Black evangelicals and racial justice

UnChristian, a book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of The Barna Group, emerged in the midst of the most recent election cycle.  Kannaman and Lyons are a couple of twenty-or-thirty-something nerds who have crunched the numbers and concluded that Christians have a serious image problem.  (In the picture above, Lyons is seated on the left; Kinnaman on the right.)

But who are these Christians?  If you read carefully you will discover that the authors are really talking about Christian evangelicals.  Although the authors suggest that only 9% of the American electorate fits a strict definition of “evangelical” (in their view you have to believe in an error-free Bible and a personal Satan to qualify), the 38% of the electorate described as “non-evangelical born-again Christians” might also make the cut.  The general tenor of the book suggest that “other self-identified Christians” (29% of voters) are guilty of false advertising; they aren’t real Christians. 

unChristian is a book written for and about evangelicals.

But is it about all evangelicals?  In a  chapter titled “Too Political”, we learn that “Christians” are commonly viewed as pro life and anti-gay.  So maybe this is a good working definition of “evangelical”: folks who oppose abortion and the gay rights movement.

Few students of American religion would be comfortable with such a definition, but it comports well with popular perception.  The term “evangelical” is commonly used to describe religious people who vote Republican, and there is little in unChristian that challenges this perception.

This suggests strongly that Kinnaman and Lyons (perhaps unwittingly) are only talking to and about white evangelicals.

Most African Americans are evangelical Christians (even in the very strict sense cited above).  The passage of Proposition 8 in California indicates that most of the black Americans who voted for Barack Obama are uncomfortable with gay marriage.  Most black Christians also have big problems with abortion.  Moreover, black Christians tend to be religiously conservative–if you like King James english drop by the nearest black church and chances are you will get an ear full of it.

Black Christians are overwhelmingly evangelical and they rarely vote for republicans.  You would be hard pressed to find a black evangelical who favored John McCain over Barack Obama.  Such people likely exist, surely, but they are lying low at the moment.

Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith addressed the striking perceptual gap between black and white evangelicals in their groundbreaking study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in AmericaWhile in solid agreement on many issues, white and black evangelicals part company on the subject of race. 

To most white evangelicals, racism is a form of personal sin that must be identified, confessed and repented.  Gradually, as more and more people abandon racist views, the nation will move toward colorblindness, that blessed state in which nobody thinks or talks about race because it is no longer an issue.

Black evangelicals, Emerson and Smith discovered, were far more likely to take a more structuralist or systemic view.  Racism, to most black evangelicals, is a virus permeating the whole of American society.  This means that, even when overtly racist sentiments are abandoned, the consequences of racism remain imbedded in the primary institutions of the nation.  Inherited poverty, inadequate schools, physical distance from good-paying jobs, negative stereotypes and the common assumption that white is the color of normal, all these things make it harder for people of color to advance and prosper. 

And this would be true even if every white American repented their low-down racist ways.

George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas, has worked with Smith and Emerson and frequently cites their work.  In his, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, Yancey spells out the implications of this perception gap.  “White evangelicals are even more individualistic than other whites,” Yancey says, “and black evangelicals are even more structuralist than other blacks.  In other words, in their ideas about how to solve racial problems, white and black evangelicals are even farther apart than whites and blacks in general.”

White evangelicals often suggest that if black Americans would just get over their obsession with racism the problem would quickly fade.  When black opinion leaders suggest that America remains a racist nation, white folks roll their eyes and sigh deeply, especially when reference is made to the disproportionate number of black males who have lost their liberty to the war on drugs. 

“If you want to stay in the free world,” white evangelicals say, “stop dealing drugs.  How hard is that?”

“Rightly or wrongly,” Barack Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites, those who genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimizations–or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country.” 

(A black preacher recently told me that Obama’s “race speech” in Philadelphia is best understood as a synopsis of his chapter on race in The Audacity of Hope.  Read both documents back-to-back and you will see his point.)

White evangelicals wish their black counterparts would stop making excuses for criminals.  In reality, while black leaders sometimes play the race card by suggesting that white racists use the criminal justice system to get black males off the streets, nobody is harder on thuggish behavior than black preachers.  In general, black evangelicals are just as tough-on-crime as white evangelicals. 

White Americans, even some evangelicals, are heartened by Barack Obama’s take on the race question.  They sense that he is telling it straight.  “What’s remarkable,” Obama says in The Audacity of Hope, “is not the number of minorities who have failed to climb into the middle class but the number who succeeded against the odds; not the anger and bitterness that parents of color have transmitted to their children but the degree to which such emotions have ebbed.  That knowledge gives us something to build on.  It tells us that more progress can be made.”

But Obama doesn’t shy away from the fact that many African Americans are light years removed from Middle Class security.  He uses Mac Alexander, a black entrepreneur in a poor Chicago neighborhood, to spin the depressing scenario you might encounter on the poor side of any American community–even in little towns like Tulia, Texas and Jena, Lousiana.  “That’s the thing that’s changed,” Mac told Obama, “the attitude of these kids.  You can’t blame them, really, because most of them have nothing at home.  Their mothers can’t tell them nothing–a lot of these women are still children themselves.  Father’s in jail.  Nobody around to guide the kids, keep them in school, teach them respect.  So these boys just raise themselves, basically, on the streets.  They don’t see any jobs out here except the drug trade.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve still got a lot of good families around here . . . not a lot of money necessarily, but doing their best to keep their kids out of trouble.  But they’re just too outnumbered.  The longer they stay, the more they feel their kids are at risk.  So the minute they get a chance, they move out.  And that just leaves things worse.”

The black middle class is anguished by these realities.  “In most black neighborhoods,” Obama acknowledges, “law-abiding, hardworking residents have been demanding more aggressive police protection for years, since they are far more likely to be victims of crime.  In private–around kitchen tables, in barbershops, and after church–black folks can often be heard bemoaning the eroding work ethic, inadequate parenting, and declining sexual mores with a fervor that would make the Heritage Foundation proud.”

Black and white evangelicals don’t just agree on gays and abortion; they share a common frustration with the erosion of values and the loss of respect that has become such an ugly feature of American life.  Again, if you want to hear a pitiless critique of dysfunctional black folks drop by your local black church.

The perception gap between white and black evangelicals is most apparent in what isn’t said.

“What you won’t hear” around the black dinner table, Obama writes, “are blacks using such terms as ‘predator’ in describing a young gang member, or ‘underclass’ in describing mothers on welfare–language that divides the world between those who are worthy of our concern and those who are not.  For black Americans, such separation from the poor is never an option, and not just because the color of our skin–and the conclusions the larger society draws from our color–makes all of us only as free, only as respected, as the least of us.

“It’s also because blacks know the back story to the inner city’s dysfunction . . . They remember how the plum patronage jobs were reserved for other immigrant groups and the blue-collar jobs that black folks relied on evaporated, so that families that had been intact began to crack under the pressure and ordinary children slipped through those cracks, until a tipping point was reached and what had once been the sad exception somehow became the rule.  They know what drove that homeless man to drink because he is their uncle.  That hardened criminal–they remember when he was a little boy, so full of life and capable of love, for he is their cousin.”

Last September, over 20,000 people streamed to Jena, Louisiana to support the Jena 6.  Most of the people I talked to had a pretty sketchy understanding of the basic facts in Jena, but they came anyway.  In their eyes, the Jena 6 were family.  Everybody had a story to tell me about a young son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, a boyfriend who succumbed to the streets, got into a fight or was convicted of a petty drug-related crime, and ended up lost to the system. 

Obama sums things up succinctly:  “African Americans understand that culture matters but that culture is shaped by circumstances.”

How much of this is grasped by the authors of unChristian?  Not much, I’m afraid.  It’s not that they would disagree with such sentiments, you just get the impression that while Kinniman and Lyons were writing black evangelicals never crossed their minds.   Listening to white folks talk about “evangelicals” is a lot like reading a book written before the advent of inclusive language.  When the author speaks of “man” you automatically think of a male.  When most commentatorsw speak of evangelicals we automatically think of white people–and that is considered okay.

White progressives grudgingly acknowledge the role of religion in African American life, but they have trouble taking it seriously.  It’s almost as if black religion is just a poetic way of speaking about politics.  It isn’t.  Black Christians have a fire in the bones rooted in generations of longing.  White evangelicals want things to stay the same and are suspicious of change; black evangelicals long for a better day.

A long list of high-profile evangelicals share their thoughts throughout unChristian and some (Brian McClaren and Jim Wallis come to mind) are quite capable of tackling the issue if asked.  (Some contributors might even be black for all I know.)  Unfortunately, because the white evangelical alliance is fragile and prone to internal strife, upbeat, forward looking books like unChristian generally avoid intractable topics like race.

Although egghead evangelicals are generally found in the Midwest, the true heart of American evangelicalism beats in the South.  Red politics might be in retreat in America, but not in the most evangelical sections of the South.  The most evangelical (and least Roman Catholic) southern States showed increased support for conservative politics this time around.   

White evangelical resentment has driven the American political game since the Nixon years.  If you couldn’t win in the South, you couldn’t win. Jimmy Carter won the White House because the nation was temporarily disgusted with Nixonian overreach and the Georgia governor campaigned as an evangelical Christian.  Bill Clinton sold himself as a good-‘ol-boy from Hope, Arkansas. 

We are witnessing the passing of that era.  White southern evangelicals are no longer writing the American political novel.  We will be seeing a lot more soul-searching tomes like UnChristian in the near future. 

As evangelicals search their souls let’s remember that a big slice of American evangelical life isn’t white.  The political views of all evangelicals, white and black, are shaped by religion. 

Friends of Justice grew out of a passion for racial justice.  I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that the criminal justice system is driven by a species of white evangelicalism shaped and nurtured by slavery, Jim Crow segregation and Nixon’s “southern strategy”.  This doesn’t mean that all southerners are racists–certainly not, at least in the overt, Mississippi burning sense.  But few whites understand (to borrow president Obama’s phrase) that “culture is shaped by circumstance” and that “if America finds its will to do so, then circumstances for those trapped in the inner city can be changed, individual attitudes among the poor will change in kind, and the damage can gradually be undone . . .” (Audacity, p. 255)

We can’t have racial justice in America without racial reconciliation.  This means face-to-face encounter between black and white Americans carefully directed by men and women, black and white, who approach the painful issues with balance, compassion and sensitivity.  This conversation, long deferred, should begin in the evangelical community.  Black and white evangelicals are deeply divided in perspective, but they read the same Bible and they draw from the same spiritual well. 

We can’t have racial justice in America without racial reconciliation; but if we keep deferring the racial justice conversation we aren’t really serious about racial reconciliation.

A few halting steps in the right direction have been taken, but the road before us remains daunting.  Friends of Justice is currently looking for people of faith, white and black, who are willing to share this journey of discovery with us.

7 thoughts on “Black evangelicals and racial justice

  1. Bean – well thought out. We are beginning to see the policies that black and white evangelicals can agree against.

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  2. OBAMA DECEPTION<< Please view the Video on my website…
    Spiritual Warfare is not a battle over COLOR….It is merely the battle for who will control your mental reality! Heaven or Hell!Neither God nor Satan see a color…They see Precious SOULS!! Time is at hand folks, wake up!

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