White Evangelical Self-Criticism in the Civil Rights Era

Screen-Shot-2015-06-30-at-9.59.38-AM.png

1963 was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement, and white evangelicals increasingly took notice. As Eternity magazine put it in August, “Let’s not kid ourselves…this is a revolution. And before it is over it will affect your family, your community and your church.” Amid a climate of protest all over the country, evangelical media commented on high-profile events such as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring, followed by the March on Washington at the end of the summer, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks later. But while mainstream media debated the prospects of a civil rights bill in congress, white evangelicals debated the responsibilities of the church.

An August 1963 editorial appearing in Eternity magazine is revealing of the way evangelical self-criticism could be at once hard-hitting—brooking no excuses from white evangelicals who supported the status quo—and yet blind to its own theological paternalism.

The magazine criticized white evangelicals for being “ostrich-like with our heads in the sand” while a revolution swirled around them. “For too long we’ve contented ourselves with platitudes,” when decisive action was needed. What would it look like to move beyond platitudes? It would look like local, church-based activism. “[I]f there are Negroes living in your community, these Negroes are as much the spiritual responsibility of the church as the whites are.” And white evangelicals’ responsibility extended beyond the church walls. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white evangelicals must love them.

To those who did not want to upset the norms of a segregated church, the editorial pointed to 1 John 3:14: the Bible said that those who did not love their fellow human beings “abideth in death.”* This was an explosive context in which to raise this biblical interpretation, for it implied that white evangelicals who supported Jim Crow had not actually experienced a saving faith and were thus on the path to eternal damnation.

In an evangelical context, this was the equivalent of going nuclear. In the broader setting of American political debate, there was nothing quite like it. Perhaps the closest analogy would be calling an American citizen unpatriotic or traitorous, a claim that casts one’s opponent outside the community of belonging. For some white evangelicals, the stakes involved in their community’s response to the civil rights revolution were eternal.

For all the hard-hitting criticism the editorial contained, it interpreted white evangelical failure through the lens of theological paternalism. The main reason white evangelicals’ ambivalent posture toward African Americans was so sinful was because black people would be without the gospel if white evangelicals did not reach out to them. The editorial assumed that the gospel was somehow something that white evangelicals—despite their failures—had possession of, in contrast to the gospel void in the black community.

The editorial rhetorically asked its readers if they were trying to reach out to African Americans, or were they forcing them into “a Negro ghetto where they have neither the chance nor the inclination to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?” Combining assumptions about the inadequacy of the black church and the evils of the city, the absence of Christian witness in the ghetto was so obvious to Eternity that it could be assumed. In conclusion, the editorial said the gospel was “hid to the ten per cent of the American citizenry who happen to have colored skins. And we are doing the hiding.” This only made sense if the gospel was the property of white Christians.


*The editorial quoted 1 John 3:14 in the King James Version. The entire verse and the one immediately following it reveal the intensity of Eternity’s criticism: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”

 

White Evangelicals’ Faulty Theology of the City

swinging bridge mar 10 2000 p8.png
A North Philadelphia scene. The Swinging Bridge, March 10, 2000, 8.

On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”

This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.

In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.

Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.

It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.

Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.

I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.

On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?

Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

doctrine and race

For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

Failed Marketing Campaigns

For some reason, a white evangelical college in the 1990s thought this photo made good sense in their recruitment brochure:

college ad

If you come to our school, you too can be surrounded by flowers and adorable black children. You will feel so good about yourself.

For those of us who are slow on the uptake, let me just spell out one way this is weird. This is an ad for college. Maybe there would be, you know, black college students there? Who is this little girl, and why is she in a field of flowers with this woman?

In all seriousness, white evangelicals have often found it easier to direct their ministries toward black children than to work collaboratively with black adults. The former allows paternalism to go unchecked, while the latter requires white evangelicals to be open to change.