An essay by the Master of Divinity alumnus and actor.
I wrote this article as a Christian and Black man reflecting on the intersection of my Christian faith, the murder of George Floyd (and others), the Black Lives Matter movement and the white evangelical church’s embrace of President Donald Trump.
It’s a necessary point of reflection because the Church is the only answer to the kind of societal sin and civil unrest we are experiencing. The Church must be in position to lead people and policies to the one who is the answer, Jesus Christ, and the love, reconciliation and eschatological hope found in him.
But first the Church must remember to “be the Church” in its own culture, values and partnerships.
Is It Time to Cancel White Evangelicalism?
by Gaius Charles
In 1971, British broadcaster Michael Parkinson sat down with Muhammad Ali for an interview covering various aspects of his life, career, and the American Civil Rights struggle. When asked why he became a Muslim, Ali described winning the gold medal in boxing for the United States in the 1960 Summer Olympics only to come back to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to a life of segregation. One particular anecdote crystallized the dehumanization; fresh off his international triumph, Ali was refused service at a local restaurant simply because of his skin color.
During the interview, Ali recounted how the Christian church where he served, worshipped, and who he undoubtedly made proud because of his boxing success, refused to stand up for him in the face of discrimination. He spoke frankly about how his church’s lack of action motivated his transition away from Christianity and catalyzed the pursuit of his faith elsewhere.
As I look at current events in America, I can’t help but to see and feel the parallels. Like Ali’s childhood church, the white evangelical church has failed to lead and take action in the area of racial reconciliation in our great country. I say this not with pride, arrogance, or judgement but with a sense of grief and disillusionment as a Christian myself. But upon closer examination, I see that the problem is far more complex; for the history of the white evangelical church in the United States suggests that it is one of the biggest proponents of white nationalism, white supremacy, and “white superiority” over the last two centuries.
In a recent article in The Christian Post, a conservative Christian publication, Ronald J. Sider, President Emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action, affirms this reality:
“White evangelicals have too often participated in, and even led…racism. It was white evangelical Christians in the South (helped by northerners) that passed the laws and organized the violence that effectively squelched the progress made by African-Americans in the first two decades after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It was white evangelicals who led or tolerated thousands of lynchings for about 100 years. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision ending “separate but equal” school segregation, it was white evangelicals who organized segregated private “Christian” academies so their white children would not have to go to school with black children.”
National Public Radio recently ran a story exploring how the white supremacist ideology has historical roots in the American church. Tom Gjelten makes clear that because of the confluence of slavery, Jim Crow, and racist white Christian social and political influences, “Elements of racist ideology have long been present in white Christianity in the United States.” Gjelten’s theory is supported by a long history of teaching that slavery was a God-ordained institution and the erroneous theological quackery that Black people are inferior to whites because Africans are “cursed descendants of Ham.” While it’s easy to debunk the errancy of this line of thinking now, it has been used for centuries to disempower and dehumanize Blacks in the white Western world.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black people at the hands of law enforcement and racist vigilantes combined with the uprising of a diverse coalition of Americans, including a vast number of freshly “woke” white folks, has, in a sense, torn the veil or the fig leaf off of the white supremacist agenda in the white evangelical church and this nation.
Clearly, white evangelicalism is not the only Christian church or religious denomination in the United States. But it is one of the largest, most visible, and most dominant segments of the American church, and it has regularly supported white nationalist leaders and beliefs; including the current president and his administration for the last three and a half years.
I’ve had great difficulty squaring how white evangelicals could support a leader whose words, conduct, and behavior so starkly reveal his racist character and beliefs. As a Black man, I’m obviously not a “white” evangelical. However, I grew up in a predominantly white Methodist church, and much of my Christian discipleship, from my teenage years to adulthood, was supplemented by white evangelicalism. It wasn’t until I got to college and started attending a Black Baptist church that I realized there was so much more to the role of the church in American life and my experience of Christ in society that was particularly consequential to me.
Nevertheless, with so many Christian leaders supporting Donald Trump, I’ve tried very hard to be open to something that I was perhaps “missing.” After all, some of the same Christian leaders that have praised, supported, advised, and stood by the president, are people I’ve admired for years from a faith perspective. Like Ali in his time, these are Christian voices I’ve respected. I’ve listened to their sermons, bought their books, attended their conferences, taken classes at their institutions, and valued their words of hope and inspiration.
Of note is some of the messaging that has come out of that space, including the idea that Donald Trump is God’s “Cyrus,” “for such a time as this.” His chosen man to restore Christian values to the United States, more specifically, the federal government, like Cyrus, King of Persia, restored the nation of Israel after the Babylonian exile.
In this framework, Trump is also the defender of Israel that has been elevated to support the Jewish State, our only democratic ally in the Middle East and the subject of very specific end time events. Yes, this line of thinking permeates many conservative evangelical circles. These have all sounded like reasonable arguments from that very particular point of view. But, in light of the political reality before us, I find it very hard to reconcile. Yes, the Bible does teach that “God’s ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9) and that the Almighty is a staunch and relentless defender of Israel (Genesis 12:3, Numbers 24:9, Isaiah 41:11-12). However, Jesus also teaches that we, as believers, are to be discerning of people’s character, like an inspector of agriculture. We are to evaluate people, things, and systems by the fruit they produce (Luke 6:44-46). The Bible also teaches us that in the last days, many false prophets and false messiahs or saviors will come forth in the name of Jesus. They will deceive many (Matthew 7:15, 24:11), even the Church (Mathew 24:24).
I was never convinced Mr. Trump was someone to embrace out of some spiritual mandate. I opposed his election, his policies, and his platform of national division and bigotry. However, as a believer, I struggled to untangle the threads in this twisted web of faith, politics, and white supremacy. It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement exposed the unconditional support of white supremacist culture in many white evangelical churches that the scales really fell from my eyes. Rev. Rob Schenck, a former conservative Christian firebrand, put it succinctly in a recent interview on the PBS broadcast Amanpour & Company. Speaking to Michel Martin, he made clear the strategy that white evangelicals have engaged in a “Faustian deal” with Donald Trump, giving him unconditional allegiance and “moral cover” as long as he comes through on the conservatives’ wish list.
“Donald Trump promised I will give you everything you ever wanted on your laundry list of deliverables if you give me what I want and demand, which is religious cover. I need you to say that I’m blessed of God and that everything I’ve done is good. He defended the photo in front of St. John’s Church with the Bible by saying, ‘A lot Christians think it’s a great photo.’ And that’s what he needs in the deal. And we made that deal with him. So there is a moral vacuum; there is an inability to muster the moral courage to stand up to this.”
It should be noted that Pat Robertson, one of the most senior figures in the white evangelical church, offered a rare public criticism of President Trump. In June, Robertson showed his disapproval of the president’s use of the Bible as a prop for a photo-op in front of St. John Church in Washington, D.C. The misstep occurred just moments after law enforcement used pepper spray and other riot control methods on peaceful protesters. But beyond that, this segment of the church remains steadfast in its support, perhaps only until he fulfills the full extent of the deal–a third conservative Supreme Court appointment, cementing the right’s domination of the highest court in the land. The hope is that this packing of the Court will eventually lead to a fundamental rebalancing of federal legislation and societal norms in the United States, for generations to come.
To be clear: this is a right-wing political scheme, also known as the Conservative Legal Movement, at least thirty years in the making; the master plan to ensure victory in the conservative culture wars. Never mind the countless number of Black and brown people harmed by a criminal justice system that is rigged against them, God’s demand of honest scales in our dealings (Proverbs 16:11), or that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was unfairly convicted and executed by judgements from an intentionally crooked and perverted legal system.
So far, Trump has delivered on his end of the pact with the bonus of limiting non-white European immigration to slow the browning of America, rolling back the rights of minorities, and tilting the nation back into a decidedly white, male, patriarchal, hetero-normative footing. This is the dark and oppressive subtext of what it truly means to “Make America Great Again.”
That’s the deal. That’s what’s at stake for many white evangelicals. My concern is, what is at stake for the Church and the ministry and message of Jesus Christ? If the Church’s core mission is to make disciples of all nations as the Kingdom of God advances on earth, how does this agenda and strategy fit into that narrative?
I’ll spare you exegetical musings on how clearly and often God condemns the sin of racism. There are too many occurrences to go into depth here but, for some examples see God’s correction of Miriam and Aaron concerning Moses’ African wife (Number 12:1-15); the Acts church correction of the bias toward the Greek widows (Acts 6:1-7); Paul’s rebuke of Peter after discriminating against non-Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-15); and, of course, Jesus’ teachings on loving your neighbor (Mark 12:31) and embracing the most despised in Judean society, the Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37, John 4:1-42).
Furthermore, if we drill down on the argument that Trump is the white evangelical church’s Cyrus, we quickly realize that Persia was a pagan nation, not the Judeo-Christian land that white evangelicals claim America is or should be. If we wanted to pursue some biblical archetypes with this understanding, a better comparison would be to examine the Kings of Israel, the high standard God had for them, and the role of religious leaders to serve as both priest and prophet to the king. And yes, we all know the president is not a king, that’s what the Revolutionary War was all about. But at least for a moment, humor me.
If this were the model we were using, the church would have two roles, just as the priests and the prophets carried out in ancient times. Like the Levite priests, the church would be called to serve the head of state by facilitating communal worship, prayer, and intercession and offering counsel and encouragement as they stood before God on behalf of the leader. The other would be the prophetic role: to warn, correct, rebuke, and share the word of God with that leader so that the nation would come into alignment with God’s will; standing before the leader on behalf of the whole counsel of God. As in ancient times, both these elements are necessary if the country is to truly prosper and be the light of the LORD to the nations. God’s name and credibility were on the line then and still is now, and the Almighty was (and still is) willing to punish the nation severely for the sins, disobedience, injustice, and wickedness of its people and leadership. So where are the modern-day Nathans, Elijahs, Isaiahs, and Jeremiahs coming forward to hold this president to the Most High’s standard of leadership and conduct (in words and action), for the sake of God’s name and glory? Like their endorsements, shouldn’t these corrections be coming regularly from the white evangelical community as well, especially given this president’s bizarre, toxic and immoral behavior?
When considering where we are now in the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s notable that from Abolition to Women’s Suffrage to the Civil Rights Era, no significant social justice movement in the United States has had long-term success without the input and influence of the Christian church. It was the church that helped to catapult them from fringe movements to some of America’s finest hours of moral courage, liberty, and justice.
As I process this movement in relationship to my Christian faith, I can stand with my white evangelical brothers and sisters on certain issues, like the sanctity of life before birth, for instance. I just wonder how many of them will sincerely stand with me to affirm the same for Black lives after? White evangelicals have enormous influence to right this societal crookedness and stop these endless murders against brothers and sisters in Christ and creation. As the saying goes, if people of color could fix racism (in the church and the world) on their own, they would have done so a long time ago.
So, how many white evangelical churches, leaders, and organizations will commit to a platform and culture of meaningful and comprehensive anti-racism? How many will consistently teach their flock that racism is sin and that there will be no tolerance for it in the house of God? How many will promote qualified Black and brown staff members to places of prominence and authority in their ministries? How many will publicly denounce white supremacy and police brutality and support social equity, including criminal justice reform and economic justice for people of color? And if support for Israel is the white evangelical non-negotiable, how many white evangelicals will support a presidential contender in the 2020 cycle that has shown their consistent support for the Jewish State and conducted themselves with personal integrity? Joe Biden and even Mike Pence both fit this bill unwaveringly.
There is still space for the white evangelical church to repent, change its stance, and lead (or at least catch up) in this movement as they have eventually done in various others. As the actions of corporations, sports and entertainment franchises, and state and local leaders have shown us, every institution in society needs to take part in the worldwide effort to secure racial equity. My hope (while faint) is that white evangelicals will also reform their culture and join in the fight to ensure that Black lives matter in America and around the world. My fear is if they don’t, other groups will arise to fill the leadership vacuum and become the spiritual and moral compass that only the love, transformative power and eschatological hope of Jesus Christ can satisfy. The political pendulum will swing left again; without the influence of the Christian church, who knows where that swing will lead.
The church must be heavily self-reflective in all this as it seeks to reach today’s young and passionate generation, who, like Ali, are hungry for justice and truth. For the righteously indignant masses may conclude that the white evangelical church and the American church by association, has become morally bankrupt in their disregard for Black lives and their political scheming. In their hearts and minds, they could urgently decide that a faith that will stand up for their dignity and humanity as God desires can be found somewhere else.