we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.
Read Jemar Tisby to understand the racial message this is sending in 2020. I want to focus here on the rhetorical tradition in which this statement operates.
Many Southern Baptists are likely to imagine that this statement is a good case of level-headed moderation. They may not realize that it bears striking resemblance to a very old pattern of racist rhetoric within and without the convention.
The basic rhetorical move is over a century old, and elites who desired respectability and mainstream support for their racist goals came to rely upon it. It combines a vague condemnation of racism in abstract terms with a reactionary posture to the specific racial matter at hand. We condemn racism in general, and we also unequivocally condemn the tools anti-racists have developed to confront racism.
During Jim Crow: of course we don’t want to go back to the bad old days of slavery. I’m glad it’s gone. But let me tell you why social equality won’t work.
During battles over anti-lynching bills: of course I’m against vigilantism in any form, but let me tell you why a federal anti-lynching bill will do more harm than good.
Today: of course black lives matter, but let me tell you why police reform hurts the people it purports to help.
But you really want to see this pattern within the SBC, right? Ok, let me show you with one suggestive example.
After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision in 1954, Southern white elites came under intense pressure from the grassroots to resist school integration. The same dynamic played out within the SBC as numerous regional associations in the South passed resolutions declaring their unalterable commitment to segregation and criticizing convention bodies such as the Christian Life Commission and the Sunday School Board for their moderate racial statements.
What were SBC elites to do? On the one hand was the Christian principle of love without regard to color. On the other was the inflammatory political question of school integration. The general and the specific were colliding. Probably no one in the SBC faced these issues more directly than Brooks Hays.
Hays found himself playing key roles in both the politics of the South and the Southern Baptist Convention. A Congressman from Arkansas, Hays was known as a relative moderate on racial questions, but what moderation meant in that moment needs clarification. Hays signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” declaring opposition to Brown v Board and encouraging states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.” Yet during the Little Rock Crisis, Hays advocated compromise and became a target for segregationist criticism.
The Southern Manifesto, widely seen as reactionary outside the South, was the bare minimum politicians within the South had to support to maintain credibility. Hays was rewarded for his painful balancing act. Southern Baptists elected him to the presidency of the convention in 1957. From that position Hays continued to remind his constituents that he had gone on the record against “forced integration.” At the same time, he declared that he was “trying to follow New Testament principles, particularly the injunction of Paul to ‘speak the truth in love.'”1
Hays and other SBC elites tended to see themselves as standing between the “extremes” of the White Citizens’ Councils on the one hand and the NAACP on the other. While advocating Christian love and deploring “hatred” of all kinds, they accused the people who were actually resisting racism of promoting “anarchy.” At every turn, the non-negotiable element of their racial rhetoric was not black freedom, but the unity of the SBC. As Hays put it,
Our principle interest right now is to hold our scattered congregations together. Our people entertain differences on the race question, but I am trying to steer a course that will put no strains upon us and enable us to differ in love.2
This remains the principle interest of SBC elites in 2020. Instead of standing for racial justice come what may, they offer the same sorts of platitudes their ancestors did, while once again condemning anti-racism as it actually exists. It is a curious set of commitments. The convention, for all its flaws, must be held together at nearly any cost. But anti-racist movements and organizations must be examined with a fine-tooth comb and rejected if they fall short in any way.
The narrative within the SBC is that there have been drastic changes since the deplorable days of Southern Baptists’ support for segregation. But their own rhetoric shows how empty these claims are. Opposing racism in theory while accommodating it in fact is a very old strategy, and today’s SBC elites are giving it new life.
1 Brooks Hays to Mrs. R.C. McLeod Nov 6 1957, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
2 Brooks Hays to Mr. D.K. Martin, January 15, 1958, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention have joined together to “declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” George Schroeder has the story here.
What is going on here? In the spirit of Adam Laats, I suggest that this is all about assuring Southern Baptists that it is still safe to send their promising young people to the seminaries of the SBC. The subtext of this statement is: our future leaders won’t be indoctrinated by liberalism here, despite the rumors you’ve heard! We’re still solid.
Note what Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Seminary, said: “We felt that because our brothers and sisters in various state conventions have concern about this issue, they would also want to know what their seminaries actually think, and what we are teaching and not teaching.”
Despite protestations to the contary, this has nothing to do with being “biblical” or following the gospel. It has everything to do with allaying the peculiar political concerns of the seminaries’ constituencies. There is a vocal group of hardliners who have been accusing the SBC of going liberal. With this statement, seminary leaders seek to refute those charges.
This statement is revealing of the pressures inside the SBC. Accusations of liberalism quickly gain traction and have to be shot down lest SBC institutions lose credibility with the rank and file. Meanwhile, rampant Trumpism does not merit a similar response because it doesn’t bother ordinary Southern Baptists. This is about coalition politics, not following scripture.
White evangelicals who are serious about a new way forward on racial justice could start by telling a new story about our* past. I’m not talking about a blue ribbon commission to evade practical action. I’m not talking about the false hope that we can somehow think our way into righteousness. I’m talking about the stories by which we live. We need an imagination and identity that can serve as solid bedrock for anti-racist action.
And right now, the basic story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we have been is rotten to the core.
White evangelicals like to think that we are the ones who take the Bible seriously, in contrast to those liberals who play fast and loose with the scriptures. We like to imagine that when modernism came for the church, it was evangelicals who stood firm on the authority of the word of God. And over and over again, when the tides of social decay threatened to wash over America, it was evangelicals who held fast. Where would America be if not for us?
White evangelicals see ourselves and our nation in God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. 2 Chronicles 7:14 belongs to us! And white evangelicals see ourselves, a righteous remnant, in the New Testament’s words of comfort and assurance to believers facing persecution and suffering.
All of this is self-serving nonsense. We need a new story.
The dominant expressions of white evangelicalism in American history have been tied to heresies of race and nation. Ours isn’t the tradition that took the Bible seriously. We’re the tradition that often rejected orthodox Christianity and were so self-deluded about it we thought we were preserving the faith!
We’re the tradition that read about the Exodus and the children of Israel and the slave-masters of Egypt and didn’t even realize that we were the bad guys in the Biblical narrative. Those grand promises weren’t for us; they were for the poor and needy, for those despised and rejected. We were American royalty. Our citizenship and belonging was never in question. We built a faith suited for this proud and hard of heart condition.
“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America,” James Cone asked, “and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”1 Well brothers and sisters, we tried. Oh did we try. And so we created a symbolic Christianity. If you believed certain doctrines you were inside the camp. You must believe in the Virgin Birth and substitutionary atonement, but lynching is a complicated social question.
Oh how we loved pious words and the appearance of good. We became experts at crafting “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”2 Our devotion to spiritual rebirth was so zealous, so pure, that we took great pains to let black people know that we couldn’t help them too much in their quest for the rights and privileges we already enjoyed. After all, as one white evangelical put it, “What shall it profit the Negro if he gain all the civil rights guaranteed him but lose his own soul?”3
This separation of body and soul was theologically indefensible and socially catastrophic. It was a power play. “We just want Jesus,” we said, while we moved up the ladders of opportunity and closed the doors behind us. We showed contempt for the common good and dared call our selfishness godliness.
The respectably self-aware white evangelical narrative is that many of our ancestors were regrettably deficient in their understanding of racial matters, but we can appreciate their firm grasp of doctrine and the gospel. This is incoherent. It is self-serving nonsense to suppose that people who equivocated in the face of racial hatred had a firm grasp of Christianity. It is folly to suppose that love can be love without being earthy and tangible.
A common white evangelical response at this point might be something along the lines of, “Who then can be saved?” But the point here is not to condemn every last one of our spiritual ancestors in the harsh glare of our modern sensibilities. It is to reform our collective understanding of the broad contours of our tradition in light of Christian history. Racial hatred is an egregious heresy. People who fell prey to it ought not be normalized as Christian heroes.
So find new heroes. They’ve been in our midst all along. Why do we insist on lionizing Whitefield when Equiano is there to be claimed? As Howard Thurman put it, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Look to this redemptive tradition.
White evangelicals can still be confident that there is a “there” there when we talk about an evangelical tradition. Embrace that sensibility that says we need a warm-hearted faith, an experience of conversion and closeness to Jesus Christ. But reject the hubris that says the gospel lives here and we deign to offer it to others.
What then, would it mean to be a conscious white evangelical? It might mean being gospel-focused in a new way. Instead of possessing it, ours would be the tradition that humbly and restlessly looks for it in all sorts of unexpected people and places. After all, that’s where it’s been all along.
*I don’t know that I really count as an evangelical anymore, but it seems so much better to write in the inclusive “we” than in the accusatory “they.” In any case, evangelicalism has done much to form the person I am today.
1 This is found in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
2 Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
3 Letter to the editor in Christianity Today, May 8, 1964.
This is an optimist’s case for the following proposition: one of the dumbest and deadliest inventions humans have ever devised is getting its butt kicked. Folks, the racists are losing.
We may come to remember the Trump presidency as a pathetically weak attempt to roll back the cultural, demographic, and ideological change that is rising to a nearly inexorable force. The effort to Make America Racist Again has already failed miserably. Give it another four years and it will still fail.
To drive home the point that my optimism does not rest in this year’s election results, I’m posting this before knowing whether or not Trump has been defeated. My case for optimism certainly doesn’t rest in the election of a longtime moderate Democrat with a habit of cozying up to white supremacist senators back in the day. My hope does not depend on whether this Trump interlude proves to be of the four or eight year variety. My optimism rests in a broader global-historical sweep of the twentieth century.
At the dawn of that century, Senator Ben Tillman stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said this: “We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it…The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do.” Some might have deplored Senator Tillman’s candor but, as the kids say these days, where was the lie?
A century ago, racism was the coordinating principle of global affairs. W.E.B. Du Bois indulged no idle speculation when he wrote, “Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?” The world-embracing hubris of it is what most stood out to Du Bois. People had found reasons to dominate each other since the dawn of time. But now, Europeans and their settler state descendants had not only come up with a bizarre conspiracy theory called whiteness, they used it to organize society and politics across the globe!
The ideology of whiteness fueled ecstatic visions of earthly conquest as divine calling. From Afrikaner ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to prominent social gospelers in the United States, many white Protestants eagerly awaited the consummation of God’s plan, when their divinely chosen white race would fulfill its mission. Josiah Strong supposed that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill,” was “training the Anglo-Saxon race” for the day it would “spread itself over the earth.” In that glorious day the “inferior tribes” would be revealed as “only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” These days, the Christians imagined as white are more likely to be embarrassed and uneasy about it than to be carried away by fanciful flights of eschatological genocide.
Horror at the depths to which racism could take humanity in the Holocaust, and even more important, the challenge of anti-racist and independence movements all across the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century, dealt a body blow to white supremacy from which it has never recovered. Henceforth, denial moved more than ever before to the very center of racist ideology. As the late George Fredrickson pointed out, the Holocaust was so discrediting that the classic racist position is not to defend it, but to deny it had ever happened!
To be sure, denial has always been part of any racial order, even the most brutal ones. The paternalist defense of slavery, for example, provided the planter a psychological shield when his brutalized conscience accused him. And Germans carried out their genocide more in a spirit of fear than hatred. Indeed one might say racism is denial. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of the great speeches of American history, “Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
Our case for optimism, then, must not ultimately rest in the perennially confused psychology of the racist. But the centrality of denial, its organizing role both on the level of psychology and systems, seems to me relatively new. And, crucially, it suggests an exhausted ideology. Racism is losing its power to inspire, much less organize coherent political projects.
The idea that the horrors of the Holocaust discredited racist ideology has often been overdrawn (indeed, I’ve made this case myself elsewhere). If racism was no longer fashionable, a disturbingly large number of Europeans missed the memo. In the 1960s, during my parents’ lifetime, the Portuguese dictatorship busily sent tens of thousands of white settlers to Angola in a classic case of racist settler colonial domination. In the 1980s, during my lifetime, racist South African security forces and commando units wreaked havoc across southern Africa. A British Commonwealth committee estimated they contributed to 1 million deaths and made 3 million people homeless. But these political projects have been so thoroughly discredited that people are shocked to discover they even existed in a world so close to our own.
Even in the most obvious state of exception in a decolonizing world, South Africa, denial ruled the day. The regime not only portrayed itself as a bulwark against communism. It established native “homelands” and granted them fictive “independence” in an elaborate bid to deny and obfuscate the essentially racist character of the apartheid state. Even the prototypical exemplars of modern racist social organization did not want to admit what they were doing.
And so this stark fact remains: racism crested in the era of global war and has receded through the era of decolonization, civil rights movements, and the rise of global human rights.
Against this sweeping historical change, what do the racists offer? In 2017 a motley crew of a few hundred demonstrated in Charlottesville before one of their number launched a terrorist attack and killed Heather Heyer. Organizers promptly retreated, concluding they had made a strategic error because the American public was so revolted. Trump’s equivocations about the terrorists became a political albatross rather than a source of strength. He and his enablers quickly spun new tales of denial to try to bury the episode.
Terrorists used to be able to take over whole states and defy the federal government to do anything about it. Now their would-be sympathizers recoil in disgust. I know the headlines often seem scary today, reading of proud boys and boogaloos and militias. But these lonely cosplayers can only dream of the power and acclaim racists like themselves used to amass a short time ago. Social media is not our friend in our efforts to achieve perspective. A Florida man yelling “white power!” as he rides by on his golf cart is not the stuff of which racist revolutions are made. For racists, times are hard, even with one of their own in the oval office.
Trump’s invocations of racism have often been startlingly old-fashioned. This is, I admit, infuriating. From the blood and soil nationalism evoked in the “send her back” chants, to playing on stereotypical racist fears of racial pollution through rape and housing integration, to crafting an immigration policy of which even the Dillingham commission could be proud, it often seemed as if Trump was trying to play racism’s greatest hits. Yet even as his fans got a thrill out of it, they experienced this pleasure within a carefully maintained framework of denial. Not only did they deny the fact that they had joined a racist movement, they continued to imagine that they didn’t like racism at all.
Anti-racists often treat this stunning blindness as a sign of racism’s entrenched position in American life. From one vantage point that’s true. This “colorblind racism” often feels intractable, and it really does cause profound pain and suffering for people of color, not to mention psychological strain for white people. But from another vantage point, this denial is a flashing red light declaring that racism as an ideological project is exhausted. These folks aren’t even good at hating people anymore. Their heart isn’t all the way in it.
A century ago—far less, in fact—populist demagogues could mobilize a crowd with a proud message of white supremacy till kingdom come. Now, even Trump’s most loyal mass constituency—white evangelical Christians—declares an avowed belief in a brand of Christian universalism. Christ died for all and anyone who accepts Jesus as savior is headed to the same heavenly destination. The doors of the church are open to all, regardless of color. Believe me, I’ll be the first to say this Christian universalism tends to be remarkably immune to practical ethical content, but I argue it does make these white Christians feel cross-pressured. Their racism makes them uncomfortable. This is not a confident ideology ready to make new converts. It’s a tired and fearful perspective on the world, and the demographic groups most likely to cling to it are shrinking.
My students at Temple University are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Their families come from India and Vietnam, Cameroon and Armenia. They tell me they’re prepared to disrupt racism. The historian in me says this is the conceit of the young. But then, maybe I’m not thinking historically enough. Is it really so hard to believe that the most diverse and racially integrated generation in American history will turn out to be the most anti-racist generation?
I’ve been skeptical that the massive black lives matter protests of this summer signify much. But let’s at least stipulate this: never in American history have so many people of such diverse backgrounds come together to demand racial justice. It remains to be seen how much this will matter in the long run, but for now, let’s take a moment to be grateful this good thing has happened.
The burden of an optimist’s case is that it must not become another species of the denial it claims to critique. It must not descend to that point of wishful nonsense where, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has put it, “sober assessments of how far we have come” are replaced “by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.”
From racist policing to a yawning wealth gap that shows no sign of closing, racism remains an urgent burden that is a matter of life and death in the present day. Most worryingly for the future, these material forces are reproducing race as we speak. The future will belong to the anti-racists insofar as we put a wrench directly into these systems of power and finally interrupt the reproduction of their ideological justification. This is what freedom movements across the global south did. They didn’t wait around for Europeans to have a change of heart. They served notice the old systems of power weren’t coming back and they ushered the racists off the stage to the margins of history. Many a racist settler died embittered and resentful. For the world’s future it didn’t matter if they never learned their lesson. What mattered is that they were pushed to the sidelines where their racism no longer commanded armies and bureaucracies.
The racists are losing. This is a case for optimism, not complacency. The only thing that ever moved the world toward freedom was people acting together to make power, take power, and use it to free human beings from domination. In the fog of war it can be hard to tell if one is fighting a depleted enemy in a rear-guard action, or a well-supplied force waging the next phase of a long campaign. Trumpism is a desperate defense of an exhausted and pathetic ideology. In its heyday, racism killed millions and held the globe in its thrall. Today, it’s the succor of a lonely man and his feeble hangers-on. They, too, will be ushered off the stage of history.
A movement for racial justice captures the nation’s attention and puts white evangelicals on the defensive. Shocking brutality spurs demands for reform, black evangelicals press for a more inclusive brand of evangelicalism, and white evangelical elites acknowledge the need for change. A major white evangelical periodical announces that the time for “platitudes” is over.1 Is this the moment white evangelicalism finally rouses itself to support black freedom?
I am speaking not of 2020, but of 1963. The white evangelical response to that epochal year of civil rights protest reveals enduring patterns in the ways white evangelicals engage racial issues and suggests the prospects for an anti-racist white evangelicalism in 2020 are dim.
The Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963 brought police brutality home to American living rooms through indelible images of dogs and fire hoses. In September, a terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four black girls dead. If some white evangelicals were too set in their ways to hear the anguished cries for change, perhaps the younger generation would lead the way. One white evangelical college student declared that there was no longer any “middle ground.” There were only two choices left: “One either actively protests injustice to the black man or hates him.”2
But white evangelicals seemed determined to test this proposition. Perhaps they could find a middle ground amid the storms of protest. White evangelical leaders were absent from the largest protest of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because, as one put it, “Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.”3
What was the evangelical way? Embracing systemic reforms and street protests carried the risk of cutting white evangelical elites off from their populist and conservative white constituency. In the pews, a powerful blend of God, country, and race made white Christian identity sacred. But white evangelical elites also worried that failure to act would discredit their movement with the rising generation. If reform threatened to splinter the evangelical coalition and stasis risked limiting its future growth, what could be done?
White evangelical elites found the answer in a path between reform and reaction. They increasingly spoke of the need for Christian love and unity across the color line, not as a complement to systemic reform, but as an alternative to it. While black evangelicals called for a church that knew no bounds of color and worked to meet practical social needs, white evangelicals declared that spiritual unity in Christ trumped institutional reform in both church and society. A revival of Christian love was the surest solution to America’s racial crisis.
This theology of race should be understood not as a simply reactionary stance but as a creative effort at evangelical coalition-building. Cross-pressured by conscience, evangelistic calculations, and disparate demands from without and without evangelicalism, white evangelical elites searched for an updated theology of race that could grow evangelicalism’s appeal in the new racial era that was dawning.
In the ensuing decades, the growth of predominantly white evangelical churches indicated the success of this strategy. Positioning themselves comfortably in the white mainstream in an ostensibly colorblind post-civil rights era America, white evangelicals promoted interpersonal kindness, voluntary church-centered initiatives and an evangelistic message that emphasized a personal experience of salvation with few social implications. This strategy not only helped hold together the white evangelical coalition, it enabled it to make inroads into some immigrant and African American communities.
White evangelical efforts to grow their coalition with an appealing racial message reached their peak in the 1990s with the so-called “racial reconciliation” movement. As Americans became skeptical of the capacity of government to promote racial progress, white evangelicals went on the offensive. Their longstanding message that racial healing was a matter of the heart rather than the state struck a chord. White evangelicals gained much positive media coverage for their willingness to tackle the nation’s enduring racial divisions when all else seemed to have failed.
In reality, white evangelicals were fine-tuning a decades-long strategy: a message of church-centered racial healing as a means of evangelical coalition-building. Major initiatives of that era, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for racism and slavery, had their origin not in racial justice activism, but in renewed efforts to bring people of color into the evangelical fold.
For half a century, white evangelical elites navigated shifting racial currents with a view toward maintaining the unity of their movement, preserving its credibility, and expanding it into new communities. But the last decade has made this balancing act difficult to sustain. Moments of mass protest and systemic reform—whether in 1963 or 2020—put the evangelical coalition under enormous strain. It is probably not possible for evangelical leaders to please at once the enthusiastic Trump supporter and the black lives matter protestor.
If the past is prologue, white evangelical elites are likely to try to thread the needle anyway. Crucial to their calculations will be the knowledge that there are far more Trump supporters in their midst than black lives matter activists.
To be sure, there have already been somehigh-profilegestures that suggest this moment might be different. But it is sobering to realize that white evangelical elites have been making progressive racial statements for decades. These statements temporarily roil the white evangelical base but tend not to move it in any enduring way.
There has been much chatter about 2020 as the new 1968. In that year of crisis the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “undertake to secure opportunities in matters of citizenship, public services, education, employment, and personal habitation” for African Americans and declared, “Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”4 Whatever became of that?
Behind the banner headlines made by denominational leaders and magazine editors, most white evangelical pastors’ message in this moment of crisis is likely to be pared down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to their white populist base. If their constituents cannot agree on the merits of racial justice protestors, at least they can agree to love each other and keep the church door open. This message might save the evangelical coalition from fracture, but it will not promote black liberation. Indeed, it was never designed to do that.
1 “Let’s Face up to the Race Issue,” Eternity, August 1963, 5-6.
2 Harold Bontekoe, “The Alternative To Hate,” Calvin College Chimes, September 27, 1963, 2.
3 “The Washington March and the Negro Cause,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1963, 27-28. See also, “Desegregation,” Covenanter Witness, September 11, 1963, 163.
4 “A Statement Concerning the Crisis In Our Nation,” June 5, 1968.
John Wilson doesn’t like John Fea’s argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Fea argues that fear is the essential through-line in the story of evangelical political engagement. Wilson says, c’mon, isn’t everybody afraid these days?
Am I afraid of the legacy that Donald Trump and the court evangelicals will leave for the nation and the church? Yes. I am very afraid. But I also realize that I cannot dwell in this fear and, through the spiritual disciplines of my faith, respond to such fears with hope. In other words, I need to trust God more. As the writer Marilynne Robinson once said, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
But I should also add that any fear I might have about Trump, the court evangelical agenda, and their legacy is based on truth and facts. This is different from the fear I see among many of Trump’s evangelical supporters.
Most evangelical fear is built upon endless lies. These include the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, the straw man that all Democrats are socialists, Marxists, and atheists trying to undermine American liberty, the idea that impeachment will lead to a civil war, the belief that immigrants will kill us if they get too close, or the conviction that abortion will end if we just overturn Roe v. Wade. The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical Christians who I know and talk to on a regular basis believe one or more of these false claims. They get their talking points from Fox News and then read the Bible to make it fit with these talking points. They believe that there is a deep state–an illuminati working to undermine God’s anointed president. They are so afraid of Hillary Clinton that they think she should be locked-up. They believe that demonic forces are unraveling America. And if anyone offers an alternative view to these beliefs they will be castigated as a purveyor of “fake news.” Again, I have spoken at length to evangelical family members, readers of this blog, and members of my church who believe one or more of these things. I get their nasty e-mails, social media messages, and multi-part voice messages.
John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois. There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid. They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety. Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.
This is very good. There are elite evangelicals who try to claim that the rarefied spaces they occupy are the real evangelical spaces. I don’t think that’s an intellectually or morally serious posture. Fea has his hand on the pulse of the evangelical mainstream, while Wilson appears to be in denial.
But we also ought to be more specific than Fea is here. I’d ask Fea, for example, what is the demographic profile of these evangelicals he is hearing from? Are they white? Are they male? How old are they? The unqualified use of “evangelicals,” which appears at times in Fea’s book too, strikes me as problematic.
We need to be specific, because when we say evangelicals are afraid, it can come across as almost exculpatory. “Hey, they mean no harm, they’re just afraid.” In contrast, what I mean when I say white evangelicals are afraid is that their fear is directly connected to unchristian investments in power and hierarchy.
Thinking about the relationship between proximity to power and fear about losing power helps us to cut through the noise about whether some white evangelical fears are well-founded. The point is that regardless of how legitimate these fears are, lunging for power in the form of Donald Trump is a ridiculous response for which there is no excuse. It’s a response emanating from a place of power and privilege, a response from people who have learned to rely on these advantages (even if only psychological) to feel at peace in the world. The idea of being thrown back on their faith alone is terrifying.
Black evangelicals, in the face of a society far more hostile than anything white evangelicals have known, somehow have managed to avoid investing their political hopes in a Christ-hating demagogue. Imagine that.
In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?
On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.
But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.
Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.
When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,
I think your critique is valuable. But it’s too simplistic. I think it reduces evangelicalism to a set of hot-button cultural and political stances (which are indeed part of the story) while ignoring daily life and practice, piety and devotion, etc., as sources of identity.— Paul Putz (@p_emory) September 15, 2019
Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:
To me this sets up key Q: what is connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?— Kristin Kobes Du Mez (@kkdumez) September 15, 2019
In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.
Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.
Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.
Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?
To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?
Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).
The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.
In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”
They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.
For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.
To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.
Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.
But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.
The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.
I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.
It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.
Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”
I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.
It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.
[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.
I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”
The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.
What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.
The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.
White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!
And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.
In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.
The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.
The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.
The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).
This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?
Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.
With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:
Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.
To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.
But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.
In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.
Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.
This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.
We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?
Though not the largest or most well-known of the Pentecostal denominations, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) is thoroughly in the evangelical mainstream. It is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and is resolutely conservative in its doctrine. The denomination supports an institution of higher education, Emmanuel College, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Among the most important early leaders of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was G.F. Taylor. He was the editor of the denomination’s official organ, The Pentecostal Holiness Advocate. Late in 1918, he added an additional job to his portfolio, accepting the position of superintendent of the new Franklin Springs Institute in Franklin Springs, Georgia, the school that would eventually become Emmanuel College.
In a recent piece celebrating the centennial, the general superintendent of the IPHC described how Taylor’s trust in God brought him to Franklin Springs and established the area as a center of the young IPHC movement. “I know not where I shall go,” Taylor wrote, “neither am I concerned about that part of it; I have such an assurance that I am in the will of God for me, that I know God will provide a place for me.”
Indeed, it appeared that God blessed Taylor’s work. According to a recent article on the denomination’s site, Taylor wanted Franklin Springs to be “a place where people could come for spiritual renewal, biblical training, and a deeper understanding of God’s Word. By 1923, the campus comprised a publishing house and post office and had become a central hub for the Pentecostal Holiness Church.”
Taylor also helped to lead yearly camp meetings, a kind of extended series of revival services then common in many Pentecostal and fundamentalist circles. In the late summer of 1923 Taylor presided over the sixth annual Franklin Springs camp meeting. After the camp meeting was over Taylor picked up his pen to report on what had happened.
The meetings had gone really well, in part because the Lord had blessed them with two tents that year. With more seating capacity than ever before, Taylor estimated that they had as many as 1,500 people in attendance at one time. But what most stood out to Taylor was “the spirit that prevailed” throughout the camp meeting. The workers got along with each other. The “singing was by far the best we have ever had,” and the “preaching was certainly of a high order.” Taylor felt that “the power of the Spirit” was evident in the sermons.
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, “dozens and scores of people” responded to the altar calls. “Some were saved, some sanctified, some filled with the Spirit, and some healed.” The Lord did a mighty work. Taylor only wished that more people had responded, lamenting that “great multitudes stood back from the altar.” Nonetheless, Taylor trusted that the “seed sown” in hearts would “bring forth fruit” in due time.
One night of the camp meeting, they raised an offering for Taylor’s school. They were blessed by “representatives from the Ku Klux Klan” who “came forward in their robes and presented an offering of $50.00” and a letter that was read aloud to the camp meeting.
Taylor explained that he was not a member of the Klan, and indeed could not be because he did not believe in secret societies. But “So far as I know,” he explained, “The Klan’s one great purpose is to prevent the Catholic Church from taking control of our government, and in this they certainly have my prayers and best wishes.”
In any case, he went on, “I highly appreciate the offering they gave us, and the expression of sympathy and cooperation in the letter written us.” Because the letter seemed to have generated considerable enthusiasm and interest, Taylor decided to print it in its entirety. After all, he said, “We do not believe in secret orders, but I see no objections to the other principles expressed in the letter below.” Here is that letter: