Pharaoh sociology: white evangelicals and the plague of social justice

This is the fifth in a series of columns dedicated to American White Evangelicals (AWE for short).  Since most of what I have written has been decidedly negative, you might think I have it in for white evangelicals.  But this project is driven by perplexity.  American white evangelicals have gone off the rails in spectacular fashion.  There are plenty of blessed exceptions, to be sure; but a solid majority of AWE folk are getting almost everything wrong.  And in the most egregious, almost self-satirical fashion. 

I’m wondering why. 

AWE nation is under siege.  In their view, an unrelenting series of plagues has descended upon them.  We have already considered the election of Barack Obama, the gay rights revolution, 9-11 and the inconvenient truth of climate change.  Now we turn to the really big threat: the social justice movement.  In particular, the suggestion that the past sins of white America shape present reality.

A few months ago, I observed that a man with a Bible in one hand and a whip in the other will use the Bible to justify the whip.  It’s hard to embrace the liberation theology of Moses, I observed, when you think like Pharaoh.

And the AWE nation does think like Pharaoh.  In the fifth chapter of Exodus, shortly before Yahweh unleashes a brutal series of plagues, Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh.  Their proposal is modest.  Their God, Yahweh, has revealed himself and called the Hebrew people to journey three days into the wilderness for a tete-a-tete. 

Pharaoh is incensed.  If his slaves were hard at work, he tells Moses and Aaron, they wouldn’t have dreamed up such a crackpot scheme. 

So, Pharaoh increases the daily allotment of bricks, stipulating that, going forward, the Israelites will have to find their own straw.  The problem, from Pharaoh’s perspective, is that his slaves aren’t working hard because they’re lazy.

Bricks without straw

Which brings to mind a survey question used to detect high levels of racial resentment: “socioeconomic disparities between blacks and whites exist because blacks are just not trying hard enough.” It’s Pharaoh sociology pure and simple.

According to a 2018 PRRI survey, almost three-quarters of Republicans (72%) embrace the “blacks are just not trying hard enough” explanation.  AWE sentiment normally tracks closely with Republican opinion, but, on this issue, there is a significant gap between the two.  “Only” 53% of white evangelicals—along with 52% of white Catholics and 51% of white mainline Protestants—buy into Pharaoh sociology. 

This evangelical-Republican opinion gap is partially explained by the fact that 19% of evangelicals didn’t vote for Donald Trump.  If we limited our focus to the 81% who did, the gap narrows considerably.

The Pharaoh sociology question ferrets out racial resentment because it is so extreme.  How could anyone possibly believe that centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement and economic discrimination have had no impact on the Black community?  You can be sunk pretty deep in white resentment without checking that box.  A grudging realization that the past impacts the present doesn’t win you any medals.  Still, the data suggests that AWE nation is split on the subject of race. There are those who are beginning to get it, and those who have, like Pharaoh of old, hardened their hearts to the obvious.

Peter Wehner’s article in the Atlantic, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart”, circles around this internal conflict.  Not only do white evangelicals disagree about race and racism, their internal squabbles are largely defined by this disagreement.

The vast majority of American White evangelicals are embarrassed by the nation’s racial history.  Few would defend the slave trade or argue for a return to the good old days of Jim Crow.  Yet, a plethora of Red-state laws designed to minimize the participation of people of color in the electoral process exposes an embarrassing—and frightening—degree of racial amnesia.

If you interviewed the Republican legislators pushing this legislative revolution, few would admit to racist motivation.  Furthermore, they would be perfectly sincere. 

The real difference comes when AWE nation is confronted with the death of George Floyd, the tidal wave of mass Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed in its wake, or when Dylann Roof gunned down nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church.  A certain percentage of white evangelicals concludes that something must be done.  A much larger percentage retreats inside the turtle shell of Pharaoh sociology.

Even the people caught in the clutches of Pharaoh sociology don’t like being called “racist”.  And a tiny, radically unrepresentative, slice of the Black opinion has risen to their defense.  People like Voddie Baucham, the Black Southern Baptist Calvinist, whose book Faultlines is an extended rant agaisnt the social justice movement.  Or Candace Owens, a critic of conservative politics who hated Donald Trump before emerging as a pro-Trump Republican.  And then there’s Alveda King, the niece of the civil rights icon, who consorts with pro-Trump evangelicals like Franklin Graham.

Conservative Black evangelicals provide cover for Pharaoh sociology.  How can we be racist, men like Franklin Graham and John MacArthur ask?  Our Black friends agree with us!

The smoke and mirrors aren’t working.  White evangelicalism has ripped at the seams, and a profound disagreement about racial justice is driving the disintegration.  A solid majority of white evangelicals embrace Pharaoh sociology; and a significant minority is done with it. 

Which is why so many Black pastors are leaving the very white Southern Baptist Convention.  They always knew the Convention harbored racists; they just didn’t realize how many.

John Perkins, the evangelical veteran of the civil rights movement, has abandoned his racial reconciliation project.  You can’t talk seriously about race, he insists, without addressing the particulars of American history.  “Evangelicals sold out” to Trump, Perkins said. “That created a split in the church.”  Perkins has decided to focus on the 19% of white evangelicals who get it, or at least want to.

Contra the critique of Pharaoh sociologists, there is no theological basis for the rift within white evangelicalism.  Believing in biblical inerrancy, or that the world was created in 4004 BC, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, literally raised from the dead and poised to return on literal clouds of glory doesn’t automatically make Pharaoh sociology attractive.  The old cliché, that you can use the Bible to prove anything, is maddeningly true.

Pharaoh sociology was bankrupt and immoral in the time of Moses, and nothing has changed in the interim.  White evangelicals in full recoil from the plague of social justice have tipped their hand.  By staking out such an extreme position, they have opened the eyes of the 19% and further tarnished the evangelical brand.  In the eyes of secular America, evangelicalism is a racist joke. 

How will the 19% of white evangelicals who refuse to bend the knee to Pharaoh respond to the challenge?  Some, I suspect, are hoping the storm blows over.  It won’t.  Others—especially at the younger end of the evangelical spectrum— have abandoned the evangelical fold altogether.  Leaders like Russell Moore and Beth Moore (no relation), have been forced out of the white evangelical mainstream to build bricks without straw.  A small cadre of social justice evangelicals has always eked out a meager existence within the white evangelical fold, but that dance is done.  What comes next?  I have no idea, but I’m dying to find out.