In the 1980s, when I was a student at a small Christian college, some of my professors warned us about the “liberal theology” of the civil rights movement. What Martin Luther King Jr. did was notable, they said, but he could not be trusted as a theologian. As I look back on this now, I think it is fair to say that a lot of my classmates at the time interpreted this teaching to mean that the civil rights movement was somehow flawed, even unGodly, because its leaders did not tow the line of traditional evangelical theology. That is certainly how I interpreted it.
Back then I understood why my professors warned us about the civil rights movement. The school I attended had its roots in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century. (It was founded, in part, by C.I. Scofield). The fundamentalists were not only fighting liberal theology in the denominations, but they were also, by extension, at war with the “social gospel,” the Protestants who believed that Christianity required its adherents to work for social justice as a means towards Christianizing the nation. Fundamentalists believed that social gospelers confused the true Gospel with moral activism. The true Gospel was about getting people “saved.” The social gospel was a form of “works righteousness.”
When it comes to race, we are in the midst of something similar to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century. The stuff they taught me in college is still with us. The Black church’s roots in the social gospel scares a lot of white evangelicals today. Consider Audrey Farley‘s recent piece at The New Republic: “The Conservative War Against the Black Church.” Farley writes in the context of the upcoming George senate run-off between Raphael Warnock and Kelly Loeffler.
Conservatives claim long-standing tradition for their suspicion of the political, citing scripture on the supremacy of the spiritual realm, ignoring scripture on structural sin, and generally pretending that Jesus and centuries of his followers didn’t make broad demands for a new society and instead sought merely crumbs for the poor and outcast. History, however, reveals the privatization of sin and the intense cynicism toward material politics to be relatively recent inventions, developed precisely to counter racial progress and other social reforms. It illuminates how conservatives’ individualist theology is little more than a pretext for upholding the status quo—a ruse that secular institutions have nevertheless taken seriously.
Read the entire piece here.
When it comes to Raphael Warnock, I think it is fair to say that white evangelicals have an antagonistic relationship with the black church. But I also think that white evangelicals in Georgia will not vote for Warnock because he claimed to be a “pro-choice” pastor. In other words, white evangelicals in Georgia will not vote for Warnock for the same reason they will not vote for Jon Ossoff: abortion. The story of American evangelical political engagement is indeed a complicated one.