by William Trollinger
There’s no getting around it. White evangelicalism has a race problem. And some white evangelicals are getting the message.
So it is that some Westmont College students are agitating for the removal of the “white Jesus” in the campus prayer chapel. So it is that some Taylor University students and faculty are protesting their administration’s decision to have Vice President (and evangelical) Mike Pence as their commencement speaker, in part because of the Trump Administration’s racist policies and language.
And so it is that, as Molly Worthen discusses in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “a vanguard of Christian consultants and community activists focused on racial justice is gaining a wider hearing in white evangelical institutions than ever before.” As Worthen suggests, some of this is directly related to the fact that white evangelicalism is shrinking: without people of color, the hemorrhaging of church members may just continue apace. But whatever the reason, more white evangelicals are dealing with questions of race. And Worthen’s conversations with the activists who are bringing this message into white churches
almost persuaded her that the steady accumulation of personal encounters, multiethnic Bible studies, and new seminary programs might amount to more than flashes of good will. Maybe they really are paving the way for the slow political transformation of white evangelicalism.
“Maybe” is right. It is one thing to decry individual racial prejudice. It is quite another to take into account the ways in which structures upholding white supremacy are at the very heart of American life and in many ways embedded in the very fabric of white evangelicalism. This is what critical race theory seeks to explain, i.e., “that race, as a socially constructed concept, functions as a means to maintain the interests of the white population that constructed it.”
As a historian of 20th-century America and American evangelicalism, the necessity of such structural analysis seems pretty obvious. But this notion is threatening to many white evangelicals. So it is that, as Worthen points out, evangelical leader John MacArthur has issued “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” in which the 11,041 (as of now) signatories “deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” So it is that the four white guys at Taylor University who published Excalibur– in which they decried the “leftist trends” on campus – attacked what they saw as the “uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideals (e.g., in the form of Marxist-inspired critical race theory).”
Revealing their ideological commitments, the Excalibur authors (at least two of whom signed MacArthur’s “Statement”) suggested that instead of taking an approach which takes structural racism seriously, “a conservative-libertarian approach to race relations is most respectful of racial minorities and holds out the most promise for long term racial justice in this country.” Not only is there no historical evidence to support this claim. There is also no evidence that conservatives and libertarians were at the forefront of efforts to overturn Jim Crow America. As Milligan College historian Tim Dillon has noted, “the only silver lining [in this story] is that none of the instigators of Excalibur were historians.”
I share with Worthen both the wish that white evangelicalism’s increased interest in racism would translate into something like a political metamorphosis, and the grave doubts that significant change is coming. White evangelicalism has a serious race problem. And this problem cannot be overcome on the cheap.