Friday, June 17, 2016

Recovering the Gospel from White Evangelicalism

I received my undergraduate degree from Moody Bible Institute. A small evangelical college in Chicago, MBI was founded by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in the late nineteenth century and became a major player in the fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century. Though the college no longer enjoys the outsize influence of its earlier years, it remains a well-regarded institution in evangelical Christian circles.

As a kid, I learned about the career of the great Dwight L. Moody, perhaps the most famous evangelist of the late nineteenth century. I suppose any self-respecting evangelical has at least heard of Moody. While at MBI, I learned more about the school's founder. He traveled around the country and across the Atlantic preaching to huge crowds. His commitment to the Gospel and passion for sharing his faith were legendary.
Dwight L. Moody, 1837-1899
But what I didn't learn about Moody is crucial to understanding White evangelicalism in our own time. I didn't learn that as Moody preached across the South in the 1880s there were Black churches boycotting his crusades. Moody held segregated meetings, emphasized reconciliation among Whites after the civil war, and told folksy stories associating African Americans with dirt and poverty to illustrate his sermons. He emphasized his respect for White southern ideals and did not discuss Black aspirations for freedom.

Black clergy protest segregated revival, Galveston, 1886.
One member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote of Moody, "His conduct toward the Negroes during his southern tour has been shameless, and I would not have him preach in a bathroom, let alone a church." As southern Whites lynched African Americans and kept their body parts as souvenirs, Moody ventured South preaching that they could have their Christ and White supremacy too. The  anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells said Moody had "encouraged the drawing of the color line in the churches," the very last place it ought to exist. Frederick Douglass agreed. "Of all the forms of negro hate in this world," he declared in disgust, "save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of loving Jesus."

Moody prioritized national unity and racial hierarchy over Christian doctrine, perverting the good news he claimed to preach. Moody could not have been unaware of basic Christian teaching found in the Bible he loved. Christ had declared in no uncertain terms that he would enact eternal judgment on the basis of how his followers treated the most vulnerable and despised people in their society (Matthew 25). And his disciple John had bluntly warned that people who claimed to love God while hating human beings were liars (1 John 4). But Moody refused to apply the Gospel to his own country.

At the very end of his life, after his influence had waned, Moody finally stopped holding segregated revival meetings. But by then the damage had been done. And Moody had been overtaken in popularity by other preachers who were more overt in their commitment to White supremacy.[1]

We can trace a similar theme both forward and backward in time from Moody's position in the late nineteenth century. White evangelicals revere the profound theological reflections of the eighteenth-century minister and theologian Jonathan Edwards. We know much less about the people he enslaved.[2] White evangelicals have drawn inspiration from the astonishing zeal and oratory of the eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield. We know little about his lobbying efforts to institute slavery in the colony of Georgia.[3]

Moving forward in time, White evangelicals laud the most famous evangelist of the twentieth century, Billy Graham. If we know anything about his stance on racism, it is likely a triumphant narrative about how he desegregated his crusades (leaving aside the question of why they were segregated to begin with). Despite desegregating his crusades, Graham did not aid the civil rights movement. Worried that the movement threatened national unity and provided an opening for communism, Graham called for a more moderate course. When Martin Luther King wrote to Graham seeking his help in the battle against Jim Crow, Graham did not even respond. The task of brushing King's plea aside was left to one of Graham's lieutenants.[4]

White evangelicals do not generally know these stories. In this forgetting there is more than institutional protection and group bias at work. In the dominant White evangelical imagination, all these stories, if they are recalled at all, do not touch upon the essence of these men or their ministries. As long as these giants of the faith preached repentance and salvation through Christ alone, they can be heroes. This unchristian narrowing of theological vision allows the bonds of Whiteness and nationalism to go unexamined in many evangelical circles.

While White evangelicals venerate Moody and Whitefield and others, they erase from the story Christians who clung more faithfully to the Gospel. During these men's lifetimes fellow Christians were rebuking them for perverting the good news! These Christians believed, alike with Moody, that human beings are sinners in need of God's grace through Jesus Christ. But they also insisted on applying scripture to American society. We don't know the stories of those Christians or respect their theological insights because they were Black.

During my years at Moody, I'm not aware of having been assigned to read any theologian of color. Though my theological training was distinctly White in its cultural orientation and value system, and the campus culture strongly nationalistic, I was taught that what I was learning was simply biblical Christianity. This is perhaps the central conceit of my evangelical heritage: that a faith so bound up in modern categories of race and nationalism is somehow an unmediated expression of "true" Christianity rooted in the early church of 2,000 years ago.

This is the context in which we ought to read polls showing strong White evangelical support for Donald Trump. A new CBS poll has Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump 43% to 37% among all registered voters, while Trump leads among White evangelicals 62% to 17%.

Trump is running the most aggressively anti-Christian campaign of our lifetimes, with execrable displays of racism, contempt for women, and disregard for refugees. He shows no concern for the poor. He directs his venom against the very groups God, according to the Christian scriptures, chooses to identify with. And when it comes to protecting the lives of unborn children, Trump seems even less sincere than the usual degree of insincerity from GOP politicians.

Many White evangelicals are prepared to vote for Trump because they're heirs to a cultural and theological tradition that binds race and nation to faith. Trump may not offer a clean-cut portrait of Christian character, but he is surprisingly forthright in his White nationalism. It is a mistake to assume that Trump's irreligious persona doesn't carry a religious message. To make America great again, to restore America's racial hierarchy--these are religious goals of an idolatrous people.

Many White evangelicals are still under the impression that America is a new chosen nation, like the Israelites of old. They still don't know that the biblical narrative of the Exodus offers America a closer parallel: the blasphemous enslavers, the Egyptians. Many White evangelicals still haven't discovered that scripture is filled with God's constant claims that he identifies with those society despises. They still haven't realized that God's compassion for the oppressed and wrath for the oppressor is not a message of comfort to White, Christian America, but of judgment.

I know many White evangelicals who are too busy experiencing the grace of God in their daily lives to be enthralled by White nationalism. They are building health clinics, adopting children, running summer camps for poor children, raising scholarship funds to send students of color to college, working against gun violence, and living in poor communities as neighbors rather than gentrifiers. I know well all the good evangelicalism can do.

But we've seen, as well, the evil it can do when fused with political power and drained of the good news Jesus declared. In this extraordinary political season, I feel it is important to lay down a marker. The political "Christian right" is likely to follow Trump into the abyss. But many millions of Christians refuse to go there, and we insist that this so-called Christian political mobilization does not speak for us.

We claim that White nationalist Christianity is a perversion of the Gospel, and we invite everyone to receive the message of our savior, who came preaching liberation rather than hatred:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

[1] My account of Moody relies on Edward J. Blum's excellent book, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press). See especially chapter 4. 

[2] See for example Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015). 

[4] Curtis J. Evans, "White Evangelical Responses to the Civil Rights Movement," The Harvard Theological Review 102 (2009): 245-273.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Can Americans Dare to be Honest about Trump?

In the spring of 1900, the populist demagogue Ben Tillman of South Carolina took to the floor of the United States Senate to glory in his state's recent violent return to White supremacist rule. Along the way, he prodded his northern colleagues for their hypocrisy. He claimed that they, alike with White southerners, would do whatever was necessary to maintain White supremacy:
We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it...The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do."
As the United States rang in the twentieth century waging a brutal war of conquest against Filipino freedom fighters, a sitting U.S. senator could stand in the center of national power and boast of the murders that secured his political power.

Nearly half a century later, much had changed. It was 1947, and the Senate was refusing to seat one of its recently reelected members. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, a racist populist beloved by many Whites in his home state, was accused of obliquely urging his supporters to employ violence to ensure Blacks did not vote in the election. While the Senate dithered, Bilbo went home to Mississippi to die of cancer later that year.

The racist violence that Tillman could boast of with impunity in the halls of national power at the beginning of the century had become, by mid-century, grounds to refuse a Senator his seat. Bilbo was disciplined for whispering in Mississippi what Tillman had shouted in Washington. In the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust, explicit racism was fast going out of style.
George Wallace: The face of the so-called "white backlash"
By the height of the civil rights movement, southern senators were much more likely to resist civil rights legislation with defenses of a colorblind constitution than with claims of Black inferiority. They hastened to say that they desired opportunity for all, deplored violence, and merely wanted to uphold the American tradition of limited government. Even George Wallace, the man who is remembered as the embodiment of "white backlash" in the mid-to-late 1960s, often used rhetoric that was more temperate than we might assume. When he ventured north in 1964 and shocked the political establishment with his appeal to Democratic primary voters, he did so with tried and true conservative rhetoric. He warned, for example, of the "unnatural and unhealthy accumulation of power in the hands of an all-powerful central bureaucracy." Wallace certainly appealed to White racism, but he did so in terms that are familiar to us today.

Why does all this matter now?

There was a dramatic amount of racial change during the twentieth century, as the shifting rhetoric from Tillman to Bilbo to Wallace indicates. Much of this change was for the good, and the fortunes of people of color in the United States today are vastly different than a century ago.

The problem is that a certain narrative about that change has become foundational to the story we tell ourselves about the nation. To mess with that narrative is to pick a fight with American exceptionalism. The narrative, in brief, is this: a church-based civil rights movement awakened America's moral conscience and the nation rose to fulfill its highest ideals. Racism as a potent political force was defeated, and Martin Luther King's dream is in reach if we focus on our common identity as Americans rather than emphasizing color. We now live in a society of broadly shared opportunity and racism is repudiated by the vast majority of Americans.

What would happen if some sort of new political development occurred to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this narrative is fundamentally flawed? What if something happened to demonstrate that racism still has enormous popular appeal? What if new developments strongly suggested that racism is politically potent? Would Americans reexamine the exculpatory story we've been telling ourselves for decades? Or would we choose the path of self-imposed confusion and denial? For many years I've guessed the latter path would be more likely. Now I know.

With the emergence of Donald Trump as a political figure far more powerful than George Wallace ever was, we are witnessing a degree of explicit racism at the very center of national power that we have not seen in many decades. Trump's racist attacks this week against the judge in the Trump University case are just the latest in his long line of racist activity stretching back to the 1970s. To find an adequate precedent for Trump's racist appeals, we arguably need to go back prior to the civil rights era.

What's remarkable about this is that whole swaths of the nation's institutions cannot even describe it. They are compelled to resort to euphemism and obfuscation. Politicians and pundits avoid using hard-edged words like racism not because they are inadequate descriptors of the matter at hand, but because, a priori, one simply doesn't describe contemporary America in this vein. To admit that Trump is running a racist campaign is to admit that America is not what we thought it was. It is to admit that progress has not been as easy, facile, or comprehensive as our national myths tell us.

The reaction of America's media and political institutions to Trump shows just how powerful are narratives of racial progress. We've come to believe that a vast gulf separates contemporary White politics from the segregationist politics of the 1960s. Never-mind that the rhetoric and policy goals of these two movements separated by half a century are often almost indistinguishable. We simply declare this separation to be so rather than enacting it through the hard work of moral reflection and policy change. To engage in serious thought about the meaning of Trump's rise to power would call into question not only these cherished racial progress narratives but the very meaning of the nation, because that progress has been so woven into our sense of what America means in the twenty-first century.

Can Americans bring ourselves to be honest about Donald Trump? Can we recognize in his emergence another chapter in a long tradition of diseased White politics? This is the America we're living in. Trump is a disgrace, but he's our disgrace.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Trump's Rise Means for the Future of the Country

Several months ago, there was a lot of discussion about whether Trump's campaign was edging toward fascism. Trump's incitement of the crowd to violence at some of his rallies and his ethnocentric nationalism contributed to the sense that he represented something new and dangerous in American politics.

But is it really fascism?

Throwing the word around so easily is a reflection of how unfamiliar we are with the horror of organized political violence and ethnic nationalism. Read a book about Europe between the world wars. Or better, reflect on our own history.

The practice of defining Americanness as Whiteness runs deep in American law and culture. And Whites often resorted to political violence to sustain this arrangement. During the Reconstruction era, whole states succumbed to paramilitary forces seeking the restoration of White rule. Call this fascism or something else; it was not a free country as you and I would ordinarily define it. During World War Two, African Americans launched a "Double V Campaign," seeking victory over what they saw as fascism at home and abroad. The civil rights movement achieved remarkable success in discrediting political violence and opening the way to multi-racial democracy. Unfortunately, there's now very little national memory of how White terrorism functioned politically in American history. So our unfamiliarity with fascist-like political movements is an indication both of how much has changed and of how much we have forgotten.
The NAACP compared the Jim Crow South to America's fascist enemies during World War Two
Remembering our history compels us to move from the theoretical, "It could happen here," to the quite concrete, "It has happened here and could happen again."

To be clear, Trump is not, at this stage, leading a fascist movement. Nor, in my judgment, is he ever likely to. But what is genuinely terrifying about Trump's emergence is that it shows the safeguards we thought our political system had built up are not there at all. Trump is so far beyond the pale, so manifestly unfit to exercise power, that the level of support he garners can be used to measure the health of our political system. The patient is more sick than we realized.

It's not that Trump is a fascist; it's that if people can support Trump they can support anybody. We must bear in mind that all this is happening at a moment of relative peace and prosperity. The economy is growing, unemployment is low, and Americans benefit from governance that is more efficient, responsive, and effective than in most of the world. Yet we're seeing the rise of a dangerous nihilism, a pervasive sense that we need an "outsider" to come in to Washington to blow things up. If Trump is empowered now, how much worse will it be in a moment of genuine economic crisis?

Perhaps the key question is whether Trump will act as a vaccine for our political system, inoculating it against future demagogues, or as an accelerant, paving the way for a strongman ten or twenty years down the road to seize power. Much depends on whether or not Trump wins the election. The Republican Party's cowardly falling in line has made a close election likely, and a Trump win a possibility.

My guess is that Trump will lose and that the worst possibilities inherent in his rise to power will be avoided. But the damage is nonetheless likely to be extensive and long-lasting. Trump will be both symptom and cause of a long-term degradation of our political institutions and civic fabric. In November, tens of millions of people will vote for him, a man who makes whole groups of Americans fear for their physical safety. In November, tens of millions of people will say to their fellow Americans, "we don't want you here."

Americans are not natural lovers of liberty in a way that other people aren't. We don't magically correct our course toward our constitutional foundations. We simply have a set of institutions that have worked well and have proven remarkably durable. Donald Trump is an obvious threat to those institutions. And millions of people don't seem to care, because at least he'll "shake up the system."

This is a dangerous state of mind. We must discard the assumption--at once complacent and utopian--that radical change will necessarily be for the better. Steering a course between the horrors of fascism and communism is not an inevitable condition of American life but a hard-won achievement that must be constantly maintained. Trump threatens that achievement. In staking out this ground, I find myself a truer conservative than many of the self-styled "conservatives" of the Republican Party.

Polling shows that White Americans have become deeply pessimistic about the future of the country. Whiteness does not deliver the wages it used to. The opening up of more opportunity for all is perceived by many Whites as an unfair reduction of their own position. Their resulting pessimism threatens to harden into an extremism that could power a figure worse than Trump to the presidency in the future. We must not accept the lazy belief that White pessimism is merely a function of economic hardship. Wage stagnation is real enough, but the most oppressed and economically desperate Americans have rejected Trump decisively. Most of them aren't feeling the Bern either. Instead, they're voting for the ultimate conventional politician: Hillary Clinton.

They're not doing so because they're naive. They know better than many of us how oppressive the United States can be. But they also have cultural and institutional memory of how much worse it was, and how hard-fought and precarious are their gains. In this dangerous moment, preservation is as important as transformation.

In this year when so many Americans seem to want radical change and a shattering of the "establishment," we would do well to remember that if we get our wish, picking up the pieces may not be as easy as we think. Conventional politics, with its moral compromises and frustrating incrementalism, can be infuriating. But it might be just what we need right now.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Inevitability of Memory

The journalist David Rieff has a new book called In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. In an intriguing interview about the book, Rieff says historical memory can be dangerous and a certain amount of forgetting is often more socially responsible. Here's the crux of his argument:
Today, and for quite some time, probably since the end of the Second World War, the dominant view among decent people, good people, nice people, has basically reflected the words of the American philosopher George Santayana, who has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The view is that it’s moral to remember the past, and if we don’t remember the past, as Santayana said, we’re going to repeat all its horrors. And by extension, or by implication, it’s immoral to forget. You have a kind of sacralization—a kind of memory of past horrors made sacred. On two grounds: one moral, that to forget is to do the most profound kind of injustice to those who suffered and those who died. And on the other hand an empirical claim, which is that if people remember, they’re less likely to either fall into the trap of these crimes, or be the victim of them....

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.
There are two claims here. First, Rieff is simply saying that we don't actually learn from history. Given humanity's capacity for death and destruction that's a plausible case to make, though I disagree with it. But what about his second claim? Would it really be better to forget troubled pasts?

It seems to me that Rieff is making a philosophical point that has little application to the real world. It may well be true that it would be better if certain things could simply be forgotten. But how is this collective forgetting supposed to happen in the real world? Forgetting is not passive or natural. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka has written, “The absence of memory is just as socially constructed as memory itself...when we speak of forgetting, we are speaking of displacement (or replacement) of one version of the past by another." The call to forget is not a call to let nature take its course. It's a call to replace one kind of memory project with another.

Remembering is not moral or immoral as much as it is inevitable. Societies are going to remember the past whether it is advisable to do so or not. As Rieff himself emphasizes, the past is fertile terrain for demagogues who seek to stir up animosities in the present. We can't contain such destructive forces by insisting on forgetfulness. Instead, we need to find usable pasts that can counter destructive memories.
White supremacist memory at work: the highest-grossing film of all time.
Rieff uses American memory of the Civil War as an example of the negative effects of remembering. He says,
I would submit that the collective memory that existed in this country until well into the 1960s of the war was actually a terrible version...So that it’s not as if we have any guarantee that a society’s version of events, version of the past, that is commemorated is going to be either accurate or moral. Which again isn’t a reason to scrap memory, but is a reason to be more skeptical and be less sure that it’s always “better to remember.” 
This is obviously true, but it seems to cut against the point he's trying to make. The solution to White supremacist memory is not forgetting. It's better memory.

Indeed, if American society somehow forgot slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the consequences could be dire. The material conditions and social relations resulting from those histories would still be with us, but we would be left without any understanding of what produced them. In such a vacuum racism might actually increase.

This raises the deeper problem that forgetting poses. The most contentious issues of memory often involve pasts in which one group really did wrong another group, and the material results of those wrongs are often concrete, active, and ongoing. These are not abstractions. Telling indigenous people in the United States to forget genocide will not restore their sovereignty.

So when we speak of remembering and forgetting, we cannot ignore present-day power relations. It is no coincidence that the descendants of perpetrators are often the most ardent advocates of forgetting. Rieff is certainly correct that memory can be used irresponsibly in the service of hate and grievance. It would be wrong, for example, if Armenians used the memory of genocide to promote political violence against Turks in the present. But the onus should be on the Turks to remember their crime, not on their victims to forget it. To say, as Reiff seems to edge close to saying, that this is all a kind of fiction, that no one living actually "remembers" these events and we should therefore focus instead on the present, raises the question of whether political and social collectivities across time actually even exist, or should exist.

No one "remembers" the founding of the United States, yet we think of ourselves as Americans, and imagine that George Washington was an American too. Humans seem hard-wired to make group identities based on imagined shared pasts. Faced with this inevitability, the challenge is to remember what we have done to each other in the name of these identities, so that we might somehow transcend them in the recognition of our common creation in the image of God. Memory is inevitable. Peace-producing memory is a choice and must be continually constructed. It may be true that we will never learn, that we will go on killing each other. But if we don't remember well, it's a certainty.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Defense of Uncertainty

"Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions."
     Proverbs 18:2

I read a lot of books this semester. That's what comprehensive exams are all about. So, what does all that reading do to you?

I honestly think I feel less knowledgeable than ever before. Really, I feel profoundly ignorant.

In our most self-serving moments, we subconsciously assume that expertise in one field is infinitely transferable. We know a little about something and suddenly we think we know everything about everything. In our more realistic moments, trying to learn a lot about something mainly just reminds us of how little we know.

This process is surprisingly unsettling. I used to have lots of opinions about lots of things, and I casually assumed those opinions were right. Well, ok, I still have lots of opinions. But now they're accompanied by all sorts of annoying questions. Questions like,
Wait a minute, why am I so sure about this?

What are the opinions of people who have spent their lives studying this?

How would my view of this change if I read 10 books about it? 100?

What complexities am I missing because I haven't experienced the thing I'm opining about? 
How would I feel differently if the issue touched my closest friends or family members? 
People often have strong opinions that are based on ignorance. That's not exactly news. But what's interesting is that ignorance hides itself. In the end, there's a sense in which we don't know what we don't know. People often have unfounded ideas about racism or American history, for example, but you won't hear them say, "I know my ideas go against the vast majority of people with experience or expertise on this subject, but I am sticking to my opinion." On the contrary, precisely because they are ignorant they don't know that their views contradict the evidence.

Before I get up on my high horse, I would do well to remember that this is basically the same thing I try to do all the time. Now those annoying questions keep getting in the way and make me question what I think I know.

I have opinions about climate change, pacifism, transgender rights, immigration law, ISIS, and even the Boxer Rebellion. They're all ignorant opinions. If this seems hard to admit, perhaps it's because we've become accustomed to thinking of ignorance as an insult to be lobbed against an opponent rather than a routine condition that affects us all.

This is not a call for radical skepticism about our ability to know things that are true. Nor is it a call for self-imposed silence until we attain some imagined threshold of competence. Rather, it is a call to dialogue, to listen to each other with the expectation--rather than the fear--that in listening we will be changed.

Indeed, the basic assumption that there is additional knowledge or experience that would change our thinking if we had access to it is a prerequisite for constructive conversation. We need to cultivate the capacity to be uncertain.

It might seem strange to think of uncertainty as a skill to be cultivated, but it is precisely that. Abiding in uncertainty is uncomfortable. It strips us of our easy assumptions and continually confronts us with the possibility that we may be wrong. It is much easier to be certain.

Social media rewards certainty. Strong and uncompromising opinions, baldly stated, are the currency of Twitter and Facebook. I've offered more than my fair share. And many of us have learned not to even try to have such conversations face to face. After all, if you and I are both so sure of ourselves, what is there to talk about? In the end, we'd rather change someone's mind than learn something new ourselves.

So yeah, I'm done with comps. I feel pretty ignorant. I feel uncertain. Maybe trying to make myself at home here wouldn't be such a bad idea.