Today, I would like to direct your attention to John Fea’s overview of American white evangelicalism’s history of entanglement with racism. Fea is Professor of American History at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 2002. His current book is Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, June 2018).
Here is the basic outline of Fea’s points in his blog post:
One: Fea begins with the missionary efforts of white churches in the South to help quell the threat they feared from black slave uprisings.
Two: Next, Southern ministers developed a biblical and theological defense of slavery based on what they saw as a literal, commonsense reading of the Bible.
Three: “Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible.” Thus, the Civil War was characterized as a battle between the faithful Christian slaveholders and the atheistic, progressive thinkers introducing modern concepts of freedom and rights for slaves.
Four: Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of the races as the means by which the “white republic” might be overthrown.
Five: The Union victory and subsequent Constitutional amendments granting rights to blacks only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. Fea finds a classic example in the opposition to ordaining freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church.
Six: Northern fundamentalists did little to confront racism and failed to see how their approach to the Bible actually reinforced it. He also gives examples from the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921), the worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history, of how white ministers put the blame on black agitators and called for more law and order in its wake.
Seven: In the mid-20th century, evangelicals had a mixed record when it came to racial issues. But they were not particularly involved in the Civil Rights movement, and in fact, used it as a way of beginning to criticize what they saw as a more active federal government.
Eight: “This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to ‘big government’ intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972)… [and] Bob Jones v. United States.”
Nine: “Historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right.”
Ten: Fast forward to 2017, when evangelical leaders such as Robert Jeffress who implicitly and explicitly approved President Trump’s statements of moral equivalency between white supremicists and those marching against racial inequality in Charlottesville.
One thing John Fea doesn’t mention, but which I think merits attention, is how the election and presidency of Barack Obama, a black man, mobilized and hardened the white evangelical and conservative communities against what they see as the evils of the “the Left.” Discomfort with Obama’s race can hardly be a coincidental factor in the backlash that became Trumpism. Whereas some of us saw the election of a black man as a happy confirmation of true American ideals and a sign of genuine progress, many saw it as something close to the final straw in an uprising to dismantle white America.
Fea concludes his brief but suggestive overview with this admonition:
It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”