On Evangelicals and Civil Rights: MLK Day 2015

There are few topics in American history that have as much contemporary relevance in the classroom as Civil Rights and race matters. Often this takes shape as students debate whether there is a need for the Civil Rights movement today, or if the election of Barack Obama means that racial equality has been achieved. In recent months, the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, among others, have brought fresh interest in these issues and scholars of history and religion have a unique voice in shaping the conversation. 

It is helpful to understand just how much has remained the same on race issues since the Civil Rights era. On November 4, 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama that he titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” He spoke with the full prophetic voice of the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had been in effect for nearly one year after the arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955. King’s interpretation included condemnations of the abuses of capitalism, greed, segregation and personal selfishness. King, speaking with the voice of the Apostle Paul, brought this lament for the American Christian church:

You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name" and "Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind," you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.

This quote about the “most segregated hour” was also cited by Billy Graham in the same era as he addressed Civil Rights issues. The truth of the segregated church helps to explain the response by evangelical leaders—then emerging as a dominant religious voice—to the Civil Rights movement. By the mid-1950s, evangelical leaders rejected the higher criticism of theological liberalism and the legacy of the Social Gospel. But they were fully committed in the effort to recapture social engagement in a way that did not sacrifice biblical literalism. Despite the leadership of Carl Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and Graham himself, race matters baffled these evangelical leaders, many of whom accepted the suggestion that Jim Crow was a primarily a Southern problem. As a result, church leaders avoided the issues of the Civil Rights movement while enabling a moderated form of segregation to be promoted by spokesmen such as L. Nelson Bell, Graham’s father-in-law and one of the early editors of Christianity Today. While letters to the magazine reflected differing opinions, the editorial voice set a tone for church leaders who would condemn nonviolent protests and boycotts for basic rights, then underway in Montgomery and later across the nation. These protestors were decried as lawbreakers who failed to yield to the civil authorities, as was the duty of all Christians. 

Over seventy years have passed since the beginnings of the neo-evangelical movement and the modern Civil Rights movement.  The formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1943 was followed by Harry Truman’s “To Secure These Rights” and Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Each of these movements, marked by similar emphases on social change and public religion, have been in American life long enough to see many different leaders and issues addressed over time. The Civil Rights Acts passed in the 1960s brought changes that defeated Jim Crow in the courts as well as the public dialogue. Affirmative Action followed, along with political changes including the election of Barack Obama. By the 21st century, some raised the question of whether the 21st century United States was a post-racial society. But over the same period, the polarization of the “culture wars” politicized evangelical views on many social issues of conscience. Politics compelled evangelical Christians to remain separated from those who might disagree with them. The resulting “religious partisanship” among American evangelicals shaped the church on race matters as well, as one ironic result of evangelical social concern was that 11:00 remained the most segregated hour. 

This historical context is helpful in interpreting evangelical responses to recent events of race, law, and protest in the cases of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, New York, and many other similar events. This polarization is interpreted by some as a choice to either support the Black community in the growing protest movement, or to support law enforcement officers nationwide. Lingering de facto segregation may not leave high expectations for a robust dialogue or action on race matters by theologically conservative evangelicals. 

Yet there are signs that the story may be changing, especially as Black pastors embrace evangelical theology and lead the church toward dialogue. The issues are complex enough to raise a vigorous conversation and support principles of justice throughout society. In response to events in Ferguson and the Garner case, December 14 was commemorated as “Black Lives Matter Sunday” by a number of churches across the nation. Historically Black churches, including the Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal, and Progressive Baptist denominations promoted the event, as did the Assemblies of GodChristianity Today compiled a "united evangelical response" and published perspectives by leaders across the country prior to the verdict in November. Students at various evangelical Christian colleges showed support by incorporating #BlackLivesMatter into national coverage of a basketball event at Taylor University, and staging a “die-in” at Wheaton College. 

Many African American pastors and writers have addressed these issues, which is not surprising. But the high number of Black church leaders who identify as evangelical is a contrast to the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when Black pastors found themselves on the outside of the evangelical power structures, even if they were in theological agreement with the movement. Just as in the Civil Rights era, African American pastors do not necessarily agree on their views of the movement. For example, Voddie Baucham, pastor of preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, wrote a response to the Ferguson verdict that pointed to sin as the root problem in racial matters and the legal system, as well as the criminal element that leads to violence in society. He rejected systemic racism, white privilege, and police prejudice as foundational problems to be addressed. Responses to Baucham focused on the legacies of violence and inequality in America today, and even accused Baucham of practicing “Black on Black violence.” Thabiti Anyabwile, assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, wrote that issues including fatherlessness and racism itself are the result of sin that prevent progress and equality. Anyabwile compared race matters to evangelical activism against abortion, which focuses not only on personal responsibility but also on systemic and legal changes. A similar approach on race would account for personal responsibility as well as system-wide inequality.

On December 16, 2014, Kainos, a movement of multiethnic churches led by Black pastors, hosted a “A Time to Speak,” a two-hour forum on race and Christian faith at the National Civil Rights Museum, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The event, which was streamed live and may be viewed on demand, was a vigorous conversation on different viewpoints on race issues. Baucham and Anyabwile appeared, along with Ed Stetzer, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Albert Tate, Eric Mason, Trillia Newbell, and others. Anyabwile addressed the basic reason that Christians might care about Michael Brown and others affected by issues of justice and civil unrest: "These persons, whose lives have been taken...remember that they are persons, that they have families, remember that they are made in God’s image. Whenever a life is cut short, so too is the potential to be transformed and renewed and conformed to the image of God.”

“A Time to Speak” was organized by Bryan Loritts, pastor of Fellowship Memphis and one of the leaders of the Kainos movement, who wondered where the "conservative evangelical voices" were on issues in Ferguson. Loritts also edited Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a volume published last year as a reflection on multiethnic evangelical ministry. This forum and the book are important--not because the participants speak with a unified voice on race matters, but rather because they do not agree completely on methods, causes, and strategies. 

The recent release of the movie Selma and the upcoming MLK holiday will provide opportunities for conversation with students, colleagues, and friends on these issues. With this perspective and example of healthy dialogue, historical perspectives may prove useful in bringing dialogue for change. Here are some guidelines for facilitating conversations on race and Civil Rights matters. 

1. Listen. Especially if you are a teacher or group leader, give up control of the conversation to those around you, especially if they may represent a minority culture or viewpoint. Seek to understand rather than instruct, and be open to learning how their perspectives may change your interpretation of the historical narrative.

2. Find common ground. It can be helpful to appeal to a common set of principles in order to find ways to build agreement. This could be religious or moral creeds, but it could also be the Constitution, or even the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

3. Take the pressure off. One of the obstacles to good dialogue is when a person feels like he is asked to be a spokesperson for his race, religion, home state, or group. It can be helpful to recognize the contribution of those who listen as much as those who lead the conversation. 

4. Consider the perspective of the other. This can be done by reading the stories of the Civil Rights and Jim Crow era, but also by learning about actions today. There are many valuable resources for those who are seeking to interpret the contemporary movement with historical perspective. And these groups are very diverse. "Words to Action" is a clearinghouse for information on protest movements and provides a quick way to understand what is happening in the streets across the nation.  
The Reformed African American Network (RAAN) serves as a public voice for Black ministers who are joined together by their theology and desire to join with the broader evangelical movement. RAAN has generated daily perspectives on race matters from a reformed evangelical point of view. 

5. Tell the storiesSelma has the power to redefine the lens that people use to interpret the Civil Rights movement and MLK's legacy. A discussion of King and the SCLC can be enhanced by looking the movement in Albany, where nonviolent tactics were ignored by the local police, or Chicago, where King's attempts to integrate neighborhoods resulted in violence and retreat. The stories of local movement leaders and participants make the struggle against Jim Crow a more common and accessible story, and oral histories like those housed at the Library of Congress Civil Rights History Project may be helpful.

Martin Luther King's "Paul's Epistle to America" was a prophetic and powerful call to repentance over racial division. He delivered the sermon at least one additional time of significance: on May 5, 1963 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, just a few weeks after his release from the Birmingham City Jail. The words of the sermon resonate today, as King pointed toward Christian faith as the uniting factor in the midst of struggles against injustice. These words are a valuable starting point for finding common ground on the questions of racial equality in the 21st century:

The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.


Karen Johnson said…
Thanks, Michael for this excellent summary of sources re: evangelicals and race today. I used several in my class at Wheaton College on race and ethnicity in the United States at the end of last semester in our unit on evangelicalism and race, and they were powerful. Another resource to help contextualize evangelicals' framework is Emerson's and Smith's _Divided by Faith_.

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