Divided by a common Christian faith
While American churches remain deeply split on racial lines, there are hopeful signs of a rapprochement
This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In a summer when everyone from protesters to ex-presidents has publicly affirmed that “black lives matter”, some acknowledgments of racial injustice in America will have changed more minds than others. Among the more consequential — and surprising — sources of those three words were the lips of J.D. Greear.
Greear is a pastor from Durham, North Carolina, and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose 15 million members make it the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Founded in 1845 after a disagreement with Northern Baptists over slavery and vocal in its support for the Confederacy, the SBC’s history is irrevocably intertwined with the story of race in America.
Frederick Douglass was unsparing in his description of the “horrible inconsistencies” of the church in slave states. “We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members,” he wrote in the same year the SBC was founded.
In a 2018 report on racism and slavery in its own history, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the SBC’s oldest educational institution — found that “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, [the faculty] advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.”
Greear is not the only white religious leader to have been more forthright in his response to the killing of George Floyd than many might expect from such figures. The high-profile megachurch pastor Joel Osteen described Floyd’s death as a “turning point” that “ignited” something in him. “I stay away from political issues, but this is not a political, this is a human issue,” he said after marching with Floyd’s family in Houston, Texas. In Mississippi, white Baptist churches were an important part of the coalition that successfully campaigned for the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state’s flag.
These leaders are careful to distinguish the sentiment that black lives matter from the organisation of the same name, whose far-left goals are at odds with the views of most American Christians, black and white. The willingness of those who millions of white evangelicals look to for spiritual direction to engage in questions of racial injustice is one of the more encouraging subplots in an otherwise divisive summer of racial reckoning, protest and unrest.
The contrast with the inflammatory rhetoric emanating from the White House, often in tweet form, is striking, and has led many to wonder whether — not for the first time in the country’s history — Christianity might have an important part to play in what can seem like a hopelessly fraught conversation on arguably the most difficult subject in American public life.
Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long, a new book about the legacy of racism in American Christianity, certainly hopes so. Jones, who is white, was raised in the Baptist church in Georgia, studied at a Baptist seminary and today runs the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, DC, where he specialises in public opinion on religion and politics. He tells me he wants white Christians to “ask the harder questions about the forks in the road our institutions took in the past” and says that the gestures from Christian leaders in recent months make him more optimistic than he was when he delivered the manuscript of his book last autumn.
But if Jones is optimistic, he certainly doesn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. “White churches have not just been complacent; they have been complicit,” he writes.
To demonstrate that complicity, Jones uses polling responses to questions on everything from explicit questions of racial perception to issues like the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system and black economic mobility to construct what he bluntly calls a “racism index”. If a respondent agrees with statements like “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they would be just as well-off as whites” or “Professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem at sporting events”, their racism index number will go up. If they say they are “angry racism exists” it will go down.
With responses to 15 questions like this and some statistical tinkering, Jones finds a tight correlation between white Christianity and high levels of racial resentment. “Harbouring racist views is a positive independent predictor of white Christian identity,” he writes. The problem is not limited to the South or evangelicals, and, perhaps most damningly for Christian leaders, regular church attendance does not appear to have any mitigating effect on these views.
When it comes to national politics, white evangelicals remain among Donald Trump’s most unwavering supporters. According to Pew, 72 per cent approve of the president, down slightly from 77 per cent in January; 82 per cent say they will vote for him in November.
Among that 82 per cent is Jonathan Jakubowski, a conservative author and the chairman of the local Republican Party in Wood County, Ohio. Explanations of evangelical support for a garish, Godless adulterer generally alight on comparisons with flawed Biblical leaders like Cyrus. Jakubowski’s support for the president is less zealous.
“When I talk to Christian brethren, I say that Donald Trump is not, and never will be, our saviour,” he tells me. “The problem with American politics is that we have heroes,” while too many Christians “have decided that the flag is greater than the cross”.
Jakubowski was part of a group of religious and political leaders who, shortly after Floyd’s death, went to Minneapolis for a summit on race and religion. White evangelicals and black evangelicals met Minnesotan veterans of the civil rights movement, prayed at the site of Floyd’s death, spoke to members of a community roiled first by that tragedy and then the rioting that followed. Throughout the trip, participants had what they told me were “difficult conversations”. Jakubowski tells me that “apart from our shared Christian faith we had about as divergent views as you can probably have on politics.
“It helped to round out my limited vantage point and perspective,” he says, recalling a moment in a black Baptist church in Minneapolis where the pastor told the group that they were the “first white political and religious leaders to have set foot in this church”.
“How can I connect with you if you don’t hear my pain, see my pain, feel my pain? How can we even have a conversation?” asked the pastor. “That will remain with me for the rest of my life,” says Jakubowski. Organised by Philos, a US-based initiative that usually focuses on promoting Christian engagement in the Middle East, the trip aimed to bring that experience to bridging a cultural divide closer to home.
The goal was to help white participants “understand that this is real. I’m not making this up”
Dr David Jackson, a black religious leader and former police officer from Atlanta who was also on the trip, says that white Christians have tended to see racism as a strictly historic issue: “Some of our evangelical brothers and sisters want to believe that this is all in the past. ‘Let that go, we’re all one in Christ.’ But they’re not dealing with the reality of what black people have been dealing with for 401 years in this country. You can’t just say 401 years are just wiped away in the blood and in the name of Jesus. We’ve had real experiences with racism.”
Jackson insists that “this was not a Kumbaya, ‘make white people feel better about themselves’ kind of trip.” There were differences of opinion over language, there was scepticism over what some of the white participants saw to be a narrative spun by the liberal media. For Jackson, the goal of the trip was to address the elephants in the room and help white participants “understand that this is real. I’m not making this up.”
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr said that “11 o’clock on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour in America”. The pews may be emptier than they were half a century ago, but American Christians still largely worship along racial lines. As of 2012, eight in ten Americans worship in a place where a single racial group comprises at least 80 per cent of the congregation.
In Macon, a city in King’s home state of Georgia, this “great tragedy of our nation” is hard to ignore. It is home to two neighbouring churches with almost identical names: First Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Christ. In one, the congregation is overwhelmingly black. In the other, the congregation is overwhelmingly white. The similar names and proximity are not coincidental; once, there was just one First Baptist Church. Then, in 1845, it split on racial lines. Slaves in one church, slaveowners in another. For more than a hundred years, the two institutions barely interacted with one another.
That changed when James Goolsby, the black pastor of the mostly black FBC, and Scott Dickison, the white pastor of the mostly white FBC of Christ, were invited to lunch by a mutual friend six years ago. That meeting started a relationship that would lead to a major reassessment of the benign story the white congregants of FBC of Christ had told themselves about the church’s history, the creation of a covenant of reconciliation between the churches and tentative steps towards worshipping together.
The process was far from painless. Goolsby says that some members of the white church’s congregation “couldn’t deal with it”.
He went on: “In Macon there’s so much history of segregation and of racism. One of the things we discovered while digging into the history was that a previous church building was paid for by selling slaves who were part of the congregation. To go through that and beyond that was difficult for some of them.”
Christianity at least offers a common language to help black and white Americans understand one another
This process means the congregants of both churches are well placed to process the events of recent months. “My hope all along has been to use a clearer rendering of our past as a way of understanding the present, which usually proves to be even thornier,” says Dickison.
Given the rapid secularisation of American society, there will be sceptics of religion’s ability to help steer the country through a fraught racial moment.
But, as Robert Jones’s research suggests, white Christians still have the furthest to travel on race. And, given that both sides of America’s political divide increasingly talk past one another, Christianity at least offers a common language to help black and white Americans understand one another.
Even in secular circles, the conversation around race is still full of religious language: sin, guilt, atonement, repentance and forgiveness. Compared to the academic anti-racism doctrines that increasingly dominate elite liberal institutions, a more religious conversation about race at least stands a chance of meaning something to middle America.
Some will doubtless wonder whether “difficult conversations” can actually achieve material improvements in the lives of black Americans. To that, the victories of the spiritually-inflected civil rights movement stands as a powerful counter-example. “We need a truly biblical reconciliation in this country,” says Jackson. You don’t need to be a believer to see his point.
I ask Goolsby, who grew up in the Atlanta projects and remembers watching Martin Luther King’s funeral procession as a child, whether he is hopeful about where a racial reckoning in America in 2020 might change things for the better.
“I will probably be as shocked as I was when President Obama was elected,” he replies. “In my heart of hearts, I was hoping. But I thought this is America, it ain’t going to happen. And then that night, I was blown away. I just never thought I would see that happen in my lifetime. That is where I am with a true change with this nation’s thoughts on race. Is this finally the time when we really turn a corner? Or do we do get hope snatched from us at the last minute? I’m hopeful. But, again, America surprised me by electing President Obama and then went right back to her old habits in electing President Trump.”
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