Oh, the Irony!

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Editorial in the African American newspaper The Broad Ax, 1904

Here’s a fascinating editorial from a black newspaper in Chicago complaining that black people always vote Republican:

It is inconceivable to us how the Negro can work himself up to the point where he is willing to trifle with his soul’s salvation, for he is willing to forfeit his chances of arriving within the pearly gates of heaven (if there is such a place, which we doubt), by affiliating with all the wildcat churches in existence. He will become a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Mormon, Christian Scientist, Dowieite, and freely follow the religious leaders of all other denominations, and hazard his chances of striking the straight and narrow path, which is supposed to lead to paradise, for it is expressly stated that there is only one true church, that all who fail to march under its banner are eternally lost. With this terrible warning or admonition hanging over his head he is perfectly willing to traverse various roads in order to find a resting place with his imaginary gods throughout eternity.

All this is readily changed with the Negro when it comes down to politics, which only deal with the temporal affairs of men and not with their spiritual welfare, and by permitting the wily and demagogic leaders of the Republican party to mix up his religion and his politics together for him; he has naturally arrived at that mental condition which forces him to believe that he must continue to blindly vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln, regardless of the fact that men and political measures have changed within the past forty years…

As it is he can never regain any of his political power or prestige until he refrains from permitting any one to tell how he is going to vote simply on account of the color of his skin. The members of no other race in America claiming to be civilized, would permit themselves to pursue such a ruinous course of policy.  The members of all other races and nationalities look upon politics as a cold business proposition, and the vast majority of them cast their ballots for the men who will best serve their interests, regardless of their politics, and enable them to enrich their pockets. While on the other hand the Negro continues to live in the dead past, and is ever ready to continue to vote for dead ideas or sentiments. His mental disease in this regard is his greatest curse. He is tolerant or friendly disposed to any other Negro who may happen to differ with him along religious lines, but he places his Republican politics ahead of his Lord and his religion, for with a few honorable exceptions he is willing to tear to pieces every Negro who assumes an air of political independence, that is one who fails to blindly vote and act like himself.

The ironies. The resonances. The questions. Primary sources have a way of surprising us, provoking new questions, giving us a window into a world that we might have thought we knew, but is actually quite unfamiliar and surprising.

Among the surprises here: the mocking attitude toward religion, and the intensity of anti-Republican feeling at this early date. To specialists this probably isn’t surprising, but it is to me. In any case, someone needed to tell the editorialist that political allegiances are sticky and African Americans didn’t really have better options at the time. Sound familiar?

White and Black Are Not Innocent Metaphors

In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:

In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.

Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…

White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.

There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.

These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.

In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:

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These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.

This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”

The Racist History of My Alma Mater

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Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.

The Joys of Research

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The Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

I’ve been at the Billy Graham Center Archives this week. It’s the first stop in what I am calling my midwestern tour. We’re in peak corporate suburbia. Alicia’s reaction when we arrived was priceless. She was genuinely disoriented by this world where “town center” is apparently a synonym for parking lots, and elaborate gardenscapes are not actually public spaces but are merely to be looked at from passing cars. Of course this wasn’t new to her, but we become accustomed to our normal lives and quickly lose touch with other worlds.

My advice to phd candidates with kids: if possible mix everything together and make memories while you’re researching. I thought this might be a disaster but so far we’ve had a great time, Alicia and I and the three boys. None of this is worth it anyway if it prevents you from enjoying your family.

Now, about the research.

Because my opportunities for travel are limited, I try to process as much material as I can as quickly as possible. Lots of jpegs. But you also have to take some time to enjoy it. I don’t want to give away the good stuff, but let’s just say there have been lots of “wow” moments this week in the archives. My dissertation is really going to put the “white” in “white evangelicalism.” Given the overwhelming importance of racial identity to the evangelical movement, it’s remarkable how little many historians of evangelicalism have paid attention to it.

Last night I woke up at 1am and couldn’t get back to sleep until 3am because my brain seemed determined to write the whole dissertation then and there. Information overload. But the multiplying questions, the dizzying expansion of understanding that the archives can bring, are a thrill. It’s especially fun when you come across those documents that you immediately know will be in the final product.

One example. I’ve been learning a lot more about Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement. My sense of who he was has continued to gather depth and nuance. But in the end, you need to deliver to readers some punchy descriptions. What was this person like? What was he all about? Then I came across a letter from a colleague of McGavran. He wanted McGavran to do a certain thing. But, as he wrote to a friend, “Actually, you and I both know we can’t control McGavran” (my paraphrase). Yes! That captured it perfectly. A man who was going to do what he wanted to do. With his church growth ideas he got the bit in his mouth in the 1930s and never let go for the better part of 60 years.

Tomorrow it’s on to my alma mater, and from there to Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It’s hard to believe we get paid to do this stuff.

“I am tired of reading about them.”

Campus Life, an evangelical magazine for high school and college students, began publishing a few stories about African Americans in the late 1960s. This didn’t sit well with some readers. One gets the sense the editors got a kick out of publishing some of the more strident responses. From Birmingham, Alabama, Frank George wrote:

There is too much propaganda about Negroes. I am tired of reading about them.

Old letters to the editor are often fascinating. This one’s a classic. Sadie Caine, librarian of Perry Christian School in Marion, Alabama, was also annoyed. She wrote:

When Campus Life comes to the library of Perry Christian School, it is thrown into the wastebasket immediately. The high Christian standards of our school necessitate the elimination of all degrading reading materials. Please cancel our subscription.

One of the devil’s best tools in trying to spread atheistic Communism is through the infiltration of religious groups.

This, too, is classic. Someone should look into whether or not Perry Christian School was a segregation academy. A quick google search turns up that the school is still around, though it has a new name. It was founded in, wait for it…1965. The school’s description of its history is fascinating:

Knowing that only the truth of God’s Word can build Christian character to reform American society and family life, John and Bobbie Ames grieved over the loss of moral absolutes and methodologies, namely Biblical reasoning and old-fashioned logic. Being unwilling to sit back and do nothing, they took their children out of the Perry County School System and started their own little school in Marion, Alabama, in 1965.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it looks as though Perry County came under a court desegregation order in 1966. This was after a lot of other Alabama counties faced desegregation orders in 1963. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ames saw the writing on the wall. As any good fundamentalist knew, the mixing of races was another one of atheistic communism’s nefarious plots.

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From the Archive: “I Had to Stay Really Close to the Lord to Keep from Committing Suicide.”

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In 1960s publications and advertising, the prospective evangelical college student was white.

When black students began to go to white evangelical campuses in larger numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s, they often had very difficult experiences. On many campuses, especially rural campuses outside the South, most of the white students came from backgrounds of isolation and ignorance. For many white students, seeing a dozen black students on campus might have been their first real contact with black people.

In the spring of 1978, a black student at a white evangelical college¹ authored a guest editorial in the student newspaper in which she reflected on her experiences and lessons learned during her time there. She wrote,

I have had some bad encounters here. As a Freshman, I was lonely, miserable and terrified of the whites on my floor in the dorm. I was even more afraid after students told me that they could not invite me home because their parents were prejudiced or their father hated ‘colored people’ because “they are so violent and rude.” Some of the other statements were: “does your color rub off; is your hair wirey; and when do you wash your hair?”

My Freshman year was really difficult, and I had to stay really close to the Lord to keep from committing suicide. I could not understand why God had put me in this type of situation. I could not believe that there were only four Black girls and six Black guys. This caused me to go through real culture shock. But now as I look over my four years here, I can see all the things God has taught me, and how much I have grown from being in this type of culture. I have learned to be content…

The main purpose of this editorial is to make you, my fellow-Christians, aware of the damage you can do by not trying to understand Blacks, and to share with you the way I have felt as a student here…I must admit that I would never recommend Blacks to attend [this] College.

There are at least three important things to know about this editorial. First, it is a good representation of sentiments that were extremely common among black students at white evangelical colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. This young women may have felt alone, but black students all over the country were having similar experiences. Second, some things have changed in the past 40 years. Some white evangelical colleges have made genuine strides. Third, take away the dated indicators of ignorance (“does your color rub off?”) and you’re left with a sense of alienation and isolation that could have been written this year at many white evangelical colleges. It is still extremely difficult to be black at many of these institutions.

As a researcher, these kinds of accounts are a kind of north star for me. It is incumbent on me to read them critically and with care, but I frankly find them more credible than the happy talk of white administrators at these colleges. As I sift through documents I sometimes begin to get the sense that things were beginning to go really well at such and such a place at this time or other. And then a document like this brings me up short. They are heartfelt testaments to peoples’ lived experience. On that level they have enormous moral force. But they’re also analytically useful for me, because they expose the fictions of the colorblind college. A community that makes people feel this way is not simply “united in Christ” as its rhetoric would imply. It is also united in and through whiteness.


¹ I’ve elected to withhold the names of the individual and the college because of the nature of this content.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

temple.jpgFirst days of class mostly blend together. You know what to expect: some introductory remarks, the syllabus,  perhaps a corny ice-breaker depending on the class size. You might even get out early. But there are a few first days from my undergraduate years that stand out.

I once had a professor with a perverse pride in scaring students into dropping his class. The hemorrhaging of students after the first day seemed to have become his calling card. So he spent the first class discussing the syllabus in exacting and intimidating detail, making every assignment sound extraordinarily hard. He was not like other professors, he said, and his class was not like other classes. No, here in this class a significant part of our final evaluation would be determined by our “professionalism grade.” Being a natural rule-follower, I promptly determined to pretend to be a professional every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the next four months. I think he was very impressed.

The other first day of class I remember was economics 101. The professor walked into the room and began to ask us questions about economics. We provided our pat answers, whether from the right or the left, and to each response he asked another question, exposing the limits of our certitude. Before long we were down to bedrock: what is a good society? What is a just distribution of resources? How do we balance competing claims of justice and liberty and equality?

This is actually a stylized rendering of the class. What I remember about it is not the details, but the feelings of wonder, confusion, and intellectual stimulation it evoked. That’s an accomplishment on the first day of class that a lot of courses never achieve at any point in the semester.

So, today was the first day of my two sections of Immigration and the American Dream. The results, I’m sure, were somewhere between professor professionalism and econ 101.

We jumped right into some primary sources and saved the last 10 minutes of class for the syllabus. I had five different documents so we split into five groups. Each group had two tasks: first, what does this document mean? What sense can you make of it? Second, what questions do you have about it? What don’t you know that you think you need to know to be able to evaluate this source?

After we came back together and the groups shared what they came up with, we discussed what it might all mean, what light these documents shed on “Immigration and the American Dream.” Were there through-lines in the documents? Themes tying them together?

Students mentioned some good possibilities: a sense of expectation, the importance of white racial identity, assimilation, disagreement over the meaning of the American Dream, gaps between an idealized America and its reality, and so on.

Our takeaways were that speaking of a singular “American experience” is difficult if not impossible; that we are entering into a long-running debate about what the United States is and what it should be, and what role immigrants do or ought to play in that. The exercise was also meant to impress upon the students that asking good questions is a key skill that we want to cultivate. They didn’t have enough information to really understand their documents in depth. But some of the students thought their documents were quite simple and easy to understand. They didn’t see the need to ask more questions of their sources.

I want to dispel that certainty. Being able to imagine what we don’t know is crucial. Coming up with plausible answers is fairly easy. Asking questions that will illuminate and expand our understanding is much harder. Hopefully we will ask lots of good questions this semester.

For some students, this was probably too much too quick–an intimidating and awkward exercise with a room full of strangers. Others took it in stride and had insightful things to say. Others were probably just annoyed that we used up the whole class period on the first day. It’s going to be a fun semester.

Thoughts for Sunday

In honor of Martin Luther King Day tomorrow:mlk-birmingham

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?

–Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963. Read the whole letter here.

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.

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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.
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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.

From the Archive: Timothy LaHaye

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a Thursday. On Sunday one of the flagship institutions of American evangelicalism, Wheaton College, hosted a community memorial service for the slain civil rights leader. News of the event spread, and some white evangelicals were not happy. Among these was Timothy LaHaye, who would become famous decades later as the co-author of the Left Behind book series. LaHaye’s letter to the president of Wheaton College is below.

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Think of some of the questions this single document might raise:

Where did LaHaye get the information about the memorial service? (He seems to have enclosed some sort of article but it was not included in the archives)

What kinds of information did LaHaye rely on to understand the civil rights movement, and where did the “deaths of seventeen people” statistic come from? Was this a right-wing meme? How did it circulate in this pre-internet age? Did LaHaye blame Dr. King for all the violence that occurred at his protests?

Was LaHaye satisfied with the president’s reply? (There is no subsequent letter from LaHaye in the archive.) Did he continue to recommend Wheaton College to his congregation?

Did LaHaye change his views in later decades? As memory of the civil rights movement changed and it became impolitic to have such a negative view of Dr. King, did LaHaye adjust, or did he just become silent?

Did LaHaye ever write anything publicly about the civil rights movement, or about race more generally?

Did the blowback Wheaton received (this was only one of dozens of letters) affect its institutional behavior in subsequent years?

What does this reveal about the theological and racial climate of white evangelicalism in the late 1960s? Were LaHaye’s attitudes exceptional, or normal?

Studying history often involves asking one question after another. At times the questions radiate outward in dizzying complexity, and often the evidence is far more fragmentary than we would like. Primary sources like this one don’t speak for themselves. If I ask you, “What does this document mean?” you might come up with dozens of plausible answers. But perhaps the best answer would be, “I don’t know yet. I need to ask more questions.” And that’s part of what makes history so compelling.

Credit: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.