Blog Race War

Edward J. Blum

If Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, then evangelical studies may be the most segregated books by U.S. historians.

Over at patheos, John Turner revisited Time magazine's list of top 25 most influential evangelicals in America. I consider John a friend and a terrific scholar. His biography of Bill Bright is just terrific, and I've already read and reviewed his Brigham Young, which too is wonderful. But I'm ready to go to blog war over Time's list and his revisited one. There is 1, count 'em 1, African American named on the list: T. D. Jakes. The list had 25 in 2005; it had 1 African American then. Turner now revises it and calls for more names (in part to replace those who have died or fallen from grace), including Asian American and Latino American names.

My complaint is not with John, but with the entire field of "evangelical" studies. Until it can come up with a definition of itself that explains why books about it are almost uniformly about white people (because last I checked, lots and lots and lots of African Americans have fit Bebbington's definition), then it needs greater definitional precision. So many American historians bristle at "whiteness" studies, but this is a clear case, to me, where whiteness is hidden in plain site. This is the kind of assumption that leads books about religion and the founders to exclude Phillis Wheatley, to focus on Charles Finney but rarely William Apess, to pine for Lincoln to be evangelical but to ignore Frederick Douglass, and to lionize Dwight Moody and leave out Ida B. Wells.

I'm ready for "evangelical" scholars to go further ... to join Thomas Kidd by incorporating African Americans, Native Americans, and others deemed non-white in their studies of "evangelicals" to be far more robust in their reading and inclusion. If not, I'm prepared for a blog race war. (kidding about war ... blessed are the peace makers)


Anonymous said…
another book I like, but let's look closer: John Fea, _Was America Founded as a Christian Nation_

abolitionism, 14-15, 19-20
African Americans, battle against injustice, driven by Christian faith, 52
King, Martin Luther Jr, 43, 52-53
slavery, addressed from theological perspective; and the US Constitution; introduced to Jamestown; Jefferson's relationship with; Southerners' justiciation for

LaHaye, Tim, 29, 59, 61; on Calvinism underlying the US Constitution, on the founders' beliefs; on Franklin's beliefs; on removal from religious heritage from textbooks; on revisionism; on Washington's religion

And when discussing abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrison; Charles Finney; Henry Ward Beecher ... white men

We're better than this ... and Fea's not the problem; it's readers, reviewers, and publishers that allow for works to leave out these folks. All Fea had to do was read the Massachusetts petition from 1777 where they called the country a "free and Christian country" and sadly, they were living in its "bowels".
Brian said…
I believe that blacks are making an exodus from the name more than the teaching or doctrine. The problem that comes into play is that much of the research compiled especially in this area is one-sided and only told from one perspective. I think Makr Noll and Soong-Chan Rah have done good jobs of addressing the hidden racism than befalls the evangelicals.
Anonymous said…
I think Molly Worthen's excellent piece in The New York Times is relevant here:
Maffly-Kipp said…
Let's make sure we keep gender in the mix here, too.
To war we go (peacefully)!

Another historical example that is often overlooked is Lemuel Haynes and his role in the development of anti-slavery theology. While often attributed to white abolitionists (amazingly), the origins of anti-slavery theology can be found not only with everyday African Americans on plantations but with formally trained black theologians like Haynes. I wrote on Haynes recently and after reading his work from the 18th century I found it to be as sophisticated and sound as anything one would read from white abolitionists in the 19th century, yet he often goes unmentioned.

I'd also add Mechal Sobel's early work to the collective bibliography showing that the line between black and white religious thought and practice in the South has been fleeting at best. Cathrine Brekus's work on female preachers is also indispensable.

To not recognize the diversity of the evangelical movement (or any other social movement) is an unforgivable sin in this day and age.
Anonymous said…
Good points, Ed. And Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Guy Emerson Mount, and Brian make excellent points as well.

I think the issue is beyond simply inclusion, inserting new folks here and there into existing narratives. Since as I understand it the writing of evangelical history, at least initially, was an offspring of “church history” which basically meant protestant history, then one place we have to look is the racialized core, the racialized beginnings of the evangelical movement ca. 1500 or so (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith helpfully conceptualize racialization sociologically in Divided by Faith).

So your post gets me thinking of African American scholars who have written about evangelicalism’s black history. There’s A.G. Miller’s forthcoming work on the history of black evangelicalism, or even Ed Gilbreath’s chapters on black evangelicalism in Reconciliation Blues. (And let’s not forget Ed’s 2008 article on this question in Fides et Historia.) But then there’s the great recent work of historically minded theological thinkers such as Peter Heltzel (a white theologian), J. Kameron Carter and Willie James Jennings. Or even Vincent Wimbush’s new offering, White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery. Jennings, for example, writes of evangelicalism’s “diseased social imagination” and locates the genesis of racial divisions rife within evangelicalism to the early modern development (and application) of protestant theological thought, the result of the eventual collusion in the early modern period of capitalism, racialization, slavery, and evangelical Protestantism.

Thus part of the answer to your post is for white evangelicals who are writing evangelicalism’s past to acknowledge this reality, seek to understand it, name the erasures that have plagued the writing of this kind of history, and thus reimagine how the writing (and teaching) of evangelicalism’s history is to proceed. (I’m guessing here since I don’t know the field, but perhaps the same is the case for those who are teaching and writing about the history of evangelical doctrine in evangelical seminaries and colleges. Is it the history of the great white doctrinal theologians?)
But given how evangelicalism is still in many ways divided by faith (to use Emerson and Smith’s phrase), I wonder how much hope there actually is. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote incisively in his 1939 essay “Protestantism without Reformation” that “the solution to the negro problem is one of the decisive future tasks of the white churches.” And it was Marx who wrote that “Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power.” With Bonhoeffer’s and Marx’s quotes in mind I wonder if white evangelicals will ever divest themselves of the social capital/social power that is resident within the spiritualized and scripturalized whiteness that remains bedeviling.

Phil Sinitiere
Kelly J. Baker said…
I heartily second Laurie's suggestion that gender not be neglected in this discussion. Whiteness and maleness become very significant.
I normally don't engage this topic, mostly because there seems to be no end to American evangelical studies being viewed as a study of middle-class men. The utter lack of self-reflexivity is astounding as is the historical myopia. Perhaps it is enough to say that evangelical studies that focus solely on white men are historically inaccurate and in desperate need of more than one more book on what appears to be a very old reading list. So can we start there? Lists are fun, but they aren't evocative of anything other than the personal ruminations of the author. I'd hope for more depth and awareness-but in nearly 20 years in this business-have never found it.
Anonymous said…
yep Laurie ... that's one of the reasons I chose that image of Jakes ... race can't be understood outside of conceptions of gender. The list is heavily weighted toward white men as if they are the ones who "influence" everything. Mary Ryan, Sylvia Frey, Pauli Murray - we need you today!
Paul Putz said…
I would be curious to hear specific suggestions of women or African Americans who should be added to the 2012 list (or even the 2005 list).

Perhaps the blame should lie more within American evangelicalism itself (rather than the journalists and academics who observe and study modern evangelicalism and come up with the lists) for the blatant white male bias.
So I started a comment on this and it go really long. So, now it's a blog post in the hopper to show up soon.

Short version: Why do we assume that "evangelical" is some essential characteristic that if we just get our definitions or lists right we will have better histories? It's an invented category and we have to trace the politics of its invention and deployment across history and historiography.
Caleb Maskell said…
Happily, I only have a few minutes. But Blum's peaceable war-cry causes a few loosely related thoughts to spring to mind.

First of all, why are people making lists of evangelicals? What a strange pursuit. It strikes me that lists are the enemy of history, dated before the ink dries. Historians should avoid them, except when writing ABOUT them. Like games of family Monopoly, they never end well, and more often than not end with a board-clearing fight. (Maybe that's just my family…)

Secondly, the evangelical establishment question is huge here, right? How does one make the list? What kind of influence are we talking about? The power to move people? The power to convene? The power get something printed in Time magazine? The politics must be grappled with -- both as a power game that one might want in on, and as something far more sinister, that one might want to avoid. I reckon that the African-American lacuna in the evangelical story is more than just a question of white blindspots and latently white-male-normative historiography, though it is that. It is also, I suggest, about the fact that being "evangelical" has not, historically, been attractive to lots of black folk. I suspect that many black Christians who could fit some sort of Bebbingtonian theological definition of evangelicalism might eschew the name, perhaps recalling James Baldwin's important question in The Fire Next Time: "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?"

Thirdly, and not exclusively related to the issue of white-male-normative accounts of evangelicalism, Ed brought up Thomas Kidd's The Great Awakening as a book that does a better job than most of dealing with such things. I think that is true, and that the main reason for that is that he insists on the primacy of a particular class of spiritual experiences for a broad definition of who was "in" vs. who was "out." In short, experience trumps theology in his story, most of the time. His book is laden with countless examples of an emphasis on the perceived activity of God trumping suitable socially-conditioned theological formulations. Kidd convincingly reveals the way that characteristic emphasis on the primacy of divine regeneration led in those days to a flowering of apocalypticism, mysticism, miracle-working, and sacred historical metanarratives which do not belong to the typical portrait of Edwardsean New Light religion. This is IN NO WAY to say that theology is unimportant to developing a robust account of evangelicalism, but rather that is it as second-order discourse, built on top of a particular set of experiences. The bottom line here is that Kidd's account doesn't lead to the tidy, "respectable" kind of evangelicalism that would make a Time magazine list. It is way more unruly, way more truthful, way more interesting.
John G. Turner said…
I couldn't agree more with your critique, Ed, especially since as I noted in my post, one of the problems with the TIME list was that it included only one Latino, no Asian Americans, and four women (two of which were listed as halves of couples).

But I'm glad you've decided to use the occasion (well, I guess I'm somewhat chagrined to have a blog post of mine be the occasion for it..., but oh well) to engaging themes of much greater significance than journalists top-twenty-five lists.

White evangelicals have had, still have, an unusual amount of blindness about both the history of race in America and the history of evangelicalism.

It makes me think of an episode in Campus Crusade's history when Bill Bright showed a film at Crusade staff conference. The film narrated America's declension from a Christian golden age. The organization's small number of black members wondered -- was slavery part of the country's golden age of Christianity? Bright, to his credit, stopped using the film, but I don't think he changed his conception of the American past. It was also interesting to me that Bright had a great deal of trouble getting along with black evangelicals such as Tom Skinner. They sometimes expressed great anger at "white evangelicals" for their failure to recognize fundamental realities about race in America.

Sorry for the long response. Partly because of the issues you raise, I now begin my American religious history survey with Jon Sensbach's Rebecca's Revival, which is helpful both for understanding evangelicalism's diversity and white evangelicals' capitulation to the racism they initially transcended (at least partly).
John G. Turner said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John G. Turner said…
No more comments on any other old magazines I find as I clean out my office.

Thank goodness the University of South Alabama just started a decent recycling program.

More seriously, again, I really should have drawn attention to Jakes's presence as the sole African American on the list. Two white male Catholics; one (male) African American. A strange list indeed.
Anonymous said…
John, I think that example from Bright is a perfect illustration of the problems. Bright was "bright" enough to pull the plug, but not to then reckon with the problems of history. To see his faith as still wedded to a history of white supremacist power was too much. You know I admire your work so much; thanks for being a good sport about me using it as the jumping off piece.
John G. Turner said…
No problem. If you ever write a fluffy, unpenetrating blog post, I'll return the favor.
Anonymous said…
even Library of Congress book lists are far more integrated than evangelical scholarship:
John G. Turner said…
How can the LOC leave out the Book of Mormon? But include Riders of the Purple Sage without mentioning that the setting is Mormon Utah?
Anonymous said…
going to post this here and on all other blog posts: want to apologize to John Turner for failing to point out that a HUGE part of his patheos post was an invitation to think of new people to put on the list. He was NOT endorsing the Time list, nor did he create a fixed new one. To be fair to John, who is an extremely thoughtful scholar, the neglect of African Americans from the list (which is only a fruit of an evil tree, to me) was from Time ... and not from Turner.

Popular Posts