The President of the Southern Baptist Convention Writes a Sympathetic 1619 Tweet and Catches Hell for It

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J.D Greear, the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is trying to make the denomination more sensitive to race and the SBC’s long connection to slavery.  It looks like he has his work cut out for him.

On August 19, Greear wrote 3 tweets:

And then all hell broke loose:

 

Is There a Relationship Between Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy?

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Two reporters contacted me this week to talk about Christian nationalism and the shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  I told both of them that Christian nationalism does not necessarily have to result in white supremacy.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, much of the civil rights movement and the social gospel movement believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  The abolitionists and social reformers of 19th century believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  (Of course their understanding what it means to be a “Christian nation” looked very different from the current manifestation of Christian nationalism espoused by the Christian Right).  It is also true that throughout American history Christian nationalism fueled white supremacist groups such as the KKK and the Confederacy.

The first reporter I engaged was Carol Kuruvilla of HuffPost.  Here is a taste of her piece, “How a Nationalist Strain of Christianity Is Subtly Shaping America’s Gun Debate“:

“For Christian nationalists, human attempts to fix social problems (like gun control legislation) without addressing the underlying ‘moral decline’ of the nation are misguided and an affront to the Christian God,” [Clemson sociologist Andrew] Whitehead said. 

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College who studies Christian nationalism, said that this belief is evident in how some of Trump’s top evangelical advisors responded to the recent mass shootings. 

Pastor Greg Laurie, who leads the evangelical Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and Pastor Jack Graham, of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, taped an Instagram video on Sunday where they talked about how “something bigger” was at play: Rather than blame the availability of guns, the pastors claim that what happened in Dayton and El Paso was the result of a “spiritual battle.”

“The Bible tells us that the final hours of human history, that perilous times will come, difficult, dangerous times will come,” Graham said in the video. “Not to minimize what’s happened, because it’s a tragedy … But we need to remember that ultimately, it’s a spiritual solution. We can’t politicize this.” 

“Many evangelicals, not just Christian nationalists, indeed believe that the *real* problem is a spiritual one. In order to solve the gun problem in America we must evangelize more,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “By saying that ‘we can’t politicize’ this, [Laurie] and Graham are sending a message to their followers that gun control will not help these problems.”

And my conclusion:

“I cannot think of anything that would make them open to gun control measures,” he wrote. Christian nationalists believe “these are rights that are ENSHRINED in the Constitution by God.”

Read the entire piece here.

And here is a taste of Micah Danney’s piece at Religion Unplugged: “What is Christian Nationalism? Shootings Spark Renewed Debate“:

If the debate about what Christian nationalism is, or whether it exists, inevitably leads to the intent of the country’s founding, history doesn’t uncomplicate things. John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, wrote the book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

“It’s a complicated question, but largely it’s a very hard case to make that the founding fathers of this country wanted to privilege Christianity over all other religions,” Fea said.

Demographically, Christianity certainly was dominant well into the 19th century, and it did shape the culture, he said. It is still the largest religion. Yet legal bulwarks against its codification in public life were part of the nation’s founding. The First Amendment is clear that there is to be no established religion, and Article 5 of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for those serving in government. 

Richard Gamble, a historian at Hillsdale College, said opposing views of Christianity’s role in public life actually share a key characteristic. “Both sides of the debate have understandings of Christianity that are very politicized,” he said.

What used to be a debate about how churches engage in politics has given way to a broad consensus that churches must take an active role in society. Historically, there was a louder argument for staying focused on maintaining religious traditions. 

Read the entire piece here.

Southern Baptist Anti-Social Justice Warriors and Race

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In a recent piece at Christianity Today, two Southern Baptists theologians–Jarvis J. Williams and Curtis A. Woods–called out white supremacy and racism and offered a way for Christians to combat it.

Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, endorsed the Williams and Woods’s piece with this tweet:

And then came the critical tweets:

I am guessing that these tweeters endorse this video.

Jemar Tisby, author of Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism called them it out.

 

Did Your Evangelical Church Say Anything About El Paso or Dayton on Sunday Morning?

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Feel free to write a response in the comment sections below or hit me up on Twitter.

Meanwhile, here is a taste of Emma Green’s piece on the evangelical response to the shooting:

But other pastors, including several influential mega-church leaders who have been strong supporters of the president, have pushed back on what they call the politicization of this and other shootings. “I think it is wrong to assign blame to any party or any candidate for this problem,” Robert Jeffress, the head pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, told me. “This is the problem of evil.”

Repeatedly throughout his candidacy and presidency, Trump has spoken about immigrants and asylum seekers, especially from Latin America, as “invaders.” He has also derided Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.” But Jeffress does not believe that the president is at all responsible for creating an atmosphere of violence. “If you listen to what the president is saying—contrary to some in the mainstream media—he is not anti-immigrant. He is anti–illegal immigrant. And there is a big difference between the two,” Jeffress told me. “I’ve known the president for four years. He’s a friend of mine. I’ve seen him in a number of different situations. And I’ve never seen one scintilla of evidence of racism in him.” In an address to the nation today, Trump did take a unifying tone: “The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate,” the president said. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

Democrats are not impressed. Over the weekend, Democratic presidential candidates repeatedly blamed Trump for “savagely fraying the bonds of our nation by speaking consistently words of hatred,” as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey put it on CNN. This kind of behavior is “shameful,” Jeffress said. “By politicizing this tragedy, some Democrats are trivializing this tragedy.”

Another Dallas-area pastor and Trump adviser, Jack Graham, agreed. “I’m not going to blame rhetoric on the evil heart of some terrorist. Who knows what was going on in the mind of this shooter,” he told me. “To me, this is not the time … to go running out there and condemning political leaders, whether it’s the president or anyone else, or blaming rhetoric, or blaming guns.”

Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical pastor who serves as the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has also been one of Trump’s evangelical advisers. But he told me that it is impossible to deny that anti-immigrant rhetoric stokes bigotry. “I do believe words matter,” he said. “When we paint the immigrant community with one broad stroke, we are, in essence, feeding the poisonous venom already injected in the hearts and minds of individuals who truly do believe there is a Hispanic invasion.” He called on all elected officials to disavow this kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric. But he also said he hopes his white, Christian brothers and sisters will explicitly defend immigrants in this moment. “I would like to see every white evangelical pastor in America stand up on their pulpit and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, immigrants are not a burden. Immigrants are a blessing,’” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelicals Gather at Ebenezer Baptist Church to Address Racism and Promote Racial Reconciliation

Evangelicals will gather in Atlanta this weekend to commemorate 400 years since “20 And odd Negroes” landed on Virginia shores and introduced African slavery to British North-America.  The event is sponsored by One Race, an organization that “exists to displace the spirit of racism and release a movement of racial reconciliation across Atlanta, the Southeast, and the nation.”

I am struck by the diverse list of speakers in terms of race (obviously), gender, and evangelical backgrounds.   They include:

Tim Dalyrmple: The new CEO of Christianity Today.

John Hambrick: An evangelical pastor in Atlanta who has also served with Young Life and as a chaplain at King’s College, University of London.

Kendra Momon: Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University

Teesha Hadra: Pastor of Los Angeles evangelical church and a former lawyer.

Lisa Fields: Leader of an apologeticd ministry in the Black Christian community who has an M.Div from Liberty University.

Justin Giboney: A lawyer and founder of the AND Campaign.  I shared a stage with him earlier this year.

John Perkins:  Evangelical civil rights activist and a living legend.

Louis Giglio: Evangelical megachurch pastor with a national following.

Learn more here.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Back in 2015 I joined George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Tracy McKenzie to discuss this topic at a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by Wheaton College.  You can watch the conversation here:

I wrote about this conference in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is what I wrote:

In early 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio.  McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year on the campus of Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago.  I was initially surprised by the invitation.  I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject.  I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States . I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation on the subject of my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?.  I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot.  After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to.  He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trends in their African American and interracial congregations.  Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation . McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals.  The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinatti that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.  McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.”  Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism?  If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans.  And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

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

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

Trends Regarding Race and Evangelicalism

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Here are three trends from Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University:

  1. “Evangelicals are not keeping pace with America’s racial diversity”
  2. “African Americans and Hispanics are on the forefront of the rise of ‘nothing in particular’ category of religious affiliation”
  3. “Non-white evangelicals often have higher rates of religious attendance.”

See how Burge unpacks these points at Christianity Today.

The Metaxas-Milo Bromance

Eric Metaxas, the court evangelical, author, and radio host, recently had the controversial former Breitbart blogger Milo Yiannopoulos on his show to talk about the latter’s new book.  Check out Andrew Egger’s piece on the Metaxas-Milo bromance at Charlie Sykes’s conservative  website, The Bulwark.

Here is a taste:

What’s interesting is how quickly it becomes clear that Metaxas—although he has apparently read and enjoyed Diabolical—seems to be blissfully unaware of most of the more revolting moments in the Milo oeuvre. He genuinely seems to think that calling Leslie Jones names was the worst thing Yiannopoulos has ever done. After a Milo monologue about the importance of trampling the left’s “speech codes,” Metaxas offers some slight pushback: “You have done it admirably throughout your career in every nanosecond of your media appearances, but it’s only when you say something that a woman is ugly or looks like a man that I say, I wish you hadn’t said that.”

One can only assume Metaxas has never run across the media appearance in which Milo suggested that his biggest problem with Planned Parenthood is that their murdering black babies prevents him from the possibility of having sex with them twenty years down the road. Or when he said that “behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.” Or when he railed against women who reported unwanted sexual molestations: “Our parents’ generation would have turned around and said keep your fucking hands to yourself and moved on with their lives. They wouldn’t have gone in to university administrators and tried to destroy the guy’s reputation and life over it. It’s not that big a deal. Someone touched your tit. Get over it.” And that’s not even to mention Milo’s most infamous transgression, the one that lost him his book deal in 2017, when, in a radio discussion concerning the silliness of consent laws, he waxed eloquent about the psychological benefits of pedophilic relationships between young teens and older men—“those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

But don’t for a second think that Metaxas isn’t a paragon of virtue. Because he has a real problem with one thing about Milo—his swearing. “Now this book Diabolical, I have read it, I think it’s in many ways spectacular,” he informed his listeners. “But I want to caution my audience—there are words and things in this book that I cannot recommend . . . So I can’t really recommend this book in that way. But I think having you on my program says all that it needs to say.”

Read the entire piece here.

Conservative Evangelicals Defend Steve King and Want Kevin McCarthy to Apologize

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Perhaps some of you missed it.  Iowa congressman Steve King, in an interview with the New York Times, said this: “White nationalists, white supremacist, Western Civilization–how did that language become offensive?”

King later tried to back away from the statement, but it was too little, too late.  House minority leader Kevin McCarthy removed King from the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees earlier this week and he was almost censured.  King’s remarks were the latest in a long career defined by racist and nativist comments.

Not everyone is happy with what McCarthy, the House Republicans, and Congress have done to King.  Right Wing Watch has brought to my attention news of a group of Christian Right leaders who are supporting King.  The group is led by Janet Porter, a Christian Right activist who served as the spokesperson for Roy Moore’s 2017 Alabama  Senate race.  Porter is asking Christian Right leaders to sign a letter to Kevin McCarthy.  Here is the text of that letter:
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Dear Leader McCarthy,

We are appalled that Republican leadership would choose to believe a liberal news organization famous for their bias over an outstanding member of Congress who has served the people of Iowa and the United States honorably and faithfully for 16 years.

If Congressman Steve King believed and stood by the outrageous misquote of the New York Times, then the actions taken against him would have been warranted, but the opposite is true.

Unlike North Korea, we in the United States are “innocent until proven guilty” and hold to the principles of Western Civilization, as Rep. King so admirably does. The foundational principle begins with the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the principles to which Rep. King was referring and which he has championed for more than two decades of public service.

Don’t make the fatal mistake of turning the reins of the U.S. Congress over to the liberal media, allowing them to target, misquote, and falsely brand any member of Congress they wish to remove. 

We call on you to do the right thing as Minority Leader: issue a public apology and reinstate Rep. King to his committee assignments.  If we don’t stand with this good man against the media-manufactured assault today, none of us will be safe from it tomorrow.

The Christian Right leaders who signed this letter include:

  • The scandal-ridden former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
  • Court evangelical and family values radio host James Dobson
  • Court evangelical and charismatic media mogul Steven Strang
  • Paul Blair, president of an organization called Reclaiming America for Christ
  • Rick Scarborough, a conservative Southern Baptist political activist
  • Lance Wallnau, a court evangelical who claims to have prophesied Donald Trump’s election.
  • Rena Lindevaldsen, a law professor at Liberty University
  • Jim Garlow, a pastor and prominent court evangelical who recently co-authored a book with David Barton.
  • Cythnia Dunbar, a member of the Republican National Committee who is probably best known for trying to bring Christian nationalist ideas into American history books in Texas.  (She also claimed that Barack Obama, if elected POTUS, would work with terrorists to attack the United States within his first 6 months in office).
  • William Federer, a Christian nationalist known for collecting quotes about the founding fathers

I discuss Dobson, Strang, and Wallnau in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

This letter may be more revealing for the people who DID NOT sign it, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Paula White, Johnnie Moore,  Eric Metaxas, and other court evangelicals.

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!

Why I Defended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Statement on its Racist Past

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Below is a version of what I wrote in the comments of this post.  You can read that post to get up to speed.

I responded to a post by someone named Justin S.  He wrote:

We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

I know some of the folks who wrote the SBTS statement and I can attest to their integrity and serious commitment to racial reconciliation.  Justin, what do you want them to stop doing? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that cannot be redeemed? (I don’t think you believe this). These folks know the work is not done.

As far as I know, no one at SBTS is “expecting affirmation” for the statement. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. (By the way, when I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. Frankly, I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am referring instead to some of the historians who authored the document).

I have defended the SBTS publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to encourage my fellow evangelicals to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next.

In the end, I think SBTS is going to have to turn for help to people with whom they might have theological disagreements.  Non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front.  For example, what might it look like if SBTS takes a meeting with Chris Graham and his racial reconciliation committee at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy?” Of course SBTS will never embrace St. Paul’s progressive liberal theology, but they can certainly learn from the way this historic church has tried to deal with its racist past.

I understand that progressive Christians want more out of this statement. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I can dwell in fear.

Right now progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help the seminary on its journey.  Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?  Instead, they are criticizing the seminary in public and on social media.

I tend to view the SBTS statement through the eyes of hope.  And God knows we could use more hope in the world right now.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Report on Racism and Slavery is Well-Done and It is a Big Step in the Right Direction

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In case you haven’t heard, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville recently issued a 66-page historical report on its long history of supporting slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, racial inequality, Lost Cause mythology, and white supremacy.  The scholars who composed the report produced an excellent work of institutional history.  I have known professors Gregory Wills, Matthew Hall, and John Wilsey to be first-rate historians and honest scholars.

A wise friend once told me that when it comes to dealing with race and racial reconciliation in America all of us (especially white people) are on a journey.  When we engage the darkness of race relations in the United States we are always going to encounter people who are at various stages on that journey.  What I have learned in recent years is that we must walk beside one another on this journey and help each other along the way.  As I see it, it is the only way forward.

I say this because I have been disappointed by the response the SBTS statement has received by those who seem to believe that they are further down the road on the question of race relations in America.  Rather than seeing this statement as a MAJOR step in the right direction for SBTS–a step that should be commended by all those concerned with racism in the Christian community–most of the coverage has attacked the statement as not going far enough.

For example, I think Rod Dreher, bombast aside, is generally correct in his criticism of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s piece in the Washington Post.  Here is a taste of Dreher:

The gist of his column is that because the leaders of SBTS are theologically conservative, and because many white Southern Baptists are politically conservative, they are not much different from their slaveholding and white supremacist ancestors. If they were really sorry for slavery and white supremacy, Wilson-Hartgrove’s column says, then the Southern Baptists would become Social Justice Warriors like — golly! — Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

It’s an extraordinarily graceless piece of work. It’s important for this reason. Today I blogged about the Fairness For All proposal, an attempt by some Evangelical leaders — conservatives among them — to find middle ground on the struggle between LGBT rights and religious liberty. Already some conservative Evangelicals are calling it a sellout of principle that will in any case not be respected by liberals and progressives. Part of their argument is that progressives do not negotiate in good faith, that if you yield even a bit, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to smash you.

A column like Wilson-Hartgrove’s gives ammunition to the “no compromise” side. To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that SBTS president Albert Mohler ordered the appraisal because he sought any kind of political advantage, whatever that might look like. I believe he did it because it was, and remains, the right thing to do. But those on the religious right who oppose initiatives like this on grounds that it will allow progressives to weaponize confession and repentance will cite Wilson-Hartgrove’s column as evidence that the Evangelical left is interested only in scoring points against their enemies.

Read Dreher’s entire post here.  I wonder if Wilson-Hartgtove, whose work I admire, just missed an opportunity to walk alongside SBTS as they embark on this journey.

And here is historian Alison Collis Greene, a historian I know and respect, at National Public Radio:

Notwithstanding the seminary’s new openness about its pro-slavery past, the detailed chronology ends in 1964. “In the decades following the civil rights movement, the seminary continued to struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism,” the report concludes, but without further elaboration.

“Making a statement about Confederate monuments might be a next step,” says Alison Greene, a historian of U.S. religion at Emory University in Atlanta, “or taking a stand on questions of voting rights in the 21st century. That would be really significant.”

Greene, who was raised as a Southern Baptist, found the seminary report lacking in its failure to acknowledge any consequence of the denomination’s recent association with conservative politicians and the policies they have promoted.

“It papers over a generation of hand-in-glove cooperation with efforts to roll back every single social program that served African-Americans or promised to rectify, even in the smallest ways, the gross economic and social effects of enslavement and segregation and inequality on black communities,” Greene says.

Greene’s criticism here is fair.  But rather than see the statement for what it doesn’t do, I prefer to see it for what it does do.

I know Greene has not been at Emory University very long.  Perhaps she will be able to help Emory add to its own statement about the school’s connection to slavery.  It is nowhere near as thorough as SBTS’s statement and it stops at 1962.

NBC’s coverage quotes my friend, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs professor Paul Harvey: “The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders…did a very good job of reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job of reckoning with the present.”  Again, this is a fair criticism.  SBTS has a long way to go on this issue.  Perhaps a model for moving forward might be what is happening at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  (Listen to episode 43 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).  But in the meantime, I am glad to see that SBTS has begun the journey.  As someone on my Facebook page noted, “Let’s hope they keep walking.” Yes!  We will be watching.

I hope future coverage of this statement will be more balanced.  For example, why hasn’t The Washington Post, NPR, or NBC talked with African-American leaders within the Southern Baptist Church?  Where are the interviews with Fred Luter, Thabiti Anyabwile, Byron Day or anyone in the National African Fellowship or the Black SBC Denominational Servants Network?

I also hope other southern schools–seminaries, colleges, and universities–will do the kind of historical work SBTS has done as a necessary starting point to address their own racist pasts.  I am thrilled to see the way these SBTS professors are using the study of history to work toward justice.

Al Mohler’s Report on Slavery and Racism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

southern-baptist-theological-seminary1

Read it here.

Justin Taylor has summarized the 66-page report in a post at The Gospel Coalition:

The following 13 points constitute a summary of the findings in the 66-page report:

  1. The seminary’s founding faculty all held slaves.
  2. The seminary’s early faculty and trustees defended the righteousness of slaveholding.
  3. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election, the seminary faculty sought to preserve slavery.
  4. The seminary supported the Confederacy’s cause to preserve slavery.
  5. After emancipation, the seminary faculty opposed racial equality.
  6. In the Reconstruction era, the faculty supported the restoration of white rule in the South.
  7. Joseph E. Brown, the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees 1880-1894, earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict-lease laborers.
  8. The seminary faculty urged just and humane treatment for blacks.
  9. Before the 1940s, the seminary faculty generally approved the Lost Cause mythology.
  10. Until the 1940s, the seminary faculty supported black education and the segregation of schools and society.
  11. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty appealed to science to support their belief in white superiority.
  12. The seminary admitted blacks to its degree programs in 1940 and integrated its classrooms in 1951.
  13. The seminary faculty supported civil rights for blacks but had mixed appraisals of the Civil Rights Movement.

I will try to read the entire report and make some comments later.  In the meantime, I think it is fair to say that this is a step in the right direction.  I am glad to see evangelical institutions coming to grips with this history.

I am reminded here of the theme of our latest episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (Episode 43: “Reconciling the Church and Slavery”).

Thank You Lisa Sharon Harper!

Lisa Sharon Harper

Over at Sojourners, Christian writer, cultural critic, and fellow New Jerseyan Lisa Sharon Harper calls out white evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of her “Open Letter White Evangelicals“:

Politics is the conversations we have and the decisions we make about how we should live together. You have claimed that your political support for Trump is not a reflection of your own beliefs about race but is about issues such as abortion—appointing more conservative judges to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. But PRRI and The Atlantic have revealed a deeper reason for your support. When their 2018 Voter Engagement Survey asked many of you if you believed the nation would be better or worse off when people of color are in the majority, 52 percent of you responded that the impact would be “mostly negative.” It seems many of you want a white nation.

It is no wonder, then, that so many of you have supported Trump with unwavering loyalty. He promised you the golden crown, the Supreme Court, the key to winning your culture war and winning back white supremacy. He is holding up his end of the deal—and so are you.

At best, many of you have been silent. At worst, many of you have led cheers for Trump as he separated families and left babies on floors in cages, removed protection from refugees, threatened people of color through changes in the courts and policing system, removed protection from poor communities and communities of color threatened by toxic dumping on their lands, proposed removing funding from poor schools, and tried hard to remove health insurance from 30 million struggling individuals.

White evangelical church, this is your witness. You have become evidence of forces hell-bent on subordinating people of color and crushing the image of God. Repent and believe the gospel.

Read the entire letter here.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?  I tried to offer some reasons here.

Yet Another Reason Why I Have Hope

Baptism

NBC News Photo

There are many Christians who are living-out the Gospel.  They are doing so in small congregations that get little attention from the media.  The people of All Saints Holiness Church in Jacksonville, Florida are some of them.

Read this story and watch the video embedded in it.

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

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.

Author’s Corner with Elisabeth Ceppi

CeppiElisabeth Ceppi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University.  This interview is based on her new book Invisible Masters: Gender, Race, and the Economy of Service in Early New England (Dartmouth University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Invisible Masters?

EC: The project began as an essay I wrote in my first year of graduate school (so long ago: 1992-3!) about the 1672 case of the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, a sixteen-year old residing as a servant in her minister’s household. Over the years I revised that essay multiple times; it eventually became my MA thesis, a chapter of my dissertation, and a journal article. But even so, I knew I had only begun to figure out what Knapp had to teach about the meaning of service in early New England. After finishing a term as English department chair in 2009, I began new research on the theology of service in sermons by the leading ministers of the first generation of Puritan migration, which led me to reconceive the project and convinced me that it needed to be a book, not a series of essays.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Masters?

EC: Perhaps because it is such a commonplace of Christian labor, the metaphor of Puritans as “servants of the Lord” has generated almost no scholarly attention; the book argues that it was the foundation of a complex discourse of obedience and authority that powerfully shaped the lived experience of covenant theology in New England households, churches, public governance, and economic relations. As they developed a moral language for a racializing culture of service, Puritans transformed the traditional lived metaphors of faithful service and its opposite, hypocrisy, into an ethic of mastery.

JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Masters?

ECAs I suggest above, it is the only study that historicizes and interprets service—and the figure of God as Master—as an essential concept in Puritan theology and social life. In doing so, it revises familiar accounts of early New England’s relationship to modernity, including the emergence of the “Protestant work ethic” and of the affectionate family model from the patriarchal “little commonwealth.” It contributes to the growing body of scholarship on racial slavery in early New England by emphasizing its embeddedness in religious culture, and by showing how “the public” emerged as a space of white mastery over racial others. It offers new readings of canonical works of early American literature, including Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the works of Mohegan minister Samson Occom. Finally, I also hope the example of the Puritans invites us to question how and why we privilege mastery over service as values in our contemporary culture and provides some insight into how ideals of public service and self-mastery came to be bound to distinctions of gender, race, and class.

JF: When and why did you get interested in the study of the past?

ECI teach and study literature, but my decision to specialize in early American literature was a swerve. I went to grad school with the intention of studying modernism, but in my second term I took a class to fill a pre-1800 requirement, “Typologies of Gender in Puritan America,” taught by Janice Knight (this is where I first encountered Elizabeth Knapp). The class was a fascinating introduction to a world of ideas and language and genres that seemed alien and strange and not at all like my idea of literature, and yet at the same time felt so vital in its power to pose urgent questions to the present. I loved the challenge of using my skills at interpreting language and literary form to think historically, to try to understand what these texts meant to those who wrote them and those they wrote about, and also to explain why they still matter today.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have started working on an essay about Theodore Winthrop’s 1863 novel, The Canoe and the Saddle, a fictionalized account of his travels to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 1853. The novel became a best-seller after Winthrop died in the Civil War but has been neglected by scholars. His depictions of his indigenous guides and the incursions of English culture on the romantic landscape both conform to and defy expectations in interesting ways, but I was particularly intrigued by a passage in which Winthrop’s narrator satirically refers to a troubled Englishman he encounters as a “drapetomaniac,” a notorious concept from scientific race management (devised by a Mississippi doctor, Samuel Cartwright) that pathologized the enslaved who sought to run away from their masters. The essay will examine what Winthrop’s extension of this term to the Pacific Northwest reveals about the role of travel literature in New England’s culture of management.

JF: Thanks, Liz!

The “Powerful Threads” That Run Through the History of First Baptist Dallas

First Baptist

I am sure much of what court evangelical Robert Jeffress has tweeted here is true.  I rejoice with all those women and men who experienced redemption and changed lives through the ministry of First Baptist Church–Dallas.  I know some of you.

But I am also a historian.  It is my calling.  It is what I do.  So let me note that there are other “powerful threads” that run through the history of First Baptist Dallas.  Let’s start with political scientist Tobin Grant‘s 2016 Religion News Service piece on longtime pastor W.A. Criswell.  The piece draws on the research of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis.

Here is a taste:

Whatever role pastors and other clergy had during the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, there is a specific history that Jeffrees is ignoring. Obviously, his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was not on the side of abolitionists. More notably, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a prominent segregationist who long saw the fight against integration as part of the gospel.

W.A. Criswell led the church from the 1940s to the 1990s. During this time, the church tripled in size to 22,000 members, including notable members such as Billy Graham. Criswell’s election to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1968 marked the beginning “battle” of the conservative takeover of the denomination.

The election of Criswell was surprising. In the 1968 convention, the SBC voted to integrate its churches and welcome all races to membership. Criswell, however, was the most prominent segregationist in the SBC.

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.