Nov 26, 2014

White evangelicals' changing perspective on the reality of racism

Russell Moore gets death threats.

This is perhaps not that surprising. Moore, after all, is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He makes it his business to speak on abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the separation of church and state, arguing for the conservative Christian position on culturally controversial issues. Yet it's not those issues that bring out the most bile, the most vitriol from people, according to Moore.

It's racism.

"Nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America," Moore wrote. "Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago . . . . We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn't be deceived."

The death threats that Moore receives might also serve as an indicator for how far white evangelicals have come on the issue of racism in America. In the wake of a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed a young and unarmed black man, Michael Brown, white evangelical leaders like Moore have spoken out. They have condemned racism. They have said that those upset by the American justice system's apparent disregard for the lives of young black men are not wrong to be upset, and scared, and angry. They have encouraged white evangelicals to listen to non-white people talk about racism. They have insisted that racism is a real problem.

And that's been controversial.

Moore's blog post called for more racially diverse churches to demonstrate how Christian love overcomes "carnal patterns of division." He called for Christians to recognize "it is empirically true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers."

"We cannot shrug that off with apathy," Moore said.

These relatively mild admonitions were met by some with skepticism. One commenter demanded citations for the empirical claims of racial inequality. Another challenged the idea that racism had anything to do with Michael Brown's death. Don't "drag 300 years of history and social jabberwocky into it," the commenter said.

A third went so far as to defended racially segregated churches. "This has always been the way," she wrote. "The old saying, Birds of a feather flock together. It's natural."

Other white evangelicals have received a similar response when they spoke about the issues in Ferguson.

At Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer urged people to listen to African Americans. "I think it is of the utmost importance that all Christians, but specifically white evangelicals, talk a little less and listen a little more," he wrote. "Or, put another way, maybe some need to spend less time insisting that African American's shouldn't be upset and more time asking why some are."

In a subsequent piece posted the following day, Stetzer pleaded with white evangelicals not to be distracted by looting and riots, following the grand jury's decision, and dismiss all protests against racial injustice. "Please do not be one of those people who ignore the hurt," he wrote.

The day after that, Stetzer noted on Twitter he was overwhelmed by "all the people calling me an idiot."

Despite that reaction from readers of the flagship magazine of white evangelicalism, Stetzer's articles are historically significant. When Christianity Today was started in 1956, the magazine was not concerned with racism. It was created to be the voice of white evangelicalism on pressing social issues, but segregation and the treatment of African Americans were not among those issues.

Carl F.H. Henry wrote in the first issue that the magazine's mission was to "apply the biblical revelation to the contemporary social crisis by presenting the implications of the total Gospel message to every area of life." Judging from the focus of the articles in the first few years, the "social crisis" mainly meant the Cold War. Christianity Today was more interested in American foreign policy than any domestic matter. When writers did turn to social problems in America, the concern was centered on whether the country's moral fiber was strong enough to fight Communism. The "present soul fatigue," as Henry phrased it at the time, didn't have anything to do with evangelical complicity with racism.

When the magazine did turn to the question of segregation in 1957, Henry wrote that civil rights legislation ending segregation would be morally problematic. "Forced integration is as contrary to Christian principles as is forced segregation," he argued. "A voluntary segregation, even of believers, can well be a Christian procedure." While Henry personally opposed segregation, actually ending it seemed to him a greater injustice than segregation itself.

In the same 1957 issue there was also an article by E. Earle Ellis, a Bible professor at Aurora College, in Illinois, who would later teach theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky (where, according to his obituary, "many students considered it an honor just to sit in his class"). In his article, Ellis argued that racial segregation could actually be a positive good.

Ellis wrote,
Segregation has the potential to develop into a partnership of mutual respect … Southerners often wonder whether integrationists are as interested in good race relations as in forcing a particular kind of race relations. The unfortunate fact is that ardent Christian integrationists, however conscientious, are one cause of the worsening race relations in the South today. Their moral superiority complex, their caricature of the segregationist as an unchristian bigot and their pious confession of the sins of people in other sections of the country have not been wholly edifying.
It was the last substantial statement Christianity Today would publish on race relations in America for many years.

As Matthew Sutton notes in his recently published history of modern evangelicalism, "While they often claimed to oppose the morals and values that pervaded American culture," white fundmentalists and evangelicals have consistently "conformed to the white mainstream on questions of race and gender."

The fact that Christianity Today publishes pieces like Stetzer's today, calling for white evangelicals to listen to African Americans and acknowledge racism is real and has real affects, shows how far white evangelicalism has come. Even if relatively mild statements cause some controversy, the public platform is used now to call for white Christians to listen to black Christians on the issue of racism in America.

Today, a regular contributor to Christianity Today like Laura Turner can be seen arguing in a Religion News Service opinion piece that evangelicals shouldn't be so skeptical of claims of racism. "Aren't we the people who ought to know, more than anyone, that the system is always broken?" she wrote, invoking the evangelical belief that all are sinners. "Christians need to be willing to see the ugliness at work in the human heart that leeches into human systems."

Of course, the very first comment in response to Turner's blog post claimed the looting in the riots after the grand jury's decision is more of a clear injustice than Michael Brown's death. Numerous commenters took offense at the post, disagreeing over the specifics of the case, whether or not it's fair to criticize the justice system, and whether racism is real. Commenters accused Turner of betraying Christianity because she wanted to be accepted by secular leftists.

One dismissed all racial tensions as the work of "Judeo Communists," and asked incredulously, "Laura, you'e a good looking precious redheaded White woman. What happened to your?"

As with Russell Moore's hate mail, the comment can serve as a reminder that white evangelicals have gone a long way towards racial justice, but, as Moore said, "we shouldn't be deceived."

Ferguson, however, will not likely be the last instance of racial division in America, and white evangelicals are changing. Their perspective on racism in America is shifting.

"I remember the first time I heard the words 'majority culture,' or 'white privledge,'" said Darrin Patrick, a white evangelical pastor in St. Louis, in a sermon about the Michael Brown shooting. "When I heard it I was offended. After all, I'm not a racist. I mean, I grew up listening to hip hop. I have black friends."

He doesn't hold that same defensive posture today. He has accepted that racism is a real problem, and that his fear of acknowledging that wasn't helping. In response to the tragedy of Michael Brown's death and the unrest emanating from the grand jury's decision, Patrick urged white Christians to engage questions of racism without being defensive.

"I'm realizing how much I need to grow in understanding what it means to unite a city, what the gospel says about race, and how we unite around the things of God," Patrick said. "I'm talking to black pastors . . .  I need help, right? I need to listen . . . May God, through the gospel and our lives, use this terrible thing to literally unite the races around the person of Jesus Christ."