Interview with Nancy Wadsworth on Evangelicals Working for Racial Change, Part I

Karen Johnson
Political scientist Nancy Wadsworth recently published Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing, which explores why despite making admirable gains in race relations, evangelical Christians pursuing racial change are often ambivalent about extending their commitments to political engagement for racial justice.  Focusing primarily on heyday of 1990s “racial reconciliation” discourse to the present, Wadsworth used extensive ethnographic research, interviews, case studies from the 1990s and the 2000s, and a content analysis of three decades’ worth of race-related content in Christianity Today to illuminate the significant breakthroughs evangelicals have made regarding racial division, as well as how their history, social power dynamics, and cultural frameworks have limited the impact of their work in the larger culture.  In the end, Wadsworth argues that evangelicals concerned with racial change have accomplished something incredible, akin to a miracle, but they remain mostly apathetic about whether and how to extend these miracles outside their subculture by working for policy change.

I had the chance to ask Nancy some follow-up questions about evangelicals, race in America, and politics.  I've put the first part of the interview below, and will post the second part next month, so stay tuned.  But first, some context on the story Wadsworth told in her book.

After the civil rights movement, Wadsworth argues, two dominant narratives about social justice, or engaged political activism through the church as happened through the civil rights movement, competed within American evangelicalism.  On the one hand, many African American evangelicals continued their long tradition of linking faith directly to politics as part of a social justice struggle. Black Christians saw their struggle through a narrative of God's redemption and deliverance that parallels the Exodus story.  The other narrative, most common among white evangelicals but certainly present among some racial change advocates of color, framed an emphasis on social justice as being at odds with spreading the gospel because it distracted the church's attention on this-world concerns.  The tension between these two ways of understanding activism made it very difficult for white evangelicals and Christians of color to talk about race or social justice; they essentially spoke different languages.

Due to this gulf, white and non-white evangelicals were in opposite worlds in the 1960s and 70s. By the 80s the most optimistic version of racial “dialogue” in the pages of Christianity Today was a thin pluralism, a vaguely tolerant and abstracted treatment of different racial groups within evangelicalism that did not account for white evangelicalism's participation in American racial inequality. (Most communities of color were portrayed in this coverage as targets for heroic white urban missionaries.) By the early 1990s, however, a third way to approach racial dialogue developed that fostered a proliferation of conversations about race among evangelicals.  This third way, which Wadsworth calls religious race-bridging, called whites to account for their history and for the first time spotlighted the perspectives of people of color, at length. As a racial change movement gained ground, groups like Promise Keepers, InterVarsity, and even the Southern Baptist Convention began to engage in rituals of apology, repentance, dialogue and reconciliation. CT's race coverage became more consistent, nuanced, and diverse.  In 2000, sociologists Michael Emerson's and Christian Smith's Divided by Faith pointed out the limitations of white evangelicalism's relational emphasis regarding race and its attendant difficulty recognizing structural and systemic underpinnings of racial inequality. Emerson and others went on to advocate a multi-ethnic church movement that could harness the language of biblical mandate to bring evangelicals into much deeper levels of cross-racial engagement within and beyond the church. Taking a close look at this second wave of evangelical racial change efforts, Wadsworth explores the benefits and limitations of the multiethnic church (MEC) movement for engagement with the racial policies and political practices that continue to impact racial inequality.

Karen Johnson: What does it require for evangelicals to move from ambivalence about racial justice to action?

Nancy Wadsworth: In thinking about how to answer this question it occurs to me that something I could have done more effectively in the book is to explain why evangelicals who care about race should be politically engaged. This may not be immediately obvious to folks, although from what I learned, it often does become clearer the deeper people get in multiethnic church work. Politics matters because it is about the power structures and policies that make racial inequality worse or better, or preserve the (very unequal) status quo. For example, the way we choose to fund public education—or to increasingly defund it, which we have done over the last 2 decades—impacts the access lower income folks have to quality schools. Who serves on the school boards? How are resources allocated? Why do the wealthy neighborhoods have such disproportionate resources compared to the poor ones across town? When the pastor in my case study sent his kids to the local schools, which were over 90% nonwhite kids, he learned that they didn’t even have air conditioning! Why was his fifth grader having trouble concentrating? Because, among other things, it was 95 degrees in the classroom in September! That is not the kind of problem you solve just with prayer or relationships. And of course that’s just one little injustice among hundreds he became acquainted with. Once he did, he realized that he needed to care about education policy in Denver.

So that helps answer the original question: Evangelicals doing racial change work move from ambivalence to engagement when they realize that racial inequality is not just about personal prejudice or lack of relationships across racial lines. While those things certainly matter in communities hoping to be multiracial, and you can’t do good cross-racial work without them, inequality is also about structures and systems from which many folks—especially middle-class white evangelicals living in racially homogenous communities—have become insulated, because we have the privilege not to notice the underpinnings of inequality if it doesn’t directly affect us. So within a couple years of living in the neighborhood he served, the pastor in my multiethnic church case study, who had always identified as pretty far to the right and inclined to frame inequality problems through the lens of “individual responsibility” alone, found himself pretty deeply involved in his local schools’ efforts to secure innovative schools status, which changed what they could do and how they were funded. Not only that, he also lobbied for principal and school board leadership that he thought could make a difference and partnered with a local patron who wanted to put some serious money into inner city schools. And he himself also got a part-time job helping administer some of these solutions he had advocated for. That is political engagement. (“Curt” has given me permission to tell you that his real name is Jason Janz, and his church in Five Points, Denver, is actually called Providence Bible Church.)

I also learned from across my ethnographic research and interviews that people move from ambivalence (and often outright resistance) to political engagement when they let go of the old refrain familiar to so many evangelicals that politics and the gospel are inherently at odds. If a white group commits to meaningfully partnering with a black community, and especially if they live in that community, soon enough they’ll realize that the mass incarceration of black men—which was a product of the Reagan Administration’s “war on drugs,” as law professor Michelle Alexander has chronicled in her book The New Jim Crow—deeply impacts that community’s daily realities and future prospects today. This matters, and the city’s policing policies matter, and it matters to have members of the community showing up to those meetings and advocating for justice. So, too, with any multiethnic church with immigrants in it. Border policy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) practices, what happens to children when their parents get deported, whether kids who grew up here but weren’t born here can go to college—these things matter, and for evangelicals who claim to care about race to remain “neutral” on these issues is probably an incomplete application of their calling.

Karen Johnson: What is the influence of relocation, or moving to a neighborhood in which they are the minority, on evangelicals' political engagement?

Nancy Wadsworth: A lot of this is answered in the above question, but I would add that it depends. It depends on whether, in the case of white evangelicals, they learn enough beforehand about how race privilege works to not repeat a lot of the old mistakes well-meaning Christians make, like trying to come in and “fix” everything from their own limited perspective. It depends on whether you see the members of the “other” community as your partners and neighbors or the subjects of your imagined generosity and good will. It matters whether you have the self-awareness to reflect on what skills and resources you think you bring, and whether that is true, and whether those things are actually what the community needs. Humility matters. A big refrain in Jason Janz’s work is that the poor are rich in many ways (faith resources, personal resiliency, etc.) and the economically rich are poor in countless other ways. What can folks learn when they really live with and alongside one another rather than in a power relationship where I have the answers and you need to be fixed?

In Denver, for instance, we have a significant homelessness problem, but not for lack of people working on it across city agencies and nonprofits. The economic downturn exacerbated homelessness, and it also turns out to be very difficult to create new housing units for chronic and transitional homeless folks because, for one thing, neighbors tend to resist them fervently. But one place well-meaning Christians materialize is in what a friend of mine who works in homelessness calls “drive-by Christianity”: they show up in a place the homeless congregate downtown and hand out lunches. Now, that may sound helpful, but it indicates how little the churches understand about what’s going on. Denver’s homeless aren’t generally starving; there are places they can get free food all over downtown. What they need is policies and resources and community will that gets them housing, medical and psychological care, jobs, training, and opportunities. And the litter from the lunches creates frustration with residents downtown who live in the gentrifying areas where homeless folks congregate. Moreover, the good church people aren’t actually meeting homeless people and learning what their perspective is on what they need. They just come in, share some sandwiches, try to share the word and go home feeling better. That is very different from what Janz’s church does—which is live alongside these folks, create programs for them to come off drugs and get training and in some cases hire them directly, even though working with some of them may be complicated.

Bottom line: Yes, it matters, but it also very much matters how you do it.


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