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.