Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

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

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

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

Haugen: Young Evangelicals are Committed to Social Justice

Black Lives Matter

At the recent Faith Angle Forum in Miami, Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission, said that there is a major divide between older and younger white evangelicals on issues of race and social justice in America.  I think one finds the same age-based division in white evangelical support for Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Jon Ward’s piece at Yahoo News:

The generational divide among white evangelicals over issues of race and social justice has given the group a more conservative reputation than is merited, but that will change in the coming decade, according to the head of an influential Christian aid group.

Speaking with a group of journalists here this week, Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM), which mostly works outside the United States, also addressed questions about what insights he might have about injustice in America.

Haugen avoided commenting directly on issues of racial injustice, or on the question of why white evangelical Christians have been stalwart supporters of President Trump, who rose to power by demonizing immigrants. But Haugen stood by his assertion years ago, before the rise of Trump, that there is a “sea change” among evangelicals as it relates to issues of injustice. However, he qualified that much of this change is not yet being seen among older white evangelicals.

In particular, Haugen pinpointed the world of conservative philanthropy, which intersects closely with nonprofit and aid work. The tension, he intimated, is between a money sector in evangelicalism dominated by wealthy individuals who skew older and much more conservative in their politics, and an activist sector that is younger and far more progressive in its worldview.

This report is very interesting in light of the debate taking place right now between the followers of California megachurch pastor John MacArthur and the Calvinist conservative evangelical group The Gospel Coalition.  Some of you may recall that MacArthur is the megachurch pastor who claims that the Bible does not teach social justice.  The Gospel Coalition includes evangelical theologians and pastors such as Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and John Piper.  They have a long way to go before someone would call their constituency “social justice warriors,” but they are making efforts, particularly as it relates to racial reconciliation.

Here are few examples how this debate is playing out:

In a recent blog post, a MacArthur follower from an organization called Sovereign Nations argues that the Gospel Coalition is drifting towards identity politics by replacing the central message of the Gospel (salvation through Christ) with social justice.

Both MacArthur followers and some Gospel Coalition followers attacked Jemar Tisby on Twitter after the Gospel Coalition published a positive review of his The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.  (We talked to Tisby about this in Episode 48 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).

Here are some of the authors of MacArthur’s social justice statement.  This is Sovereign Nations event:

If you don’t want to watch the whole video above, you can get a taste here:

If Haugen is correct about generational shifts, and I think he is, these anti-social justice crusaders are going to be in for a rude awakening.

“True Reconciliation is Hard. True Reconciliation is Worth It”

meiser at hershey

 With Andy and his son at the 2018 PIAA District 3 Soccer Championship Game in Hershey

Andy Meiser is an old friend, a rural Brethren in Christ pastor, and the former principal of Juniata (PA) Mennonite School.  After college, Andy did urban ministry in Philadelphia.  This is a tribute to one of his mentors. –JF

Our friendship has spanned three decades and, as it enters a fourth, we both know that it will end soon. My old friend is old now. Aside from a few heart attacks, a few strokes, thrice weekly dialysis and diabetes, he is in pretty good shape. We have worked together in ministry, prayed together, argued together, hurt together, and lived together. Somehow we are still friends in spite of it all. My wife and I made arrangements, against reason, to bring him into our home. Didn’t work out. Some things don’t. But there are greater things working.

“I would give you my heart,” he said during one of our visits.

And we both agree that we wouldn’t be friends were it not for a few special people.

“Daddy why do they hate us?”

“Son, don’t you label white folks until you’ve met all of’m.”

My friend received those words from his Father while growing up in the Jim Crow south. From childhood he saw and experienced some hard things; many that I wouldn’t share in this forum. But even as the anger grew, words such as those remained.

And then there was Jesus. It was something we shared, and it allowed us to share life together. I am well aware that slave owners grabbed a few out of context verses to justify slavery, and that the church hasn’t always been the best example of racial reconciliation, but those people weren’t paying attention to the genuine article.

My friend learned love over hate from amazing preachers you’ve never heard of; men who had seen many hard things themselves, but chose to look harder at the love of Jesus as the ultimate deliverance. “Some of the folks I grew up with vowed they would get revenge, and some of’m got it,” my friend said once. “But what does that do? You just become like the people that mistreated you.”

From a far different land of upper middle class life, where I scarcely new a person of color, I found in Jesus a boundary breaker, a friend of sinners, and man who often made the most despised and disenfranchised of the day the heroes of his stories. But I also found Him available to anyone who knew they needed Him. And I as I reluctantly picked up my cross to follow Jesus, I found that staying in my own lane wasn’t option.

And we so we met in Bible College, so much different, but a few things the same. A few years later we were partnering in a gritty inner-city drug rehab. The partnership lasted seven years.

I never met Martin Luther King. My friend did. He would often arrange and present the chapel program on Martin Luther King’s Birthday at Philadelphia College of Bible. Truthfully, many of us white folks squirmed through it at times. Why dig up the past? What could WE do about it?

Actually I learned the answer to both questions.

He followed Dr. King around during those charged days of the 60s, as an angry young man hoping for a new day. He marched, he listened, and he felt his spirit rise with the words of Dr. King’s soaring oratory.

And then that same spirit exploded on the day of MLK’s assassination.

“I was never so angry in my life,” he told me. I wanted to kill as many people as I could+-.”

But in the midst of the chaos and confusion of that day, just at the height of his anger, he happened upon a woman who was weeping openly.

“Son,” she said to him, “they just killed peace.”

She was my shade of skin. They embraced. And my friend was taken back to the words of his Father, and the truth of a message that was meant to expose our worst, in hopes of bringing about the best.

“Andy, I would give you my heart.”

People may say that Dr. King had his flaws (he did). People may say that his message gets convoluted by time (it does). People may say that we are a long way from living the ideals that sound good in words (we are).

But here is what I will say: True reconciliation is worth it. True reconciliation is hard. There were months in these thirty years when we didn’t speak. There were blow-ups, misunderstandings, missteps. But something always drew us back.

And I will say that anyone who has the courage to reach beyond borders with a message of love and truth is someone I have time to listen to.

I will say that I fall short in so many ways.

And I will say that words and actions of people who saw past their tunnels to the costly expanse of God’s love continue to inspire me.

And I will say that this heart gets tired sometimes, but I pray for the strength to continue giving it. Others already have, and I truly believe my friend would.

Such friendships become a startling grace of the past, present, and future.

“Brothers let us love one another, for love comes from God.”

Evangelicals Come to Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Wait–I thought evangelicals were racists and white supremacists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

Yet Another Reason Why I Have Hope

Baptism

NBC News Photo

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

Read this story and watch the video embedded in it.

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

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

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

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

A few comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Evangelical Megachurch in Ohio Is Trying To Do It Right

Crossroads

Crossroads Church is a massive evangelical megachurch with nearly a dozen campuses in the greater Cincinnati area. It has an average Sunday attendance of 38,000.  According to Harhie Han, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the church is pro-life and largely white.

But Crossroads appears to be a different kind of megachurch.  Han explains in this piece at The New Republic.  A taste:

Just as it charts a new path for a church, Crossroads charts a new path for politics. Today, many grassroots organizations on the left define themselves by difference, relying on implicit ideological purity tests to determine who belongs in these groups. Imagine the suspicious looks someone would get if they arrived at a Greenpeace meeting in hunting gear and a gas-guzzling pickup truck. Crossroads, in contrast, accepts all people, no matter what they wear, eat, drive, or say. It is more interested in forging a shared identity that transcends the differences that normally divide Americans—race, partisanship, and even faith. Although Crossroads adheres to the teachings of the Christian Bible, it welcomes people who do not. With this philosophy, it has built up a base of political activists that is far more durable than anything Democratic campaigns can create through blast emails and algorithmic wizardry. In a moment when the left is riven with debates over how to hold together contentious coalitions of women, millennials, environmentalists, constituencies of color, and many more, Crossroads offers powerful lessons about the way commitments to a community translate into commitments to a political agenda.

In April 2015, when cases of police brutality against black men dominated headlines around the country, a black pastor at Crossroads, Chuck Mingo, delivered a sermon about race. “He stood up onstage and said, ‘I feel like God is calling me to be a voice of racial reconciliation in Cincinnati,’ ” Elizabeth Hopkins, a biracial Crossroads congregant, recalled. “And I swear, my heart exploded inside of my chest. I wanted to stand up and be like, ‘Me too, Chuck, me too!’ I emailed him right afterwards. He probably got 4,000 emails.”

Soon after, Crossroads launched Undivided, a “racial reconciliation” program that drew 1,200 participants to its first session. Over the course of six weeks, members took part in racially mixed groups of eight to ten people with two facilitators, one white person and one person of color. Each group explored Cincinnati’s history on race, research on implicit racism and empathy, and their own experiences of race. “When I walked into that first meeting about Undivided, I was as cynical as you could be that this would be a watered down, me-and-my-friend-of-color experience that tries to keep everything as noncontroversial as possible,” said Troy Jackson, then the executive director of the AMOS Project, a faith-based organizing network in Cincinnati that partnered with Crossroads on the Issue 44 campaign. “But it’s been the most interesting, challenging, exciting, perplexing organizing work I’ve done.”

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelical Activist John Perkins on Racial Reconciliation

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

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

A taste of the article:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

A Step Toward Racial Reconciliation in Greenville, South Carolina

Wheatley

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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.