Reflections on American Evangelicalism after Trump, Part 1.5: White Supremacy and Evangelicalism
This last month, I was out of town for a few weeks and then teaching a two week series at my church on Kierkegaard (audio available here). And, so I intended this week to be the week I finally finished writing my blog post on Bernie Sanders and Progressivism—part 2 of my series on American Evangelicalism after Trump.
But I find that I cannot move forward without reflecting on a theme that continues to present itself: white supremacy. And so, this week, I am turning my energies towards studying the history that it shares with American Evangelicalism. I think a reflection like this probably should begin with biography and confession—it is utterly impossible to remove my own thoughts on the matter from my own history and social location. So, let me get that out in the open first, and then I will turn to a historical treatment of the matter, and end with some reflections.
A Biographical Note / Confession about the Civil War
I begin with biography with some trepidation. I do not want to suggest that my experience is uniquely important for understanding the matter; or, that I have deceived myself with how enlightened I am on the matter. I find simply that I know of no other way to have this conversation than to begin with my own blind spots; that way when other people see them more clearly than I do, the issue is already on the table for discussion.
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I have a lifetime fascination with the Civil War. In my youth, growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, some of my earliest memories revolve around the Civil War and discovering a love for the idea of the Lost Cause. The Civil War looms large in my family; I have a cousin named Robert Edward. As a lifelong Presbyterian, Ole Blue Light Stonewall Jackson has always been my favorite Civil War figure—one of many common interests that I share with my favorite theologian, Karl Barth.
My father and I bonded when I was in elementary school by watching Ken Burns's newly released Civil War documentary on PBS. He was so enamored with the soundtrack, that he bought the CD and we would regularly listen to it. When I began to take violin lessons as a 4th grader, he dreamed of the day that we could reprise Ashokan Farewell, a song that is hauntingly beautiful. That day never came; it turns out I have no musical acumen. School field trips to Port Allen, Louisiana, and family trips to Vicksburg and Gettysburg stoked my imagination. It was well-known in my elementary school that I was a Civil War buff—I corrected my 4th grade teacher when she mis-attributed Adm. David Farragut's famous "Damn the torpedoes" quote to someone else. During middle school and the beginning of high school, I lived in Chicago. After my freshman year in high school, we moved to Stuart, Virginia—the birth place of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. Virginia, as far as I was concerned, was the mecca of Civil War history.
My whole life, I've sort of affectionately thought of the Confederacy as "we." Having moved around so much, this was, in retrospect, an existential move to ground myself in a location and a cultural history. And so, I became the champion of all things southern. Its not that I actually wished the South won the war; it was that I very much bought into the narrative of the Lost Cause and the idea that much of my own southern culture was best interpreted through the lens of loss and longing. To this day, one of my favorite songs is Don Williams's "Good Ole Boys Like Me."
Flannery O'Conner once declared to Walker Percy (my favorite author) that the reason he wrote such hauntingly beautiful books about the existential angst of the Southern White Man was because the South had lost the war, giving him an upper hand on other writers. Southerners were honor-bound to a losing and passing way of life. (This is probably why I've also been a Cubs fan ever since I moved to Chicago). I love Flannery, but I've always been bothered by her problematic relationship to civil rights. Generally speaking, however, for generations of southern artists, to be southern was to be like an Israelite in Babylon. And I loved that aspect of their work.
You must forgive me, readers, if I speak too fondly of these ideas and this time in my life. If I suggest too much beauty in something that is totally abhorrent, it is an old habit that is hard to break. The Israelites too, I imagine, saw a great deal of beauty in the golden calf. And they were not quickly weaned from the ways of Egypt.
It was not until I moved to Stuart, Virginia, that I discovered people who venerated the Civil War as more than simply a historical fascination and a cultural phenomenon. My first year in Stuart (1998), the KKK marched down Main Street on MLK-Lee-Jackson day. It was not clear if they marched to honor Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson or to protest Martin Luther King. I knew that this was something different than my own fascination with the war. In high school, I shared a table in Art class with a student who thought it was funny to torment me. Coming from Chicago, I was the outsider. He regularly would goad me, saying things like, "Raise hell and kill n*** babies, right?", because he knew it made me uncomfortable. There were rumors that another classmate was a Grand Dragon in the KKK, one of the youngest in history. Another student presented my history teacher—a proud VMI graduate—with an application form for the KKK. He was appalled and I was baffled.
Two years ago, a local judge in Stuart, Virginia–a family friend and a man I deeply admire–removed a portrait of J.E.B. Stuart from the courtroom in Stuart. In a published explanation, he wrote,
it is my goal—and my duty as a judge—to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice. Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history.
The KKK returned to Main Street, forcing me to come to terms with a reality that was simply too hard to ignore any longer. 2017, 1998, 1968, 1928, 1888 ... the more things change, the more they stay the same. We are still the nation that was birthed by southern resistance to black civil rights.
I still am fascinated by American history, and especially the Civil War. But over time, I have had to repent of my romantic assumptions about the war, southern culture, and my love of historical and fictional characters who have become ciphers for white nationalism. One invaluable resource that has helped in this path is the work of American Religious Historian and Presbyterian Mark Noll. His book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), is absolutely essential reading for any Christian who wants to understand the intersections of Christianity and American Culture, but especially anyone who wants to understand the origins of the relationship between Evangelicalism, race, and American exceptionalism. A second work, Noll's follow-up God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2008) helps me to work forward from the Civil War to the present. What follows is a summary of Noll's work.
Evangelicals and Race: A Short History
1. Pre-Civil War
The Civil War was not just a clash of cultures (industrial vs. agrarian), political commitments (federalism vs. localism), or moral ideals (abolition vs. slavery); it was a full-fledged theological crisis. This is the thesis of Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Noll's work, to my knowledge, is the only study of the Civil War to focus particularly on the sermons that pastors preached from both northern and southern pulpits in the years just preceding and during the Civil War. As Noll writes, "In the uncertain days of late 1860 and early 1861, the pulpits of the United States were transformed into instruments of political theology" (Kindle Locations 32-33). To pastors in both the north and the south, when it came to the question of slavery, God's will as revealed in scripture was clear. That the will of God appeared to be at odds with itself as one moved from north to south suggested that at least one and maybe both theological claims were wrong. Thus, the horn of the "theological crisis" that the Civil War produced in American Christianity.
For northern preachers, like Henry Ward Beecher, scripture was clear: any common-sense reader of scripture could see that the Bible was antithetical to the tyranny of slavery. And yet, for southern clergymen like James Henley Thornwell of Columbia, South Carolina, the master-slave relationship was clearly warranted in scripture and the Christian mandate was to commit oneself to being a good steward of one's God-given resources of labor (Kindle Locations 40-50).
The contrasting views of scripture spiraled into a real dilemma not when northerners disagreed with southerners about what scripture mandated but when scripture itself became a debatable moral authority between northerner and northerner or southerner and southerner. So, for instance, the northern Presbyterian Henry Van Dyke, speaking from a Brooklyn pulpit only a few miles from Beecher's pulpit, agreed with southerners that scripture clearly permitted slavery. For Van Dyke, the abolitionists were a dangerous group because they abandoned scripture's authority in order to pursue a definition of justice that was extra-biblical. Simultaneously, at a Jewish Synagogue in NYC, Rabbi Morris Raphall agreed with Van Dyke's assessment, endorsing the Hamitic myth interpretation of Genesis. Learned exegetes from NYC's Union College (now Union Theological Seminary) protested these interpretations, suggesting that the spirit of scripture ought to be interpreted over and against the letter, yielding a far more progressive point of view regarding chattel slavery (Kindle Locations 54-79).
Some abolitionists, weary of the exegetical debate regarding what scripture said about slavery, decided to abandon scripture altogether as a moral authority, turning instead to the laws of nature. This of course, was seized upon by pro-slavers as proof that abolitionists disregard scripture, leaving many northern Christians to choose between the false dilemma of scriptural authority or abolition.
The appeal to natural law was just one of many attempts to ground an answer to the slavery question in extra-biblical warrants. Divine providence was another. In the south, many saw the historical confluence of the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and the recent conquest of a fertile and wide-open America as a clear divine mandate for the use of slavery as the means by which to harness these providential gifts into a productive industry (Kindle Location 91).
Without getting much more into the meat of the book—which is worth reading in great detail—the culminating effect of the disagreement between Christians regarding what scripture has to say about slavery is the marginalization of scripture as a moral authority in American political discourse. Previously (as suggested in Part 1 of this series), Christianity in America was a uniquely democratized expression of Christianity, giving preference to the right of the individual to interpret scripture for herself and allowing populist leaders to rise as their expositions of scripture won public acceptance. Now, for the first time, the problem of the infinitely possible ways that scripture could be interpreted as well as the conflict of regional religious authorities came to a head around the question of slavery. In the end, the solution would be found neither in scripture itself nor in the public's choice of a populist voice; instead, the issue would be determined by the marginalizing of religion and the rise of a strong federal authority. Noll explains,
American national culture had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet if by following such an approach to the Bible there resulted an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught, there were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division of opinion that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms (Kindle Locations 133-136).
In God and Race in American Politics, Noll builds on his work on the Civil War in order to explore the enduring relationship between religion and race in American Politics. Central to this study is Noll's preliminary argument that the American Democratic Republic was built upon three complimentary foundations: religion, free market capitalism, and federalism. Religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, provided the moral vision that entrusted the people to govern themselves while the market provided the incentive for free men to apply themselves and their labor [not to mention their laborers] to the development of a strong democracy. However, as regional differences developed, especially regarding questions of slavery, it became clear that religion and the market were incapable of solving the matter themselves. Thus, over time, the federal government came to have an increasing role in determining the politics of slavery (pp. 60-64).
On this reading, the Civil War marks a turning point from the predominance of religion and the market in American political life to a predominance of the federal government. It was Lincoln's use of federal military strength that saved the union. Subsequently, federally mandated and overseen Reconstruction insured the reunification of north and south in spite of religious and marketplace differences over the matter. And this is a crucial point for understanding the historical relationship between Evangelical Christianity and White Nationalism.
The Federal government took the lead role in governing southern states after the war. The result was an unprecedented [and un-repeated] level of African-American political participation. Now enfranchised by federal law and under the protection of a strong federal presence, black voters became an important political constituency. Some prominent southerners threw themselves into the work of Reconstruction, most notable perhaps were Lee's lieutenants, the Virginian generals Longstreet and Mahone. Most southerners, however, bucked at the bridle of Reconstruction.
Almost as soon as Reconstruction began, it was doomed to fail. Southerners, of course, chaffed at the prospect of living under an imposed political regime. Northern Republicans, meanwhile, were skeptical of big government and already uncomfortable with the expanded role of the government during the war. In short, northerners and southerners found common ground in the basic assumption that the sooner reconstruction ended, the better. Even prominent abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe publicly supported southern "home rule" and "sectional reconciliation". There was a general eagerness to reconcile the country and to put the matter in the rear view mirror. Apparently, white northerners were willing to kill white southerners over the question of slavery but once the matter was settled, they preferred reconciliation with their white southern brethren over the long path to full equality and participation for black citizens.
In the south, the end of Reconstruction and the transition to local political leadership was called "redemption", the obvious implication being that the white southern return to political rule was a salvific moment. What felt like salvation for white southerners, however, was hell on earth for black southerners. Redemption became the means by which the political ideology of small government and the racial ideology of white supremacy became fused. Noll explains
Southern "redemption" represented a counterrevolution. It involved the violent transfer of power from liberated slaves and their Republican allies to an all-white Democratic Party. Significantly for the ideological conventions that dominated national politics into the mid-twentieth century, "redemption" also forged a strong bond between southern local control of racial matters and a rhetoric that pictured the exertion of national government authority as tyrannical, corrupt, and ungodly. The success of "redemption" fixed for the whole nation the pairing of local autonomy and racial exclusion as triumphant over the pairing that Nicholas Lemann succinctly labeled "black political empowerment and federal authority" (p. 72).
In the post-Civil War south, to champion state's rights and a small federal government was to prefer local control over matters that included race relations. In this sense, the rise of Jim Crow is inextricably linked to the political preference for small government.
Evangelical Christianity may not have explicitly endorsed Jim Crow but it also didn't explicitly condemn it. When northern evangelist D.L. Moody traveled south to preach, he acquiesced to southern tradition and preached before segregated audiences. "Saving souls" came before righting social wrongs. The result was that evangelical Christians opted out of political engagement for the better part of two to three generations.
3. Civil Rights
If there was a silver lining to white evangelicalism's retreat from the political sphere, it is that, according to Noll, the vacuum created the space that allowed for Black Christians to develop their own unique theological politics. Between the end of Reconstruction and World War II, evangelical Christians were largely absent from the national political discussion, with the one exception of temperance. When an explicitly evangelical rhetoric did return to the political sphere, it was not from the pulpits of white churches, but from black churches.
One of the things that allowed the Black church to emerge as a strong political bloc was its ability to create a coalition between its intellectualist and progressive mainline churches and its populist grassroots churches. Whereas white churches were experiencing a fundamentalist/liberal split, Black churches were broader coalitions that were able to galvanize around the common cause of equal rights. Indeed, the more progressive wing of the church–influenced by Rauschenbusch's appeal to Israel's prophets and Niebuhr's account of sin–spoke in an idiom that sincere conservative black Christians could immediately identify as biblical and therefore, trustworthy. The question regarding whether liberals took the Bible literally was entirely moot.
The rise of the Black church coalesced with the return of a strong federal government. Two world wars and the Great Depression gave way to the need for stronger regulation of commerce, the New Deal, and military conscription. Thus, the rise of the Civil Rights movement has its origins in the convergence of these two ingredients: Black-led moral appeals that Christians should take their faith seriously when it came to the question of the rights of Black Americans, and a stronger federal government that was able to enact and enforce legislation on the matter.
So strong was the Black church's moral appeal that hardly any of the denominational leaders of mainline churches contested the matter. In the south, both the Presbyterian Church (PCUS) and the Southern Baptist Convention–denominations that owed their existence to splits between northern and southern Christians regarding the question of slavery–supported desegregation in the 1950s. Of course, this does not reflect how local congregations felt about the matter. Evangelicals were mostly of the same mind. Billy Graham desegregated his crusades in the 1950s. Christianity Today published material supporting court-mandated integration and editorialized that it was lamentable that it was the Supreme Court and not the churches that lead the way in this matter (p. 156).
In this sense, we can at least say, according to historian David Chappell [not comedian, Dave Chappelle] that white Christians did not stand in the way of civil rights insofar as they spoke as Christians. No doubt a number of church members who considered themselves Christian moonlighted as klansmen or thought the whole thing to be untoward and beneath them; but the active white resistance to civil rights was often warranted by unorthodox religious claims where religion was claimed at all (pp. 130-135).
The successes of the Civil Rights movement were successes that were gained largely through the movements mobilization of the Black Church's moral appeal. It became harder and harder for White Christians to ignore the question when national news regularly showed footage of peaceful black protesters met with violent segregationists and local law enforcement. The publicity further incited the notion that the federal government needed to intervene in the matter. As Noll notes, "government action on civil rights was accepted more readily than would have been possible for any other problem not connected with the nation's troubled racial history" (p. 143).
At the same time, the Civil Rights movement became the pattern for political activism and federal presence. The coalition that supported Civil Rights also wanted to see federal policy changes regarding Vietnam, women's rights, gay rights, etc. The Supreme Court that made Civil Rights possible is also that court that weighed in on questions of religious freedom and abortion. And the strong federal government that enforced integration is also the federal government that began to take greater interest in public education, enforcing curricular goals and standards that pushed evolution to the forefront as a litmus test for federal oversight versus local governance.
The Civil Rights movement was quickly evacuated of its concrete meaning, becoming first a blueprint for federal reform in other political arenas, and then subsequently, an unfortunate casualty in the war over "big" versus "small" government.
Some Brief Observations
All of this is a brief gloss on some of the main themes of Noll's work in this area. I think it is a compelling interpretation of American History. No doubt there are places where his interpretation can be contested, but I have found that this work helps me to think through a number of issues. What follows are a few brief observations.
- Small Government Republicanism is in League with White Supremacy
Far and away, the biggest issue here is that there is a long history of white supremacists hiding behind the political ideology of small government in order to insist that they retain political regional control over questions of race. This means that in the 20th century, as evangelicals became more concerned about federal overreach on questions that had no relation to civil rights, they found themselves to be the unwitting allies of white supremacy wherever they advocated small government. Fast-forward to today. This is how these two otherwise antithetical constituencies ended up voting for Donald Trump.
What to do about this? I think the solution is for Christians to be less politically ideological and more flexible. As federal oversight over school desegregation disappears and states enact voter I.D. laws, Christians should pay attention when Black citizens express fear that these are race-based discrimination. The sad truth of the matter is that there is consistent historical precedent that wherever federal oversight gives way to local governance, civil rights tend to disappear. To be ideologically "small government" at the expense of the protections that federalism affords black citizens is problematic for a Christian.
Evangelicals may have ignored the dog whistling of the Trump campaign, and they may have written off candidate Trump's refusal to rebuke David Duke as inexperience in politics; but, after Charlottesville, we cannot deny that there is an element of the Trump coalition that has fused small government republicanism with white supremacy. And to stick to a small government ideology for the sake of business principles or education policy or abortion is to place yourself in an unfortunate alliance with white supremacy.
- Evangelical Christians, while they have always ended up on the "right side of history" have done so by sitting on the fence, for the most part.
Evangelicalism, wherever it has spoken clearly about white supremacy, has tended to do so a little too late. Billy Graham and Christianity Today in the 1950s may have been on the forefront of integration, but even then, there was a measure of caution. And while denominational leadership may have not directly opposed civil rights, it hardly did much to press a pro-civil rights position down to the local level. It is impossible to deny that many of the private Christian schools that were founded in the 1970s owe their existence not to federal curriculum changes but to federally mandated integration and busing. Randall Balmer, one of the foremost historians of Evangelicalism in American, insists that Evangelicalism has always hosted a racist element in its own wings. I find that this claim is hard to deny (especially the test-cases he puts forward), although I do think that Noll's suggestion that evangelicalism is mostly guilty of passivity is more on point.
A new generation of evangelicals are tired of it. Younger evangelicals are politically active in the promotion of social justice. Where evangelicalism stands in coalition with Pro-Trump white supremacists, it will lose credibility with a generation of young Christians.
- About those monuments ...
At this point, we've read a million articles about how monuments were erected during Jim Crow to reinforce white governance of public space. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest this is mostly true in terms of the timing of the erection of the monuments. I think it is also worth noting that a number of these were erected privately by organizations that involved wives and daughters of confederate soldiers, as a way of memorializing them; and that a lot of those monuments are a cheaply made mass-produced statue that a northern foundry thought it could make money on by convincing people in small towns (both northern and southern) to erect monuments.
Even three months ago, I was ambivalent to the movement to remove monuments. I sympathized with the argument for removal that prevailed in New Orleans, especially regarding the Liberty Place monument that memorialized the Crescent City White League's violent rebellion against the Reconstruction government in 1874; I find it utterly impossible to deny the link to white supremacy in that case. But my sympathies were more in line with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's suggestion that the monuments did not need to be removed, but to be set in historic context with a more honest narrative about what they symbolize [a position he has given up since Charlottesville].
Now, I find that my sympathies are very much with their removal. If we live in a country where placing nativity scenes on public property is problematic because it appears to suggest government-sponsored religion, then we absolutely cannot advocate for placing monuments to white supremacists in public spaces. More importantly, however, after Charlottesville, it is abundantly clear that those monuments do symbolize white supremacy to some people. Like the portrait of J.E.B. Stuart in the Virginia courtroom, they quietly shout "danger" to black citizens in a way that I have never known.
For Christians, regardless of what those statues mean to you, the line between a monument and an idol is crossed whenever the protection of that monument requires violence. Its time to root out the idolatry of white supremacy from evangelical Christianity, and I see no reason why a historically iconoclastic people would find the need to adorn their public spaces with idols.