Nothing within white evangelical Christian theology explicitly says that people with brown skin are bad, and yet somehow racism has driven that subculture for more than a century without them ever seeing it.
In 2016 white evangelicals turned out in record numbers to vote for a blatantly dishonest, foul-mouthed casino magnate and reality TV star with exactly zero experience in government or public service of any kind, and they continue to be his most stable support group even to this day. You would think his wanton reputation and his vulgar mannerisms would scare them away, but you’d be wrong.
And were you to read up on Jesus’s conviction that his followers should be generous in giving to the poor and the needy, or read the Bible’s overall commitment to welcoming the foreigner and caring for the widow and the orphan, you would assume those who fly the Christian flag in America would recoil at the Birther-in-Chief’s overt nativism and his consistent disdain for brown people the world over. Again, you’d be wrong.
But why? Why doesn’t his obvious disdain for black and brown people bother them? In fact, why isn’t it as obvious to them as it is to the rest of us who didn’t vote for him?
When Negative Space Makes a Shape
The answer is that disregard for blacks, for immigrants, for women, and for the poor is woven into the fabric of white evangelicalism in ways they cannot see because it’s all about what their theology doesn’t say rather than what it does. It’s about what their theological tradition has eliminated from consideration over the course of their long and discordant history rather than what it actually speaks about explicitly.
Call it apophatic racism, if you will. Its shape doesn’t come from what is said, but from what is left unsaid.
Evangelicals often talk about sins of omission rather than commission, but their faith has become so individualized that they never think about what it means for an entire institution (e.g. the church, or a country claiming to be Christian) to be guilty of sins of omission. They only think about sin on an individual level, which leaves a giant void at the center of their political views.
Not too long ago I came across an image that really caught my attention. I used it for a thumbnail image in a previous post but there’s something else about this picture that strikes me every time I look at it. It’s nothing more than a vector image of a crowd of people—seen from a bird’s eye view—who have arranged themselves into the shape of a cross.
It’s not that anything is there inside that shape. That’s why we call it “negative space.” It’s created by what’s not there rather than by what is. But the shape is unmistakable. And it is quite literally a social construct—it is created by people arranging themselves into a certain structure to produce something out of nothing. I feel like this gives us an incredibly profound metaphor for religion in general. But it also works for social constructs of other kinds.
I submit to you that analyzing what is missing at the core of white evangelical theology will reveal a distinctly recognizable shape, and that it doesn’t matter that nothing is actually there in that space. It’s the shape of the absence itself that tells you what they care about and what they cannot be made to care about because of their own history.
In this post I’m going to argue that the evangelical Christian church has systematically eliminated any theological or social concern for the poor, for the immigrant, or for minorities and women, and that it all started so long ago that they cannot even see its effects on them today. People born into this tradition who do not see themselves as racist in any way still take their place in this tradition and they cannot see what they themselves are doing. Even as I type these words, they are shaking their heads in disbelief. But humor me for a minute, please.
The Missing White Voter’s President
Establishment Republicans have been mourning the loss of their party for many months now. What used to be a robust school of conservative political thought with a viable intellectual center has devolved into an aimless cult of personality, an exclusionary club of unscrupulous sycophants judged entirely on their willingness to worship the ground a single individual walks upon.
They talk as if this happened suddenly, but as people began pointing out back in 2016, Trump isn’t an anomaly, he’s a revelation. He is the logical product of decades of dog whistle racism, the inevitable outcome of a political party built around condescension toward brown people in general, and eventually toward one brown person in particular whose entire legacy is being dismantled brick by brick. As Nicolas Kristof said about Trump’s reneging on Iran:
President Trump’s attempt to blow up the Iranian nuclear deal isn’t foreign policy. It’s vandalism…The reason for Trump’s decision seems obvious: The deal was President Barack Obama’s.
Many of Trump’s otherwise random decisions wind up being that petty. The Obamas slept on this bed? Very well then, let’s go have somebody urinate on it.* That’s how deep the disdain for a black man can go—deep enough to lead an entire voting bloc to elect someone Charles M. Blow calls “The Lowest White Man.”
As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the “lowest white man,” he is still better than Barack Obama, the “best colored man.”
Republicans who still saw their party as a party of ideas rather than prejudices didn’t see this coming. I’ve already written about how they made a deliberate choice to seek a second opinion after an initial postmortem report into the 2012 election advised improving their messaging toward women and minorities.
Realizing how deeply this would alienate their base, party strategists ordered a second postmortem and learned that they could more easily sweep all three branches of government if they could only find a way to reengage “the missing white voter,” those people who seemed waiting in the wings for someone to come along and talk about the things that really mattered to them, like building a wall and keeping out all the foreigners coming to take away our jobs.
I don’t think Trump’s Republican competitors had any clue how deeply his nativism resonated with their base. They naively believed the American ideals of pluralism and opportunity for all were too deeply rooted in the national consciousness to allow them to listen to a man who speaks as if everyone who wants to move to America from somewhere else must necessarily have criminal intent. They didn’t get it at the time, and frankly neither did I.
One Republican insider in particular, a former speechwriter for Bush Jr. named Michael Gerson, wrote a widely circulated piece for The Atlantic entitled “The Last Temptation [of Evangelicals]” that expressed the same bewilderment—not just toward the party but toward white evangelicals in particular. An evangelical himself, Gerson seems to have been largely responsible for rebranding the Dubya presidency as a new turn in GOP governance, an era of “compassionate conservatism.” You can imagine how disheartening it would be to such a man to see his party overtaken by a guy openly running on crudity and intolerance and, well, let’s call it what it is: white nationalism.
I appreciate Gerson’s sincere soul searching, but the rose-colored spectacles he uses to trace the history of his own theological tradition causes him to make the same glaring omission that Tim Keller makes in his book The Reason for God, ignoring a significant facet of evangelical history, namely the white evangelical opposition to social progress at every turn, particularly in the South.
A Silence That Screams Volumes
Gerson’s treatment of evangelical history seems predicated on the belief that the socially progressive brand of evangelical Christianity that was popular in the North in the 19th century would have won out if only churches had taken that left turn at Albuquerque, so to speak. He pinpoints a couple of key theological turning points (like the rejection of evolution after the Scopes Monkey Trial) which he feels made all the difference, but he drastically underemphasizes the importance that race played in our nation’s most formative turns. He gives it a sentence or two, but that’s it.
I’ve noticed this before in the work of church historian George Marsden, upon whom Gerson heavily depends. To these men, it was primarily theological decisions which produced the seismic changes evangelical theology underwent as the church embarked upon the 20th century. But neither of them give enough consideration to how profoundly the subject of slavery shaped what Southern evangelicals believed, and their explanations for how we got to the place we are today suffer for the lack of it.
Chris Ladd nailed it in an article for Forbes entitled “Why Evangelicalism Is So Cruel” which was then taken back down within hours of its publication (republished here) because it touched a nerve:
Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call ‘evangelical Christianity,’ is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries. [emphasis mine]
Ladd points out that Southern ministers in the years preceding and following the Civil War had little choice but to surgically remove from the pulpit any talk of social justice or concern for the poor and the marginalized because their economy and their way of life depended on overlooking those parts of the Bible.
And lest anyone thought that practice died away at the conclusion of the war, he went on to remind us how central white evangelicals were to resisting segregation a hundred years later, something Gerson almost forgets to even mention:
White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King.
When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead. [emphasis mine]
Simply put, there is no natural place for social justice within white evangelical theology. There’s nowhere to put it. At the place in their theology where it should be there is a gaping hole, a silence that screams volumes about what evangelical churches simply cannot be made to care about.
Upon the loss of the Civil War, Southern whites traded in their postmillennial optimism about Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” in exchange for a darker, more pessimistic view of history in which the country grows more and more godless until Jesus miraculously and suddenly returns to burn the whole house down the same way the Yankees did all their state houses.
Southern and rural churches gravitated toward the Dispensational theology of C.I. Scofield and D.L. Moody, later popularized by evangelists Billy Sunday and Billy Graham and immortalized in Christian fiction through the Left Behind series.
No Quarter for a Social Conscience
You’ll search such a theology in vain for any kind of expectation that governments can be utilized to make the world a better place before Jesus comes back to tear it all down again. As the old saying goes, “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” Gerson rightly points out that the change in eschatology left a vacuum in evangelical thinking where any coherent social vision or political theory might otherwise be.
[M]odern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action…many evangelicals seem to find their theory merely by following the contours of the political movement that is currently defending, and exploiting, them. [emphasis mine]
Indeed, evangelicals today decide how to vote by watching FOX News, which has become the de facto public relations arm of the Republican Party.
They didn’t listen when Billy Graham warned them about this. He, too, outsourced his political decisions to a power-hungry president only to be embarrassed by his scandals, burdened with guilt by association with someone who took advantage of that gaping hole where a political vision for society should be.
Graham later told Jerry Falwell in 1981:
“It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
Graham’s warning was too little and too late. Nor could he see then any more clearly than Gerson or Keller can now that white evangelicals simply don’t have a place for a social conscience in their theology anymore. It was lobotomized during the 19th century so that now their churches cannot be moved to care deeply about anything other than about what matters to, well, white men.
Again, Ladd gets right to the point:
Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. [emphasis mine]
You simply cannot spend 150 years building a theology around the concerns of a single demographic and expect that theology to accommodate the needs of a diverse population. It won’t work. And in case you haven’t noticed, religions don’t easily change.
On the contrary, I would argue they never do, they simply break apart and grow new religious offshoots which fashion their new theology around whatever group disagreed with the first one. They then become the heretics with whom the previous group can no longer abide. This is why there are so many thousands of denominations within Christianity today.
What’s Left Unsaid
You don’t have to spell out racial preferences explicitly in order to instill them into your theology. All you have to do is allow historical and cultural developments to shape your thinking about a subject organically by disregarding the needs and challenges faced by everyone in the world except white males…and then just keep doing that for centuries.
In time you will find a gaping hole in the place where a social conscience should be, and yet no one will notice it or remember how it got there. They will assume the Bible drove their theological emphases (because Jesus is coming soon!) rather than the deeply rooted racism and nativism of the groups of people who passed that theology down to them.
You almost have to get outside of that world entirely to see it for what it is. I know that’s how it worked for me. Which means I may be wasting my digital breath by spelling all this out. But there it is, anyway, in case anyone tries to say that nothing within the theology of evangelical Christianity makes you racist. I would suggest looking more at what’s missing rather than at what’s there.