We evangelical Christians maintain an unspoken belief that we’re “the good guys” and we’ve always been “the good guys.” When it comes to the sin of racism, we point to Quaker abolitionists and quote MLK Jr. as proof that Christians always supported truth and justice.
We’re reassured. If Christians were on the right side in the past, surely believers are on the right side today! We pray and follow the Bible, and God gives us moral clarity. We just need to listen to God’s voice like Christians in the past…right?
The “Good Guys?”
Unfortunately, history shows that Christians can sin with the best (or rather, the worst). Even a superficial study of slavery shows that only some Christians stood up to the evil of their time. The horrible truth is that slavery and Jim Crow couldn’t have persisted without the acceptance and support of evangelical Christians.
George Whitefield was one of the most influential preachers of the “Great Awakening.” He led thousands of Americans to seek a personal relationship with Jesus.
At the same time, Whitefield owned slaves, justified slavery with Scripture and became active in pro-slavery politics. Slave plantations funded his dearest missions, including an orphanage for white children. In other words, he condoned ripping apart Black families if it meant more funds to take care of white children. He did this in God’s name, with praise and thanksgiving.
This was common. Jonathon Edwards was one of America’s most celebrated theologians, and he owned slaves, too.
Some Christians in the 1700’s disliked slavery, but agreed to support it if slave-owners let them preach the Gospel to slaves. They certainly made a deal with the devil–and carefully emphasized that both physical chains and spiritual freedom were God’s will.
Late to Repentance, Afraid to Offend
In 1793, the Baptist General Committee of Virginia officially voted that slavery was a government matter and inappropriate to debate in church. Slavery was too divisive. Churches across the North and South followed suit and settled into silence. Some white evangelical preachers condemned slavery, but not enough.
Dwight L. Moody and Charles Finney were abolitionists, but they reluctantly enabled segregation after the Civil War for fear of offending white southerners. White supremacists now had an easy defense: “Segregation isn’t evil, not if the famous abolitionist preacher Dwight L. Moody does it!” Moody repented and grieved for his mistake before he died, but the damage was done.
Charles Finney said that his focus was winning souls for heaven, and he wouldn’t let himself be distracted by a “hobby” like the abolition cause.
Evangelicals rarely led during the 1960’s civil rights movement. We supported redlining in the North and Jim Crow in the South. Some committed hate crimes in Jesus’ name. Some preached that segregation follows God’s “natural laws.” Pastors fretted that civil rights activists were Marxists, or argued that integration violated our rights.
Most simply remained passive. I love Billy Graham–but he was careful not to alienate white southerners by speaking too forcefully against segregation. Towards the end of his life, he confessed, repented, and asked for forgiveness from John M. Perkins and other Christian civil rights leaders. His passivity in the face of racial injustice was one of his greatest regrets.
History Repeating Itself
I’m not holding American Christians responsible for the sins of our ancestors. I’m saying that it’s foolish to think our past doesn’t affect us, and prideful to think that we no longer have anything to learn from our predecessors’ mistakes.
Evangelical culture and priorities are influenced by our leaders, past and present. When we don’t examine our history, we aren’t forced to confront similarities between evangelicals in the 1960’s and evangelicals today. Or similarities between evangelicals in the 1860’s and today.
Our excuses for not getting involved in racial justice haven’t changed in 400 years. Christians who refused to resist slavery used the same phrases Christians use today to explain why we mustn’t involve ourselves with racial justice work. The similarities are chilling:
- We must prioritize the salvation of souls, and racial justice efforts would interfere with that. (This is a false choice!)
- We shouldn’t talk about racism—too divisive. Focus on stuff we agree on.
- We can’t “get political.”
- Troublemakers/Marxists invent or exaggerate the problem to take away our rights.
- We can’t align ourselves with heretics or violent savages/thugs.
- We aren’t doing anything wrong.
Fear of Striking a Match
We aren’t the light of the world. We’re too afraid to strike a match.
Influential Christian pastors in Minneapolis prayed for justice and healing after George Floyd’s death–but didn’t join protests to insist that such a death never happens again. They didn’t use their platforms to keep demonstrations peaceful. With the world watching, they missed their chance to speak up and lead our nation to repentance.
We claim that racism is bad and offer prayers for our nation’s unity and healing. Yet when it comes to taking action on one of the most pressing issues of our time, we’re not the light of the world. We’re too afraid to strike a match
In the present moment of reckoning, the evangelical church is mostly silent. At best we choose passivity, as we have for hundreds of years. Even grimmer, white Christians are more likely to have racist attitudes and beliefs than white people who aren’t religious.
No one stirred up “good trouble” like Jesus. We evangelical Christians need to follow Jesus and start making “good trouble” in our own churches.
Friends, it’s time to use every ounce of our influence to push our beloved churches to repentance.
Perfect love casts out fear. Pray that God fills your heart with so much love for our Black brothers and sisters that you’re no longer afraid of offending! We need to be heard, like the persistent widow with the corrupt judge. Keep talking about racism even when your friends roll their eyes. Push for Bible studies on racial reconciliation even when no one seems interested. The evangelical church has an opportunity. If we don’t act now, we will miss it–again.
“Miles to Go Before We Sleep: American Evangelicals and Racial and Ethnic Sin” by Douglas A. Sweeney