A Step Toward Racial Reconciliation in Greenville, South Carolina

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Law Professor Jonathan Turley Weighs-In on the Duke Divinity School Case

Duke

You see him on CNN, NBC, FOX News, CBS, and other news channels.  Now George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley offers his thoughts on the recent controversy at Duke Divinity School.

Turley believes that Paul Griffiths, who recently resigned his post at the school, did not receive a written account of the charges against him and did not get a chance to confront his accuser.  Duke may have denied Griffith due process.

Here is a taste of Turley’s post:

Notably, Griffiths asked for a written account of the charges against him, a chance to confront his accuser, and the evidence against him before a meeting. He was denied those accommodations, which is consistent with the denial of due process in our university proceedings.  I have written about that loss of due process in prior columns: here and here.  Duke of course has a troubling history of the denial of due process and the rush to judgment in cases involving students and faculty.  Many of us were appalled by the actions of Duke against the lacrosse players accused of gang raping a stripper. Eager to appease the outraged public, the university suspended the players and all but declared their guilt. It was not just an abdication of their responsibility to their own students, but a betrayal of a long-standing academic tradition to protect the community from prejudice and threats. For a column on the symbol of this academic tradition, click here.  Schools now routinely deny the accused access to witnesses, the right of confrontation, and other basic protections.

While Pfau said that he believe Griffiths resigned without pressure from the school, his resignation has led to a great deal of concern over the response to his original email and the language of the Dean in her email.  He is an accomplished academic who studied at Oxford University and the University of Wisconsin. He is the author or co-author or editor of 17 books.

Interesting.

Read Turley’s entire post here.

 

Thinking Historically About the Duke Divinity School Controversy

DukeLast night on my train ride home from Philadelphia I got caught up in a Twitter exchange devoted to the recent controversy at Duke Divinity School.  If you are not familiar with this case, I have assembled some links here.  If you follow these links you will get up to speed.

Most of what we know about this case comes from six documents.  They all appear on Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  You can read them here.

Dreher and nearly everyone else who has read these documents have done so in order to figure out who is right and who is wrong.  This is a worthwhile exercise and people are going to have strong opinions on both sides.

But I wonder if we really know enough about what happened at Duke Divinity School to make an honest assessment one way or the other.  It is easy in the age of social media and blogs to rush to judgement and start posting about it.  (I know because I am sometimes guilty of this myself).   Yes, the voices are loud and people seem to be responding with moral certainty, but unless understanding precedes criticism, such statements of moral outrage will be shallow.

Here are some of the tweets from last night’s exchange:

There is a lot to chew on here. I should also add that not all of these tweets connect directly to the point I want to make below.

As I participated in this discussion and read these tweets again, I was struck by the fact that historians tend to approach documents very differently than other kinds of thinkers. The primary documents that Dreher posted tell us a lot, but they don’t tell us everything. (Any historian knows that we need more than just a handful of isolated documents to understand the past).  Any  judgments we make about Duke or Griffiths must be made tentatively and cautiously because we don’t have all the information we need to make a definitive (or close to definitive) interpretation of why this incident happened.  The “why” is important.  Historians are interested in causation.  We are also interested in context.  Does Garret Bowman’s tweet about the racial tensions that existed at Duke before the Griffiths incident help us to better understand what happened in this particular case?  Of course it does.  Do we need to know more about the way Griffith has behaved in past faculty meetings? Yes, that would help.  Does the fact that Griffiths has signed statements and spoken out in defense of marginalized and diverse groups give us any insight into his controversial remarks?  I think it does.

All of this adds to the complexity of the entire situation and should be factored into our interpretation.

*The New York Times* on Paul Griffiths and Duke

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Get up to speed here: and here and here.

Here is a taste of Anemona Hartocollis’s NYT article:

Mr. Schoenfeld said that Duke did not comment on personnel matters, but issued a statement saying that the divinity school “is committed to scholarly excellence and academic freedom, which includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” and to the “robust exchange” of ideas.

“As part of an ongoing effort to foster and support such a community, we will continue to offer voluntary opportunities for faculty, staff and students to participate in diversity training,” the statement said.

Professor Pfau defended Professor Griffiths, saying by email on Tuesday that his departure would leave intellectual life at the school “greatly impoverished.” “It remains to be seen whether under its current leadership, the Divinity School has the political skills and intellectual discernment needed to rebuild what has been lost,” he said.

Professor Griffiths, a native Englishman who has taught at Duke Divinity School since 2008, converted from the Anglican church to Roman Catholicism in 1996. He has not shrunk from views that might be controversial. In 2014, he wrote a glowing review of “Darling,” a book of essays by Richard Rodriguez in which he writes about spirituality and about being the gay son of Mexican immigrants.

In the review, Professor Griffiths took a view of homosexual love that the Catholic Church does not: “Insofar as such acts are motivated by and evoke love, they are good and to be loved; insofar as they do not, not. In this, they are no different from heterosexual acts.”

He signed a statement from Catholic theologians on racial justice in 2014. In 2005, when he was at the University of Illinois in Chicago, The Baltimore Sun quoted him on the subject of Catholics in Africa, saying they were conservative socially but liberal on social justice questions, adding, “We might see that our categories are not the only ones, that we have something to learn.”

Read the entire piece here.

Rod Dreher Publishes E-Mails from Duke Divinity School Controversy

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You can read them here.

Get up to speed here.

Some quick thoughts on what I have read:

  1. Faculty were invited to attend the Racial Equity Institute training at Duke.  They were not forced to attend.
  2. Regardless of what one thinks about racial equity training, Griffith’s response to Anathea Portier-Young‘s e-mail was unnecessarily rude and provocative.  If Griffiths does have a legitimate critique of this training, he is not going to get very far convincing others with an e-mail like this.  The e-mail was very unprofessional.  Nevertheless, in an environment defined by academic freedom he has the right to express his views this way.
  3. Keep your eyes on the prize.”  Interesting way for Griffiths to end the e-mail.
  4. One of the best things I have read about this kind of racial sensitivity training is Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s book Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution.  I recommend it to all involved.
  5. Elaine Heath‘s original response to Griffiths is fair, but I think Dreher has a point when he says that Heath was assuming a lot when she described Griffiths’s e-mail as a model of “racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.”  Thomas Pfau, who holds an endowed chair in the Duke English Department, seems to agree with Dreher here.
  6. Griffiths sounds like he can be a real pain in the neck.
  7. For someone who has never been part of an academic institution–Christian or otherwise–Dreher sure seems to have this case all figured out.
  8. How will the faculty who Griffiths offended respond this week?  How will Griffith’s defenders respond this week?  This will say a lot about the Christian character of the Duke Divinity School community.  One self-proclaimed “conservative” student has already said that “repentance” is needed.  Dreher seems most concerned about how this all relates to the culture wars.
  9. This raises a big question for me:  Where does one draw the line between exercising academic freedom and using such freedom to undermine the community of a Christian institution?  Often-times Christian schools use “community” to stifle academic freedom or marginalize independent voices. Those who approach issues from a Christian perspective or confessional commitment that might be different from the dominant Christian culture of the institution can be easily ostracized.  I have seen this happen.  At other times independent voices spew forth their ideas without any consideration for how they might hurt or damage the community in the process.  I have seen this happen.

In the end, I am sure there is a lot more to this story.  It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

The Southwestern Seminary Photo: Why It Matters

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Today at The Washington Post, Jamar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why this picture is so problematic.

  1. If you understand the history of blackface you will see why it is so offensive.
  2. The photo was carefully staged and planned.
  3. A “photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level.”

Here is a taste of Tisby’s piece:

On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”

Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”

His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.

Read the rest here.

Southwestern Seminary Responds

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Here is president Paige Patterson’s response to the controversy at his seminary.

Genesis 3:20 declares that “Eve is the mother of all living.” There are only two options. If I intend to love God and follow His paths, the slightest tinge of racism must be eliminated. Or if I wish to present myself as unconcerned about the ways of the Master, then I may indulge in racism or any other sin, but the consequences of such behavior are certain and tragic. In fact, this verse clearly declares that while we may have a variety of social origins, there is only one race—the human race. This fact is not abridged by skin pigmentation, body shape or size, unique abilities, or anything else. As a part of this one race, we are all sinners in need of redemption, and Christ died for every one of us.

My early years were spent in a part of Texas with a history of racism. However, the home in which I was reared was an intensely missionary home and free of racist perspectives. So I remember well returning from school in the fifth grade and asking my mom why black kids had to go to other schools and why some of the kids at our school had unkind attitudes toward those who were different from them. My mother minced no words in explaining that such attitudes were a result of the sin of the race. She admonished above all that I would devote my life to eradicating every vestige of racism.

Since that time, I have come to understand why racism is an affront to God. The Heavenly Father is a God of variety. His artistic genius produced such a variety of birds, fish, animals—and people—that every time you meet a man of any ethnicity you meet a fascinating and unique member of the race, who in various ways demonstrates the artistry of God. To act in a racist fashion is to ridicule the God of creation for His artistry and judgment. A person who claims to follow the Bible cannot harbor racist convictions without proving himself selective in his approach to Scripture, and therefore, forfeiting his status as a faithful follower of the Bible.

The purpose of this article is not to elevate myself as any noteworthy example. Nevertheless, I will note that my first controversy in the SBC was not about the Bible per se but about the fact that I led a black man to Christ one day, thus incurring the wrath of godless men in that state and county. At Bethany Baptist Church in New Orleans, I was the object of constant threat because we ministered to children of all races in the Irish Channel district of the city. The course my mother established and my dad enthusiastically supported is one I continue to press here at Southwestern. From that I will not be deterred, whatever the cost.

A gracious young Native American preacher on our staff does rap as a hobby. He preached a sermon recently in chapel in which he included a section of rap. I thought that it was great, and the students seemed responsive to it. He has since accepted a pastorate; and, as part of his departure, his fellow professors wanted to awaken memories and in so doing to tease him. That is par for the course around here. The president encourages our people to laugh at each other rather than to risk taking ourselves too seriously. But, as all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives. Such incidents are tragic but helpful to me in refocusing on the attempt to flush from my own system any remaining nuances of the racist past of our own country. Just as important, my own sensitivity to the corporate and individual hurts of a people group abused by generations of oppressors needs to be constantly challenged.

Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority—namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth. God has been kind to us and blessed this effort. In an effort to be humorous, we made a mistake and communicated something that was completely foreign to anything that any of us felt in our hearts. To say that we are sorry will not be sufficient for many. We understand. To each of those and to everyone, we extend an invitation to visit this campus unannounced and at a time of your choosing and witness the love of Christ extended to all indiscriminately and to the best of our ability to every individual who sets foot on the campus. Thank you for praying for us and especially praying that our Lord through His Spirit will perfect our hearts in every way to reflect the heart of the Master.

The Author’s Corner with Judith Weisenfeld

New World A Coming.jpgJudith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. This interview is based on her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write New World A-Coming?

JW: I have been interested in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration period since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 ethnographic study, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in an undergraduate course. Fauset was concerned with questions about what the religious creativity fostered by the migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century revealed about the dynamics of black religion, particularly with regard to connections to African religious traditions. In this way he was participating in a broader scholarly conversation among anthropologists about “African retentions” in African American culture. As I thought about revisiting some of the groups Fauset had profiled and my fascination with their charismatic leaders, distinctive theologies, and novel rituals and social organizations grew, it became clear to me that I brought different questions and tools to the project than had Fauset.

Two aspects of Fauset’s approach remained important for me as I researched and wrote the book, however. First, although a number of wonderful historical and ethnographic studies have been published in recent years examining the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, congregations of black Jews, and the Moorish Science Temple – the groups on which I focus in New World A-Coming – most examined a single group of a number of groups under the same religious umbrella. Like Fauset, I wanted to think comparatively and, as a historian, to think about what gave rise to these novel movements in the early twentieth-century urban North, about commonalities, and differences. Second, Fauset attended not only to the leaders of the movements and their theologies but to the members, asking questions about what appealed to them and what they gained in joining these groups. Trying to recover some sense of the experiences of members of the groups was what really motivated me to take up the project, and the challenge of finding sources to do so was both exciting and frustrating at times.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of New World A-Coming?

JW: Through attention to the theologies and religious practices of the leaders and members of these groups, I explore how people of African descent debated the nature of racial categories and discussed their impact on political, social, and spiritual opportunities. I argue that the appeal of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews lay not only in the new religious opportunities that membership in them afforded, but in the novel ways they formulated an inseparable, divinely ordained religio-racial identity.

JF: Why do we need to read New World A-Coming?

JW: The book provides a fresh look at the black religious movements of the Great Migration period, emphasizing the experiences of both leaders and members who proposed new ways of thinking about black history, individual and collective identity, and sacred future. The book’s attention to African American religious diversity is also significant. Because religious African Americans have largely been affiliated with Protestant denominations, the field has focused on church history. Yet, African Americans have demonstrated great religious creativity and have challenged black Protestant orthodoxy in ways that have important implications for our understanding of the history of religion in American life.

New World A-Coming also adds to the literature on the history of race in the U.S. by highlighting the work of black peoples to challenge or redefine categories of race. Moreover, by locating religious identity and narrative at the core of the study, the book demonstrates the critical role that religion has played in shaping understandings of race in early twentieth-century African American life. As a study of modes of interaction between religion and race in the American past, the book also provides valuable insight into contemporary trends, particularly in light of racially-inflected religious discourse and religiously-inflected racial discourse in American public culture. Current discussion of America’s achievement of or failure to reach the status of post-racial society have taken place without full understanding of the complexities of black racial identity in nation’s past. The book breaks the limited binary of racial/post-racial and provides a more complex picture of racial identities and discourses.

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

JW: I came to the study of American history through Religious Studies. My undergraduate work as a Religion major at Barnard College explored the transnational history of black theology in connection with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and, in deciding to go to graduate school in Religion, I knew I wanted to focus on African American religious history specifically. In fact, I proposed a project something like New World A-Coming in my application, but ended up writing a dissertation on another aspect of African American religion in the period: a history of African American women’s political and social activism in the New York City Young Women’s Christian Association. I remain fascinated by early twentieth-century African American religious history, particularly in arenas outside of churches and denominations, and I enjoy the archival challenges of telling these sorts of cultural histories.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: My current research examines late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychiatric discourses that connected race, religion, and mental illness among African Americans and explores how these racialized discourses shaped the approaches of mental hospitals, courts, and prisons to people psychiatrists deemed disabled by virtue of religiously grounded mental illness.

JF: Thanks, Judith!

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

The Author’s Corner with Paul Harvey

boundsoftheirhabitationPaul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. This interview is based on his new book, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: First, I was approached by the historian John David Smith, editor of a particular series called “American Ways” published by Rowman & Littlefield (in this series is also a wonderfully fun book called How America Eats, basically a history of American foodways, that I highly recommend for holiday serious/fun reading). He asked me if I wanted to write a book for the series. Previously I had published a book called Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity with Rowman & Littlefield, so I was pleased they wanted me to do another.

At the same time, I was beginning work on an edited volume for Oxford University Press on race and religion in American history. I thought writing this book, a “long-range” view of race and religion in American history, alongside editing the Oxford Handbook of Race and Religion in American History, which involves corralling 35 authors doing various essays, would be a fun and interesting experiment. And so it was/has been, and continues to be as we (my co-editor Kathryn Gin Lum and myself) finish up the Oxford volume. I wrote up a book proposal for Bounds, it was enthusiastically accepted, and it is now published pretty closely to how it was conceived in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: Religious ideas created racial categories and imposed race upon individual human bodies – what scholars refer to as “racialization.” But religious ideas also helped undermine racial hierarchies.

JF: Why do we need to read Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: In this book, I aim to show how the terms “religion” and “race” (both highly malleable terms undergoing constant change), while always contested, ultimately solidified into social formations that fundamentally shaped American life. However constructed “race” may be, it acts as a real force in history; and however much the term “religion” is always being redefined and reformed, it has been a central ordering force in the most basic conceptions of American nationalism. My book tries to translate this story through piecing together the individual biographies of diverse people over four centuries. In this way, I hope it “translates” higher-order scholarly discussions of religion and race into narratives that any ordinary reader could pick up and understand.

Racial constructions remain a central ordering fact of religious life. Americans remained united by an unusually high association with faith, with religious belief, but divided by faith since the institutions reflecting those beliefs are still largely divided by race, culture, and politics. Given the history of race and religion in America, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And yet, given that history, it is possible to envision it being otherwise.

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

PH: I was for 2 years a biology major in college, intending to go to law school (don’t ask). One day I was perusing the college catalog, and the light from Damascus hit me – I was going to be an historian. I can’t explain it, other than it was just blindingly obvious. I have pursued that love ever since, in college, graduate school, postdocs, periods of unemployment, and now as Chair of a History Department. My colleague at the University of Colorado, when asked if we could offer a particular course that a visiting person could teach, said “sure, of course, I’m in favor of the history of anything.” I totally accord with that – I find the history of virtually anything to be fascinating.

JF: What is your next project?

PH: I want to write a book on the history of race, religion, and citizenship in American history, from 1790 to the present. The last election campaign obviously brought those issues up in full force, but the long history of how citizenship has both a narrow legal and a broadly social component in its definition is of great interest to me. I’ve also been asked to write a short (200 p.) biography of Martin Luther King Jr., for Rowman & Littlefield’s African American Lives biography series. I might take that one on next year, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a lot of work to do.

Tim Kaine: A White Parishioner in a Black Church

KaineI like how Luke Hill frames this dotCommonweal post on Tim Kaine’s Catholic faith.

He writes:

In American politics, we pretty much know how to talk about Tim Kaine’s brief-but-important youthful experience as a Jesuit Volunteer in Honduras.  We can—and do—argue vigorously about the many ways to interpret that experience: 1 – a transformative faith journey that led him to become a civil rights lawyer and care about the poor and oppressed, 2 – a typical do-gooding liberal who wants us all to give him an award because he spent a few months without air-conditioning, 3 – a radical gospel experience betrayed over the years as he’s become part of the establishment, executing death row prisoners and protecting bankers. (You can come up with more.)

And adds:

But what about the formation that comes from 32 years of being a White parishioner in a Black Catholic church?

Kaine and his wife, Richmond native Anne Holton, were married at St. Elizabeth’s in November 1984 and it’s been their parish ever since. It’s where they raised their children, and it’s the first place they wentafter Kaine’s initial campaign appearance with Hillary Clinton last month.

That’s not a story we know well, because it’s still true—56 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went on Meet the Press and said it—that “…11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America”.

So what do we make of that formation experience—the 32 year one, not the 9 month one?

Read the entire post here.

Why Robert Jeffress Should Not Be Talking About American History

Trump Jeffress

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

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

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

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution:

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

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution:

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

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

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

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

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

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

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

Urbana

Tom Skinner @ Urbana, 1970

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

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Embraces #BlackLivesMatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

 

John Turner’s New Course: Race and American Christianity

John Turner of George Mason University is teaching a course this semester on race and American Christianity.  Over at The Anxious Bench he tells a great story about his own encounter with these issues.  Here is a taste:
Jesus and I were the only white people in the room.
After my freshman year of college, I spent the summer on an uncompensated internship in the Washington, DC, area. (The experience gave me a lasting desire to be compensated for work performed). The internship did come with one perk — free housing in a cottage in the backyard of a suburban couple’s home. Being from up north, the cottage without air-conditioning was not exactly paradisiacal. It was a hot and somewhat lonely summer away from family and friends.
Nearly across the street was a small Baptist church, which I decided to visit that first weekend. If I had known it was a black church, I probably would have walked farther. It was an intimidating experience to be the only white person in a church building. At this church, there were four elders who sat in front, looking out at the congregation. I was certain they were thinking that I should not be there. I noticed a painting of a white Jesus on the wall, which I even then found somewhat odd. (It was Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, I later realized).
As it turns out, and as you could imagine, the congregants and elders made me feel quite welcome. I worshiped there all summer.
One week, the couple who owned the cottage went out of town. They let me drive their van to work each day (much more pleasant than the usual bus route), and they told me to feel free to drink the alcoholic beverages in the fridge. So one Saturday night, I drank a lot of them.
I was half an hour late to church the next morning. That day, the minister had invited me to lunch at Red Lobster. Over lunch, he told me about his decades-long struggle with alcoholism. The reason for my tardiness must have been obvious. I don’t think I was headed toward a decades-long struggle with the bottle, but I did feel God’s protective hand.
One week, I attended the church’s Wednesday night Bible study. I don’t remember very much about it, but I thought about it earlier this year when Dylan Roof attended a Bible study at an African American class and murdered nearly all of those in attendance.
This fall, I’m teaching a seminar on “Race and Religion in U.S. History.” I wanted to develop this seminar to enable me (and my students) to reflect many of the subjects within American history I find of enduring fascination: missions (ranging from early European-Indian interactions to African American missions to Africa), slavery, the civil rights movement, and Mormonism. I’m beginning the course with the Civil Rights Movement, then moving back in time and proceeding from white-native encounters to slavery to nineteenth-century Mormonism to contemporary Latino Catholicism. I’m also going to try to use InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a case study of how evangelical approaches to race have changed over the past four decades. Despite the title, it’s really a course about “Race and American Christianities.”
Read the rest here.

How a Church With a History of Slavery is Dealing With Its Past

Cathedral of St. John’s–Providence, R.I.

According to this New York Times article, over half of the slavery voyages from the United States left from Rhode Island ports.  Most of those Rhode Island slave traders were Episcopalians (Anglicans). Katherine Seelye describes what today’s Rhode Island Episcopalians are doing about it.  It is a great story about an attempt to merge historical understanding with racial reconciliation.  Here is a taste:

Over the last decade, the Episcopal Church of the United States has formally acknowledged and apologized for its complicity in perpetuating slavery.Some Episcopal dioceses have been re-examining their role, holding services of repentance and starting programs of truth and reconciliation.

The Diocese of Rhode Island, like many others, has been slow to respond. But under Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely, who became the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island in 2012, it is taking steps to publicly acknowledge its past. They include the establishment of a museum focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and the North’s complicity, as part of a new center for racial reconciliation and healing.

“I want to tell the story,” Bishop Knisely said, “of how the Episcopal Church and religious voices participated in supporting the institution of slavery and how they worked to abolish it. It’s a mixed bag.”

Other slavery museums — notably the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., and the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S.C. — tell the story of slavery in the South. Some museums and historic sites touch on slavery in the North. But no museum is devoted to the region’s deep involvement, according to James DeWolf Perry VI, a direct descendant of the most prolific slave-trading family in the United States’ early years and a co-editor of a book called “Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.”

He is helping to plan the museum and reconciliation center, which are still in the organizing and fund-raising phases. They are to be housed at the 200-year-old stone Cathedral of St. John, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. Because of dwindling membership, the majestic but deteriorating cathedral was closed in 2012.

Evangelicalism’s Wrong Turn

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

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

Read Clark’s riff on this paragraph here.

The Author’s Corner with Luke Harlow

Luke Harlow is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Tennessee. This interview is based on forthcoming book, Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky (Cambridge University Press, May 2014).

JF: What led you to write Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: I had a big question I wanted to answer: what happened to proslavery theology when the Civil War brought emancipation? Thanks to a fairly robust historiography on antebellum and Civil War–era American religion (especially as it pertains to the slavery debates), we know, as Drew Faust memorably put it, that “The most fundamental source of legitimation for the Confederacy was Christianity.” I was interested in seeing how that insight played out beyond the Civil War itself. My hunch was that—much as in our own time—while the laws of civil society might change, Christians would continue to argue that the laws of God were immutable. Obviously the Civil War changed much, but I wondered if it was the stark divide on this topic that, for example, our American history survey classes suggest it was. I thought that taking a longer-range view could help us understand why certain well-known aspects of the Reconstruction story—how limited it was, why various kinds of social changes seemed so difficult to pull off, where the vehemence of the white counter-revolution came from—might be explained with reference to the antebellum past and the legacy of the slavery debates. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: The Civil War destroyed American slavery, but it did not destroy the faith that sustained slavery. The best evidence for this argument can be found by tracing the story of nineteenth-century Kentucky—a slaveholding state that remained with the Union during the war, but embraced the Confederacy after the fact.

JF: Why do we need to read Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: To understand the American struggle over slavery and abolition, it is essential to understand the significance of conservative evangelical theology, as well as Kentucky, in defining the shape and parameters of that struggle. This book explains why.

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

LH: I don’t come from a family of historians, but history was a big part of my childhood. Much of the credit goes to my parents, who encouraged me to read and write a lot as a child. They pushed me to seek answers in books to the questions I had. Also, I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was founded by Moravians in 1741 and had a significant place in American industrial history. The sense of the local past was kind of inescapable and definitely a major aspect of my public school education. In some ways, that childhood was really important to my becoming a historian. But I did not have a sense of professional ambition until my freshman year at Western Kentucky University. Somewhere in my first semester I decided that history was the best way to understand the human condition. I had some really excellent professors at WKU who first taught me about the slavery debates, American religious history, and the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: I am kicking around two ideas, both that build on Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky. One is a religious history of the political defeat of Reconstruction, modeled on Richard Carwardine’s Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. The other project I am tentatively calling The Proslavery Origins of American Fundamentalism. Molly Oshatz’s Slavery and Sin shows very clearly how the slavery debates paved the way for liberal Protestantism. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy tends to be written about in race-neutral ways, but I think placing debates over race and slavery at the center of the making of American fundamentalism would reveal a lot about the way that belief came together.


JF: Thanks Luke!  Great stuff.
Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner