Saturday, May 20, 2017

White Churches and American Racism: Three Recent Statements — "Among Evangelicals, Race Matters, and Race Doesn't Matter"*

Three statements that I've read in the past day or so, noting the extent to which white evangelicals (I'd add white Catholics) are a serious part of the problem, when it comes to addressing matters of racial injustice in the U.S. — and not a part of the solution:

Joshua L. Lazard reports on Glenn Bracey and Wendy Leo Moore's "'Race Tests': Racial Boundary Maintenance in White Evangelical Churches," published in Sociological Inquiry:

The researchers introduce the notion that these white evangelical churches have created what they call "white institutional space."
Simply put, white institutional space is created through a process that begins with whites excluding people of color, either completely or from institutional positions of power, during a formative period in the history of an organization. During this period, whites populate all influential posts within the institution and create institutional logics—norms of operation, organizational structures, curricula, criteria for membership and leadership—which imbed white norms into the fabric of the institution’s structure and culture. Although the norms are white, they are rarely marked as such. Consequently, racially biased institutional norms are wrongly defined as race-neutral, and thus merely characteristic of the institution itself (e.g., "the appropriate way to act in church"), masking inherent institutional racism.

Carl W. Kenney addresses the controversy at Duke Divinity School, where Paul Griffiths (a conservative Catholic professor) refused to attend a diversity workshop and then resigned when Elaine Heath, the school's dean, pressed him to do so:

If theological education seeks to serve the purpose of white evangelical religion, a point that deserves more intense reflection, then the future of black liberation theology is in danger. 
That's why black students demand to be taught their own story from professors who understand the life and witness of the black church.

In an essay entitled, "The Rise of the Diversity Expert: How American Evangelicals Simultaneously Accentuate and Ignore Race," in Brian Steensland and Philip K. Goff, eds., The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), (pp.179-199), Gerardo Marti and Michael O. Emerson write, 

Imagine the difference if evangelical church leaders were, in addition to the strong training in reaching all people and drawing them together, also trained in the thinking encapsulated by this statement of Martin Luther King Jr.: "We will be greatly misled if we feel that the [race] problem will work itself out. Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting.... Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice." Such a perspective is currently foreign in most evangelical seminaries, conferences, and workshops and certainly not required learning. But that can and must change if evangelicals are to be true change agents for racial justice.

Marti and Emerson's study of how white evangelical churches handle the problem of racial diversity and racial injustice in the U.S. is illuminating and (perhaps unintentionally) scathing. As it notes, white evangelicals simultaneously accentuate and ignore the matter of race. They accentuate it by granting that white evangelical churches have been a serious obstacle to racial reconciliation and need to repent and embrace diversity.

But at the same time, they ignore race altogether. As Marti and Emerson note, part of the problem is the individualstic, me-and-Jesus theology that dominates the evangelical mind. Challenging racial injustice is viewed, from this theological vantage point, as a matter of changing the heart — of conversion — and not as a matter of changing unjust laws and socioeconomic structures that breed racism.

There's also the tactic, Marti and Emerson point out, by which white evangelical churches simply politely refuse to talk about race: "Too divisive. The church should bring people together. Don't bring your politcs inside the church."

The end result of this process of pretending that race matters while refusing to face racial injustice honestly and with open discussion? White evangelicals profess not to have a racist bone in their bodies and at the very same time, they vote repeatedly for political leaders who appeal to racial prejudice in order to win votes. In this way, the white evangelical church (and I'd add white Catholics and Mormons, who were also strong supporters of Trump in the last election) become a serious part of the problem of racism in American society.

Note the recurring theme here: white evangelical churches pretend to address racism. But they do not address it in any effective way — and surely the vote of 81% of white evangelicals for Donald Trump should alert us to the fatuity of the claim of white evangelicals to have repented of the white churches' historic sin of racism. (Several years ago, when Southern Baptist minister-governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee stood on the steps of our state capitol building and issued a public statement about how white Christians had repented of the sin of racism, a friend of mine hearing this report looked at me and said, "I hope his tongue breaks out in blisters from that lie.")

At the same time that many white Christians claim to be concerned about racism, they behave in ways diametrically opposed to racial reconciliation and racial justice. And so the white churches' duplicity and self-congratulation regarding the issue of race deeply imbricate and complicate the problem of race in American society, by offering a religious mask to an unresolved problem that grows only more complex due to its masking. 

These articles do not discuss the role that white Catholics and the U.S. Catholic bishops have played for some years now in deepening this unresolved problem. When the bishops made a fateful political alliance with white evangelicals, they knew full well where the white evangelical churches stood on the issue of race. They were willing to make this alliance despite the opposition of white evangelicals to desegregation and the Civil Rights bill of 1964. I'd argue that, in fact, they made this alliance due to the resistance of white evangelical churches to the Civil Rights movement. The bishops have been, for years now, driven by a determination to resist what they see as government interference with the "right" of religious communities to refuse to adhere to civil rights laws, which represent the threat of  of loss of money to the bishops in the form of lawsuits challenging discrimination in church-run institutions.

As they made their alliance with white evangelicals, they also knew that very many white Catholics in the North were moving in a socially and politically conservative direction due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The bishops capitalized on the racism of many white Catholics in the North as they cemented their alliance with white evangelicals; they built this racism into the religious right movement as a complement to the racism driving Southern white evangelicals into the Republican fold.

The refusal of many Americans — including, notably, white Catholics outside the South — to admit these historic factors and talk about them, has brought us the presidency of Donald Trump. With a solid majority of white Catholics — the figure has been placed at anywhere from 57-60% — voting for Donald Trump. . . 

*The quotation is from Marti and Emerson, p. 194.

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