John Fea Is Right About Evangelical Fear

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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?

Fea’s response is very good:

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.

What Has Happened To Evangelicalism? The History of Church Growth Offers A Clue

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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,

Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:

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.

At a glance, it might seem that historian Seth Dowland tackled this last year. In a great piece on “American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness,” Dowland wrote:

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.

And similar critiques have continued ever since. In Bryan Lorrit’s 2018 book, Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All, he writes:

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.

White Evangelicals Are Afraid

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White evangelicals are afraid. In their fear we ought to hear echoes of the darkest moments of modern history.

The Great Terror, 1937

Krystallnacht, 1938

The Cultural Revolution, 1966

Rwanda, 1994

Myanmar, 2017

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.

What Can We Learn From Three Generations of Black Evangelical Protest Books?

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?

White Evangelicals Don’t Know Their Inheritance

Pentecostal leaders, 1911. credit:https://iphc.org/gso/2016/03/10/unity-made-visible/

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:

Praise the Lord for his wondrous work!

“They’re People Just Like Us”

In 1993, Christianity Today reported that a wealthy all-white suburban Atlanta church was committing half a million dollars and 600 volunteers to help “revitalize the low-income African American neighborhood” of Summerville. As part of the effort, one Sunday morning a busload of wealthy white suburbanites attended an African American church service.

“When the service is dismissed,” CT reported, “a question hangs over everyone: Will people connect over cookies and coffee in Fellowship Hall?” (Yes, it’s ok to laugh at how CT frames this drama; it’s funny!) As the bus headed back to the suburbs, there was unanimous agreement among its occupants that a connection had indeed been made (how the ordinary members of the black church felt about it is left to our imagination). Here’s how one of the white visitors put it:

I was surprised at how much we had in common. They’re people just like us. They seem to have the same concerns we do, such as wanting their kids to be the best they can be or wanting to learn more about God.

Your mileage may vary, but I found this passage chilling. A white person took a field trip to a black church and discovered that African Americans are ordinary people. This persistent and recurring need for white people (it’s not just evangelicals) to learn, discover, and state the obvious is one of the most chilling evidences of how white supremacy distorts the imagination and places an experiential and moral gulf between human beings.

It reminds me, of all things, of Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking 1941 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma. I hope I’m being fair to Myrdal, but basically he believed white and black Americans inhabited the same ideological world, sharing a belief in what he called “The American Creed.” He thought if white Americans better understood how African Americans were really treated, and how that treatment violated the creed of equality and opportunity for all, they would favor “a better deal” for black Americans.

The black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier found much to like in Myrdal’s work, but he doubted whether “the problem is on the conscience of white people to the extent” Myrdal implied. Had not history shown that white Americans were content with the status quo as long as black discontent did not spill into the open? While Myrdal imagined an American Creed that everyone shared, Frazier was more pessimistic: “for many whites the Negro lives in an entirely different social world or is not a part of the same moral order.”

Frazier’s insight is a profound one. It still stands. White Americans live with the devastating consequences of racial discrimination by imagining that it happens to people who are in some fundamental way different from ourselves. Discarding this lie can disrupt our whole lives. When we see others as human and as part of our moral order, our view of ourselves and our country changes. Many of us are not willing to take that risk.

LGBT Rights and the Future of Evangelicalism

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Behold the President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse:

Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women. 2/3— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 24, 2019

I am not going to spend a lot of energy on Franklin Graham’s hypocrisy. It’s exhausting already. Most of us who are not in his bubble find it hard to credit that he cares a great deal about what the Bible says. Trump supporters should not expect their moral claims to be taken seriously in any case. But I do have other questions:

How do Graham’s anti-gay views position him in the evolving world of evangelicalism? Is he the old guard that’s passing away? Does he represent a committed minority that is not going to change any time soon?

There has been a lot of talk about generational change in evangelicalism, but “evangelicals are becoming more liberal and diverse and concerned about a broader range of moral issues” is the kind of evergreen story that seems to be written every year, and every year the consummation of this shift remains just beyond the horizon. I expect men (yes, men in particular) like Graham to continue to have a large platform for decades to come.

But my best guess is that they’ll speak for a smaller constituency. An anti-gay evangelicalism will necessarily be a marginalized community in many ways. But even if the evangelical mainstream was to become thoroughly pro-LGBT tomorrow, it’s not clear it would arrest the decline of the movement. The numbers for self-identified evangelicals by age cohort are brutal (as they are for mainline churches as well). American Christians are old, and getting older.

There’s no question that white evangelicals are becoming more accepting of LGBT rights. A solid majority now favors legal protections for LGBT people, a remarkable turnaround from the days when most evangelicals spoke openly about wanting to punish LGBT people for their “lifestyle.”

And younger white evangelicals are indeed leading the way: “A substantial majority (63%) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections, compared to less than half (45%) of white evangelical Protestant seniors (ages 65 and older).”

But this polling doesn’t actually tell us that many white evangelicals would disagree with Graham. They might not want gay people kicked out of their apartments, and they might think “homosexuality is not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Indeed, most white evangelicals continue to oppose gay marriage: “About one-third (34%) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today, while six in ten (60%) are opposed, including 30% who are strongly opposed. There are notable generational gaps among white evangelical Protestants: four in ten (40%) of those under age 50 favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27% of those ages 50 and over.”

There is clearly some measure of generational change, but none of these questions cut to the core claim Graham is trying to make: in his view, homosexuality is sinful. On that point, most white evangelicals of all ages agree with him.

As Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote:

Some evangelicals believe there’s a difference between supporting gay marriage as a public policy matter and gay marriage as sanctioned by churches. A large majority of white evangelicals (including younger generations) continue to see homosexual relations as morally wrong, according to the General Social Survey.

The 2016 survey found 75 percent of white evangelicals saying homosexual sexual relations are always or nearly always wrong. That number is down from 82 percent in 1996 and 90 percent in 1987. The survey does not show a large generational gap, however. In 2014-2016 surveys, 70 percent of Generation X/millennial white evangelicals said same-sex sexual relations are nearly always or always wrong, compared to 81 percent of baby boomers/older generations.

The future of evangelicalism could be pro-LGBT, but it seems at least as likely that pro-LGBT Christians will simply stop identifying as evangelical. White evangelicalism will be a smaller, older movement, and its historic grievances and blind spots will persist. For Franklin Graham, hatred and all manner of cruelty can be excused in service of larger political goals. But a man loving a man–well, that’s just too much. We have to draw a line somewhere!

Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

Tom Skinner Was Not The Evangelical Radical You’re Looking For

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The black evangelist Tom Skinner has often been portrayed as a kind of radical figure who challenged white evangelicals to confront racism. His speech at the 1970 Urbana Conference is particularly famous (that is, famous in the small world of black evangelical history).

It seems to me this reputation glosses over significant changes over time and evolution in Skinner’s thought. When he burst on the scene in 1966, he was a more complicated figure than the radical image implies. His views in 1970 should not be retroactively applied to the 1966-1968 period. Here’s an excerpt from an in-progress draft of a dissertation chapter:

Skinner represented a new kind of bridge figure between white evangelicalism and African Americans. It had long been the case, as Bob Harrison complained, that black Christians were encouraged to minister among their own people and steer clear of challenging white entitlement to spiritual authority. But white evangelicals did not imagine Skinner’s evangelistic crusades through the traditional parameters of segregated ministries. In fact, when Skinner came to town for a crusade, local white evangelical college students were encouraged to help out. Simply by supporting Skinner they were doing something meaningful about the nation’s racial troubles. He was less an outcast from white evangelicalism, as Harrison had sometimes felt himself to be in the 40s and 50s, and more an ambassador. Said Christianity Today, “Skinner has created a great deal of interest among evangelicals who worry vaguely that they might be missing the boat.”[1] In this project Skinner’s blackness was crucial and revealing of the ways the civil rights movement had upset racial norms in evangelicalism. Bob Harrison’s blackness had made him an outsider. Skinner’s blackness enabled him to act as a liminal figure, a provisional insider in two religio-racial communities at once. By the summer of 1967, Christianity Today was telling its readers that Skinner deserved their “fullest support.”[2]

Skinner was not afraid to make white evangelicals uncomfortable. They were “almost totally irresponsible” in their avoidance of their black brethren, and it was only the pressures of the civil rights movement that had belatedly stirred them from their complacency. He blasted white evangelicals who piously intoned that “Jesus was the answer” while refusing to get involved in the problem. Skinner believed Jesus was the answer too. But he had skin in the game, and he expected other evangelicals to join him. Yet it was precisely this supplicatory undertone that made Skinner’s criticisms manageable. For all the discomfort his words could cause, he did not doubt that white evangelicals had the correct theology on the point that mattered most, and he asked them to help him bring their theology to the ghetto. Christianity Today approvingly noted that Skinner “plays down social insurgence in his sermons because he feels that reform may take ‘sixty years’ but that regeneration through Christ can help now.”[3] To put it baldly, converted Negroes were not rioting Negroes.

Remarkably, Skinner’s criticisms of white evangelicals were tame compared to his open contempt for the black church. He described most black churches as bastions of excessive emotionalism and spiritual immaturity, led by ministers given over to sexual immorality and hypocrisy.[4] As a result, he claimed, “There is hardly any Christian witness in the ghetto.”[5] There’s little reason to suppose Skinner’s hostility toward the black church was anything but sincere, but it also proved useful. It flattered white evangelical assumptions of religio-racial superiority….

I’m still working out where I’m going with this.


[1] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[2] “Summer of Racial Discontent,” Christianity Today, July 21, 1967, 27

[3] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[4] Skinner, Black and Free, 45-53.

[5] Skinner, Black and Free, 32.


Tom Skinner and Evangelical Conversion Narratives

Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?

Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.

I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.

Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.