Sunday, December 23, 2018

Calling the Bluff of Those Who Maintain That Roots of Southern White Evangelicals Don't Run Back to Defense of Slavery

I'm not a white evangelical now, but I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, with two Baptist grandmothers (one Southern and one Missionary) — so I know more than a little about white evangelical culture in the American South. My father's brother and his wife spent their academic careers teaching and (in my uncle's case) doing administrative work in Southern Baptist colleges. Their two sons are Southern Baptist ministers, as was their maternal grandfather.

I know white evangelical culture in the South, and live in a state dominated by that culture. For this reason, I keep my hand in discussions of white evangelicalism and what it is doing politically and religiously in the U.S. today, and I reserve the right to speak about these issues, drawing on my own lived experience of this culture. Though entering online discussions about Southern white evangelical culture can be like stepping into a minefield, due to the hot and heavy support for Donald Trump among Southern white evangelicals and the determination of his supporters to defend white evangelicals in public discussions….

Recently, when Religion News Service published an article by Jemar Tisby in which he argues that the admission of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that its institutional history is bound up with slavery is only a first step in coming to terms with the Southern Baptist legacy of racism, I stepped into the fray and left a comment or two. As I did so, I knew, of course, that the discussion threads of religious news sites can be one of the least safe places possible online for openly gay people.

RNS is one of the few online places I ever visit now in which people contributing to discussions are free to throw around anti-gay slurs and to mount vicious open attacks — with impunity — against openly gay contributors to discussion threads. Even when one is not commenting there about a gay issue, as I was not when I commented on Jemar Tisby's article, there are still folks who do everything in their power to slur and attack any openly gay contributor who dares to enter RNS discussions. Some of these folks are stalkers. One of them stalks me online and has long done so, from the now closed National Catholic Reporter threads to RNS. He's allowed to get away with this personal stalking and with mounting ugly personal attacks — allowed to do so by RNS moderators.

All this is prelude to my telling you that my comments were not well-received in this RNS discussion thread. They were attacked, in particular, by several people who want to deny that there's any clear genetic link between evangelicals of the pre-20th century and evangelicals today. These folks love to make niggling pedantic distinctions implying that there simply were not evangelicals prior to the 20th century and that it's illegitimate to speak of 19th-century slave-supporting white U.S. Christians as evangelicals. It's anachronistic, they want to say, to use the term "evangelical" to refer to white Christians in the U.S. prior to the 20th century, when the term was, they maintain, coined.

Their game, of course, is to shield contemporary white evangelicals from the charge that their theological and ecclesial roots run back to the period in which they defended slavery. This game seems rather silly when the religious community under discussion is the Southern Baptist community, where 1) the historical record is very clear, showing that this community's origins lie in the choice of Baptists in the South to separate from Baptists of the North in order to defend slavery, and 2) there is clear, undeniable (see: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) historical continuity between those slavery-defending Southern Baptists of the 19th century and Southern Baptists today, who practically own the white evangelical brand.

It's rather silly to try to maintain, given the historical record of the Southern Baptist community, that there was no such thing as evangelicalism in the 19th century. Southern Baptists, who more or less own the white evangelical brand today, split their church over the issue of slavery, for God's sake!

I became more aware than ever in this recent RNS discussion that there's a strong contingent of folks at work in the historical and religious field today trying to prettify the image of present-day evangelicals by attempting to deny that contemporary evangelicals have any tie to religious groups of the past who defended slavery, and then Jim Crow and segregation.* Using the specious argument that evangelicals did not exist until the 20th century…. (Though in her highly regarded The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America [NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017], Frances Fitzgerald speaks quite plainly [pp. 52-4] of white evangelicals in the American South in the 19th century who are precursors of contemporary white evangeicals….)

I should add that these historical game-players who want to give cover to contemporary evangelicals by denying that they have anything to do with the 19th-century white Christian defense of slavery are very strongly supported in discussions at places like RNS by right-wing folks from other religious traditions who are determined to build walls against any possible criticism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

Here's valuable recent testimony from another former white Southern evangelical, Neil Carter, writing at his Godless in Dixie blog about the patent genetic link between contemporary white evangelicals-cum-Trump supporters and the defense of slavery in the 19th century: having noted that he recently attended services at a large Baptist church near him and heard sermons about how white evangelicals are ready to burn it all down if they can't gain theocratic dominion over the whole nation, he observes,

So after a lifetime of trying to "take back America for God," all these people seem to have learned is that you shouldn't waste your time trying to fix the world's problems because they won't get any better until Jesus comes back. 
In short, they have internalized a theology that absolves them of all social responsibility. 

A quick glance through history reveals how they came to inherit a theology that excludes any practical engagement with the plight of those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. In case you didn't know, the theological frameworks of today’s white evangelical churches were forged in the fires of a civil war fought over the abolition of slavery. And no, the theological forbears for Southern Baptists were not the ones trying to end the immoral institution. They were the ones trying to preserve it. 
During and after the war, pastors of white churches in the Southeastern United States learned to conveniently overlook those places where the Bible enjoins God’s people to take care of those less fortunate, and in time they came to embrace a handful of apocalyptic expectations that only looked for the world to be incinerated as completely as their own hometowns had been decimated during Sherman's infamous "march to the sea."

And he adds:

Their theology was built around the needs of wealthy white landowners. In the place where concern for the poor should dominate their pastoral themes, there's just a gaping hole—a silence that screams volumes about the values of the people who fashioned the way evangelicals think today. 
This is what I call apophatic racism—discrimination through simply circumnavigating the entire subject for so long that your theology has nothing at all to say on the matter, which means such matters can never really become important to you. There's no place to fit a social conscience into the mind of a white evangelical who is only waiting around for Jesus to come back. 

These historical and theological discussions should have more than pedantic significance for us today. They should be of intent concern for us because 1) these folks have the upper hand in the U.S. political sphere now, and they intend to use that hand as a whip hand, and 2) any time a religious group with an apocalyptic burn-it-all-down mentality (burn it down if we can't gain theocratic dominion over it all) gains the upper hand, the whole world should be nervous. Especially given whose little fingers this religious group have empowered to push the nuclear buttons.

These historical-theological discussions should concern us when 8 in 10 white evangelicals and 6 in 10 white Catholics and Mormons — and more than half of white Christians across the board — voted for Donald Trump in 2016, claiming "pro-life" intent, and when white evangelicals, in particular, remain his most solid and fervent base. They should concern us when, as Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, tells us, two men, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, have the power to end the world. We should be intently concerned when one of them appears increasingly unhinged as this year ends.

When the stakes are so high, I don't intend to stop talking, thank you very much — harrassers and stalkers at religious discussion sites nothwithstanding.

(For a good recent statement about how fraught with difficulty discussions of American evangelicalism can be — including within evangelical circles — see this Slacktivist posting of Fred Clark, who himself comes out of Baptist roots, albeit not Southern Baptist ones.)

* On this unsavory enterprise, see Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (NY: Random House, 2018):

In fascist politics, myths of a patriarchal past, threatened by encroaching liberal ideals and all that they entail, function to create a sense of panic at the loss of hierarchal status, both for men and for the dominant group’s ability to protect its purity and status from foreign encroachment (p. 12). 
The strategic aim of these hierarchal constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities. While fascist politics fetishizes the past, it is never the actual past that is fetishized. These invented histories also diminish or entirely extinguish the nation’s past sins. It is typical for fascist politicians to represent a country’s actual history in conspiratorial terms, as a narrative concocted by liberal elites and cosmopolitans to victimize the people of the true "nation" (pp. 15). 
Fascist politics repudiates any dark moments of a nation's past (p. 16).

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