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

Image result for jerry falwell jr

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.

What Does It Mean To Invest In Whiteness?

While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.


What is The Investment in Whiteness?

A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:

Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?

Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.

What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?

For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.

To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We “invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.

It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see it before?”

Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.

Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:

It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.

It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.

Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that human beings are depraved.

The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.

Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American history).

Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.

What, then, am I repenting for?

This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.

We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.

Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun to go against it.

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!

A Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise

In a note to the reader at the beginning of his monumental study of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois announced, “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.” Du Bois frankly announced that he was “not trying to convince” the white supremacist majority. He understood that he had to assume certain truths so he could get on with the business of useful scholarship. Americans who didn’t already know the self-evident truth of black equality needed more help than Du Bois could give them.

There is an echo of this sensibility in the beginning of Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. As a prominent black voice in the small world of evangelical racial justice discussions, Tisby has become well-acquainted with a committed cadre of racist evangelicals who loudly attack Christians who dare to oppose racism. So in his introduction he anticipates the critics who will dismiss him as “liberal” or “Marxist,” or accuse him of “abandoning the Gospel.” After naming these criticisms, Tisby turns to his real audience, the people who are willing to be persuaded, and says, “After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.”

Tisby is not DuBois, and it’s not 1935, but it still takes a certain fortitude to put this book out with the knowledge that it will be systematically misrepresented, its author slandered and maligned. So Tisby knows his audience. And he wants to try to reach people who are open to learning. Those acting in bad faith, he implies, are just another sad example of the centuries-long history he’s tracing.

Now, what of the book itself? It is a 400-year survey of American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Along the way, Tisby tries to keep several key themes in view: the worst abuses of American racial systems have been enabled by Christian complicity; it didn’t have to be this way (history is contingent); and racism adapts over time.

Tisby understands something that many academic scholars struggle to practice: the public is actually eager to engage history, but people want to learn from the past more than they want to learn about the past. This can make us uncomfortable because it is a presentist and morally-charged posture toward history. Still, we need to try to engage the public on precisely this level.

That’s what Tisby does. In the chapter on “Making Race in Colonial America,” Tisby writes, “Through a series of immoral choices, the foundations were laid for race-based stratification. Yet if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality.” As historical analysis, historians might shrug at this (or even wince!). But as popular history told with moral urgency, this is pitch perfect.

A 400-year survey in a slim volume like this is an ambitious task—probably too ambitious. Tisby seems most at home in the civil rights era, where the argument is clear, the anecdotes well-chosen, and the complicity of the church horrifyingly apparent.

At other points, the link between the historical events being traced and the complicity of the church in racism becomes tenuous. At times, such complicity is asserted more than it is shown. In some cases, Tisby makes powerful use of the testimony of black Christians to drive home his points (Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is quoted to good effect), but other anecdotes feel like a lost opportunity. We learn, for example, what Ida B. Wells thought of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but not of her scorching criticisms of D.L. Moody’s compromises with white supremacy.

In parts of the narrative I wished for less historical survey and more complicity. It is doubtful that any reader approached the book expecting to learn that dysentery was the leading disease killer of civil war soldiers, or that the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These digressions did not shed light on Christian complicity.

None of these critiques should overshadow the broader achievement: the ordinary Christians to whom Tisby is writing are likely to find much in this book that they’ve never heard before. More importantly, they are likely to be disturbed and inspired.

Tisby concludes the book with a series of recommendations to take action against racism now. It’s a helpful set of suggestions running the spectrum from mundane actions that ordinary people can take to mass movements that, right now, seem impossible. But the urgency of the moment and the scale of the problem require us to imagine beyond what seems possible.

I was most struck by Tisby’s call for “ecclesiastical reparations.” This is not a reprise of the 1969 Black Manifesto. He intends to enlighten rather than shame, and he comes across as an activist-thinker with earnest suggestions rather than all-or-nothing demands. He writes, “Churches could lead society by independently declaring a literal or figurative ‘year of Jubilee’ for black people. They could pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families. Or they could invest large amounts into trust funds for black youth…”

The simple logic and justice of proposals like these can at once inspire action and serve as an indictment of the church. Why indictment? Because most white Christians would probably leave their churches before they give their money to such a productive and just cause. And so the work of undoing the church’s complicity in racism continues.

It took many decades for Du Bois’s achievements to be truly recognized. Let’s hope evangelicals don’t wait so long to admit that Tisby was right.

Are Southern Baptists Ready To Face Their Past?

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Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:

More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.

The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.

The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”

The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.

Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.

The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”

The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.

This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.

It will be interesting to see:

a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.

b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.

c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.

In White Evangelical Attitudes Toward Politics, Echoes of the Civil Rights Era

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Earl Stallings, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, shakes hands with black worshipers on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings was one of the “white moderates” who called for an end to civil rights protests and whom King wrote against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. After this picture was published nationwide, Stallings received many appreciative letters from white Christians praising him for his courage in welcoming black activists to his church.

During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.

The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:

1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists

2. Calm tensions

3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”

To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.

This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.

But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.

And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.

It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.

But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.

Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.

We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.

It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.


* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.

In General, White Evangelicals Like Racism

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

White evangelicals tend to support racism. They usually like it when they see it. And in general, they think anti-racism is unchristian.

You won’t find any of this out by asking abstract questions about racism. White evangelicals, like everyone else, know how to give the correct answers to abstract questions. But ask them about specific people and movements, and they’ll quickly tell you the real story.

And this makes sense. It is easy to claim support for abstractions. But in real life, it turns out people are complicated and flawed and everything is messy. So those anti-racists are going to say some things you don’t like. That racist President might have other policies that appeal to you. But do you know the score? Can you see the big picture enough to know that flawed anti-racist movements are better than pro-racist ones?

Most white evangelicals can’t see that. The latest data comes from the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey. Here are a couple highlights:

While most Americans, including 75% of black Protestants, believe Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups (hint: this is the correct answer) only 26% of white evangelicals believe this.

While most Americans, including 84% of black Protestants, believe that police killings of black men are part of a larger pattern of how police treat African Americans, 71% of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents.

While 64% of Americans and majorities of all other major religious groups believe the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States will be mostly positive, a majority of white evangelicals say this will be mostly negative.

There could be more interesting nuggets in the data but it appears PRRI hasn’t provided the crosstabs. This comes on the heels of a big survey of evangelicals by Lifeway Research and the Billy Graham Center Institute. Rather than defining evangelicals by self-identification, that survey used a set of theological affirmations. In theory, that might produce a more truly evangelical sample. And while the Billy Graham Center Institute sought to use the data to rehabilitate the reputation of evangelicals, it too produced some damning results.

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities,” 42% of white evangelicals said yes. Most white evangelicals are not disturbed by racial hatred.

Such data only reaffirms what should already be abundantly clear. Evangelicals of color have shared their experiences repeatedly and have exposed the rampant racism of the white evangelical church. But, as many can attest, such exposure does not cause most white evangelicals to question their racism. It causes them instead to question the sincerity of the anti-racists’ faith.

As most white evangelicals militantly refuse to align their lives with the Gospel, those who seek to follow Jesus must continue to pray that the evil complacency of this religious community would be shattered. At the same time, it is not enough to point out the flaws. We must point positively to Jesus Christ, who really is the savior of the world, who is good news to the poor and oppressed, who offers forgiveness to all and terror to those who excuse hatred of human beings made in his image.

Sex Was The Last Defense of Segregationist Theology

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Eternity Magazine, July, 1972.

As growing numbers of white evangelicals adopted colorblind theologies in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them continued to draw a sharp line at the question of interracial marriage. Even as they came to believe that we’re all the same in God’s eyes, when it came to sex, it turned out that race still mattered a lot.

White evangelical elites tended to be of the opinion that there was nothing in the scriptures that forbade interracial marriage. They thought it was unwise, but not sinful. When they said as much in magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity, they had to tread carefully. Many white evangelical laypeople were quite certain that interracial marriage was an affront to God. So even moderate views usually generated some irate reader responses.

An example of this comes from Eternity in the summer of 1972. After publishing an article concluding that “Biologically, biblically, socially and statistically there is not cause for alarm” about interracial marriage, the magazine heard from some angry readers. Like the Michigan man who wrote,

I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew in Africa who are missionaries.

But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice that it is very seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it’s nothing but lust and sensual desires.

Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.

A Kentucky woman put it more succinctly:

I did not like the article…I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people…Discontinue my subscription.

You might chuckle at the “there will eventually be no white or black people.” But it’s a line revealing of this woman’s rejection of the emerging colorblind theology. Why was it self-evident to her that it would be bad if there were no black and white people? Because racial difference, she was quite sure, was part of God’s design. There were very important differences between groups, and though God offered spiritual salvation to all, he did not intend for them to merge together socially, much less biologically. This was her common sense.

Another woman from Albany, Georgia wrote that the article obviously wasn’t true,

judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore, please cancel my subscription.

This is a fascinating window into a different world. Apparently there was a belief that interracial marriage had led to the downfall of nations in the past. From where did this idea come? How widespread was it? I hadn’t heard that one before!

And finally, a Texas man thought the whole idea of interracial marriage was a moral absurdity:

Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible?

These attitudes—expressed and printed openly in the 1970s—are a sobering reminder of just how anti-Christian much of our evangelical heritage is.

Why Are White Evangelicals So Selfish?

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Migrants and their children. Also known as: someone else’s problem. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

There is a lot of evidence that white evangelicals are in some ways more selfish and callous toward others than are Americans who do not claim to be Christians. Surveys indicate that white evangelicals are more likely than religiously unaffiliated people to:

support torture of human beings

believe the United States does not have a responsibility to accept refugees

oppose interracial marriage

blame the poor for their poverty

be bothered by immigrants who do not speak English

think that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks

support Donald Trump

believe African Americans do not face a lot of discrimination

In fact, white evangelicals are more likely to believe we face a lot of discrimination than to believe that African Americans do.

In the face of such data, white evangelicals of integrity have to ask themselves whether it would be better for everyone if the number of white evangelicals continues to decline.

Some people might be quick to point out that this data doesn’t tell us much about how white evangelicals behave in their personal lives. They might be very kind and generous to the people around them.

In a way, that’s precisely the point. What is it about white evangelicalism that has made its adherents support racism, hatred, and oppression in the public sphere while acting kindly in our private lives? (We appear to give more of our money away than religiously unaffiliated people, for example).

There is no excuse for this behavior, but it is possible to understand it. Why do you think white evangelicals are often so hateful and selfish?

I took a crack at this several months ago.

In my view there are four big temptations that fatally undermine white evangelicals’ posture toward our fellow human beings. In each temptation, an idea, institution, or thing is valued more highly than people. For Christians, such a devaluation of human beings is practically the very definition of sin. Here are the temptations:

1. Nation is more valuable than people

2. Whiteness is more valuable than people

3. Economic security is more valuable than people

4. Church is more valuable than people

That last one might be surprising but it’s important. I should write about all of these in the near future, but for now I’ll just say this: The through line in all of these temptations is an attenuated, unbiblical sense of public good and public responsibility. When white evangelicals call Jesus our “personal savior” it is more apt than we might realize. In much of white evangelical theology, Jesus has come to save us from private and personal sins—anger, lust, gossip, pride—while the world and its systems are passing away, going to hell in a handbasket.

The idea that he is making all things new gets lost in translation. The kingdom of God, if we even think about it at all, is an otherworldly place to which individuals will go in the future, rather than an expansive, growing force that reorders the here and now. This is exquisitely contradictory, as the black evangelical Bill Pannell has pointed out:

On one hand they want to say that this world is a sinking ship and want to do evangelism to get people off this “sinking ship” before it goes under, and on the other hand they are always voting conservative to maintain their property rights and the status quo. That’s the problem, that’s the contradiction. It is difficult to deal with but it is very real. I think it is a real challenge to the so-called Christian institutions.

The here and now is important enough to make sure we live in nice neighborhoods and send our kids to good schools, but not important enough to make public investments that might make all neighborhoods and schools better. But we’re not hoarding our resources. We’re merely enjoying God’s blessings, don’t you see? If white evangelicals were homeless itinerants calling people to repent, you could at least respect their radicalism. But when we invest in the status quo like we have no eternal hope it’s hard to take us seriously.

Another White Evangelical Self-Critique, And Its Limits

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The crushed body of Reverend Bruce Klunder lies in the mud, April 1964

It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.

In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:

Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”

This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.

In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.

Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.