On white evangelical college campuses, Black History Month can produce the perennial complaint, “Well, why isn’t there a White History Month?” This argument is evergreen. I distinctly remember this discussion taking place one February during my years at Moody. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone quite as creative as the writer below. She didn’t seem to object to Black History Month as such. She just wanted Black History Month to be more, well…white:
After her singular letter to the editor appeared, the black student organization invited this student to dinner. She went to dinner, but stuck to her guns. Black History Month was ok in principle, but the version put on by the black students didn’t do enough to acknowledge the achievements of white people. Our desire to be at the center of attention will brook no exceptions!
A few days ago I shared an example of a white evangelical student using the rhetoric of Christian unity to silence the concerns of black students. Today I offer an example of a Hispanic evangelical student writing about Christian unity in a very different way. This time the example comes from the Spring of 1994. At this particular college, chapel had become controversial. As the student body became increasingly diverse, the chapels continued to reflect a white middle-class culture. This was a big problem considering that chapels were mandatory daily gatherings meant to unite the community in worship. It also was a symptom of broader problems, this student believed. She wrote:
The Bible does not call us to love and accept each other when we become like each other and when there are no differences. Rather it calls for love and unity in spite of our differences.
As Christians we should strive, not only to tolerate each others differences, but to embrace them as our own, and it can be done. Many students, such as myself, have done it when we came to [this] College from a strictly Spanish-speaking church where hymns are not the norm. Although at first I found this worship style awkward, as I was exposed to it I grew to love it as my own…
One of the deepest convictions that I have is that actions speak louder than words. The actions taken this year by the administration speak loudly, they scream. They say that the Asian, African-American, and Latino student have not yet been embraced in every way in [our] College, and will not be embraced until the lies which say that we are inferior people and we need to become “Europeanized” or “Americanized” are accepted. Minorities have two deeply significant choices to make early in their…experience [here]; either we go through our four years frustrated, with the understanding that we are receiving a “half-truth” education, or we kill off any trace of our heritage in order to fit in or feel that we have progressed. You can find evidence of that among our students.
Believers need to understand that Christian colleges are doing this all over the country to “minorities” time and time again. We then wonder why so many are despising the Gospel. I wish I could say that it is only because of man’s depravity but I think that it is also due to the fact that for too many Christians, the Gospel is something that is more political and American than anything else. I fear that it has become a means for political and economic gains which do not take the poor and oppressed of our backyards into consideration. The Gospel has been made irrelevant to the oppressed…
The easy way out of this is to tell “minorities” that if they are not happy here they should leave. However, to ask someone to choose between (1) a higher education which might affirm one’s cultural identity while attempting to destroy one’s spiritual foundations or (2) an education which affirms one’s spiritual foundations but degrades cultural identity is not an easy choice. It is also not a choice which a Christian should ask a brother to make.”
This is often what it looks like when evangelicals argue about race and culture. Their Bibles are never far away. They bring their theology to bear. The discussion may become overtly political. But it is almost always ecclesial too. People are wrestling with what the “Body of Christ” is actually supposed to look like.
Both this student and the white student I wrote about the other day are talking about what it means to be united together in Christ. But their conclusions are dramatically different. For this student, unity means reckoning with real differences and sharing power. For the colorblind student, very similar unity language becomes a tool to deny the power dynamics involved.
We might also think about the boundaries of evangelical identity in the context of this letter. Here’s a Hispanic student who wanted the evangelical theological training she was receiving, but felt that the cultural cost of the education was extremely high. Even as she embraced an evangelical world, she received the message that good evangelicals didn’t act or think like she did. As a result, she and others faced the horrible choice of submerging “any trace of our heritage” just to belong.
White evangelicals often wonder when evangelicals of color will stop “complaining” and we can stop talking about these things. That misunderstands the project. The discussion is permanent, because our differences are real and unity will always be hard work. That’s not to say things can’t get better. One measure of change would be this: when the costs of belonging to the Body of Christ are equally borne by all.
I’m in the archives today and have an interesting find to share.
White evangelical colleges were not entirely immune from black radicalism sweeping college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one white evangelical college* in the fall of 1970, the new black student organization observed Black Solidarity Day and had blunt words of criticism for their college. In a public panel discussion, black students critiqued white missionaries, the college administration (why no black faculty?) and the white-centric curriculum. As if anticipating the response they would get for speaking so honestly, one black student wrote, “we are loved for being ignorant and hated for being militant.”
One white student responded with a ringing defense of Christian colorblindness:
A few things to notice from this letter:
–The basis of colorblindness is not the Constitution or the American Way as it would be in mainstream conservative rhetoric. Here, it’s grounded in what Jesus has done. Rejecting racial distinctions is not just what good Americans do; it’s what good Christians do.
–In this framework, the explicit discussion of race is not seen as a threat to white advantage (at least, not consciously) or a danger to the American system. The stakes are actually higher than that. Racial consciousness is seen as a threat to the unity of the body of Christ, an assault on the very meaning of Christian community.
–Material conditions and power relations are completely ignored. The writer has nothing to say about whether or not there should be black faculty or a more balanced curriculum. There isn’t any space for that conversation to even occur for this writer, because it would mean grappling explicitly with racial identities.
–The writer comes awfully close to calling into question whether the black students are even Christians. A true believer, he implies, would not talk as they had done. In the name of Christian brotherhood, this writer would have black students be quiet about the realities of their experience and conform to his standards.
The rhetoric of Christian colorblindness often sounded good. It still does. Christians do believe that Jesus died for us all and has broken down barriers of hostility. But pay careful attention to the purposes for which this rhetoric is deployed. Does it liberate, or silence?
*Since I just found this in the archives today and have a lot more to learn about this institution I’m not revealing individual or institutional identities here. I do know that this particular institution has been unusually aggressive in seeking change in recent decades. In any case, the point is not to disparage a specific institution but to suggest that this document is representative of broader dynamics in white evangelicalism in the 1970s.
The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.
Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).
Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).
Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.
Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:
Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…
Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference. The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people. That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:
The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…
A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:
Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…
Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.
Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.
In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.
He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological goals.
President Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University today. It’s a win-win for Trump and Liberty’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Trump gets to cloak his barbarism with the veneer of the sacred while placating the feelings of a key constituency. And Falwell gets what every court evangelical wants—credulous press coverage describing his supposed influence:
Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University president and evangelical icon, endorsed Trump in January 2016, calling him “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
Falwell’s backing boosted Trump’s previously sparse evangelical bona fides and was particularly significant because many political observers had assumed that Falwell would support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had launched his campaign at Liberty 10 months earlier.
Falwell is many things; an evangelical icon he certainly is not. Talk to ordinary evangelicals and you’ll find that many have no idea who he is. A sizable number of evangelicals who do know who he is believe he’s a ridiculous figure. And some smaller number have both heard of him and like him, but do not take their cues from him.
Some other Christian Right leaders over the years have at least been able to make credible claims of speaking for a constituency. After all, they had real organizations with real activists at their command (however inflated the numbers may have been) .
Falwell’s case is different. His trick is to insert himself into the space between politicians, journalists, and ordinary voters, and claim to speak for a vast group of people. Then, when a constituency that was going to vote for Trump anyway duly does so, Falwell can preen as a kingmaker. Politicians want to court their constituencies; journalists want convenient quotes and narratives; and Falwell wants to be important. Everybody’s happy. But let’s not pretend these narratives of influence accurately describe evangelicalism, or evangelical political power.
There’s another important distinction to make. Trump was at Liberty this morning precisely because Liberty is such an unusual evangelical college. In contrast to most evangelical institutions of higher education, Liberty has always been overtly political. Indeed, its leaders have rarely bothered to hide the fact that Republican politics is more important to them than Christianity.
That’s part of what makes narratives like, “Trump goes to Liberty and reaches out evangelicals” somewhat ironic. Many evangelical institutions want nothing to do with Liberty University. It’s a culture-warring, influence-peddling debasement of Christianity. It’s an affront to many evangelical colleges that sincerely attempt to construct environments of critical thinking and Christian reflection. At those institutions, Trump might not be so welcome.
It’s the kind of image you see flash across twitter every once in a while. A group of white drunk undergraduates think it’s funny to take a picture of themselves acting racist. This image is different because the men in question are not drunk (presumably) and are not undergraduates. They are leading faculty and administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nicola Menzie reports:
A White dean of a Texas seminary affiliated with a Christian denomination once known for its staunch defense of Black enslavement posted a controversial photo of himself and other White professors apparently dressed as gangsters on Twitter Tuesday.
Seen in the photo are the following Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty: David L. Allen, dean of the School of Preaching; Kyle Walker, the seminary’s vice president for Student Services and a professor of preaching; Barry McCarty, a preaching professor and Chief Parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention; Deron J Biles, a Dean Emeritus and a professor of Pastoral Ministries and Preaching; and Matthew McKellar, an associate preaching professor.
The participants in the photo and the President of the Seminary have since apologized. Amid the controversy, SWBTS even asked the Christian rapper Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our community.” Lecrae wisely declined to play the role of token Negro making white Christians feel better. Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why the photo is so problematic, and why pro forma apologies don’t go far enough:
Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.
In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.
Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.
But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.
Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.
On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”
Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”
His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.
Read the rest of Tisby’s article. Incidents such as these are some of the fruits of Christian colorblindness. Where this ideology flourishes, white-dominated spaces are often viewed as neutral or natural, and people of color are frequently silenced in the name of “Christian unity.” When an incident like this occurs and shatters the veneer of civility, colorblind Christians often fail to grapple with the broader context that made it possible. All too often, avowals of good intentions are substitutes for the hard work of institutional reform. Rather than wrestling with the possibility that Christian colorblindness is itself a perversion of the Gospel, leaders like Patterson describe confronting racism as a diversion from their main priority.
It’s probably going to take a long time for me to finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, when it’s finally done it’s likely to be as relevant as ever.
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.