Jemar Tisby’s New Book and People Who Read The Gospel Coalition’s Twitter Feed

tisbyJemar Tisby‘s much-awaited book The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is now available.  Jemar is a graduate student in American history at the University of Mississippi and an African-American evangelical in the Reformed tradition who over the last several years has become an important voice in the evangelical community.

I am looking forward to reading Jemar’s book and perhaps reviewing it here, but in the meantime I recommend historian Daniel Williams‘s review at The Gospel Coalition.  Here is a taste:

Tisby claims that the black exodus from white churches in the last two years is principally a reaction to white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, so any attempt at racial reconciliation in the church must address white evangelicals’ political choices. Citing religious sociologist Michael Emerson’s view that Trump’s election was “the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation [in evangelical churches] in at least the past 30 years,” Tisby argues that white evangelicals bear responsibility for the racial polarization that ensued when they cast their ballots for Trump—regardless of their reasons for doing so. Furthermore, he says that white evangelical repentance from racial sins should include specific steps to remove the political symbols of white supremacy, starting with Confederate monuments.

How should white evangelicals react to this indictment? If Tisby and other Christians point out ways in which the president’s actions or rhetoric have hurt racial minorities, white Christians shouldn’t hesitate to join their brothers and sisters in condemning these sins and advocating for justice—even if they voted for President Trump. To pretend that any politician or political party is above criticism is theologically dangerous.

Finally, Tisby claims that Christians who insist they can simply preach the gospel without talking about systemic racism are complicit in racial injustice. Is this correct? This may sound, on the surface, as though Tisby is doubting the gospel’s power to change lives, but it actually accords with historic Reformed theology. Reformed Christians who believe in the “third use of the law” have insisted for five centuries that Christians need to hear the law of God to grow in sanctification. A simple proclamation of a narrowly defined version of the gospel, without application of God’s moral law, is unlikely to correct spiritual blindness and sins. Biblical teaching on God’s call for justice in social relationships and on specific ways in which whites can love their neighbors of another race is required. And when white Christians see ways in which their own church traditions’ records on race are laced with sin, they should admit the wrong and seek justice and racial reconciliation.

Read the entire review here.

Not everyone, however, seems happy that The Gospel Coalition chose to feature a review of Tisby’s book.  Check out some of these tweets:

I know that The Gospel Coalition can’t control what happens on Twitter, but those of us who are not connected to TGC would like to know if these tweets are representative of this organization.  At the very least, these tweets reveal there are still many, many conservative evangelicals who have not come to grips with systemic racism.

ADDENDUM (10:15AM–January 24, 2018):  And the hits keep coming!

These tweets explain a great deal about conservative white evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I wish I had them when I was writing Believe Me.

The Many Evangelicalisms

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Over at the Christian Post, Michael Gryboski reports on a recent session at the American Historical Association (sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History) on race and the meaning of American evangelicalism.  Some of you may recall that Matt Lakemacher also reported on this session here at the blog.

Here is a taste of Gryboski’s piece:

There are “many evangelicalisms” and people should be wary about trying to attach a single definition to the religious movement, a history professor says.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, associate professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin College, presented a paper on Saturday titled “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake” at an American Historical Association conference in Chicago, Illinois.

The ”81 percent” in the title refers to the much touted yet highly disputed 2016 presidential election exit polling data that claimed 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

Some, including Joe Carter and Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition, and Napp Nazworth at The Christian Post, argued that the polling data was problematic on multiple fronts. The 81 percent, they point out, only includes whites, doesn’t include people who didn’t vote, and is based upon self-identification, rather than beliefs or participation in an evangelical church. 

Further illustrating the problem, a 2017 LifeWay poll found that less than half of those Americans who identify as evangelical hold evangelical beliefs, and one-third of Americans who hold evangelical views don’t identify as evangelical. 

Du Mez explained in her presentation the modern debate and different perspectives over how to define the term “evangelical,” including whether to accept self-identification or to base it on theological views.

Read the rest here.

 

Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!