A few months ago, Justin Taylor interviewed four evangelical historians about the role of Southern white evangelicals in the American Civil Rights Movement. It is a lengthy and painful read, but it provides a much-needed perspective on white evangelicals’ persistent failure to challenge systemic racism. Here are a few excerpts:
Matt Hall: The unfortunate reality isn’t that evangelical theology in the South was muted when it came to racial justice, it’s that it was actively used to undermine justice and to perpetuate a demonic system. And that’s the cruelest historical irony of it all: those who loved the “old rugged cross” were often also those who torched crosses in protest of desegregation. … Those who denounced the civil rights movement routinely trotted out the allegation that the cause was fundamentally about “mixing the races” and marrying off blacks and whites. For many southern whites, the thought of their white daughter married and sexually united to a black man was unfathomable. A long and horrendous tradition had developed, citing clumsily applied biblical passages that were purported to demonstrate God’s prohibition of such marriages. Evangelicals should have known better and been immune to such poor biblical interpretation. But when opponents of the civil rights movement tried to delegitimize the movement by “warning” of the secret motives of its leaders, far too many evangelicals were susceptible to their tactics. …
Carolyn DuPont: Evangelical theology itself undermined whites’ ability to constructively engage with the demands of black activists. Generally speaking, the most theologically conservative Christians often opposed the movement for black equality most vigorously. Evangelicalism focused overwhelmingly on regenerating the individual and depicted all social problems as merely the sum of individual problems. Thus, they blamed blacks themselves for failing to equal the standards of whites, and could not grasp how segregated and unfair institutions erected insurmountable obstacles to black aspirations. In evangelical thinking, salvation, not social change, offered the answer to black failures and frustrations. However, the salvation of every person in the entire country could not correct the problems of inferior education, limited economic opportunities, discriminatory legal arrangements, and a host of other systems that rendered black Americans second-class citizens. These entrenched and systemic injustices required change in structures, not in individuals.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Read the entire interview about white evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement. What was the most surprising fact that you learned as you read this article? What was the perspective of your parents or grandparents on the American Civil Rights Movement? How does your perspective differ from theirs?
The photograph above is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961. To learn more about this visit and its implications for Southern Seminary, read this article and then listen to the audio recording from his visit.