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.