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.