Segregation & White Evangelicals

Over the course of the last year, a “holy discontent” has risen within me at a greater rate than ever before as it relates to the important issues of racial equality and true reconciliation. If you read on, this post will give a little more understanding of why I feel it’s a conversation we (as Christian leaders especially) need to openly and honestly engage in and why we should be leading the way forward. Especially for us as white evangelicals, we’ve been afraid to step into this space for fear of personal risk, being misunderstood, and I think, because we haven’t had to “feel” in ourselves the tension our brothers and sisters of color are certainly well acquainted with.

When evangelist D. L Moody held revival meetings in the South in the 1800’s, he did so on a segregated basis. Billy Sunday would later follow suit at the turn of the century.

In 1922, a southern evangelical named Robert E. Smith would write a book that epitomized the typical thought on race issues at that time among white evangelicals. In light of the escalating racial tensions in 1919-1921, he called on his southern brothers to take a “fresh look” at the race issue, emphasizing that the races are equal according to the Bible and according to the constitution. Sadly, his call fell short of any move toward ending segregation. His words here actually moved the needle in the opposite direction: “There is little difference of sentiment between the whites and the blacks on this point. Both races believe that a separate social life is most desireable and most practical.”

As Michael Emerson states in his book, Divided By Faith, “Much religious activism in this period also took the form of church pronouncements denouncing lynchings and other forms of inhumane personal treatment. Criticisms of Jim Crow segregation were still relatively infrequent, however, the northern de facto segregation and the practices used to achieve the segregation were almost never criticized.”

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when the Civil Rights Movement was really taking off, it’s widely known that religious activism came not primarily from the white evangelical community, but from pastors and leaders within the black community. “Christianity Today”, a then predominantly white publication, from its beginning in 1957 until 1965, on average, published LESS THAN TWO articles per year on race issues, despite the overwhelmingly tumultuous period it was in. When it did address the issues, it wasn’t always consistent either. Some articles supported segregation, while others opposed it. Within the leadership of Christianity Today, there was a very real fear of the perception of Civil Rights being seen as part of the Christian agenda.

I don’t understand this. And I lament this today.

Even Billy Graham got caught up in the cultural pull of other white evangelicals on race issues. When his crusades began in the 1940’s, his meetings were held on a segregated basis. He wanted to maintain a clear focus on evangelism and not get caught up in social reform issues for fear of being perceived as linked to the growing Communist movement. His position on segregation would waffle back and forth over the coming years, causing a lot of confusion and backlash from local media. As a result, Graham was quoted in 1952 as saying the following after a crusade in Mississippi: “I feel that I have been misinterpreted on racial segregation. We follow the existing social customs in whatever part of the country in which we minister. As far as I have been able to find in my study of the Bible, in has nothing to say about segregation or nonsegregation. I came to Jackson to preach only the Bible and not to enter into local issues.” Though he had Dr. King say an opening prayer at a crusade in NYC, Graham could not accept the methods used by him or the Civil Rights Movement, disagreeing strongly with the nonviolent, public protests and marches. He did not believe it was wise for Christian leaders to work towards legislative reform in Civil Rights, sincerely believing that laws could not change wicked hearts.

In fairness, Billy Graham also serves as a great example of progress and growth. In 1954, with the Brown v Board decision, his organization finally banned forced segregation at all crusades. Graham was notorious for personally removing the ropes that separated the races at his gatherings. By 1957 they attempted to racially integrate the organization’s leadership, and in many ways they broke ground with fighting against segregation from that point forward.

With all that being said, what have we, as white evangelicals in particular, learned 50-some years later?

3 big lessons stand out to me…

“Touch not the Lord’s anointed” is a phrase I personally can’t stand. (And I ‘m a church leader). I believe in respecting those in leadership over us, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership. What we deal with, others can’t fully understand until seated in our seat. But that doesn’t mean we ask our people to check their brains at the door and just go along with everything we say. With the luxury of hindsight, we’re able to see how these Christan leaders in the past failed to take their activism far enough.

Something we say all the time in leadership is that “perception is reality”. It’s true in business leadership, and it’s true in Christian leadership. I believe it… until a legitimate fear of a perception that isn’t even true hijacks us from taking action THAT WE KNOW IS RIGHT. We need more Christian leaders in our world today who are willing to lead based on personal conviction, not on fear of perception.

You cannot just say “I’m here to preach the Bible” and not engage in the discussions within our cultural moment today. I realize these discussions quickly turn political and controversial, and I think at some level we need to be ok with that. The message of the Gospel bleeds into and informs how we should think and act today. It tells us how we should process and respond to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. It informs our thoughts on prison reform and police brutality. It gives us a rubric by which to engage in discussions around drone strikes, war tactics, and the stuff we don’t want to know about because it protects the way of life we’ve come to rely on. How we think and publicly speak on these issues (or not) shows a watching world whether we truly believe the Gospel and the full extent of its work, not just in eternity, but in the here and now today.




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