Interview with VOX on Trump and Evangelicals

Believe Me 3dTara Isabella Burton recently interviewed me about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of the interview at VOX:

Why do white evangelicals still support Trump in such strong numbers? And what will that mean for the upcoming midterms? I spoke to John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, about how Trump has galvanized his Christian base and about the “court evangelicals” who have traded their traditional moral ethos for access to one of the most powerful men in the world.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you make the case that the tendency toward “fear” in white evangelical culture — fear of the immigrant, fear of secularization, fear of modernization — is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Can you talk a little bit about the rhetoric of evangelical fear in American history, and particularly how it has played out in terms of racial politics?

John Fea

If you look closely at American evangelical history, you see fear everywhere. During the early 19th century, white evangelicals in the South constructed a “way of life” built around slavery and white supremacy. When Northern abolitionists (many of whom were also evangelicals, I might add) threatened this way of life by calling for the end of slavery, white evangelicals in the South responded by turning to the Bible and constructing a theological and biblical defense of slavery and racism. After the Civil War, the fear of integrating blacks into white society led to Jim Crow laws and desegregation.

Meanwhile, in the North, many white evangelicals feared the influx of Irish immigrants, especially in the 1850s. These immigrants not only had different religious beliefs (Catholicism), but they were viewed by many as members of a different, inferior race. The same could be said of white evangelical responses to Italian immigrants and Jews at the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Randall Balmer has shown, white evangelicals in the South felt anxious about Supreme Court decisions forcing them to desegregate their K-12 academies and colleges. They claimed that “big government” was intruding on their way of life and their right (based on their reading of the Bible) to segregate. Many of the arguments they made sound a lot like the arguments made by the Confederates against the “Northern invasion” during the American Civil War.

With such a long history, it should not surprise us that so many white evangelicals believed Donald Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was not born in this country or was a secret Muslim. A 2015 CNN poll found that 43 percent of Republicans, a political party dominated by white evangelicals, believed that Obama was a Muslim. This, of course, is not true. It can only be explained by racial and religious fear.

Read the entire interview here.

Evangelicals Come to Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Wait–I thought evangelicals were racists and white supremacists?

Here is a taste of Josh Shepherd’s piece at Christianity Today:

Rising 825 feet over the skyline of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is the most-visited destination in the state of Georgia. On its north face, a carving in the granite wall depicts three figures central to the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

Against this backdrop, observers might have puzzled over the scene unfolding on a recent Saturday at the top of the monument. An ethnically diverse crowd of more than 3,000 people, the majority under age 30, sang as a full rock band led the crowd in Christian praise songs.

Nearly all lifted their hands, shouted, and even danced as pop-rock worship music blasted from speakers. Then a black man in a bright red shirt with white letters reading Reconcile took the mic.

“Heaven is among us,” said Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, a young pastor from Ferguson, Missouri. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Thomas was followed by civil rights leader John Perkins, who was followed by apologies from Christian leaders to two Jewish leaders for the history of Christian anti-Semitism, who were followed by declarations of forgiveness for Dylann Roof by family members of Charleston church shooting victims. And this was all in the first 150 minutes.

Read the rest here.

An African-American Evangelical on the Brett Kavanaugh Nomination

 

Kavanaugh

President Donald Trump announces xxxxx as his Supreme Court nominee, in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

John C. Richards, the Managing Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, is not overjoyed about Donald Trump’s pick of Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retired Anthony Kennedy.  Here is a taste of his piece at Christianity Today:

This tenuous relationship between judicial appointments and partisanship is why I am less excited about Kavanaugh’s nomination—especially when couched in terms of conservatism. While a more conservative court may be good for America, it hasn’t always been good for Blacks in America.

For many Black Christians, conservative strategies have historically had a disparate impact on our communities.

In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, a conservative court previously held that people of African descent could not be U.S. citizens. For the record, in the history of the Supreme Court, the Dred Scott case is regarded as the court’s worst decision.

Conservative strategies created the War on Drugs in the 1990s that has led to the U.S. far outpacing any other nation in the world in mass incarceration rates—which has resulted in a disproportionate amount of people of color in prisons across our country.

The truth is that many Black Christians aren’t so much looking for a more conservative court as they are looking for a more fair and neutral court—devoid of political influence.

Tempered Celebration

Ultimately, I want to encourage my White brothers and sisters in Christ to temper their celebration a bit. To be fair, many Black Christians would render a hearty amen to right to life and religious freedom issues that led many White Evangelicals to vote the way they voted in November 2016.

But let me be clear here. If there’s any concern about the Black exodus from Evangelicalism, we need to be sure that right to life is a womb-to-tomb issue—valuing human life and rights from conception to death.

We need to be sure that religious freedom and free speech extends to athletes who silently protest social issues in public spaces. We need to call out the hypocrisy of NFL owners who ask athletes to “just play football” and turn around and endorse federal judicial nominations on team Twitter accounts.

To make this nomination about Roe and dough (i.e. the religious freedom highlighted in the Christian baker case) ignores other essential issues Christians should care about—including immigration, health care, and labor laws.

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelical Activist John Perkins on Racial Reconciliation

One BloodOK–time for a different guy named Perkins.  Very different.

The Tennessean is running a nice piece on John D. Perkins, longtime evangelical rights activist.  Perkins’s new (and last) book is One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race.

A taste of the article:

John M. Perkins, a leading evangelical voice on racial reconciliation, thinks that 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the church is not focusing enough on unity. 

“It scares me. We’re not talking about togetherness,” Perkins said. “That doesn’t improve the issue.”

Perkins, a minister who fought for civil rights in Mississippi, is hopeful for the future. But he believes that for reconciliation to happen, people must first affirm the dignity of all human beings and then move forward together.

“I believe that’s the gospel,” Perkins said. “God created man to reflect his image in the world and his likeness and then he said, ‘Don’t make no other god before me.’ What we’re doing is making ourselves god before God and each other.”

Perkins, 87, was in Nashville on Friday sharing that message, which is included in his new book, “One Blood.” The roughly 200-page work, co-written by Karen Waddles, is billed as Perkins’ parting words to the church on race.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Fred Witzig

41WNTjQqz9L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Fred Witzig is Professor of History at Monmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: I was introduced to Alexander Garden by George Whitefield. My interest in Whitefield and the Great Awakening began when I was an undergraduate and never ended. But I quickly noticed that while the scholarship on Whitefield is lively and expansive, historians had never even begun to adequately assess the enormous efforts of clergy who worked against him. Foremost among them were New England Congregationalist Charles Chauncy and the commissary of the Church of England in the Carolinas, Alexander Garden. Chauncy largely failed in his efforts against the Awakening, and he’s famous among historians today. Garden went after Whitefield with more creativity and energy than Chauncy did, and, impressively, he succeeded in squelching the Awakening in South Carolina. More broadly, Garden arrived in South Carolina at a seminal moment in its development; in the aftermath of the Yamasee War, the white colonists shifted the economic foundations of their colony squarely onto African slave labor. Garden lent his considerable leadership skills to this endeavor, and in the process made a place for the Church of England, and Christianity in general, in the South that would last for more than a century. Yet, historians sometimes confuse him with the botanist Alexander Garden, and his only biography—until now!—is an unpublished dissertation from almost forty years ago. I think it’s time he gets his due.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Alexander Garden marshalled the resources of the Church of England in support of the burgeoning slave plantation economy of early South Carolina and applied a veneer of spiritual respectability to carnal exploitations of slave labor. In the process, Garden smothered the fires of a more egalitarian evangelical revivalism, burdened possibilities for the amelioration of the conditions of slavery with a Christianized paternalism that prevailed until the Civil War, and made the Church of England in the colony more influential than ever before.

JF: Why do we need to read Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Are you interested in the long and sometimes sordid history of the entanglement of Christianity and slavery in North America; the history of the Christian Church, and especially the Church of England, in the South; the development of the southern social order that prevailed at least until the Civil War; the early efforts to educate and evangelize slaves (Garden founded the continent’s first major slave school); the reasons why the Great Awakening flourished and then died out in the Carolinas and Georgia; and the way non-evangelical colonial leaders challenged and shaped George Whitefield’s evangelical ministry? If you are, this is your book. I wrote it with undergraduates in mind, as well, so that faculty teaching courses on Southern history, evangelicalism, slavery, and other such topics could assign it to their students. In the preface I call it a dual biography: the story of the tragic but productive relationship between a refugee from Scotland and his colony on the edge of the British Empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

FW: Two events stand out. The first was when I visited Appomattox Courthouse with my family when I was probably seven years old. Standing outside on the rutted road there in Virginia, my dad told in dramatic fashion the story of General Grant’s meeting with General Lee, and then Lee’s surrender of his troops in the next couple of days. I knew then that history was the most fascinating subject anyone could ever study. The second event was when I was twenty-six and decided to change careers and become a teacher. What else would I ever want to teach?

JF: What is your next project?

FW: I’ve had a strong interest in public history for . . . years. Recently I started two websites. One is an attempt to reach smart but non-expert adults with thoughtful histories of the United States, the church at large, and a smattering of other topics. Eventually it will host resources for homeschooling high schoolers who, in my view, are at the moment stuck with a choice between ultra-nationalist Christian histories or secular histories that ignore or denigrate religious impulses in America and the world. The second website, not yet public, will host podcasts of conversations between me and a historian friend talking about Christians of the past whose stories can challenge us to evaluate current American evangelical assumptions.

JF: Thanks, Fred!

The President of Fuller Seminary on Evangelicalism and Race

Fuller

Mark Labberton is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.  If you have never heard of Fuller, I encourage you to read George Marsden’s history of the school: Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Labberton responds to Randall Balmer’s recent Times piece on evangelicals and race.   Here is a taste of Labberton’s letter:

There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.

Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.

The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.

Read the entire letter here.

A Court Evangelical Speaks

Court evangelical dinner

Many of the court evangelicals gather for dinner in the White House on May 4, 2017 (whitehouse.gov)

Below is a statement from Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisers. It was written for ABC News and tweeted by Mariam Khan, a reporter and producer with ABC.

From what I understand, Moore speaks for many of the court evangelicals, but it is not clear which ones.  You may recall that recently Moore spoke for the court evangelicals in their attempt to get a meeting with Pope Francis.  So while there may not be an official evangelical advisory council, there is certainly a group of evangelical advisers that seem to have some level of organization and pay Moore, who embraces the title “a modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” to speak for them.

Here is the statement:

Many of us have done too little for too long when it comes to racial unity in this country.  So, in terrible and dark moments like the one this weekend, there are not bonds of trust to rest upon.  Building those bonds of trust is increasingly the focus of many of us.  This is especially important given American history on these issues.  I can tell you that politics has been the last thing on the mind of most Christian leaders these days, including myself. We have been almost exclusively focused on the ‘ministry of reconciliation.’

But, make no mistake, Evangelicals unquestionably abhor racism, anti-semitism, white nationalism, and white supremacism.  We believe racism is evil, and we oppose it in every form and every incidence.  Theologically, it is a direct offense to God himself for it opposes the Imago Dei (“image of God”) in every human being.  God hates racism, and we hate racism.  Countless ones of us have made that clear once again in recent days and we stand by those statements.  I do not know a single evangelical leader who is a racist.  I do know evangelicals who struggle to build bridges of understanding for various reasons.

I also believe the way that some in the media and in the administration as well as other politicians and also activists–republican and democrat, liberals and conservatives–have handled the Charlottesville incident has at times been unhelpful, too emotional and insenstive.  We all must condemn bigotry and hatred in pursuit of national healing and unity without exacerbating further conflict.

Because of this, we now face a moment of national reckoning where every American needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what they are going to do [to] help bring our nation together while addressing the persistent blight of racism.

It’s on all of us.

Evangelicals consider the Gospel responsibility we have been given by God to serve our fellow man to be our most sacred one.  That remains our primary focus.  As part of that we appreciated the deep relationship we have with the administration and the listening ear they have given to us and continue to give to us.  We take this seriously, and we feel our responsibility to fulfill our spiritual and national duty.”

A few thoughts:

  • As an evangelical Christian, I applaud Moore’s stand against racism.  All of the court evangelicals, with the exception of Jerry Falwell Jr., have made similar statements. There is nothing new here.
  • Who does Moore represent?  Why does he feel a need to make this statement? Has he become some kind of spokesperson for evangelicalism?  If so, nobody informed me about it. He used to work for Jerry Falwell Jr.  Does he continue to speak for the Liberty University president?  According to reporting from Time‘s Elizabeth Dias, Moore represents Paula White, Jack Graham, Samuel Rodriguez, Tim Clinton, and Ronnie Floyd, among others.
  • I am not sure what Moore is trying to say in the third (and fourth) paragraph of this statement.  Yes, technically it is “on all of us.”  But such a statement has no moral teeth.  Why not call out the POTUS directly? Name his name.  GOP politicians are doing it.  Manufacturing leaders are doing it.  Why be so vague?
  • In the last paragraph, Moore seems to imply that Trump has given an ear to him and the court evangelicals (or at least the mysterious group of court evangelicals that he represents).  Should we assume from this veiled statement that Moore and the court evangelicals ARE telling Trump that his statements after Charlottesville were inappropriate and lacking in moral clarity? As Mark Silk wrote today: “no one is actually asking the evangelical advisers to reveal what they are pouring into the administration’s listening ear.  They are asking the evangelical advisers to respond publicly to presidential behavior that has cause shock and dismay throughout the country and around the world.” Silk continues:

This suggests that what the evangelical advisers have actually been telling the administration and maybe even the president is, like, keep up the good work. Which makes you ask what Donald Trump would have to do to get the likes of Moore and Falwell to react the way the business advisers reacted. (Italics are mine).

The answer, I think, is that he would have to stop inviting them to the White House to discharge their spiritual and national duty by sharing their thoughts with, and laying their hands upon him. As long as that deep relationship persists, they’ll be standing by their dear leader.

If Moore thinks this statement somehow takes Trump’s evangelical advisers off the moral hook he is sorely mistaken.  The bottom line remains:  Corporate America has broken with Trump for moral reasons and Trump’s evangelical advisers–the court evangelicals–have not.

How Did Your Church Respond To What Happened in Charlottesville?

People's_Union_Church

Yesterday I was proud of my largely white evangelical church.  My pastor took time to condemn the racists who came to Charlottesville on Saturday and reminded us that “God grieves” at such behavior.  He asked us to pray for the victims and their families.  He asked us to pray for changed hearts among the white nationalists and repent of our own sins of racism.  He read from Ephesians 2.

Did your church acknowledge what happened in Charlottesville yesterday?  If it did, I would love to hear about it.  Feel free to comment below, at Facebook, or at Twitter.

Emma Green has a nice piece at The Atlantic on how some churches have responded.

A Black Southern Baptist Pastor Stays in the Southern Baptist Convention

Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

Rev. Gabriel C. Stovall, the senior pastor of the Butler Street Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, responds to Lawrence Ware, the African American Southern Baptist minister who recently announced in The New York Times that he was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention due to its failure to fully address racism.  Read our post on Ware’s op-ed here.

Stovall has a different view.  In a recent article at the website of The Biblical Recorder he explains why he is staying in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here is a taste:

In mid-July I read an article published in The New York Times by a black brother in the gospel named Lawrence Ware, titled, “Why I’m leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.”
 
As I read it, I recognized many of his feelings of frustration, angst and disgust, particularly at what I considered to be needless semantical gymnastics around that much-publicized resolution at the SBC annual meeting against the racist Alt-Right movement.
 
I identified with his struggle to walk away from the convention. I’ve been a part of Southern Baptist life for almost eight years now. I serve as a part-time state missionary in Georgia for church planting and as a part-time campus ministries pastor for one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the state. I planted a church as a Southern Baptist pastor and have recently led my new congregation to connect with the convention.
 
But I’ll admit that the way some white evangelicals caped for President Donald Trump – despite so many reasons to leave his candidacy in the dust, as they would’ve done for a Democratic candidate with some of the same issues hovering over his/her head – and the selective, loud silence some have given to issues important to me as a black believer, black Southern Baptist and black father raising a black son, I have spent much time in prayer asking God to show me if I’m truly in the right place.
 
I was drawn to the convention because of its emphasis on ministry and missions. The substance over style approach to ministry was, and still is, refreshing.
 
And even despite its still predominantly white makeup, I saw and worked with diversity that I’d never had the privilege of working with before.
 
Like the Egyptian couple I consulted who were planting a church in a primarily Arabic-speaking part of metro Atlanta. Or a Hispanic mission that wanted to partner with my church plant to help us reach Spanish-speaking people in our context.
 
Or even the white pastor who opened his doors for my church plant, free of charge, and invited me to the table with a Vietnamese and Hispanic congregation, along with his own ethnically mixed membership, to create a Vacation Bible School-style sports camp that reached a rainbow of ethnicities in a culturally diverse Atlanta suburb.
 
Every time I was tempted to make that call and say, “I’m done,” or to just walk away quietly, it was those images – and more – that crept into my spirit, speaking what I believe to be the words of God in answer to my inquisitive prayers, telling me, “You can’t go. I’ve got more work for you here.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mary Beth Mathews

mary beth mathews Mary Beth Mathews is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mary Washington. This interview is based on her new book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars (University of Alabama Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Doctrine and Race?

MM: When I wrote my dissertation (which became my first book, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South), I kept wondering why white fundamentalists tended to be displaced southerners. Men like John Roach Straton, William Bell Riley, and J.C. Massee all grew up in the south and moved north to promote their theology. As I researched them, I realized that I couldn’t answer that question and that there was a more important question staring me in the face: how did white fundamentalists interact with African American evangelicals. By all rights, there should have been a common theological bond between these two groups, but there was no real contact between them. That became the narrative of Doctrine and Race

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Doctrine and Race?

MM: Doctrine and Race argues that African American evangelicals were excluded from participation in the emerging fundamentalist movement in the early twentieth century, yet they adhered to many of the same doctrinal and social views as white fundamentalists. Black evangelicals were not welcome at the fundamentalist table, in large part because white fundamentalists had created a racial definition of fundamentalism, one that depended on white interpretations of theology, culture, and religion, but these same black evangelicals turned that definition against white fundamentalists, arguing that no one who was a racist could claim the identity of Christian. 

JF: Why do we need to read Doctrine and Race?

MM: Doctrine and Race illuminates the racial tensions within evangelical Christianity, tensions that continue to this day. Many American historians and pundits have tended to lump all evangelicals into a single category—one that is white by default. By examining the similarities and differences between white and black evangelicals and by tracing the exclusion of African Americans from larger discussions about theology and culture, we can better understand African American evangelicals, their political thinking, and current debates over religion and politics in the U.S. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MM: That’s a tough question to answer, since my doctorate is in Religious Studies but with a focus on American and European Religious History. I’ve been interested in history since childhood, but my passion for the subject of American religious history really took off when I was an undergraduate and took a class with David L. Holmes at the College of William and Mary. I declared a religion major and never looked back, except for a stint working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant.

JF: What is your next project?

MM: I’m finishing up an article on the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a joint venture started in the 1920s by the black National Baptist Convention and the white Southern Baptist Convention. This project grew out of the research I did for Doctrine and Race but never quite fit into the book itself. I’m also looking at taking some of the questions I asked in Doctrine and Race and applying them to emerging Pentecostal traditions in the early twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Mary!

Churches and the Legacy of the Confederacy

Lee Episcopalian

R.E. Lee Memorial Church, Lexington, VA

As we reported last week, the Southern Baptist Convention stumbled, but eventually managed to get its act together and condemn racism and the Alt-right at its annual convention last week.  The Southern Baptist Church is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It was founded in 1845 by Baptists in the South who defended slavery.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut reports on how historic Southern congregations of all denominations are dealing with their monuments to the Confederacy.

“Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved, or razed since 2015,” USA Today reported, estimating 700 to 1,000 such monuments remain across 31 states. “While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched, and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.”

The debate over such markers inevitably involves the church buildings that housed—and the many more that later memorialized—the history of the Confederate States of America. The most striking example may be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Confederacy.

Over the past two years, the historic church, where Jefferson Davis learned that the war was coming to an end, decided to remove plaques honoring Lee and Davis and place them in an exhibit. Gone are the kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint. The church will retire its coat of arms. Leaders are now discussing how to move forward with presenting a history that acknowledges racism and slavery in its past.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to turn the tide against racism. Why did it take the murder of nine black people in a Bible study for some people to finally reject the racism associated with the Confederate emblem? Why do people have to literally be killed before we confront racial prejudice?” asked Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network. “Christian leaders should be able to challenge racism in the midst of the church without waiting for a public disaster as an entry point to conversation.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Step Toward Racial Reconciliation in Greenville, South Carolina

Wheatley

I was really encouraged to read this article in yesterday’s Greenville Online.  It describes a growing relationship between Bob Jones University and Greenville’s Phillis Wheatley Community Center.

Here is a taste:

It was a sight that brought tears to the eyes of a 70-year-old deacon at Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church.

The Rev. Darian Blue, Nicholtown Baptist’s senior pastor, said the deacon remarked that he never thought he’d see the day when a Bob Jones University bus would be parked in the Phillis Wheatley Center parking lot.

That bus had brought BJU students to the center to perform community service projects in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

That event alone “spoke volumes to what has happened, what’s taking place, where we’re headed as a city and the work that’s being done between the two organizations,” Blue said.

But, it’s only a bud to a blooming relationship between the two organizations.

The university is offering scholarships to students who attend the Phillis Wheatley Center. The university is also opening its campus to the center’s repertory theater for a fundraiser on May 16.

The Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theater players will present “Don’t Give Up On Your Dreams,” in the university’s Rodeheaver Auditorium.

“Because the relationship is about reciprocity we have opportunities for our students to step foot on their property and that signifies a true relationship,” said Blue, executive director of the 98-year-old Phillis Wheatley Center. “It means so much.”

Blue said everyone he has spoken to regarding the center’s relationship with BJU considers it “major.”

“People in our community would never have thought our kids would be able to perform at Bob Jones so for us this is a big moment,” he said.

A more than 90-year-old Christian school on Wade Hampton Boulevard, BJU didn’t admit black students before 1971 and didn’t allow interracial dating until 2000.

In 2008, the university posted a statement on its Web site apologizing for its “racially hurtful” policies of the past, after hundreds of alumni and students signed a petition calling for an apology.

“In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves,” the statement said. “For these failures, we are profoundly sorry.”

Read the entire article here.

From the Archives: “A Time Empathy, a Time for History”

charleston

I published this at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016–JF

Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

Why Robert Jeffress Should Not Be Talking About American History

Trump Jeffress

If you read this blog regularly you know about Robert Jeffress.  He is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and one of the first evangelicals to endorse Donald Trump. Some of you remember that I debated him on an National Public Radio program a few months ago.  The other day he said he would vote for Donald Trump over Jesus.

Recently Jeffress explained to his followers why he has decided to get involved in presidential politics:

Part of Jeffress’s argument here is based on his belief that pastors have always been at the forefront of change in American history.  He is correct.  Clergy played a vital role in American political history.  Yes, they precipitated change. But they also used their role as pastors to in resist meaningful change.

There is a lot of historical problems with Jeffress’s remarks, but the most egregious issue is his failure to recognize that the former pastor of his church and one of the most prominent 20th-century Southern Baptists–W.A. Criswell-– used his position to promote racial segregation.  This is a dark chapter of Southern Baptist history.   It is probably not a good idea for Jeffress to invoke the Civil Rights movement as a moment in American history when pastors brought positive change to the United States.

Over at Religion News Service, Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, draws on the historical work of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis to call Jeffress out on this.

Here is a taste:

In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.

Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”

He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”

Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty:Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.

Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.

Read the entire piece here.

At the risk of making this post too long, I think it is also worth noting that some of the founding fathers did not think clergy should be getting involved in politics.

Many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices.  These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution:

That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.

Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:

The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.

It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America.  I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics.

Evangelical Voters and Nostalgia

Trump hatRobert P. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The End of White Christian America. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, he argues that evangelicals in America are not “values voters” any more.  Instead, it is more accurate to describe them as “nostalgia” voters.  As Jones puts it, these voters make up a  “culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.”

Here is a taste of Jones’s article:

The American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the CEO, found that heightened anxieties about cultural change and economic worries are strikingly prevalent among white evangelicals today. Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that immigrants are a burden to the country because they take American jobs, housing, and health care; and nearly six in 10 say it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals say that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values and way of life. More than six in 10 believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. On the economic front, eight in 10 white evangelicals believe the country is still in an economic recession today. And most notably—in a question that demonstrates the importance of the last word in Trump’s campaign slogan—more than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say that American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.

Jones’s conclusions fit well with what I argued recently about Trump’s appeal to evangelicals on “cultural issues” such as the threat of Islam and immigration.

The last sentence of the snippet I posted above is striking.  I remember a few years ago sitting with a bunch of thoughtful evangelical Christians trying to solve all the problems of the world over a one-hour lunch.  Someone in the group was complaining about how American culture has become more coarse.  I seem to remember this person making a reference to the increase in sex and violence on television.  I think his remarks were made in the larger context of the way our kids are exposed to these things at a much earlier age. We all nodded in agreement.

A few others then gave examples of how the moral fabric of America was eroding. They were all good points.

Finally, an African-American woman seated at the table offered a different perspective about moral progress or the lack thereof.  Because she was a serious Christian, she acknowledged the concerns of the other white people in the group.  But she rejected the idea that American society had “changed for the worse” in the past century.  Instead, she talked about the moral progress that had been made in the last hundred years, particularly in relationship to the role of African Americans and women in society.  How could anyone think that the 1950s were better than today?

A few weeks later I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation at a Christian college in the Midwest.  One of the speakers was a very popular African-American pastor from the South.  He made it clear that the best time to be an African American in the United States was “right now.”  Granted, I am sure that this pastor was outraged about what has happened in Ferguson or Baltimore.  There is a lot more work to be done in the area of race-relations in the United States.  But he ultimately took a long view–the view of moral progress.  Things are better in America today.

Every now and then someone asks me a question that goes something like this: “If you could travel back in time and live in any historical era, which one would it be?”  People are usually surprised when I say that I would live in the present.  Sure, I often get nostalgic for lost moral worlds where some things may have been done better than in the present.  (For example, the music of the 1970s is much better than what passes for popular music today!). But would I really want to go back? I don’t think so.  As a historian I have a pretty good sense of what happened back there.

By the way, you may be wondering why I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation.  The African American pastors who organized the conference were sick and tired of listening to Christian nationalists like David Barton trying to tell their fellow evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation.  These Christian nationalists, the pastors argued, were nostalgic for a golden era of the American founding that did not exist. They pointed out over and over again during our weekend together that the founders owned slaves and believed that blacks were inferior to whites.. How dare Barton and others say that we need to return to the moral and “Christian” values that apparently founded this country!

If Robert Jones’s survey is correct, then it makes perfect sense that white evangelicals would flock to a candidate who wants to “Make America Great Again.”

David Swartz Puts the InterVarsity Support of #blacklivesmatter in Historical Perspective

Urbana

Tom Skinner @ Urbana, 1970

Last week we did a post on InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent embrace of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Over at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz, the author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatismhas provided some historical context to this development.

Here is a taste:

Missing from the breathless reporting (one critic titled his piece “Dorothy, This Is Not Your Parents’ InterVarsity Anymore”) on Urbana ’15 was a sense of historical perspective. As I’ve written about at length in my book Moral Minority, InterVarsity in fact has a long tradition of social activism. In 1967, for example, students drafted a resolution complaining that “there are no black men in leadership positions on the national staff.” Following Urbana ‘67, InterVarsity’s magazine wrote that very little “escaped criticism at the convention. … Anything that seemed to show intolerance came under their indictment, with impatience toward racism leading the list.”

At Urbana ‘70 the funky strains of Soul Liberation, a band of black musicians wearing afros, colorful outfits, and African symbols, welcomed attendees. The mostly white audience hesitated at first, unsure of what to make of “Power to the People,” a song full of idioms from the emerging Black Power movement. But the swell of students soon rose to its feet to sing and clap along, delighted by the radical departure from the usual hymns.

Tom Skinner, a black evangelist, then rose to deliver the evening sermon, a searing critique of racial prejudice in American society. Cheered on by over 500 black students who had arrived early to secure seats right in front of the podium, Skinner preached, “You soon learn that the police in the black communities become nothing more than the occupational force in the black community for the purpose of maintaining the interests of white society. … You soon learn that what they mean by law and order is all the order for us and all the law for them.”

Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., Skinner contended that the white evangelical moderate remained strangely silent. “Christians supported the status quo, supported slavery, supported segregation.” “Even today, evangelicals “go back to their suburban communities and vote for their law-and-order candidates who will keep the system the way it is.”

Read the entire piece here.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Embraces #BlackLivesMatter

Black LivesEvangelical Christians have a long history of fighting for social justice in American society, but in the last several decades many evangelicals have hitched their wagons to Republican politics.  As a result, I think it is fair to say that they are no longer known as champions of a social justice agenda in the way that they were in the nineteenth century.

So when InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical ministry to students at colleges and universities, comes out in support of #blacklivesmatter, it is worth noticing.

Here is a taste of Tobin Grant’s piece at Religion News Service:

(RNS) InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is an evangelical college ministry that is no stranger to social justice movements. Still, it took a bold step when, at its yearly student missions conference, which concludes Thursday (Dec. 31), the group issued a full-throated, unapologetic call to support #BlackLivesMatter.

What InterVarsity did was more than a nod to current events or the need to oppose racism.

In the U.S., there are just over 41,000 college students involved in InterVarsity chapters. Since the 1940s, InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference has brought together thousands of its students for four days of seminars, worship services and meetings.

While the name of the conference still refers its longtime location at the University of Illinois, the conference is now located in St. Louis.

The location is 13 miles from Ferguson. Given that, InterVarsity’s commitment to both social justice and the diversity of its students (more than a third are ethnic or racial minorities), it was not surprising that there was some mention of racial inequality. But InterVarsity went further.

The first sign was the worship team. Its members wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and sang gospel songs.

Then Michelle Higgins took to the stage. Higgins directs Faith for Justice, a Christian advocacy group in St. Louis (she also serves as worship director at South City Church).

She’s active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the St. Louis area, and she challenged the students to listen to the stories of the movement and get involved.

Read the rest here.

 

Evangelicalism’s Wrong Turn

Fred Clark of Slacktivist blog calls our attention to a passage in Peter G. Heltzel’s Jesus & Justice: Evangelicals, Race & American Politics.  Clark writes: “understand and absorb these five sentences and you can understand the entire history of white evangelicalism in America over the past 50 years:

In 1965 [Carl] Henry sent Frank E. Gaebelein to cover the march in Selma, Alabama. An associate editor of Christianity Today and the founder and headmaster of the Stony Brook School, New York, Gaebelein went to Selma and was so inspired that he wired Henry in Washington, DC, that evangelicals needed to join the march. But Gaebelein’s stories of the Selma march never saw the light of day. The resistance at Christianity Today was coming primarily from two people: J. Howard Pew, the Texas oil man and the financer of Christianity Today, and L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law and an editorial adviser at Christianity Today, who still had segregationist views. Pew and Bell did not want Christianity Today to speak out too critically against racism and capitalism, because they thought it would alienate important segments of the magazine’s constituency.

Read Clark’s riff on this paragraph here.