NPR has an article making the case that racism has deep roots in white Christianity in the United States. The article lays out the long sad history of white supremacy in the U.S. with a special emphasis on how churches and Christians were complicit in it. This history is well-known even among the most conservative American evangelicals. It is a great moral stain that so many Christians failed to see the evils of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation and, even worse, that some even tried to defend these positions from scripture.
But the last section of the NPR article sort of lost me. It seems to blame these failures on the biblical convictions that evangelicals hold, calling it a “theology of inaction.”
Some white Christian leaders have even provided moral and theological reasoning for their reluctance to challenge the existing system. Evangelicals in particular generally prioritize an individual’s own salvation experience over social concerns. The primary mission of the church in this view is to win souls for Christ. Working for racial justice, in contrast, may be seen as a “political” issue…
Civil rights activists who cited the Bible in support of their cause were often dismissed as “a bunch of theological liberals,” Dupont said. “And then it becomes an argument about who really believes the Bible. If Christianity is really about individual salvation, and the mission of the church is to win the lost, then [it is said that] these people who are telling us we need to get involved in the civil rights movement are just trying to lead us astray.”
The rejection of a “social gospel” remains popular among those conservative evangelicals today who see advocating for Black Lives Matter or immigrant rights as political activities. It is an argument with roots extending back to the theology of Thornwell and like-minded religion scholars of the 19th century.
Did you catch that? The author is pitting a focus on individual salvation against racial justice, as if to pursue the one means to neglect the other. And in fact, the author goes so far to suggest that this emphasis on personal salvation is what made white Christians uninterested in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.
As a counterpoint to this perspective, I would direct readers to a really stimulating article that I first read about 16 years ago by Russell Moore. It’s titled “Crucifying Jim Crow: Conservative Christianity and the Quest for Racial Justice” (SBJT 2004). Among other things, Moore argues this:
Jim Crow was not voted out of office. He was drowned, in a baptistery. Contemporary evangelicals, like most Americans, are prone to see the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as the triumph of secular Enlightenment egalitarianism. In fact, however, the civil rights movement drew on the imagery and vision of American revivalism. In so doing, the civil rights movement succeeded precisely because its proponents were able to shame the American conscience by appealing to a profoundly orthodox understanding of conversionism and churchmanship. With an underpinning of conservative evangelical concepts of soteriology and ecclesiology, American evangelicals were able to see that their sins against African-Americans in the oppressive Jim Crow power structures were about more than southern tradition. Instead, segregation and racial injustice were, at the gut level, a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Conservative evangelicals had their segregationist views confronted, not with an alien ideology, but with their own theology—a theology that emphasized both the dignity of the individual and the reconciliation of the community in ways inconsonant with racial bigotry.
Moore argues that it wasn’t the triumph of evangelical teaching that led to racial injustice but the failure of evangelicals to live up to their own teaching. The point here is that even though Bible-believers sometimes fail (and sometimes fail big!), the Bible never fails. Its testimonies are always true and offer the only ultimate solutions to racism, for racism is first and foremost a sin of the heart. My own denomination’s confessional statement puts it this way:
All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth. [emphasis mine]
The church’s commission is indeed the Great Commission of making disciples of every nation (Matt. 28:19-20). But this commission is not at odds with racial reconciliation. Indeed, it is the only ultimate grounds for racial reconciliation. The problem with a “social gospel” is not that it seeks to eliminate injustices. The problem is that it seeks to eliminate them without the authentic life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. And that continues to be the problem in liberal theologies today. They are heavy on social action but light on gospel action.
There is so much more to say on this, but I will leave it there. Go read Moore’s essay “Crucifying Jim Crow: Conservative Christianity and the Quest for Racial Justice.” You’ll be glad you did.