Is “evangelical” a white word?

Molly Worthen

By Alan Bean

Molly Worthen’s NYT essay on the social cleavage between white and black evangelicals is a statement of the obvious and a work of art.

Worthen teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her writing reflects a deep understanding of evangelicals black and white.

The term “evangelical”, in its common usage, refers exclusively to white folks.  This may be the best explanation for a curious fact: only 35% of Americans in a recent Barna poll correctly identified Barack Obama’s religious faith as Christian.  Ask African-Americans about Obama’s religion and I suspect over 95% would get it right.  So I can’t help but wonder about the results from Caucasian respondents.  My guess is that fewer than 25% of white people know that Obama is a Christian.

If we use political affiliation as a rough proxy for race (which, tragically, it is) the figures are interesting.  52% of Democrats know that Obama is a Christian (African-American respondents likely skewed this figure upward); but only 29% of Independents and 24% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Christian (with 18% believing he is a Muslim).

But the most popular answer to the question about Obama’s religion is “I don’t know”.

Over at Christianity Today, Judd Birdsall and Owen Strachan have been debating the “is Obama an evangelical?” question.  Birdsall asked prominent evangelical pastors who know Obama personally if he is “born again” and everyone answered in the affirmative.  Birdsall notes that Obama claims a distinct conversion experience, believes that faith should be expressed in action, draws inspiration and direction from the Bible and believes in the transforming power of the cross of Christ.  In short, he’s an evangelical.

Owen Strachan isn’t buying it.  Obama doesn’t believe that only Christians will be saved, he doesn’t affirm the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, he has suggested that Jesus had doubts about God’s providence, and he is pro-choice.  Does that sound like an evangelical?

According to Molly Worthen (the UNC history professor), African-Americans might hesitate to call Obama an evangelical because, like many Americans, they associate the word “evangelical” with the Christian Right and Tea Party politics.

The reasons for their alienation, rooted in history, are still with us today. Black Protestants may affirm Christ’s divinity, the Bible’s literal authority, and the other basic doctrines that white conservatives preach. But a statement of creed is not the same thing as lived religion. In many black churches, the crucible of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement has forged these doctrines into a theology quite different from the cocktail of personal moralism, prophecy and Christian libertarianism that has come to preoccupy the Christian right. If conservative evangelicals are serious about making common political cause with black Protestants, they must revise their expectation that a free market and a population that obeys their particular reading of scripture will correct the injustices ingrained in American society. They must rethink their approach to America’s history and its modern-day problems.

And it isn’t just liberal African-American Christians like Jeremiah Wright who see Christianity as a liberating force, conservative black preachers like Tony Evans and Fred Luter (the man recently elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention) share this view. 

Commenting on Worthen’s article, Fred Clark (the Slacktivist) asserts that “evangelical” has become a distinctly white word denoting conservative Christians backing conservative politicians: 

Today, that tribal voting bloc defines an evangelical as a White Protestant who opposes legal abortion and civil rights for LGBT people . . . The whole point of that category nowadays is to exclude people like (Obama).

Southern Baptists certainly qualify as American evangelicals, especially since anyone showing the slightest appreciation for the liberal “social gospel” has been purged from Holy Mother Church.  Electing Fred Luter as president proves that Southern Baptists are tired of being identified with Jim Crow racism.  But the deep emotional and philosophical divide separating black and white Baptists will quickly manifest itself whenever the issues of American history and the role of government enter the conversation.  Here’s Worthen’s take:

Corporate sins — institutionalized racism and economic inequalities enshrined in tax codes, the justice system and the distribution of social services — demand repentance. Federal law and government institutions have perpetuated great wrongs in the past, and some black Christians, like Evans, believe that the church is the best agent of social transformation. But many others will never forget that the civil rights movement owed as much to Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation as it did to grassroots cultural change. This legacy encourages them to see “big government” as a crucial ally in reform, and to question the Christian Right’s vision of Washington as a socialist hydra that strangles freedom. “It’s not enough to talk about what black folks ought to do,” said Cameron Madison Alexander, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta (where former presidential candidate Herman Cain is a member). “We have to also look at what government is not doing to ensure fairness and equal opportunity. God is on the side of the least of these.”

How will Southern Baptist regulars respond to a president who refuses to cozy up to laissez-faire economics or David Barton’s revisionist reading of American history?

We may never find out.  Baptist bureaucrats are skilled at ensuring that certain subjects never come up in polite conversation.  Black Southern Baptists like Fred Luter and Dwight McKissic have no problem with their denomination’s conservative theology, but they celebrate the civil rights revolution and are proud to see an African-American in the White House. 

Worthen concludes her article with a quote from Black scholar C. Eric Lincoln: “black theology is in some sense what is missing from white theology.” 

If the folks at Barna asked American Christians to evaluate Lincoln’s assertion, I suspect less than 25% of white evangelical thumbs would be pointing heaven-ward.