White evangelicals take stock

Since the creation of the Republican “Southern strategy” in 1968, white southern evangelicals have controlled electoral politics in America.  But on the morning of November 5th, 2008, southern whites woke up to a harsh new reality. 

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times wonders if southern whites are now marginalized and politically irrelevant.  “Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama,” Nossiter observes, “compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.”

Nossiter’s analysis is pretty standard issue.  With increasingly educated and culturally diverse states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida trending to the left, the “Solid South” of yesteryear is dead.  These increasingly Blue states contrast sharply with Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas, red states that, if anything, are getting redder.  In many parts of the Deep South (particularly Arkansas and most of Appalachia) Southern whites cast more votes for John McCain this year than they gave George W. Bush in either 2000 or 2004.

The Deep South no longer provides a big enough foundation for a presidential candidate to build on.  The Republicans have become a regional party with little support in the Northeast or on either coastline.   

Some white evangelicals are celebrating the impending divorce between the Religious Right and the Republican establishment.  Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist who worked with Jerry Falwell back in the 1980s, is cautiously upbeat.

“Too many conservative Evangelicals have put too much faith in the power of government to transform culture,” Thomas recently told his readers. The futility inherent in such misplaced faith can be demonstrated by asking these activists a simple question: Does the secular left, when it holds power, persuade conservatives to live by their standards? Of course they do not. Why, then, would conservative Evangelicals expect people who do not share their worldview and view of God to accept their beliefs when they control government?”

This is the same Cal Thomas who said Barack Obama couldn’t be a Christian because he won’t say non-Chrisians are bound for hell.  In the worldview of evangelicals like Thomas, America is divided between the Christian right and the secular left.  No other options are allowed.

Thomas is perfectly willing to cede the fight to the secular left.  Christians should eschew political ambition in favor of something truly radical. “If results are what conservative Evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative Evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,’ not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?”

I am tempted to quibble with Thomas.  There is no suggestion that Jesus called his disciples to minister to the poor simply as a means to a spiritual end.  Because God is love, love is an end in itself.  But forget all of that.  How wonderful to hear a conservative evangelical suggesting that Christians should follow the religious model Jesus laid down 2,000 years ago!

Still more amazing, Thomas seems to understand what Jesus had in mind.  “Scripture teaches that God’s power (if that is what conservative Evangelicals want and not their puny attempts at grabbing earthly power) is made perfect in weakness. He speaks of the tiny mustard seed, the seemingly worthless widow’s mite, of taking the last place at the table and the humbling of one’s self, the washing of feet and similar acts and attitudes; the still, small voice. How did conservative Evangelicals miss this and instead settle for a lesser power, which in reality is no power at all? When did they settle for an inferior ‘kingdom’?”

Tragically, white southern evangelicals settled for an inferior kingdom when the original planters in places like Virginia and North Carolina decided to import African slaves. 

This devilish development forced a crisis upon southern white Christians that we are still dragging behind us in the 21st century.  Although most whites in the antebellum South owned no slaves, southern culture was shaped and molded by “the peculiar institution”.  By the 1840s, southern opinion leaders questioned the goodness of slavery on pain of death.  In 1845, the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians all split north-and-south over the issue. 

This Monday, I attended the annual conference of the Baptist General Conference of Texas.  One bold preacher told the assembly that, although we differ in political preference, we are all celebrating the election of America’s first African American president. 

This assertion was greeted with tepid applause. 

The speaker regretted that Texas Baptists hadn’t formed the vanguard of the abolition movement.  He wished we had been more supportive of the civil rights movement.

I leaned over to the woman beside me and whispered, “we were in the vanguard of opposition to the civil rights movement–that ought to count for something.”

Baptists in the South have a hard time coming to terms with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and grudging support for integration.  As Jim Wallis argues in his recent book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post–Religious Right America, American revivals were typically accompanied by social reform movements like abolition and women’s suffrage.  But this was a feature of evangelical life in the northern states; in the South, every progressive movement has been resisted and demonized.  You start messing with one evil and sooner or later you’ll be messing with the capstone of southern economic, social and religious life. 

At first, slaves were taught to read the Bible, but even that tiny reform was abandoned.  There was no guarantee that slaves wouldn’t move from the Bible to more incendiary literature.  And who could guarantee that the ignorant wretches wouldn’t read passages like “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6: 20) and get the wrong idea.

Southern evangelicals have always practiced an odd form of hyper-spirituality in which the saving of souls was the only mission of the church.  [I realize that I am dealing with highly complex matters in a few broad strokes.  Take issue with my stance in the comments section below and I’ll respond in greater detail.]

Southern evangelicals were flummoxed by preachers like Martin Luther King.  Although the Baptist preacher was generally dismissed as a rabble rouser and radical communist, evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention rarely condemned the civil rights movement in public statements or in denominational literature.  At the local church level, howevert, vocal support for civil rights was a one-way ticket to the bread lines. 

Southerners responded to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society by shifting their allegiance to the Republican Party.  When groups like the Silent Majority and the Christian Coalition rose to prominence with the Reagan Revolution, the race issue was never addressed directly.  Still, southern blacks had little difficulty reading between the lines.

In 1994, the newly-minted president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary handed me a doctoral diploma.  Albert Mohler quickly emerged as a prominent voice within Southern Baptist life and a stalwart of the religious right.  Mohler and his fellow Southern Baptists have apologized for slavery.  Mohler says he rejoices at the election of an African American president even though he is deeply troubled by Barack Obama’s politics.  Al would have loved to vote for an African American candidate, but he takes issues like abortion and homosexuality too seriously. 

Like most southern evangelicals, Mohler is nervous.  In an article written a few days after the presidential election, he pondered the possible demise of evangelical influence.  “Will the Republican Party decide that conservative Christians are just too troublesome for the party and see the pro-life movement as a liability? There is the real danger that the Republicans, stung by this defeat, will adopt a libertarian approach to divisive moral issues and show conservative Christians the door.”

But Dr. Mohler hasn’t abandoned all hope. “We must pray that God would change President-Elect Obama’s mind and heart on issues of our crucial concern. May God change his heart and open his eyes to see abortion as the murder of the innocent unborn, to see marriage as an institution to be defended, and to see a host of issues in a new light.”

So this explains why only 14% of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever for Obama.  The racial makeup of LaSalle Parish (home of Jena) is 86.13% White and 12.20% African American; the vote in the election was 85.5% McCain, 13.1% Obama.  How many white Baptists in LaSalle Parish voted for the Democrat?  One?  Five?Twenty? 

Does Al Mohler really expect us to believe that, but for his pro choice, pro gay rights politics, Southern Baptists would have considered voting for the black presidential candidate?  He may be right.  I can see white southern evangelicals voting for a conservative African American candidate with no progressive notions.  The big problem today is history, not skin color.  A black candidate would be acceptable in the South so long as there is no call for the kind of progressive reform that hooks Southern white defensiveness.  No black candidate who celebrates the civil rights movement legacy would could do better in the Deep South than Obama.

Black and Latino voters are generally culturally conservative, evangelical Christians.  Yet two-thirds of Latino voters and almost 100% of black voters sided with Obama.  Why aren’t hot button issues like abortion and gay rights deal breakers for minority voters?  Why are white catholics (outside the Deep South) evenly split between McCain and Obama?

The temporary demolition of the Republican coalition gives white evangelicals an opportunity to re-evaluate their knee-jerk opposition to all things progressive.  Perhaps, as Cal Thomas anticipates, white evangelicals will read the words of Jesus with new eyes.  If they do, mass incarceration might lose some of its allure and public works programs for the unemployed might look like a good idea whose time has come.

Nothing good will happen without repentance.  White evangelicals like me must own up to the demonic toxins infecting our spiritual heritage.  Even at its highest and best, our religion has been distorted by America’s original sin.  The problem didn’t end with the Civil War or the demise of Jim Crow.  Overtly racist rhetoric may have been silenced in the public square; but our hearts have not changed. 

Calling slavery a sin was a good start.  But we need to apply that confession to Jim Crow and our spiteful rejection of the civil rights movement.  We must confess that our religion has been deformed by hatred, pride and hardness of heart. 

Few preachers in white evangelical pulpits, even today, could issue such a call to repentance without losing their livelihood.  I have said these hard things because I can.  Many (most?) of you will disagree.  Fine by me. That’s how genuine conversations get started.

11 thoughts on “White evangelicals take stock

  1. Pundits have been too quick to write off the Republicans as confined to the South. Certainly the South is a lynchpin. But the swath of states from Texas north to Canada remained solidly red, excepting of course CD 2 in Nebraska which apparently will give its one electoral vote to Obama. Oklahoma is the reddest state of all, without a single blue county. Some one in the Washington Post I think it was talked about “little Dixie,” five southeasternmost counties in Oklahoma as being the most Republican. Wrong! Percentage wise anyway. The five northwestern most counties all had McCain percentages above 80. It seems that the farther west one goes in these states, the redder they get. Eastern NM bordering the Texas Panhandle is red, red, red. The counties along the eastern border of Colorado are the reddest in Colorado. What is it about this geography? I don’t think it can be simply racism. Dallam County in the NW corner of the Texas Panhandle is 80% red. Ochiltree County, a couple of counties E of Dallam, is 90%. And these are counties with extremely small African-American populations. One can get these numbers by going on the NY Times electoral map, clicking on a state, then passing the cursor over the counties to get the county vote.

    Maybe its religion apart from race. I saw something to the effect that only 28% of whites who attend church at least weekly voted for Obama. I attended church Sunday, and, its being Veterans Day, was treated to a thoroughly nationalistic sermon, to the point of being idolatrous in my mind. So, people go to church, and rather than being challenged, have their nationalistic impulses reinforced. This will continue without a rebirth of prophetic preaching on the American scene. And prophets don’t last long in the current white Protestant pulpit.

  2. Thanks, Charles. Overt racism isn’t the primary legacy of slavery. Far more significant is a deep suspicion of progressive policies of any kind coupled with a thinly disguised loathing for change agents. Regions characterized by this kind of thinking are highly resistant to contrary opinions and those who challenge the status quo, whether from the pulpit or at the coffee shop, are shunned. America is in deep trouble because this mindset has controlled the national agenda for most of the past 30 years. The mindset I describe is only a problem for Republicans to the extent they are identified with it. My hope is that the Republican party will redefine itself in response to the current crisis in more inclusive, big-tent terms. The Southern strategy needs to be renounced, not because it is no longer effective politically, but because it has always been a cynical ploy rooted in the worst traits of human nature. Again, repentance is in order before the GOP can move forward. The not-so-subtle racism driving the Southern strategy must be confessed and renounced. Since that ain’t likely to happen, conservative politics may be in the wilderness for a long time. On the other hand, if the Obama administration is unable to drag America out of a prolonged economic depression (I think it’s time to start using the D-word), a Republican presidential candidate could be elected in 2012 by default. As I have said before, the current distress within the GOP doesn’t mean that America is shifting to the left.

  3. Being a black southern baptist who now resides in the north, I applaud your forthrigthness. For blacks, the lessons of Jesus were always forefront to us. Growing up in the south I could never understand how people who claimed to follow a religion of love and tolerance could be so hateful and intolerant. I’m reminded of a story told to us: there was this black man who worked for a white man of the same denomination and so he asked his boss about attending his(white guy’s) church seeing as how it was the same. He questioned his boss several times as it would be more convenient to attend the white church. Finally the boss said well maybe you oughta pray on that, so the black man did and never again raised the issue…. A little out done the boss asked why he no longer asked about attending his church. He replied I did like you said and asked God about getting into your church and God replied I’ve been trying to get in there for years myself.

  4. Alan, I understand your point about the legacy of slavery in the deep South being as much the innate conservatism as overt racism. Where I don’t understand your point is when you move up the swath of states from Texas northward to Canada. Kansas conservatism is not a legacy of slavery. Kansas has been conservative more or less forever. Somewhere in Central or East Central Kansas there’s a Beecher Bible and Rifle Church. Abolitionist Preacher Henry Ward Beecher sent settlers to Kansas with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other to hold their own and make sure Kansas was a free state. The Texas Panhandle was settled by immigrants from the old South. But on up the swath of States the Dakotas were settled by land seeking immigrants from the Northern states, many of them German or Scandinavian Lutherans who never set foot in the old South and are not really a part of Evangelicalism in the current sense. Racism overt or otherwise no doubt had its part in McCain’s predominance, but it is an oversimplification to make it the overriding factor. What you do find, when you look at the states and counties individually, is that rural counties are predominately conservative. Even this generality does not hold true on the East Coast. Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire are pretty rural, but Vermont and New Hampshire are solid blue, and there’s only one red county in Maine. Oregon is dependably blue, but in geographical area it is quite red. Nevada is overwhelmingly red in area, with only two blue counties, the populated counties that are home to Reno and Las Vegas. With the exception of rural New England, the rural urban divide reflects the vote more accurately than race, outside the South. IMHO, and you know I’ve never had one. (But then, neither have you!)

  5. Charles:
    I am not saying that voting Republican is a problem in and of itself. The states that swung into the Republican fold in 1968 form a special case. The Solid South rapidly moved from solid Democrat to solid Republican, but the mindset never changed.

    It is true that population density is the best indicator of political persuasion. The voting population of most rural areas tends to be racially monochrome. Education levels are typically lower than in urban and suburban areas. I’m not talking about conservative politics; I’m talking about a civil religion shaped by the institution of slavery, then Jim Crow segregation. This civil religion was largely frozen into place by the Southern strategy.

    There has been a glacial evolution away from the crude racism of the Jim Crow period. This is largely because it is rarely possible to disseminate the older version of the Southern civil religion in a public setting without using coded phrases that tend to dilute the message. The old civil religion is now passed from generation to generation in informal settings: family conversation, coffee shop conversation, etc. In the churches, the older views are reflected more in what is not said from the pulpit and in Sunday school classrooms than by what is said.

    The civil religion that concerns me is most evident in the courtroom. Public attitudes in Jena, Louisiana are markedly different than what you would encounter in small town Nebraska. The southern civil religion has been exported northward and westward because contemporary conservative evangelicalism has a southern flavor. But the anti-democratic, anti-progressive attitudes and the marked racial animus I have experienced in the Deep South is markedly different from anything I encountered in rural Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana or Kansas–even though all these areas tend to vote Republican.

    The Republican Party, after Nixon, conformed its social message to the prejudices of white southern evangelicals. This made it possible for the Republicans to carry the South with only occasional exceptions. Tragically, the very success of the Southern Strategy made it very difficult for southerners to come to terms with the tragic aspects of their cultural heritage.

    My argument (which I admit is still taking shape) is that the desirability of due process in the legal system will not be appreciated in the Deep South until there is a reckoning with history. A civil religion shaped by slavery, Jim Crow segregation and, more recently, by the Southern Strategy must be renounced. Cynical Republican operatives hampered that process by allowing adherents of the old southern civil religion to cling to the past. My hope is that the Republican Party, if only for pragmatic reasons, will reach out to racial minorities in the decades ahead. If this happens, Southerners will find it much easier to sort through their mixed legacy, embracing what is good while rejecting what is evil. I hope that helps.

  6. Thank you very much for such a well written and thoughtful piece dealing with this sensitive, but vitally important subject, both to the church and society at large. That’s it. 😎

  7. Wow, I must be in a different United States from the author.

    I’m from north Idaho, affectionately known by media outlets as the home of the neo-nazis. That reference is to the twelve or so knuckleheads who would march down the main street in town due to “free speech” every so often, with thousands protesting their march. And a lawyer I know is the guy who “bankrupted the Nazi’s” and is a local hero. But I digress.

    I live in a place that votes for GOP on a 63%+ ratio every single time. The people are currently lamenting the end of capitalism, free speech, freedom of religion, and the 2nd amendment. None of this has anything to do with race in this region. Are there a lot of non-whites in this area? No, not a lot, but those who are here are welcomed with open arms and not mistreated.

    Martin Luther King has been abandoned by the left. MLK’s dream was clear – the content of ones character is important. Melatonin is not. To use skin color as a plausible reason for anyone’s actions is to do a disservice to that dream. I simply do not understand it, from a north westerner’s perspective.

    Once I was listening to a southern friend explain the trouble his church was having over interracial marriage. Being who I am from where I am, I was confused. Italians and Irish? Japanese and Native Americans? What? What constitutes “Interracial Marriage”? I had to think about it, but my church friends Lolo and Dina Wong happen to be an interracial couple. Who knew? They were just a regular couple until someone brought up the “difficulty.”

    Can we dream of a day when this discussion is irrelevant?

  8. Russell:
    You are living in a different United States from the author. The kind of radical right extremism you encounter in Idaho is a different kind of animal than you would find in the deep South. That doesn’t mean that folks in Idaho don’t struggle with racism; but you don’t you a tradition of slavery and segregation. Also, the low percentage of African Americans in most parts of your state suggests that the racism you do encounter is more a matter of ideology than race. On the other hand, the national character of talk radio, television and (more recently) the internet has encouraged the exportation of a southern brand of conservative evangelicalism shaped by the factors I mention in my post.

    I’m not sure you mean by using “skin color as a plausible reason for anyone’s actions.” People are people. We don’t behave as we do because certain racial traits are hardwired into our brains. On the other hand, the life experience of African Americans is very different from that of white Americans. An experience gap translates into a perception gap, and we do act on the basis of our perceptions. So, to that extent, racial identity can influence action on both sides of the white/minority divide.

    Does that make sense?

  9. Russell, I lived in Idaho for a 3 1/2 year stretch half of 88 through all of 91, as pastor of a small American Baptist Church in the little town of Arco, about 60 miles W of Idaho Falls and 90 or so NE of Twin Falls. I’m sure that’s a whole different culture from N Idaho, home of the skinheads or knuckleheads you refer to. It sounds like your townspeople do not embrace the neo-Nazis yet are still extremely conservative, as were (are) the folks around Arco. They want their guns, they want to hunt, fish, and be left alone. But they are glad for the employment of Idaho Engineering Labs of the US Dept. of Energy and with the Naval base in the desert to train nuclear sub operators.

    This kind of conservatism, Alan, has little to do with the “legacy of slavery.” The white supremacy “conservatism” of the Neo-Nazis is closely related to David Dukeism and Ku Klux Clanism, which in turn has a strong following in places like Jena.

    Yes, we live in many cultural settings in the US but in one US. Our differences can not be easily explained by one overarching legacy, whether the legacy of slavery or the legacy of Vietnam or the legacy of WWs I and II or the legacy of the Great Depression. All of them figure into it.

    There’s a kind of split personality conservatism which is suspicious of government but is glad to take its goodies and very ready to believe most anything a federal prosecutor or a local DA says.

  10. Alan: What you overlook about southern evangelicals is that although they wear their “religion” on their sleeves, religion was always secondary to the way they lived their daily lives. Having grown up in Texas, and being stationed at a Naval air station y in Meridian, Miss., in the sixties–when the Klan was still killing Blacks and Jews, and bombing Jewish businesses– I have observed southern “rednecks” first hand, and Christianity, as it is written in the New Testament, was only secondary to their overt racism–which they intended to pursue by hook or crook, whether or not it was consistent with the Scriptures. The same people could lynch a Black man during the week, and attend church on the weekend and feel reasonable comfortable about his salvation, because the man he had killed was only a “nigger”–and obviously not one of God’s intended. I use the past tense–because I do think there have been a lot of changes in the attitudes of the current generation of Southern white evangelicals–or for that matter evangelicals everywhere–with the enlightenment of people like Rick Warren, and his interest in the environment, and helping the world’s poor.

    But the heart of the problem with practical application of Christianity to cultural and itnernational issues by Americans is that its essence is a doctrine of “us” vs. “them”–and if one has his ticket to Heaven, then he is automatically better than and/or morally superior to all of the unclean masses–whether they include African-Americans, illegal immigrant, Muslims, gays, or whoever. This, in my opinion, is the main reason that Christianity is dying in North America–although rapidly expanding int he “third world” countries in South America, Africa and Asia–because generally speaking, the populations of N.America and Europe are more eduated, and the more education one has, the more skeptical he becomes about Christianity in application, primarily because its adherents are such hypocrits and war mongers–and I think this is what Rev. Jeremiah Wright was talking about when the said “God damn America”! JCB.

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