White Evangelicals Have Not Repented

The aftermath of a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, VA, August 12, 2017.

Events in Charlottesville have me reflecting on the long and deadly reach of our unrepented pasts. The following two historical nuggets are worth thinking about now:

On March 7, 1965, Alabama troopers attacked civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. Images of beaten and bloody protestors flashed across Americans’ TV screens and the voting rights campaign was suddenly at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

Two days later, a group of white supremacists attacked three white pastors who had come to support the campaign. Badly beaten and suffering from a massive skull fracture, the reverend James Reeb died on March 11.

On March 15 President Johnson gave an historic speech to a joint session of congress calling for a voting rights bill. These were some of the most pivotal days of the entire civil rights movement. Rarely would the battle between right and wrong appear more clear than in these grievous days.

A week later, Clyde W. Taylor, Secretary General of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained the NAE’s position on the civil rights movement:

The official stand of the NAE on the whole race issue, including Selma, is that we do not take a stand on it. We are neither for nor against.¹

In a contest between murderous idolaters and nonviolent Christians, the nation’s premier white evangelical organization wanted it to be known that it was studiously neutral.

George Leiby spent the summer of 1966 inspecting hospitals in Tennessee and Mississippi for compliance with the Civil Rights Act. As a federal employee, he worked for the Office of Equal Health Opportunity to ensure that the new Medicare program would be implemented fairly.

Leiby was a devout Christian, and he was white. His travels and responsibilities allowed him to visit many black southerners in their homes and attend their churches. “Many an evening was spent in a dimly lit, poorly furnished home across the tracks, with the shades pulled,” he wrote, “listening to the stories of lives filled with insults and limitations promulgated by the white community.”

On more than one occasion, black Christians asked Leiby a simple question: “How can the white man go to heaven? The Bible says if one has hate in his heart for any man he cannot love God.”

“I could not answer this question,” he confessed. And time did not bring the clarity he craved. The following year he wrote, “After these many months I still cannot answer that question. I have gradually become disillusioned with the church.”²

I’ve shared the Clyde Taylor quote before and am doing so again because it so aptly captures the spiritual blindness and moral cowardice that animated the white evangelical mainstream in the 1960s. It is the same blindness and cowardice that drives us still.

I shared the pointed question black Christians asked of George Leiby in 1966 because it is the same question that white evangelicals ought to sit with now. When you say you want reconciliation with your sisters and brothers while supporting our racist President, you can’t be taken seriously. Your words and actions are not aligned.

The President believes a white supremacist terrorist attack is an occasion to talk about the responsibilities of “both sides.” If white evangelicals follow him down that road, they willfully turn their back on Jesus Christ and embrace the spirit of evil that produced the Holocaust.

The uncomfortable truth is that the white evangelical mainstream is intimately familiar with the same grievances driving the white supremacists in Charlottesville. The white supremacists believe they are being replaced, discriminated against, disempowered. As it turns out, surveys show that many white evangelicals believe they face more discrimination than black Americans. These are not benign political opinions. This is racist nonsense that cowardly evangelical leaders have refused to call out in their churches.

Of course, it ought to be the easiest thing in the world to denounce white supremacists who are literally embracing Nazism. Many white evangelicals will probably do so. But will they find their voice to denounce the President who emboldened such evil? Will they find their voice to speak up for the kind of liberatory justice the scriptures describe, a justice that works against police brutality and economic oppression and educational inequity?

White evangelical friend, if you take a conservative line on questions of racial justice, I have a simple question for you: when was the inflection point at which white evangelicals went from being wrong to right? Evidently it wasn’t at Bloody Sunday. So when was it? When did the repentance occur? When was that broad and deep reckoning that turned thousands of white supremacist churches into Jesus-worshiping, justice-loving churches?

Trump-supporting evangelicals, when will you take responsibility for  empowering the forces of racism? When will you repent?

¹Clyde W. Taylor to Herbert S. Mekeel, March 22, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

² George M. Leibby to H. Franklin Paschall, February 12, 1967, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.

The Self-absorbed Politics of White Evangelicalism

Why did so many white evangelicals support Trump in November? Self-protection perhaps? As Wayne Grudem last summer:

a Trump-appointed Supreme Court, together with dozens of lower court judges appointed by him, would probably result in significant advances in many of the policy areas important to Christians. It would also open the door to huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups known as “family policy councils” in various states, especially enabling them to work for further legal protections for life, for marriage and family, and for religious liberty.

Many white evangelicals believed it was more important to protect the prerogatives and traditions of their religious institutions than to resist the broader threat to the public good represented by the Trump campaign.

This insular brand of evangelical politics is not new. During the upheavals of the 1960s, many white evangelicals mobilized on behalf of their religious interests while remaining on the sidelines in matters of social justice. In the Spring of 1965, many clergy came to Selma, Alabama to participate in the civil rights movement’s voting rights campaign. But not white evangelical leaders. Just weeks after Alabama State Troopers attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Clyde W. Taylor, Secretary General of the National Association of Evangelicals, firmly rejected rumors that the NAE was lobbying on behalf of civil rights legislation. He wrote,

The official stand of the NAE on the whole race issue, including Selma, is that we do not take a stand on it. We are neither for nor against.¹

In a telephone conversation with an evangelical who wanted the NAE to support the civil rights movement, Taylor’s assistant explained,

The NAE has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.²

This hands-off posture had not prevented the NAE from jumping into the fray of a national election just five years before. In 1960, the NAE produced and distributed materials encouraging Protestants to vote against John F. Kennedy, who would be the nation’s first Catholic president.

A not-so-subtle NAE appeal to vote against Kennedy

For some white evangelicals, the prospect of a Kennedy Presidency was a threat to their religious liberty. Would Catholic Bishops exert undue influence on the President, working to subvert Protestant Christianity? Such concerns seemed to justify political engagement.

In contrast, the denial of basic rights and safety to Black Americans did not “affect the function of the church.” While evangelical leaders rallied to defend the role they believed their religious tradition ought to play in American life, they were less likely to take political risks on behalf of other communities.

The election of 2016 suggests this self-protective politics remains an important feature of white evangelicalism.

¹Clyde W. Taylor to Herbert S. Mekeel, March 22, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

² “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.