words of scripture as their calling card. After all, didn’t the Bible say that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free? The black evangelist Howard Jones declared, “The church must demonstrate the truth that as Christians we are one in Christ, regardless of race and nationality, and that all racial barriers lie shattered at the foot of his cross.”

In the context of the overt structures of Jim Crow segregation, black evangelicals’ calls for colorblind inclusion became powerful and effective challenges to the evangelical status quo. In response, white evangelicals gradually discarded theologies of white supremacy and embraced a kind of Christian colorblindness: all our equal and united in Christ and we should focus on our identity in Christ, not race. The gospel was colorblind. This theology emerged not as a partisan political maneuver, but as the result of a nationwide reckoning among evangelicals as they sought to grow their movement and make it appealing to the American mainstream in a rapidly changing racial landscape. To show this spiritual equality in practice, white evangelical institutions became more inclusive. Billy Graham hired Jones as the first black evangelist for his team. White evangelical colleges proactively recruited black students. Churches that had been proudly segregated for decades now threw open their doors. These were big and important changes.

Howard Jones, for one, thought that the new colorblind gospel was a mortal threat to the discrimination he had experienced in white evangelical spaces. But by the late 1960s, a far more ambiguous reality was coming into view. The idea of unity in Christ could be used to press for inclusion, but white evangelicals quickly discovered it was also a potent tool to avoid racial discussion and reform in a new era of official equality. All too often, black and white evangelicals who dared to demand change found the colorblind gospel thrown back at them: if we’re one Christ, why are you talking about these divisive racial things? In the ensuing decades, evangelicals would deploy theologies of racial colorblindness to elevate black voices and to silence them, to press for change and to hold the line, to break down barriers and to rebuild them.

In the face of this complexity, the popular story centered around Bob Jones University imagines reactionaries pining for the good old days of Jim Crow. That gets it exactly backward: it was precisely the declining need to defend a regional system of segregation that enabled evangelicals to unite across historic regional divides and experience explosive growth in their movement. In the decades after the civil rights movement white evangelical churches grew by leaps and bounds. Southern Baptists added over two million people to their member rolls between 1970 and 1985. The Assemblies of God and the Evangelical Free Church tripled their numbers. While overtly racist fundamentalist churches became increasingly marginalized and liberal Protestant denominations declined, white evangelical denominations embraced an ambiguous colorblind gospel that was exceptionally well-tuned to appeal to America’s burgeoning suburbs. Far from being simple reactionaries, white evangelicals became creative religio-racial entrepreneurs who successfully positioned themselves in the mainstream of America in an age of colorblindness.

Undergirding these ostensibly colorblind congregations was a church growth industry that deliberately invested in whiteness in order to spread the gospel. Drawing on missionary theory developed in caste-conscious India in the 1930s, evangelical church growth experts taught that people like to worship with people like themselves. Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement, wrote in 1955 that “It does no good to say that tribal people ought not to have race prejudice. They do have it and are proud of it. It can be understood and should be made an aide to Christianization.” McGavran had in mind an attack on paternalistic western missionary strategies that disrupted indigenous social bonds in the Global South. He did not want people to feel that becoming a Christian meant becoming a western individualist. In places like India, this meant that the invitation to become Christian should not compel people to relinquish their caste identities. Rather than understanding caste as an obstacle to the formation of Christian churches, McGavran believed missionaries had to start seeing castes as pathways for God’s work. Christianity could spread further and faster along caste lines than across them. As McGavran developed these ideas from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was quite explicit that this “peoples” based approach did not apply to the individualistic and modern United States.

But the events of the 1960s transformed the evangelistic calculus. In the wake of black power and the revival of white ethnic identities, McGavran and his disciples concluded that Americans, too, had deep-seated bonds of race, language, and belonging that could be harnessed to spread the gospel. Defining whiteness as merely another part of the American mosaic, evangelical church growth experts updated McGavran’s “peoples” approach and applied it to the United States. They declared that the “homogeneous unit principle” taught that American churches would grow fastest if people did not have to cross barriers of race, class, or language. By the middle of the 1970s, this approach had become the hottest trend in evangelical church startups. Spread through ubiquitous pastoral seminars and influential institutions like Fuller Seminary, the ideas of the Church Growth Movement became commonsense in the white evangelical mainstream. This was pragmatism on steroids in pursuit of the ultimate goal: salvation of souls. And here we must pause and take seriously the ideas animating evangelical activists. McGavran knew that all human beings faced an eternal destiny, and only the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection could save them. It was incumbent upon evangelicals to use the best possible methods to bring the greatest numbers of people into the Christian fold. What could be more important than that?

The homogeneous unit principle even enabled Southern Baptists and other evangelical denominations to launch thousands of new Hispanic, Asian, and black congregations during the 1980s and 1990s, proving more successful than most liberal churches in actually including people of color within their denominations. Yet whether this was healthy pluralism or an updated form of segregation remained an open question. In any case, church growth experts taught that questions of social justice were of secondary concern next to the overriding importance of growing churches. And so in an age of white flight, most white evangelical pastors and church planters focused on a target demographic that almost guaranteed church growth: the white middle class in growing suburbs. One of the most famous and influential of these pastors, Rick Warren, trained under the leading church growth thinkers of the era and cited McGavran as one of his main influences. He founded his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, precisely because it was a booming region full of his target demo. Warren and his leadership team created a composite character to focus attention on the precise kind of person they wanted their church to reach: “Saddleback Sam” was a wealthy white man.

Black evangelicals were quick to point out the irony of these race-conscious church growth strategies. While white evangelicals were in fact making a racial bet and investing in whiteness in the name of spreading the gospel, on the ground in local homogeneous churches race seemed to all but disappear. What was left was a privatized faith where white identity could all too easily blur with Christian identity. Black evangelical pastors such as Clarence Hilliard warned that “Specialists in getting quick, easy decisions for a strange, mystical, theologically white Christ are rapidly increasing.” In his view the church growth craze failed to challenge believers to take up their cross and confront the racist structures of American society. Instead, American Christians got a comfortable Jesus and a ticket to heaven. The Black evangelical activist and community organizer John Perkins took in the same scene and called white evangelicalism “the most segregated, racist institution in America.” Perkins wasn’t taking issue with the Christian Right. He was talking about more fundamental structures of evangelical life and thought. While white evangelicals treated their movement’s success as a sign of God’s blessing and their own devotion to the gospel, Perkins declared that a gospel that didn’t confront American racism was “no gospel at all.”

But Perkins found it was hard to argue with success. By the 1980s, white evangelicals were beginning to get a heady sense of their own power. The simple story tells us this was the age of Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution. The more important story tells of burgeoning member rolls in local churches as pastors paired a colorblind gospel message with targeted appeals to the white middle class. Self-assured in their ownership of the gospel and their theological rigor, white evangelicals felt emboldened to expand their influence by any means necessary. They had proven themselves eager adopters—as they had been for two centuries!—of the latest technological tools and cultural trends in a bid to grow their movement and take America back for God. As they faced the new millennium, white evangelicals nursed intoxicating dreams of a third Great Awakening and an America restored in a new age of revival.

Two decades of rapid change have dealt a severe blow to this evangelical confidence. Sweeping cultural transformations from gay marriage to the rising salience of transgender rights made many white evangelicals feel like strangers in their own country. Church growth abated as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation surged. Declining church membership and lost cultural authority were nothing less than a crisis for a movement that had imagined revival just around the corner. As white evangelical ascendance turned to decline, confidence morphed into fear. In this context, many evangelicals saw the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe as one of the few bright spots on a dark horizon.

Being pro-life had become a key marker of evangelical identity and belonging, yet in their self-imposed isolation from black Christians, white evangelicals had crafted an exceptionally individualistic and narrow conception of a pro-life ethic. And they insisted that this peculiar ethic was God’s law that must govern the country. The possibility of an interracial and bipartisan pro-life coalition that concerned itself with gun violence and health care and poverty as well as abortion foundered on the refusal of white evangelicals to take seriously the black evangelical voices in their midst. White evangelicals had not come to know how one might be a faithful Christian without power, how one might seek the public good even in the face of public hostility. In short, white evangelicals did not learn what they might have from the black church: how to live in a hostile world without fear and without the need to dominate others. If evangelicalism could not with its own resources make America a Christian nation, white evangelicals would look to harness the power of government to compel Americans toward righteousness. For black evangelicals, this lunge for power was familiar. They had already seen white evangelicalism’s ruthless pragmatism up close. Now the rest of the country became aware of it through the movement’s deathlike embrace of Donald Trump’s anti-democracy movement.  

White evangelicalism is a tradition haunted by loss: the loss of influence, the loss of a prior moral order, the loss of an imagined Christian nation. The white evangelicals who have coalesced around Trump are not pining for a new Jim Crow, as a narrative of simple racist reaction might imply. Instead, they seek a new Christian order, even if its form is authoritarian. It is this Christian nation, not a pluralist democratic one, that most white evangelicals seek to create. And that’s why the crisis of evangelicalism is a crisis of American democracy.   


*This section is drawn from my book.

What We Still Get Wrong About White Flight—And Why It Matters

This week I went with my son on a church mission trip to Detroit. After living most of my adult life in segregated black neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia it was more than a little unsettling to approach Detroit from the position of a white short-term mission-tripper from a small town. In Philadelphia I often spoke to short-term mission teams to orient them to the historical and racial context of what they would experience during their week of volunteering in the city. To be on the other side and be spoken to was a healthy blow to my ego.

Our time in Detroit was also a reminder of why it’s so important that we talk accurately about the past. One evening we went to the site where the 1967 Detroit uprising began. Our guide, a white woman in her sixties, said she vividly recalled hearing the news of the riot when she was a child. She told us that police mistreatment of black residents and lack of opportunity were primary causes of the rebellion. So far so good. I was glad she spoke clearly about this. Then she told us that on the eve of the rebellion Detroit was a vibrant and bustling city but that the riot caused a fundamental shift.

“That was when white flight began,” she said.

This historically false claim may have tragically undercut all the good she was trying to communicate to us. I’ll explain first why it’s false and then explain why this particular false statement is so consequential.

By the time of the uprising, Detroit had already been weathering two decades of economic restructuring as postwar industry moved out of central cities. As factories built in urban cores in the early twentieth century became obsolete, companies decentralized their operations, building more modern and automated facilities in spacious suburbs. They looked even further afield to other states in search of more pliant workforces in places where unions held less power. Industry spread out. Capital moved. In the twenty years before the uprising, Detroit lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs! Hundreds of thousands of white residents had already left and the city had entered into an era of sustained population decline that has continued to the present day. Indeed, the very neighborhood where the riot began was nearly all white twenty years before, but flipped to all black during the 1950s.

In short, the 1967 uprising was the exclamation point on two decades of economic restructuring and white flight, not the sudden start of something new. The uprisings of the 1960s only added fuel to fires that had started burning decades earlier. Tom Sugrue made all of this painfully clear over a quarter century ago in The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

Describing the 1967 rebellion as the starting point of white flight has deeply troubling implications. The volunteers who hear this narrative are left with only one logical conclusion: a sensational act of black violence touched off Detroit’s catastrophic decline. This leaves impressionable visitors to the city ill-equipped to interpret the economic devastation they see around them. Faced with this seemingly incomprehensible hollowed-out city, they may resort to well-worn tropes of contempt on the one hand, and pity on the other. The conservative-minded volunteer may blame the people in these places for their poverty. The liberal-minded person may pity them. Both may fail to understand the forces that made these neighborhoods.

They are even less likely to be able to see these oppressed places as sites of ordinary community, where neighbors help neighbors, children play, and, against the odds our society imposes, people build lives for themselves and fulfill their dreams. Here’s how you know you’re operating in the contempt/pity paradigm: you can visit the place for a week but you can’t imagine living there. But really, these places are very livable! The forces of oppression are not total, and people can and do make homes for themselves in the places society has tried to leave behind.

So if the uprisings of the 1960s didn’t cause white flight, what did? The wrenching economic changes of the era were only part of it. The stark fact is that the mere presence of a black family moving into a neighborhood was enough to cause white flight. Banks, realty companies, governments, and churches all conspired to make white flight worse, but we must not evade the simplicity of what happened in the texture of peoples’ daily experience. Millions of white homeowners simply refused to have black neighbors. The white housewives in the infamous Crisis in Levittown documentary spoke for millions when they said things like this:

“If there are too many colored people around here I definitely will get out…”

“Well I just could not live beside them. I don’t feel that they should be oppressed, but I moved here — one of the main reasons was because it was a white community — and that’s the only place I intend to live. If I have to leave Levittown I will do so.”

These women declared their intentions in 1957, years before the uprisings of the 1960s. This intractable white hatred is what hurled American cities into crisis in the twentieth century. The economic restructuring of the postwar world was always going to be difficult. Cities across the western world faced similar changes and periods of decline. But in the United States white racism guaranteed that instead of facing these challenges together we would face them apart and make them worse. And we would offload the costs of the new economy on the very people with the fewest resources. Like millions of European immigrants, black migrants came to northern cities in search of the American Dream. But they were treated differently than any immigrant group. As white businesses and residents fled, they pulled up the ladders of opportunity behind them.

White flight was not a response to black violence. White flight was a riot itself. We’ve got to get this history right so that we at least have a fighting chance of seeing what is right in front of our noses when we go on a “mission trip” to “the inner city”: the people living in these places are utterly ordinary. They are not to be feared, pitied, or romanticized. They are not so different from us in their hopes and dreams for their children, but probably quite a bit more clear-eyed than you and I about the sickness still lurking in America’s soul.

The Bible Told Them So: A Conversation with J. Russell Hawkins

J. Russell Hawkins is Professor in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University and author of the new book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought To Preserve White Supremacy.

What question(s) led you to write this book?

Honestly, answering this could easily turn into a book itself, so I’ll try to keep it brief.  I wrote this book, in part, to answer questions about my own history.  I grew up very much a part of the white evangelical subculture in the 1980s and 90s. I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night.  I sang along with Psalty and listened to the Music Machine on vinyl. I wore witness wear, subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine and saw my fellow Christian high school students at the pole each September.  But this evangelical world was only part of my formation.  I also grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, attended racially diverse public schools from K-12, and grew up playing on racially diverse sports teams.  The racial diversity of a good part of the rest of my lived experiences stood in stark contrast to the homogeneity of my church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  And as I grew older, I began to be struck by how attitudes and conversations about race in my church were much different than in other areas of my upbringing.  Conversations about race with white Christians were often met with defensiveness, or hostility, or hushed tones.  They were usually short, with the implied message that it was better not to talk about such things. Occasionally, I even heard explicitly racist comments or jokes at church.  Now, to clarify, these things didn’t register with me as they were happening.  It wasn’t until later while I was in the midst of my graduate studies and started wrestling more seriously with questions about race and religion in American history that I found myself wanting to make sense of why so many white evangelicals seemed so weird about race compared to people I knew who weren’t part of that evangelical world.  I decided that if I was going to figure this out I would need to find a period of history when white evangelicals were talking about race and figured the civil rights era held promise for southern white evangelicals going on the record about their racial beliefs.  And it turns out, it did.  So while I’m not a direct descendant of the southern white evangelicals I cover in my book, I do believe a lot of the tendencies I have experienced in evangelicalism around race have roots in the civil rights period.

What is the argument of The Bible Told Them So?

I’m essentially putting forward two big arguments in the book. The first is that a critical mass of southern evangelicals were motivated to resist the civil rights movement because of their religious beliefs. These Christians read the Bible to say that God had designed the segregation of the races and doing away with Jim Crow violated God’s plan. I show in the book how such ideas were derived through a particular reading of the Bible and how the subsequent segregationist theology that arose from this hermeneutic was articulated, defended, and deployed throughout the classical period of the civil rights movement (1954-1965). The second argument is that this theological system wasn’t abandoned after 1965, rather in morphed into new forms to maintain segregation. As southern society was forced to change around them, these southern evangelicals who adhered to a theology of segregation had to change the way they articulated such commitments. I argue that they began using rhetoric of colorblindness and a defense of the family as tools to maintain segregation by the 1970s.

I especially want to zero in on that colorblindness angle. The idea that colorblindness follows hard on the heels of the civil rights movement is not new. But you draw a direct link between the rhetoric of segregation and the rhetoric of colorblindness in a way that seemed fresh and new to me. Can you explain the significance of that?

Yes, usually we think of colorblindness as emerging after Jim Crow’s defeat, or as you say, colorblindness follows hard on the heels of segregation as white folks are trying to make sense of their new post-segregation reality.  But what I found in my research were Christians who adopted the language and tools of colorblindness as a strategy of maintaining segregation rather than a response to integration.  Colorblindness for these white Christians wasn’t so much about making sense of a new reality.  Instead, it was using a particular kind of rhetorical device to maintain the segregation they had been practicing in their institutions all along (or since emancipation in the case of churches).  So as some Christian institutions and denominations started to make halting moves toward integration in the mid to late 1960s, there were white Christians who started saying that all this attention to race was problematic and the church and religious institutions would be better off if they just ignored the issue of race altogether.  But, these were the same people who had said a decade earlier that God made the races distinct and declared in Scripture that they should be segregated.  So it was almost as if these folks could see the writing on the wall and colorblindness for them became the final defense of a segregated system they believed God desired.   

In chapter 4 you detail the rise of colorblindness during the integration battle in the Methodist Church. I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between colorblindness in American politics at that time (with all the energy around affirmative action and busing) and colorblindness in the church. Were white Christians simply seizing on this concept that was out there in politics? Or were they developing a distinctive brand of colorblindness? In other words, do you think there was something Methodist about this colorblindness?

I do think the colorblind defense I highlight in chapter 4 was a parroting of some of the rhetoric found increasingly in American politics at that time.  But, again, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the white Methodists I cover were using this colorblind argument for the explicit purpose of avoiding the integration of their denomination, which had been segregated since 1939.  The reason I think it’s so important to emphasize the linkage between early uses of colorblindness and the defense of segregation in the church is because of how ubiquitous the language of colorblindness would become among evangelicals within a generation after 1970. (Can’t wait for your book to tell this story.)  As you know, white evangelicals today are especially fond of the language of colorblindness when it comes to matters of race.  And while there are ample critiques of colorblindness, I think one of the most powerful indictments we can make against colorblind rhetoric is to show that in its earliest iteration it was wielded by white Christians who wished to maintain Jim Crow-style segregation in their churches and religious institutions.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that a white evangelical subculture who embraced the language of colorblindness remains hyper-segregated along racial lines.  Colorblindness has helped in part maintain the very segregation it’s early adopters had hoped and prayed for.    

Why does this history matter now?

I don’t think there have been very many days that have gone by in the past six months (Past year? Past four years?) when the importance of this history hasn’t been abundantly clear. I think especially with the unrelenting focus on CRT in American society in general and the backlash to “wokeness” among many white evangelicals in particular, the issue of race continues to hold immense salience. I’m hopeful my book can provide some additional light on how we got here.

Three Highlights from How to Fight Racism

I’m reading Jemar Tisby’s new book, How to Fight Racism. I recommend it. It’s silly to write about the book before I’m quite done with it but I am getting excited and want to share some quick highlights. Here are three things I think Tisby does especially well.

–Moving past the racist/not racist dichotomy. Tisby reminds us we’re all on a journey. I like to tell people I think I’m a little less racist than I used to be. But it is absurd to suppose that I am not at all racist or that my actions are never racially harmful. How could I possibly grow up where and when I did, become socialized into whiteness, and not be racist? Tisby’s framing encourages us neither to despair nor feel self-righteous, but to move forward from whatever point we find ourselves.

Upon meeting me for the first time, a Black teenager once moved up close to me, looked me over, and asked, “Are you racist?” On one level, she was merely a rambunctious kid engaging in some deliberately provocative play. But on a deeper level she was very efficiently finding out crucial information about me. If I responded defensively or with anger, she would know I was not a safe adult and she should stay away. I don’t remember if I gave her “my less racist than I used to be” answer, but I do remember consciously letting go of any impulse to defend myself.

–Rejecting the personal/systemic false choice. A generation ago, there was a whole genre of Christian racial reconciliation books that said relationships were the key to racial progress. All too often, these books and their readers used this relationship focus as a weapon against structural critique. The liberals missed the point, they said. Systemic solutions didn’t deal with the human heart. Only relationships among Christians could create real racial progress.

Tisby rejects this simplistic prioritizing of the personal without losing sight of how important relationships are. He writes, “People need a personal motivation to disrupt the regular patterns of racism in their own lives and in society…It is difficult to pursue effective structural remedies to racism if you have little understanding of the personal experiences of marginalized people.” Instead of the personal and systemic being at odds, Tisby sees personal relationships as a way to galvanize system-level action while keeping that action rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people.

Tisby’s insistence that fighting racism is a both/and matter also carries a challenge for white liberals and leftists. If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the rote language of racial enlightenment, throwing around academic jargon with ideological inflexibility, then you know how important real relationships are. If you’ve seen white liberals imagining their own cities as a white archipelago surrounded by black and brown no-go zones, then you know how important personal action is. (On more than one occasion, people have “misheard” Alicia and I when we tell them where we live. It just doesn’t fit their mental map).

If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the language of pity, then you know how important real connections to black leaders are. Tisby insists that we shouldn’t just vote for people who might change systems. We can reject the narrow range of personal choices our segregated society tries to funnel us into. We can rethink where we send our kids to school, for example.

–Rejecting the politics of church primacy. You’ve heard this one before too: “The church is the only hope for racial progress. Only the gospel can change hearts.” This might be a plausible point of view coming from a radical Anabaptist envisioning an Acts 2 kind of primitive Christianity. But it reeks of excuses when it comes from mainstream American Christians who envision a role for the state in all sorts of important moral matters only to conspicuously assert the singular primacy of the church when it comes to race.

Tisby does not downplay the importance of the church at all. In fact, his chapter on doing reconciliation right is excellent on specific ways churches should take action to pursue racial justice. But he recognizes the rhetorical role defenses of the church can play in justifying inaction at the social and political level. If you think racial progress comes only through the church, you ought to explain how the church will level the racial wealth gap. While you’re at it, do tell how the church will abolish racist policing and end school segregation. Of course, no one actually has such a plan, because these problems extend so far beyond the church’s capacity. Too often, the rhetoric of church primacy is really just another way of saying that racial oppression isn’t a serious problem demanding a systemic response.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so invested in the personal and ecclesial battle against racism, yet completely refuses to play the either/or game and give short shrift to systemic change. There is no contradiction between praying for a spiritual awakening for your hard-hearted friend to finally see the reality of racism, and at the same time pressuring institutions to pay reparations. They go hand in hand.

Tisby has a talent, I think, for meeting us where we are–wherever that may be–and challenging us to go a little further. This is a very good book.

African American Missionaries To Africa in the Age of Jim Crow: A Conversation with Kimberly D. Hill

I recently asked Kimberly D. Hill a few questions about her new book, A Higher Mission: The Careers of Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston in Central Africa.

What’s the argument of A Higher Mission?

My book argues that alumni of historically black colleges and universities transformed their academic preparation into innovative ministry strategies in central Africa. I trace several of these strategies to these American ministers’ interactions with local African villagers, church members, and students. These neighbors motivated missionaries to adjust their own plans to fit local interests and conditions.  The book focuses on a Fisk University graduate named Althea Brown and a Stillman seminary graduate named Alonzo Edmiston. They met in 1904 and married while serving with the American Presbyterian Congo Mission.

Most of the Edmistons’ three decades of joint ministry involved cooperation with a rare team of fellow African American Presbyterian missionaries. Only one of those missionaries has been the main subject of previous scholarly books: the Reverend William Henry Sheppard. The strategies of African American ministers were often overlooked or cut short due to overlapping pressures during colonization, the Jim Crow era, and the Great Depression. But those pressures did not extinguish these ministers’ goals, and evidence of their work remained apparent even after their lifetimes.

Could you talk more about those “overlapping pressures” you mentioned? To what extent do you see the Edmiston’s explicitly grappling with the in-betweenness of being African American missionaries in Africa in an age of white supremacy? Did they feel like they were walking a tightrope? Did they engage with the ideological currents of the time, such as Garveyism and pan-Africanism, or were these things far outside their orbit?

The specific history of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission inspired church members and observers to pay special attention to race relations among this group of Southern Presbyterians. After its 1891 founding by Sheppard and his white colleague, Samuel Lapsley, the Congo Mission staff included eleven African Americans by 1908. Robert Benedetto’s introduction to Presbyterian Reformers in Central Africa includes a section about the use of honorary titles and other signs of perceived racial integration among the missionaries, but Benedetto also details some of the lingering issues. Because Althea Brown and Alonzo Edmiston served the Congo Mission through the late 1930s, they observed major shifts in the ways that African American leaders were addressed by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and by European colonial governments. The Edmistons navigated shifting race-based travel restrictions that threatened to bar them from the trains and British ships that were part of typical travel between the US and the Congo. The Edmistons watched as most of their black colleagues were dismissed from missions service based on complaints about their actions, their demeanor, or their abilities. The Edmistons adjusted their own professional duties in order to avoid further accusations that their degrees from historically black academic institutions were insufficient.

Beyond their ministry tasks, the couple also felt compelled to suspend personal interests like their subscription to the Chicago Defender and their habit of following civil rights news updates. The Belgian government flagged the black press as a source of potential radicalism and occasional support for Marcus Garvey. This potential for surveillance was one reason that Alonzo Edmiston felt that it had become difficult by the mid-1930s to fulfill his ministerial purpose while maintaining his social and cultural connections within the United States.

What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?

Travel logistics posed the first hurdle for my research. Due to political complications abroad, I opted out of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo before completing A Higher Mission. That decision motivated me to visit additional archives in the U.S. South and investigate how historical developments in that region influenced African American missionaries living abroad. That shift in direction enriched my work for this book as well as my next project. 

Other significant questions were posed by the format of my archival sources. I wanted to represent the perspectives of the Edmistons’ African neighbors without relying exclusively on journals, letters, and articles written by Americans. I addressed this question by incorporating some of the significant texts in African theology. For my introduction to these texts, I must thank my colleagues in the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.  The book is dedicated to one of the group’s co-founders, Dr. Lamin Sanneh.

Why does this history matter now?

I’ll answer this question by referencing an article by my former Southern Oral History Program supervisor, Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (UNC-Chapel Hill). In her March 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Hall argues that we must expand the perceived boundaries of when, where, and how the movement flourished. This expansion holds the key to recognition that reform remains possible in our lifetimes.

I see the potential for an expanded understanding of community responsibility through the study of early twentieth century African American missionaries, their academic institutions, and their domestic and international neighbors. Many of the people featured in my book helped each other survive famine, dire poverty, racial violence, political oppression, and the 1918 pandemic. I benefited from learning how they supported one another through difficult circumstances and why they taught younger generations to do likewise. Seeing how the benefits of that community support are still flourishing for some of the communities featured in A Higher Mission was especially inspiring.

The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland: James H. Madison On Why the History of the Klan Matters Now

James H. Madison is Emeritus Professor of History, Indiana University Bloomington, and author of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. I recently asked him a few questions about his important new book.

What’s the argument of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland?

The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland places the hooded order of the 1920s squarely in the mainstream of American history. Klan members were neither marginal nor weird but mostly ordinary Americans, middle-class, white, and native-born. They saw themselves as the “good” people and as superior to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans, those “others” who were causing the downfall of the nation.

What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?

Of course, I abhor the Klan’s ideals, but I also wanted to be fair to those who joined the Klan. I walked a tight line to avoid a simple condemnation and to avoid defending them.

As you mention in the book, in the newspapers of the 1920s there are numerous reports of robed Klansmen silently interrupting church services to present a donation. Can you talk more about how you interpret those events? What do you think was their significance in a local community?

Religious belief and organization were central. The Klan joined with Protestant churches and church members in a tight alliance. Klansmen interrupting a Sunday service was one of many illustrations of the alliance.

Why does this history matter now?

Klan voices ring into the twenty-first century even if the tones have changed. More than any other part of our history, Klan-like beliefs connect our past and present with a venomous tenacity. Today’s heirs don’t appear in robes and hoods and their words are more coded, but the message of us/them, of exclusion, of white racial superiority is clear.


Madison is also the author of the definitive account of the story behind one of the most infamous lynching images in American history. See that book here.

A Reading List for My Next Class

I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.

Thoughts for Sunday

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The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

What Can We Learn From Three Generations of Black Evangelical Protest Books?

In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.

The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.

The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.

The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).

This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?

Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.

With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:

Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.

To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.

But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.

In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.

Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.

This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.

We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?

Recent Fiction Roundup

In the past couple months I’ve been on a bit of a fiction binge. This isn’t normal for me but I’ve needed an escape from my work and TV doesn’t seem to work anymore. My approach to fiction-reading is not particularly sophisticated. I browse the prizewinner lists and go from there.

Here’s a roundup of my reading binge. As is always the case when people share what they are reading, this is partly an exercise in vanity. But it also reflects my curious impulse to see the book covers gathered in one place.

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The full title of this book might as well be Union Atlantic: This is America (and It’s as Bad as You Feared). Some of the themes in Adam Haslett’s more recent book are evident here, but without the redeeming factor of being truly interesting. A depressing book with a revolting character who, as so often in our time (or every time?), never really receives the comeuppance you wish for him.

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A slow-burning, small story that didn’t grab me. At the end Maud finally seems poised to escape her suffocating existence. But getting there is a dreary catalogue punctuated by sex. Lots of sex. The picture painted of Indian life in 1920s Oklahoma is fascinating even if it doesn’t seem to burst into full color.

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A beautiful book. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The two women at the center of the story seem almost like archetypes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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The first half of this book expertly carried a sense of looming calamity. But after the cathartic event, the second half of the book flagged. I also got tired of everyone stumbling around drunk all night and sleeping all day. Lots of people go to college without living like this! I enjoyed The Goldfinch more (but that one was strange too!)

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A weird and wonderful book. With Franzen, it may be strange and obnoxious, but you don’t want to put it down. Definitely better than his first one, and I think on the level of his later more highly-regarded books.

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This is the one I’m getting into now. So far it has a really appealing tone: light, unassuming, very accessible.