by William Trollinger
In his terrific 2021 book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, J. Russell Hawkins – focusing on white Baptists and Methodists in South Carolina – makes two primary arguments:
- “many white South Carolinians who resisted the civil rights movement were animated by a Christian faith influenced by biblical exegesis that deemed racial segregation as divinely ordered” (7).
- “in the years after 1965, segregationist Christianity evolved and persisted in new forms that would become mainstays of southern white evangelicalism by the 1970s: colorblind individualism and a heightened focus on the family” (8).
While the first argument is in keeping with much recent historical work, the second argument marks an important intervention in our understanding of post-Jim Crow white evangelicalism. In Chapter 4, “Embracing Colorblindness,” the author makes a powerful case for the continuities between segregationist and colorblind Christianity. Focusing on the struggle to desegregate the Methodist Church in South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, Hawkins notes that Christian segregationists continued to oppose integration, but their arguments “had grown threadbare in broader society, proving ineffective against the moral force of the civil rights movement” (116).
But these segregationists found their answer in “colorblindness,” in which the race problem would disappear as individuals no longer attended to race. Not seeing race would, ipso facto, eliminate racism. As Hawkins convincingly argues,
the shift to colorblindness for these Christians was more a defensive repositioning than a confession of past sins. With colorblindness segregationists were able to curtail the conversation. They were the ones who supposedly wanted to move on from race, the ones who wished to put the past behind them and march into a future where race no longer mattered (125).
Focusing on race was the problem; not seeing race was the answer. Of course, not seeing race meant not seeing ongoing racial inequities in society. But in colorblindness, racism was simply an individual matter. Quit seeing race, and problem solved.
Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham is a perfect exemplar of this sort of colorblindness. According to Ham, when individuals believe the Genesis account of creation, when they build their faith on the Bible, they will recognize that there are no races. They will recognize that we are one race, one blood. True Bible-believing Christians are colorblind.
In keeping with the South Carolina segregationists, Ham suggests that the less we talk about race and racism, the better: “In many ways I believe certain public figures are actually fueling racism by using wrong terminology such as ‘races,’ ‘black race,’ ‘white race,’ and so on.” If you don’t see race, if you don’t talk about race, then presto, racism is gone.
In keeping with Hawkins’ description of “colorblindness,” for Ham it is all about individuals and their feelings and their ideas. He is silent about structural and systemic racial inequities in America; as we note in Righting America, “there is a palpable lack of concern with institutional racism in contemporary America” (189). Just to give two examples, Ham has nothing to say about the racial wealth gap in this country, and he has nothing to say about the fact that 1 in 3 black males are in prison, in jail, on probation, and on parole (in contrast with 1 in 17 white males). (Thanks much to my colleague Leslie Picca, Roesch Chair in the Social Sciences, for this information).
But it’s worse. As far as I can tell – I have seen no evidence to the contrary – Ham can’t bring himself to criticize white supremacist groups, can’t bring himself to say a word about Christian nationalism. His blog post on the January 06 Insurrection was exceptionally weird: while he said nothing about the destruction, violence, racism, and all the crosses, Bibles, and Jesus T-shirts, he did manage to attack Darwinism and the public schools.
While he eventually had a brief comment about the horrific murder of George Floyd, he had almost nothing to say about the Charleston nine, the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, on and on and on.
And then there is the recent slaughter in Buffalo. As you can see in the screenshot below, Ham is determined to reject any suggestion that America is enduring a tide of racist hate; instead, it is “an epidemic of [individual] depravity because of sin.” And in what is a classic move for Ham and others in the Christian Right, Ham avoids saying anything about racism by asserting that what really matters is maintaining the gender binary (how in the world did he manage to get this into a post on the Buffalo killings?) and opposing abortion.
Don’t talk about racism, and it disappears. Poof.
And it is not just about eliding racism in the present. While Ham and AiG occasionally acknowledge that some Christians in the past misused the Bible in behalf of racial discrimination, they will absolutely not acknowledge the degree to which “Bible-believing Christians” used the Bible as a foundation for racial oppression. From Righting America:
In antebellum America millions of white Christians . . . stood on their literal reading of the Word of God to issue forth a raft of proslavery polemics and to deliver an almost-infinite number of proslavery sermons . . . Prior to the Civil War, “Biblical Christians,” those holding to plenary verbal inspiration and a commonsense reading to the Bible, led the fight for slavery. Not surprisingly, almost a century after the Civil War – when the civil rights movement challenged the Jim Crow system of white supremacy in the South – supporters of segregation used biblical literalism to bolster their campaign against integration and racial equality . . . In her book, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, historian Carolyn Renee Dupont puts it bluntly: Mississippi’s white “evangelicals fought mightily against black equality, proclaiming that God himself ordained segregation, blessing the forces of resistance . . . and protecting segregation in their churches” (186-87).
Of course, eliding this past, eliding the degree to which white Christians have used the Bible to bolster the case for racial oppression, means that white evangelicals like Ham and his comrades at Answers in Genesis do not need to reckon with history. As Daniel Rodgers observed in his masterful Age of Fracture, “in the ‘color-blind’ society project, amnesia [is] a conscious strategy, undertaken in conviction that the present’s dues to the past had already been fully paid” (143).
There is no need to confess, no need to repent, no need to work to overcome the structures cemented in place by 350 years of slavery and segregation.
In fact, there is no need to see.
White privilege at its finest.