How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History

MLK

I have never met Matthew Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University.  I admire his book American Apocalypse: A History of American Modern EvangelicalismYesterday he wrote an op-ed at The Guardian: Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history.”

Here is a taste:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

Did Graham, as Sutton suggests, “fail” his country or his God?  Sutton believes that he did, but this is not a historical question.

Sutton falls into the trap of claiming that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side” of history.  Such claims have nothing to do with history.  They have everything to do with politics.  They tell us more about Sutton’s politics than Billy Graham’s legacy.

I found this tweet from November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election:

Read the rest of Sutton’s piece here.

Premillennialism as a Serious 20th-Century Option For Thinking About the Direction of Human History

SuttonOver at Syndicate, a theology website that has been churning out some very interesting commentary and conversation on new books, a symposium is underway exploring Matthew Sutton’s American  Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins, a doctoral student in intellectual history at Columbia University, edits the symposium that includes Fred Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Schneider, and Joe Creech.

Here is a taste of Jenkins’s introduction to the symposium:

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Fred Sanders’s opening review praises American Apocalypse, but he thinks that Sutton has missed an opportunity to explain “what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.”  He adds, “we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire characters to think this way.” Sanders, I might add, teaches at Biola University, a school that has deep roots in the premillennialist tradition that provides the subject of Sutton’s book.

Sanders chides Suttton for not taking seriously the various eschatological formulations that rivaled premillennialism in 20th century America.  He asks Sutton why he did not situate the history of American premillennialism in the context of these competing views about the direction of human history.  Sanders is not talking here about post-millennialism and amillennialism, the kind of stuff seminary students study in their eschatology courses.  No, Sanders suggests that communism, environmentalism, patriotism, and progressivism all offer their own eschatological vision.  Fundamentalist eschatology offered men and woman an alternative to these “isms.”  It is a fascinating critique.

Sutton seems to dismiss this argument without really addressing it.  (He titled his response “Those Wacky Premillenialists.” Since he identifies Biola as a premillennialist school, and Sanders teaches at Biola, it is hard not to read this as disparaging).  He writes: “But mine is a not a book about competing eschatologies.  It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology.”  Fair enough. But Sanders seems to rightly suggest that premillennialism and fundamentalism did not exist in a vacuum.  Those who upheld these views of the end of the world seemed to define their view of human history over and against other visions of human history.  From a historical perspective, premillennialism was a serious option for thinking about these things–one of many options available to those in the West.  Communism and Progressivism were just as “wacky” to fundamentalists and evangelicalism.

Great symposium.  I look forward to reading the other responses.

 

 

Michael Limberg on Day 3 at the AHA

Thanks to Michael Limberg for his posts this weekend.  Here is his latest.  It’s a good one–JF

Today (Sunday) has been an 8-plus hour blur of back-to-back panels and conversations.  I’m exhausted and my mind is spinning.  I have a lot of notes to review- I was writing down ideas and books and people to contact in the margins of my notebook all day long.  My forays into the warren of the book exhibit have also resulted in a staggering list of books I should read (just in case it wasn’t long enough already).
I started the day by finding myself sitting next to Mark Noll and John Wigger at breakfast.  I had to desperately hope the coffee kicked in quickly enough to have a good conversation with them and the other Conference on Faith andHistory breakfast attendees!  Typically I have at least two cups of coffee in the morning before trying to interact with adults (which is good for everyone involved). Lesson learned: go to Starbucks first even if there will be coffee at the breakfast.  I enjoyed meeting a few new scholars and reconnecting with a couple of others despite my caffeine-deprived state. 
From there I went down the hall to the roundtable on Kate Bowler’s recent book Blessed:A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  We had to liberate a few extra chairs from an empty room down the hall to fit all the attendees, and it was a lively crowd.  Jay Green and Randall Stephens contributed their comments.  Brantley Gasaway read the comments from John Turner, who had to leave for a family emergency.  Many of their comments centered on Bowler’s decision to focus beyond the typical story of televangelists and scandals to examine the Prosperity Gospel’s historical roots and its lived experiences for many believers.  Bowler’s evenhanded presentation prompted John Turner to claim that “This is surely the least-snarky history of the prosperity gospel ever written by an outsider.”  Bowler’s approach prompted a discussion among all the attendees of “methodological agnosticism” and the ways historians can and should critique or push their subjects.  Bowler conducted parts of her research through observation of Prosperity Gospel revivals and church services; she advises other observers to avoid sitting in a back corner for this, as she was hit in the head several times by enthusiastically-swung flags. She described how her work had been influenced by ethnography as well as by the admonition to “take religion seriously”.  Blessed is now on my (long) list of books to read.
I also attended a panel titled “Contesting the Meaning of ‘International’Governance: Minorities and the League of Nations” because of the connections of a couple of the papers with my dissertation.  There are a number of young scholars in both the United States and Europe producing new work on the League of Nations, humanitarian aid, and international movements during World War I and the 1920s and 1930s, so I enjoyed meeting a couple of people who attended and presented.  I now have some ideas that might lead to some new intellectual crises and major changes to my dissertation, but that’s the risk and the benefit of attending a conference. 
Finally, I went to a panel co-sponsored by the AHA and the American Society for Church History on American Evangelicals Looking Abroad.  I arrived a couple of minutes late and ended up having to sit on the floor along one of the walls due to the crowd.  This was another of the panels organized to honor Grant Wacker, so all of the presenters were his former students from Duke and the University of North Carolina. 
Matthew Sutton’s paper, “The Global Apocalypses of Billy Graham,” showed how Graham’s premillennial vision of an immanent apocalypse remained part of his ministry from the 1950s to the present.  Apocalyptic rhetoric added a sense of urgency to Graham’s ministry and evangelical revivalism more broadly.  Connecting to foreign policy, Sutton noted that many evangelicals have tended to be very interested and cognizant of world crises and current politics because of their drive to understand these events in light of the end times.
David King’s paper, “Seeking to Save the World: American Evangelicals and Population Control” pointed out that, before the 1980s, American evangelicals largely supported the use and distribution of birth control in the developing world.  At one point, evangelical leaders even endorsed Planned Parenthood for its ability to promote family values in planned, happy families.  Global evangelical ministries such as World Vision began actively working with USAID to run family planning programs.  By the 1970s and 1980s, however, pushback from Christians in the global South at the 1973 Lausanne Conference and other forums (as well as the burgeoning culture wars) had begun to make American evangelicals back off from their support for population control.
Brantley Gasaway argued that progressive evangelicals have sought to influence foreign policy by showing that American Christians could support Palestinians and reject Christian Zionism.  Progressive evangelicals such as Jim Wallace and Ron Sider applied their calls for social justice and an end to inequality to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  They crafted theological arguments to counter dispensationalism and waged a public relations campaign to reach the religious public and policymakers alike. 
Finally, Sarah Ruble used Christianity Today’s coverage of Iraqi Christians to explore how American evangelicals identified with a global Christianity and construct critiques of U.S. foreign policy.  She noted that the magazine’s correspondents and editors tended to evaluate the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy by how it affected the rights and freedoms of global Christians.  During the Iraq War, articles celebrated the new freedoms Iraqi Christians (particularly Iraqi evangelical Protestants) enjoyed.  The same articles also tempered their support for the US war effort by pointing out the new risks and fears Iraqi Christians faced as a result of the invasion.
This panel showed me that just as foreign relations scholars are increasingly following Andrew Preston and William Inboden in thinking about religion in foreign policy, religious scholars are increasingly thinking of how foreign policy fits in the study of religion.  This panel would fit well at a conference of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and I hope these scholars would consider doing that and furthering this dialogue.  I and many who offered comments today were struck by how all the papers in this session, as well as Kate Bowler’s book, grappled with how American expressions of Christianity might be truly “exceptional” and how it is global.  That’s a question I’m struggling with as well as I write my dissertation, so I hope to hear and take part in more of those discussions in the future. 
Now I’m safely back home, still with a full stomach after indulging my not-so-secret addiction to falafel at the Middle Eastern food truck across the street from the hotel.  I also discovered an intersection with Starbucks locations on two of its four corners, which might just prove Billy Graham’s point that that apocalypse is nigh. But at least I had no trouble caffeinating up for the train ride.  My time at the AHA has been short but full.  Thanks to John Fea for giving the chance to share some of it!