The Author’s Corner with Max Mueller

C7ntXjAUwAAmfNwMax Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This interview is based on his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: I’ve always been fascinated with Mormons as a people who have become the “stand in”—a synecdoche, if you will—for “American”—family oriented, patriotic, conservative in comportment, dress, speech, and often in politics, industrious, white, and often wealthy. But the church as an institution (as J. B. Haws has argued) is still seen as an outsider—even suspect—organization. I wanted to explore this paradox.

But I also wanted to explore how non-white Mormons—and yes, there have always been some (including Mormons of African and Native American descent)—have grappled with Mormon conceptions of whiteness, and whiteness as close to “godliness,” or better put, whiteness as signifying humanity in accord with God’s plan. Such an exploration must begin with the Book of Mormon, Mormonism’s foundational text. At its heart, the Book of Mormon is about how sin within the human family leads to schism, and schism manifested as curses of blackness/darkness. In 1830 when the Book of Mormon was first published, this view of race was (and, alas in some corners, still is) the dominate view of how the “black” and “white” races came to be, based on the standard interpretations of biblical curses (see Cain and Abel; Noah and Ham), which arose to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. (It’s key to note here, that the Book of Mormon, however, contains neither “white” Europeans, nor “black” Africans in its narrative, though it’s often been read as such. Instead, at least according to its “translator, Joseph Smith Jr., and earliest adopters, the origin story of America’s pre-Columbian Native peoples). But where Mormonism parts with the standard biblical hermeneutic, is that the movement’s earliest leaders taught that since race was not of God’s design—but the result of human family—race could be overcome and nonwhites could restore themselves to the original white (as in raceless) human family.

That’s the start of Mormon story with race—a story of (relatively) radical racial universalism, at least for the 1830s, which most people don’t know about. Due to internal and external pressures, within a few decades of the church’s history, what began as “white universalism” quickly became the sole purview of “white” Mormons. But fundamentally, my purpose was to move beyond the history of this “declension narrative” by focusing on how non-white Mormons participated in—fought against, accepted, acquiesced to—the evolving Mormon theology of race. So I try to highlight the histories—and as best as possible, the words of—the few African and Native American Mormons for whom we have records, to show how they negotiated living within—and also helped shape intentionally or not—this highly racialized community.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: That the history of “race” in America begins first from the written word—notably written scriptures—and then gets read onto flesh and bone bodies. Race requires narration, an origin story of how different races came to be.

 JF: Why do we need to read Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: There has been a lot of great scholarship on race and Mormonism as of late. But my book, I hope, makes two key contributions:

First, instead of looking at how “white” Mormons responded to outside pressures—especially non-Mormons’ racialization of Mormons as something less than white (the legacy of the fight over polygamy), and did so to assert their superior whiteness—my book examines how race emerges internally from Mormon theology and history. And, again, that begins with a careful reading of how the Book of Mormon shaped early Mormon conceptions of race.

And second, my book centers non-white Mormons’ stories to show that they aren’t peripheral to this history, but central to it (and often so in ways that are tragic). 

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

MM: Frankly, I cannot remember when I wasn’t going not to be one (save when I was in second grade and was going to be the first left-handed second baseman for the Cubs, save and a summer—not too long ago—when I was without an academic job and sending applications out to consulting firms…). I love American history, in large measure because I believe in this country’s exceptionalism—but (a version of) the exceptionalism that John Winthrop first articulated on the Arabella, in which the success of America’s experiment was conditional on its people’s the pursuit of justice. I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders to the American mainstream (from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jarena Lee, William Apess, and Frederick Douglass, to Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have been the most cogent articulators of this American exceptionalism and the fiercest critics (in the Jeremiad tradition) to how much America is failing to live up to it.

 JF: What is your next project?

MM: My next project is Wakara’s World, a material-culture biography of Wakara (1808-1855), who was a central figure in my first book as he was ordained a Mormon elder in the early 1850s, but then later went to war against his Mormon brethren when they began to destroy his people’s sacred lands and disrupt his most profitable endeavor: trafficking in Indian slaves. During the mid-nineteenth century, when he and his pan-tribal cavalry of horse thieves and slave traders dominated the Old Spanish Trail, Wakara became one of the U.S. Southwest’s most influential settler colonialists, capitalists, and statesmen. Yet in most historical narratives, Wakara has been reduced to the epitome of the incorrigible savage “Indian” in what Richard White calls the theater of “inverted conquest.” Wakara’s World is an attempt to recover the environmental, cultural, and political worlds of Wakara and his people by exploring material archives along with written ones. Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century ethnologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

JF: Thanks, Max!

Season 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is Almost Here!

BakerWe were all in the studio today recording Episode 25 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  This is our first episode of Season 4.

In this episode we discuss race and Charlottesville with Kelly J. Baker, author of the highly acclaimed Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930.

The episode drops here on Sunday.  As always, it will be available at your favorite podcatcher.

While you wait, please “like” our new Facebook page and follow our new Twitter feed: @twoilhpodcast

And if you really like our work (and we hope you do), join our growing number of supporters by heading over to our Patreon site and making a pledge.

*The Weekly Standard* on Court Evangelicals and Other Evangelical Supporters of Trump

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

Grant Wishard, writing at the conservative Weekly Standard, does a nice job of summarizing the evangelical support of Donald Trump in the wake of Charlottesville.

Here is a taste:

Back when Trump’s travel ban was in the news, evangelicals made headlines when the PRRI conducted a study of religious groups between May 2016 and February 2017, measuring support for Trump’s executive order limiting travel from several Muslim-majority countries. During that time, support for the ban declined across every religious category, except among white evangelicals: 55 percent supported the ban in May, 61 percent supported the ban in February. Pew research published a similar study in February and found that 76 percent of white evangelical protestants favored the ban, more so than any other Christian group.

Lest these numbers be blamed on the group’s fringe, Pew has also reported that Trump’s support was strongest among evangelicals who attend church most frequently. Among those who attend church at least monthly, 67 percent “strongly approve of Trump” as opposed to 54 percent of those who “attend less.”

Many evangelicals voted for Trump in opposition to Hillary Clinton. They voted strategically, and the bargain has paid off in some key ways. The polls show that evangelicals (three-quarters of whom are white) are the most politically conservative churchgoers in the country, and remain the president’s staunchest supporters. It is equally true that the vast majority of evangelicals hate racism, but inevitably share some of the concerns (identity politics, illegal immigration, radical Islamic terrorism) that fuel white supremacy. None of this should be a surprise. Evangelicals know they made a deal with the devil, but will lose all sympathy if they treat Trump like a friend. Unless post-Charlottesville poll numbers register some loss of support for Trump, the connection between racism and religion will become all the more persuasive.

Read the entire piece here.

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.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: Trump Should Not Apologize for Charlottesville Statements. “He Did Just Fine”

Here is court evangelical Robert Jeffress on Fox Business News last night.

He rightly condemns racism, as he has been doing all along.  This is good.  But he also defends the POTUS,  saying that Trump wants to condemn “all racism.”  I’m not sure what he means here by “all racism.”  Is he somehow referring to “racism against whites?”  Is he suggesting that there was racism on both sides in Charlottesville?

Jeffress again takes on the “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, Republicans, and the “religious establishment”) that wants to “take this president down for various reasons.”

Then he begins suggesting (with the help of the host) that the members of this “axis of evil” want to erase American history and the “Judeo-Christian foundations of this nation.”  He repeats the historically dubious claim that “no president in history has done more to stand of for religious liberty than Donald Trump.” (See my comments on this claim here).

Finally, he advises Trump not to apologize for his handling of Charlottesville.  According to Jeffress. “he did just fine.”  It looks like we are finally getting a sense of what the court evangelicals are whispering to Trump in those secret meetings.

“He did just fine.”

A.R. Bernard, Ex-Court Evangelical, Speaks Out: “I Wanted More Than a Photo-Op”

Earlier we reported that A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, has resigned as an evangelical adviser to Donald Trump.

Shortly after our post, Bernard went on Don Lemon’s show on CNN to talk about his resignation.  No video yet.  I will post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here are my tweets.

This Is Not “Distancing”

Trump Graham

Yesterday the Charlotte Observer ran a piece proclaiming “Franklin Graham appears to distance himself from Trump remarks on Charlottesville.”

Here is a taste:

Just days after coming to President Donald Trump’s defense in the wake of Charlottesville, Franklin Graham sent out a new Facebook post Thursday in which he appeared to distance himself from the embattled president’s continued attempts to say blame for the violence in Charlottesville should be shared by white supremacists and by those who showed up to protest their presence in the university town.

In the new post, the North Carolina-based evangelist didn’t mention Trump and he also didn’t single out the KKK or neo-Nazis by name. But he quoted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has emerged as a more forceful figure than the president in condemning the violence by white racists. Sessions early on called it domestic terrorism and quickly announced a federal civil rights investigation.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions is exactly right – ‘in no way can we accept and apologize for racism, bigotry, hatred, violence and those kind of things that too often arise in our country.’ One race is not superior over another. … The venomous hatred we saw displayed in #Charlottesville should repulse all Americans….”

…But in his Thursday post, Graham sounded like his father Billy Graham, the Charlotte-born evangelist who got death threats in the 1950s for speaking out against racism and refusing to preach at segregated events.

“God created mankind in His image and He loves us. The Bible tells us that, ‘He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth,’ and ‘God does not show partiality.’ … (Charlottesville) should take us to our knees in prayer for hearts to be changed.”

I applaud Graham for all of this.

But Graham will truly “distance” himself from the President when he condemns the POTUS’s decision to draw a moral equivalency between white supremacists in Charlottesville and people protesting white supremacy in Charlottesville.  Graham is good at naming the name of Jesus.  Now he needs to name the name of Trump.

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.

The Consumers Of Manufactured Goods vs. The Consumers of the Court Evangelical Message

First_Baptist_Church_of_Dallas,_TX_IMG_3043

First Baptist Church, Dallas

As the CEOs of major corporations are leaving Trump today, I wonder about what is really motivating them.  I want to take them at their word when they say they have serious ethical problems with Trump’s choice to morally equate white supremacists in Charlottesville with those who came to Charlottesville to oppose them.  But as I listen to the news today, several commentators are pointing out that these CEOs are under pressure from their customers and stockholders to repudiate Trump.  In other words, their decision to leave Trump’s manufacturing council was a business decision.

 

I am guessing that both conscience and profits played a role in their resignations.

While we are at it, let’s compare the manufacturers to the court evangelicals. The manufacturers have left Trump’s council.  The court evangelicals have yet to leave Trump’s council.

Two points:

1. The manufacturers resigned out of conscience because they did not want to work with a man who is incapable of condemning what happened in Charlottesville without talking about “both sides.”  The court evangelicals have not been pricked by conscience to resign from Trump’s council in the way that the manufactures have done.  They are happy to stay and work with Trump to advance his agenda.

2.  The manufactures resigned because they were being pressured by their constituencies to abandon Trump.  So far the court evangelicals seem to feel no pressure from their constituencies– the American evangelicals who attend their churches and follow their ministries.

The Prophetic Witness of American Evangelicals

wheaton-il

Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, gets it right in his recent piece at Christianity Today.  According to Stetzer, “if you are unable to critique a president, you’ve lost your prophetic witness.”

Here is a taste:

This is key, and the point of my article today. These events don’t call people’s loyalty into question, they expose the loyalty they already have in their hearts. And that’s concerning when the Rorschach test exposes where their hope truly lies…

I don’t think everyone needs to speak up on everything, but I’m talking about those who defend that which Trump saw that he needed to correct—with him (finally) condemning racism in this instance.

Christians have a prophetic witness, but we can lose that witness when we are unable to see (or speak to) the errors or failings of leaders. And if Christians feel the need to defend even an obvious and divisive mistake (and my Twitter feed is filled with those people), they hurt the church’s witness and tie it too closely to a person, not the truth.

Now, if that’s your job in the White House, I get it. You sometimes have to defend even the errors. But if Christians do the same, it shows the world that our loyalty is to the person in the White House rather than the Person who said He is the Truth.

If you are a Christian, you should be able to speak out against error, injustice, and the depraved strategy of silence. Many did, some said nothing, but some went to the defense of something, ironically, the President two days later felt the need to correct.

If you’re a Christian who acts like President Trump can do no wrong, you’re giving the message that he’s the savior. He’s not. He is fallible, human, and makes mistakes that we, as responsible Christians and members of Christ’s household, should not be afraid to address.

So, rather than defending his error, which he himself felt the need to correct today, search your heart and ask, have I become too connected to a secular leader?

Read the rest here.

Five CEOs Resign from Trump’s Manufacturing Council. Zero Clergy Resign From Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council

Trump Jeffress

In light of Trump’s failure to directly address white supremacy in Charlottesville on Saturday, five CEOs have resigned from his “American Manufacturing Council.”  The latest, Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, just tweeted: “I’m resigning from the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative because it’s the right thing for me to do.”

Earlier, Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck, resigned because he needed to “take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Intel Chief Executive Brian Krzanich said yesterday:

…I resigned to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues, including the serious need to address the decline of American manufacturing. Politics and political agendas have sidelined the important mission of rebuilding America’s manufacturing base.

I have already made clear my abhorrence at the recent hate-spawned violence in Charlottesville, and earlier today I called on all leaders to condemn the white supremacists and their ilk who marched and committed violence. I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them. We should honor – not attack – those who have stood up for equality and other cherished American values. I hope this will change, and I remain willing to serve when it does.

Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, tweeted: “We remain resolute in our potential and ability to improve American manufacturing…However, Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics.”

So let’s summarize:

“Politics have sidelined the…mission of rebuilding America’s manufacturing base.”

“Innovation and sports, not politics.”

“The right thing for me to do.”

“Politics have sidelined the mission of the church and God’s witness in the world.”

“The Gospel and the Kingdom of God, not politics.”

“The Christian thing for me to do.”

Just to be clear, the last three lines were never uttered.  I made them up.  I had to make them up because these are things that the court evangelicals would never say in the context of the Trump presidency.

While America’s manufacturing giants take principled moral stands against white supremacy and Donald Trump’s failure on Saturday to renounce racists by name, none of the members of his “Evangelical Advisory Council“–the so-called court evangelicals–have resigned their posts.  Apparently in the United States it is the manufacturers, not the evangelical clergy who advise the POTUS, who now deliver moral messages to the White House.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt has covered the court evangelical response to Charlottesville.  To be fair, many of the court evangelicals condemned the white supremacist groups that came to Charlottesville last weekend.  (Jerry Falwell Jr. was silent).  But none of them criticized Donald Trump for not speaking out more forcefully on Saturday.  In fact, Franklin Graham and Mark Burns both defended Trump.  Here is Graham:

Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That’s absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn’t the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started? Instead they want to blame President Donald J. Trump for everything. Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts. Satan is behind it all.

Could you imagine Billy Graham saying these things?

Burns made a video.

I don’t expect resignations coming any time soon.

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.

An African American Minister Renounces His Ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention

Ware_tall

Lawrence Ware

Earlier today in a piece at The Washington Post, I suggested that Donald Trump’s presidency is threatening to change the course of American Christianity.

At the same time my piece appeared, The New York Times published a piece from an African American clergyman who is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention because he believes it is “complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right.”

Here is a taste of Rev. Lawrence Ware‘s piece:

To be sure, many prominent convention leaders have opposed Mr. Trump and the alt-right. Indeed, one of them, Russell Moore, went so far as to voice his criticism before the election.

But not enough has been done to address the institutional nature of white supremacy in the convention. Many churches are still hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement, and even more were silent during the rise of Mr. Trump and the so-called alt-right. For all of its talk about the love of Jesus Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention’s inaction on the issues of racism and homophobia has drowned out its words.

I’ve discussed my concerns with many other black ministers my age, and virtually all of us have questioned our membership. At least five of them have quietly left the convention over the past year. (To be sure, I will still remain a minister in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a liberal black Baptist organization, founded in 1961 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Read the entire piece here.  Indeed, as I wrote this morning,

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

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!

Russell Moore Channels Jess Moody: A Southern Baptist Story

Dr._Russell_D._MooreHe was one of the Trump’s strongest critics during the presidential election, but it was just too much for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at CNN’s STATE, Chris Moody tells Moore’s story and compares it to the story of his grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher who criticized the Convention for upholding segregation. It’s worth your time.

Here is a taste:

Nearly 50 years ago, my grandfather found himself in a very Moore-esque situation. At the 1969 Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, he railed against racial segregation, which was still enforced at some churches.

Questions of race have long dogged the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on which the Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of history. Even well into the twentieth century, the denomination did not take a leadership role in speaking against civil rights abuses and Jim Crow.

“I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath,” Moody said in 1969. “But you listen. It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner. And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next ten years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I for one do not believe that God intended this denomination to be a humorless relic in the museum of tomorrow.”

My grandfather is 91 now. His sermon, which also excoriated fellow Christians who supported the ongoing Vietnam War, was met with faint applause.

The denomination grappled internally over racial issues throughout the twentieth century and finally issued a formal apology for its past racist policies in 1995.

But when Southern Baptists gathered in 2017, they still found themselves scratching at the scars of the past. And, in an interesting twist, Moore was on hand to help confront them.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars Tackle White Supremacy and American Christian History

Good_Citizen_Pillar_of_Fire_Church_July_1926

Alma White founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901.  She was associated with the KKK and anti-Catholicism.  This is a 1926 issue of the church’s magazine (Wikipedia Commons)

The Religion & Culture Forum is running a series of posts on the history of the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity in modern America.  A taste:

The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Responses:

Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has written a nice post on the forum.  Read it here.  I was particular struck by his use of a quote from Randall Stephens’s response to Baker.   Here it is:

In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.” Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister … who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”

Again, check out the entire Religion & Culture Forum series here.

When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

St. Paul

Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

What Is Happening at Grace College?

96d72-grace

Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana fired three white employees when they posed for a mock rap album cover.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

Three Grace College and Seminary employees were fired this month after a work-sanctioned photo drew criticism and accusations of racial insensitivity, The Indianapolis Star reported.

The photo, which drew attention after it was posted on an employee’s Facebook page, shows five white employees posing for a mock rap album cover. It was taken as part of “wrap day,” a themed day for the college’s marketing team that also benignly included wrap sandwiches at lunch.

In the photo, one employee appears to be wearing an Afro wig, and another has “Thug Life” written across his knuckles, as well as a fake tear-drop tattoo. Other employees are wearing hoods, chains and backward baseball caps. In the corner, text spells out “N.G.A.” — shorthand for students and staff that means “not Grace appropriate.”

Evan Kilgore, one of the employees fired and the school’s former special projects director, said the term “N.G.A.” is used jokingly on campus to refer to behavior that the private religious institution deems inappropriate.

“When we named our fake album, we never were implying that how we looked or what were dressed like was ‘not Grace appropriate,’” he told the Star.

Read the entire post here.  This is unfortunate.  I have spoken at Grace and have friends who teach there.  It is a fine institution of Christian higher education.  Of course I don’t know all the details of what happened here, but if the reporting is accurate I am willing to say that the behavior of these employees does not represent the culture of the school on matters related to race.

What happened at Grace, an evangelical institution, reminds me of what happened recently at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  At Grace, the employees were fired.  At Southwestern, the employees (all members of the preaching faculty) were not fired.