This summer, in the midst of the ongoing protests over yet another rash of police and white vigilante lynchings of Black people, some unexpected voices seemed to be joining the cries for justice.
In June we witnessed evangelical Christians marching in Washington, D.C., accompanied by none other than Mitt Romney; evangelical mega-church pastor Joel Osteen joining a demonstration in Houston; and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention issuing a statement encouraging the membership of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination to say Black Lives Matter, “clearly, as a gospel issue.”
At first blush, this development seemed especially welcome in light of the current climate in the white evangelical world. Based on the apparent hope that he would deliver on some of their most cherished political goals, in 2016 white evangelicals made a Faustian-at-best bargain with a man who openly flouts everything they purportedly believe. Since then they have been all-too-willing to overlook the president’s obvious racism, inability to denounce white supremacists, and racist dog-whistling.
For their part, during the last four years, a number of Black Christians have described the profound disillusionment of witnessing their white evangelical counterparts ignore all the blatantly racist things the president says and does. Set against this backdrop, the willingness of even a few high-profile white evangelical leaders to affirm Black Lives Matter for the first time certainly appears like a welcome surprise.
Unfortunately, in this case, the bar is exceedingly low, and wariness is warranted for a variety of contemporary and historical reasons.
Tracing the ‘blacklash’
For one thing, a swift backlash has accompanied such gestures. A McCarthy-ist campaign against critical race theory, “cultural Marxism,” “radical leftists,” “woke-ness,” and even just “social justice” is already well under way in a variety of evangelical circles. The white evangelical establishment has thereby made its message abundantly clear: if white evangelicals address racism at all, it will be on their terms, in boundaries they set, under the conditions they mandate, and it will not be in any way disruptive of the status quo.
This message also is not new. White evangelicals have been here before — many times, in fact — and the pattern has been remarkably consistent.
“White evangelicals have been here before — many times, in fact — and the pattern has been remarkably consistent.”
Black Christians either diagnose the un-interrogated racism pervading the white evangelical world or simply ask white evangelicals to fight against racial injustice. White evangelical leaders, in turn, call for kumbaya-style reconciliation, decry disorderly protests, and remind black Christians that legislation and systemic solutions are unnecessary when the only way to fix racism is by changing individual hearts. As a result, many Black Christians are forced to walk away in disgusted disappointment.
It happened in the 1950s and 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. asked Billy Graham, the most famous evangelical of all time, to wield his considerable clout in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Graham responded with a few symbolic gestures, continued to consort with segregationists, and admonished King for going too fast when much of the South still needed their hearts changed.
It continued into the 1970s when a group of confessedly evangelical Black leaders — including William H. Bentley, William Pannell and Tom Skinner — began using their considerable influence to entreat white evangelicals to take racism seriously. The results? Many of them were rewarded for their efforts with marginalization, derision and dismissal.
It happened again in the 1990s when the contemporary white evangelical approach to racial reconciliation arguably reached its apex with the meteoric rise and ultimate fizzling-out of the inter-racial evangelical manliness movement known as Promise Keepers. (For more on the utter inadequacy of this particular approach as well as a brilliant alternative, check out Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ recent book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation.)
A stain on the faith
Over the past several decades, this pattern — in which white evangelical leaders treat racism as an interpersonal problem having nothing to do with systems and structures and that must never be remedied outside of “law and order” — has driven a long line of Black Christians out of a host of evangelical colleges, parachurch organizations and multi-racial churches. By now there are enough such examples of Black and brown folks who tried to help disentangle American evangelicalism from its inbuilt white cultural assumptions only to be silenced, gaslighted or excommunicated that the phenomenon has become its own sort of tradition.
In the end, whether they left or stayed, almost all those who have gone on to publicly recount their experiences moving among “the evangelicals” have agreed about one thing: white evangelicals have an especially acute racism problem that remains overwhelmingly unaddressed.
“White evangelicals have an especially acute racism problem that remains overwhelmingly unaddressed.”
Since the dawn of the 21st century, it has become increasingly clear that the reality is worse still. In their landmark 2000 study Divided by Faith, for example, evangelical sociologists Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson found that “evangelical theology and practice actually undermine racial progress and social justice in America,” and that, “white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it.”
Things have gotten no better since then either. Although the analysis moves beyond just white evangelicalism to include white Catholics and mainline Protestants, more recently, Robert P. Jones’ book White Too Long makes the devastating case that racism has been so thoroughly baked in to the structures of white Christianity for so long that it is rare to find one without the other. White Christians, Jones explains, are more likely than white non-Christians to hold racist views, and those who hold racist views are more likely to identify as white Christians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, white evangelicals are worst of all.
When faced with the current explosion of nationwide protests over the country’s ongoing disregard for Black life, yes, some white evangelical leaders have finally said Black Lives Matter, but they have done so under duress. And if historical precedent is any indication, we should expect that any solution they might offer will be soundly evangelical and that may be precisely the problem.
Evangelicalism cannot repair itself
Evangelicalism as it currently exists in this country lacks not only the theological and ethical tools to address the systemic and structural realities of white supremacy in any meaningful way, but also the intellectual tools to comprehend them. And with their zealous gatekeeping and authoritarian defense of a narrow evangelical identity, hidebound white evangelical leaders seem determined to ensure that it remains that way.
For this reason, I fear any path toward justice for Black people in this country will need to go around the white evangelical world rather than through it. And for any white evangelicals wanting to join that journey, I am afraid the only way forward will be a path out of and beyond the evangelical gates.
Isaac B. Sharp is director of certificate programming and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He is the co-editor, with David P. Gushee, of Evangelical Ethics: A Reader and the forthcoming Christian Ethics in Conversation.