A movement for racial justice captures the nation’s attention and puts white evangelicals on the defensive. Shocking brutality spurs demands for reform, black evangelicals press for a more inclusive brand of evangelicalism, and white evangelical elites acknowledge the need for change. A major white evangelical periodical announces that the time for “platitudes” is over.1 Is this the moment white evangelicalism finally rouses itself to support black freedom?
I am speaking not of 2020, but of 1963. The white evangelical response to that epochal year of civil rights protest reveals enduring patterns in the ways white evangelicals engage racial issues and suggests the prospects for an anti-racist white evangelicalism in 2020 are dim.
The Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963 brought police brutality home to American living rooms through indelible images of dogs and fire hoses. In September, a terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four black girls dead. If some white evangelicals were too set in their ways to hear the anguished cries for change, perhaps the younger generation would lead the way. One white evangelical college student declared that there was no longer any “middle ground.” There were only two choices left: “One either actively protests injustice to the black man or hates him.”2
But white evangelicals seemed determined to test this proposition. Perhaps they could find a middle ground amid the storms of protest. White evangelical leaders were absent from the largest protest of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because, as one put it, “Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.”3
What was the evangelical way? Embracing systemic reforms and street protests carried the risk of cutting white evangelical elites off from their populist and conservative white constituency. In the pews, a powerful blend of God, country, and race made white Christian identity sacred. But white evangelical elites also worried that failure to act would discredit their movement with the rising generation. If reform threatened to splinter the evangelical coalition and stasis risked limiting its future growth, what could be done?
White evangelical elites found the answer in a path between reform and reaction. They increasingly spoke of the need for Christian love and unity across the color line, not as a complement to systemic reform, but as an alternative to it. While black evangelicals called for a church that knew no bounds of color and worked to meet practical social needs, white evangelicals declared that spiritual unity in Christ trumped institutional reform in both church and society. A revival of Christian love was the surest solution to America’s racial crisis.
This theology of race should be understood not as a simply reactionary stance but as a creative effort at evangelical coalition-building. Cross-pressured by conscience, evangelistic calculations, and disparate demands from without and without evangelicalism, white evangelical elites searched for an updated theology of race that could grow evangelicalism’s appeal in the new racial era that was dawning.
In the ensuing decades, the growth of predominantly white evangelical churches indicated the success of this strategy. Positioning themselves comfortably in the white mainstream in an ostensibly colorblind post-civil rights era America, white evangelicals promoted interpersonal kindness, voluntary church-centered initiatives and an evangelistic message that emphasized a personal experience of salvation with few social implications. This strategy not only helped hold together the white evangelical coalition, it enabled it to make inroads into some immigrant and African American communities.
White evangelical efforts to grow their coalition with an appealing racial message reached their peak in the 1990s with the so-called “racial reconciliation” movement. As Americans became skeptical of the capacity of government to promote racial progress, white evangelicals went on the offensive. Their longstanding message that racial healing was a matter of the heart rather than the state struck a chord. White evangelicals gained much positive media coverage for their willingness to tackle the nation’s enduring racial divisions when all else seemed to have failed.
In reality, white evangelicals were fine-tuning a decades-long strategy: a message of church-centered racial healing as a means of evangelical coalition-building. Major initiatives of that era, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for racism and slavery, had their origin not in racial justice activism, but in renewed efforts to bring people of color into the evangelical fold.
For half a century, white evangelical elites navigated shifting racial currents with a view toward maintaining the unity of their movement, preserving its credibility, and expanding it into new communities. But the last decade has made this balancing act difficult to sustain. Moments of mass protest and systemic reform—whether in 1963 or 2020—put the evangelical coalition under enormous strain. It is probably not possible for evangelical leaders to please at once the enthusiastic Trump supporter and the black lives matter protestor.
If the past is prologue, white evangelical elites are likely to try to thread the needle anyway. Crucial to their calculations will be the knowledge that there are far more Trump supporters in their midst than black lives matter activists.
To be sure, there have already been some high-profile gestures that suggest this moment might be different. But it is sobering to realize that white evangelical elites have been making progressive racial statements for decades. These statements temporarily roil the white evangelical base but tend not to move it in any enduring way.
There has been much chatter about 2020 as the new 1968. In that year of crisis the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “undertake to secure opportunities in matters of citizenship, public services, education, employment, and personal habitation” for African Americans and declared, “Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”4 Whatever became of that?
Behind the banner headlines made by denominational leaders and magazine editors, most white evangelical pastors’ message in this moment of crisis is likely to be pared down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to their white populist base. If their constituents cannot agree on the merits of racial justice protestors, at least they can agree to love each other and keep the church door open. This message might save the evangelical coalition from fracture, but it will not promote black liberation. Indeed, it was never designed to do that.
1 “Let’s Face up to the Race Issue,” Eternity, August 1963, 5-6.
2 Harold Bontekoe, “The Alternative To Hate,” Calvin College Chimes, September 27, 1963, 2.
3 “The Washington March and the Negro Cause,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1963, 27-28. See also, “Desegregation,” Covenanter Witness, September 11, 1963, 163.
4 “A Statement Concerning the Crisis In Our Nation,” June 5, 1968.