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The Bible Told Them So: An Interview with J. Russell Hawkins | Righting America

by William Trollinger

J. Russell (“Rusty”) Hawkins is Professor of Humanities and History in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is also author of The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, which came out from Oxford University Press just last year. We here at rightingamerica are very pleased that Rusty is willing to be interviewed about this very important work.

Book cover for The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy by J. Russell Hawkins (2021, Oxford University Press)
  1. The Bible Told Them So began as a Rice University Ph.D. dissertation. What prompted you – as a scholar and as a person of faith – to head down this research road, and why the focus on South Carolina?

Like many historians, I wrote this book, in part, to answer questions about my own history.  I grew up very much a part of the white evangelical subculture in the 1980s and 90s. For those who know this culture, my experiences might sound familiar.  I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night.  I sang along with Psalty and listened to the Music Machine on vinyl. I wore Witness Wear, subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine, and saw my fellow Christian high school students at the pole each September.  

But, this evangelical world was only part of my formation.  I also grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, attended racially diverse public schools from K-12, and grew up playing on racially diverse sports teams.  The racial diversity of a good part of the rest of my daily life stood in stark contrast to the racial homogeneity of my church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  And, as I grew older, I was struck by how attitudes and conversations about race in my church were so different than in other areas of my upbringing.  Conversations about race with white Christians were often met with defensiveness, or hostility, or hushed tones.  The discussions were usually short, with the implied message that it was better not to talk about such things. Occasionally, I even heard explicitly racist comments or jokes at church.  

Now, to clarify, these things didn’t register with me as they were happening.  It wasn’t until later, while I was in the midst of my graduate studies and started wrestling more seriously with questions about race and religion in American history, that I found myself wanting to make sense of why so many white evangelicals seemed to respond differently to race compared to people I knew who weren’t part of that evangelical world.  I decided that if I was going to make sense of this, I would need to find a period of history when white evangelicals were talking about race, and I suspected that the civil rights era was promising in this regard. And it turns out that I was right.  So while I’m not a direct descendent of the southern white evangelicals I cover in my book, I do believe much of what I have experienced (and continue to experience) in evangelicalism around race has its roots in the civil rights period.   

How I landed on South Carolina is a long story that I’ll keep brief.  Initially, I intended to study all of the South.  I took my first research trip to South Carolina because I knew the state had high percentages of private schools and a high percentage of black Methodists, and I was very interested in these two areas of research.  (They became chapters four and five.)  After I returned from an initial week of research, my dissertation advisor wisely counseled me to limit the scope of my study to South Carolina alone, rather than trying incorporate all of the South.  (Wiser advice, I’ve seldom been given!)  

  1. In your introduction you note that, in both scholarly and popular accounts of the civil rights movement, much is made of the fact that many black activists were motivated and sustained by their “deep and abiding Christian faith.” But as you point out, there’s “another version of Christianity [that] is seldom portrayed,” a version that prompted a large percentage of southern white evangelicals “to move seamlessly from studying their Bibles to denouncing civil rights legislation on the same Wednesday evening” (5). I know that you devote the first two chapters of The Bible Told Them So to this topic, but could you give us a glimpse into how these Christians understood segregation as divinely mandated?

As you note, I cover this thoroughly in the book, so I’ll just offer some broad strokes of this segregationist theology here.  First, southern white Christians appealed to what theologians refer to as “general revelation,” a principle that says you can know something about the nature of God by looking at the created world.  It made sense to some white southern Christians that God was a segregationist because, from their perspective, the world God created seemed to have segregation built into it.  Blue jays and cardinals didn’t mate.  Neither did red ants or black ants.  In the minds of Christian segregationists, this was because God created them not to mix.  And if bluebirds and redbirds weren’t intended to mate, neither were black people and white people. (And it’s important to note that, in the minds of many white southern Christians, widespread interracial sex was a taken-for-granted assumption if Jim Crow was outlawed.)

While the natural world was the starting point for many white Christians’ understanding of God-ordained segregation, their read of the Bible was really what established their segregationist theology.  From the perspective of many conservative white Christians, all a person had to do was open the pages of scripture to see how in passage after passage God was the “original segregationist.”  Southern white Christians pointed to the Levitical prohibition on weaving unlike fabrics together as evidence of God’s disfavor of integration.  Southern white ministers preached on how the separation of people groups at the Tower of Babel was a blueprint of God’s segregationist intent.  Denominational journals ran articles highlighting Ezra chapters 9 and 10, which spoke of how Israelite men had to repent for marrying non-Israelite women as a sign of God’s desire for racial purity.  Exegesis of Acts 17:26, in which the apostle Paul declares that God “created all men and set the bounds of their habitation,” circulated in pamphlet form throughout the South as a divine endorsement of Jim Crow segregation.  These biblically grounded arguments and many others like them (again, see chapter 2) were ubiquitous in the South, flowing from southern white pulpits and coursing through southern white pews at the same time black Christians were in the streets demanding racial change.  

If I could elaborate on this response just a little further, I don’t think the hermeneutical purity or logical consistency of this segregationist theology is important from a historical standpoint.  Certainly these were not theological ideas that many formally trained seminarians could or did promote. And frankly, perhaps from our perspective today, following some of the arguments laid out in this segregationist theology surely must have required a suspension of logic or at least a good amount of mental gymnastics in order to adhere to such scriptural interpretations.   So, if readers think these arguments sound like questionable theology, I understand that.  But again, from a historical perspective, the theological soundness of these interpretations does not matter. Rather, from the historian’s point of view, what was important about this segregationist theology was the extent to which white southerners believed it to be true. And the historical record indicates that a majority of white southerners sitting in the pews each Sunday were willing to go along with this segregationist theology.  In fact, these southern white Christians didn’t just believe this segregationist theology to be true, they actually ordered their lives around its veracity and kept living as if it were true even after the triumph of the civil rights movement. That’s the story told in the final three chapters of my book.  

  1. Maybe it’s somewhere in the book, but I could not find it. How and where did you (or your editor) find the incredible cover photo?

I know the adage says not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case I really wouldn’t mind if people do!  I fortuitously came across the cover photo in an online archive of Getty images. It was snapped by photographer Paul Slade, who took it while covering a school desegregation protest in New Orleans in the late 1950s. The photo itself perfectly captures one of the primary arguments I make in the book–that many southern white Christians resisted racial integration on religious grounds derived from their read of scripture.  Perhaps even more significantly, the cover photo also communicates a central theme I hope readers will wrestle with as they make their way through the book:  we inherit our history from those who have gone before us, and that same history shapes us in ways we seldom recognize. The smiles of the mother (perhaps grandmother?) and sister placing a placard supporting bigotry into a toddler’s hands immediately captures the eye and is a haunting reminder of the way beliefs are handed down across generations.  The photo is a testament to the inherited nature of faith– with all its goods and ills.  I was beyond pleased with how the book cover came out.         

  1. I love how you start each of your five chapters with a story from the latter decades of the 19th century, be it the 1860 South Carolina Secession Convention at the First Baptist Church in Columbia, the 1893 erection of a Confederate monument in Orangeburg, and so forth. How did you come up with this idea, and what is the purpose of these stories?

This is a great follow up to the question about the book cover.  I spent a lot of time in archives across South Carolina doing research for this book.  One of my favorite parts of my research trips is getting out of the archives and actually visiting the sites I was reading about.  I remember one afternoon driving through Orangeburg, seeing the First Baptist Church, and remembering that I had a cache of letters from the pastor of that church from back in the late 1950s expressing the pastor’s concern that he’d need to resign his pulpit because he favored school desegregation.  I pulled over and started walking around the church, wondering what it would have been like to have been that pastor, wrestling with those issues at that time.  I actually sat down on the steps of the church, looked across the street, and spotted the Confederate monument.  I started thinking about how everyone in that church would have looked (and still look!) at that Confederate marker coming and going from church each week.  And, if you live in a world where you regularly see monuments celebrating the Lost Cause, you’re going to be shaped by that celebration in significant ways.  

It’s sometimes easy for us to look at people in the past and cast judgement on them without asking what made them believe the things they did.  I decided to start each chapter with a short vignette from the previous century (e.g., telling the story of how that Confederate monument in Orangeburg was constructed) that might help explain some of the influences that caused white Christians in the mid-twentieth century to react the way they did to racial change.   One of the hopes I have for this book is that it might reach white Christians who have inherited certain beliefs and practices about race and whiteness that they aren’t even aware of.  As white Christians in the 1960s were shaped by the politics and beliefs of the 1890s, so too are white Christians today shaped by the politics and beliefs of the 1960s.  That’s what I was trying to communicate by starting each chapter in the 1800s.     

  1. As you know from my recent post, I am particularly taken with your compelling argument – articulated most clearly in chapter 4 – that when the biblical and theological case for segregation proved “ineffective against the moral force of the civil rights movement” (116), segregationist white evangelicals turned to colorblindness. Could you elaborate on this a bit, in the process explaining why white evangelicals continue to find this so compelling? Do white evangelicals genuinely believe that – with colorblindness – they have gotten past racism?

Again, I think this question is a great follow up to the previous one.  One of the big arguments of my book is that “colorblindness” emerged as an effective way to maintain segregation when explicitly religious arguments failed white Christians who resisted the civil rights movement.  Usually we think of colorblindness as emerging after Jim Crow’s defeat, that is, colorblindness is the response to integration as white folks are trying to make sense of their new post-segregation reality.  But what I found in my research were Christians who adopted the language and tools of colorblindness as a strategy of maintaining segregation rather than a response to integration.  Colorblindness for these white Christians wasn’t so much about making sense of a new reality.  Instead, it was using a particular kind of rhetorical device to maintain the segregation they had been practicing in their institutions all along (or since emancipation in the case of churches).  

So as some Christian institutions and denominations started to make halting moves toward integration in the mid to late 1960s, there were white Christians who started saying that all this attention to race was problematic and the church and religious institutions would be better off if they just ignored the issue of race altogether.  But, these were the same people who had said a decade earlier that God made the races distinct and declared in Scripture that they should be segregated.  So, it was almost as if these folks could see the writing on the wall, and colorblindness for them became the final defense of a segregated system they believed God desired.    

The reason I think it’s so important to emphasize the linkage between early uses of colorblindness and the defense of segregation in the church is because of how ubiquitous the language of colorblindness would become among evangelicals within a generation after 1970. As my experience growing up evangelical attests, white evangelicals are especially fond of the language of colorblindness when it comes to matters of race.  

I have no doubt that there are some Christians who genuinely believe “colorblindness” is the best approach to matters of racial division.  But this is where a better understanding of the history I’m providing in this book would be helpful. There are ample critiques of colorblindness, but I think one of the most powerful indictments we can make against colorblind rhetoric is to show that in its earliest iteration it was wielded by white Christians who wished to maintain Jim Crow-style segregation in their churches and religious institutions.  So, we shouldn’t be surprised that a white evangelical subculture that embraced the language of colorblindness remains hyper-segregated along racial lines.  Colorblindness has helped in part maintain the very segregation its early adopters had hoped and prayed for.  I’m not sure that this segregation is the desire of latter-day espousers of colorblind rhetoric.  But by espousing colorblindness, white evangelical Christians today are reinforcing racial divisions all the same.      

  1. You conclude The Bible Told Them So with this powerful sentence: “White evangelicals desiring a solution to the problem of race would do well to begin their search for answers by acknowledging and addressing the ‘brutality and the injustice’ of the segregationist theology that has so deeply shaped their past even as it continues to influence their present?” (167). Are you hopeful that a good number of white evangelicals will see, acknowledge, and repent? Or, as seems to be the case with the folks we write about, is facing squarely the enduring effects of slavery and segregation just a bridge too far for most white evangelicals?

This is a hard question for me to answer.  As a historian, I don’t see a lot of cause for hope.  But, as a Christian myself, hope is something I cling to like a life preserver.  So yes, I have hope that acknowledgment and repentance of our past is still possible for a good number of my fellow white Christians.  But I’ll also confess that I have less hope for such acknowledgement and repentance than I did when I wrote those words back in the summer of 2020.     

  1. In your preface you assure your wife (Kristi) that writing the next book will not take so long. So, what will that next book be about?

I’m currently working on a religious biography of the infamous Alabama governor George Wallace.  In some respects, this biography will be a continuation on a theme as I explore how religious belief and racial segregation fit seamlessly together in Wallace’s life.  But the second half of Wallace’s life has an interesting turn.  Wallace claimed to have a “Damascus Road” experience after the bullet of a would-be assassin left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1968.  He spent a good deal of his life after his “born-again” experience trying to make amends, visiting black churches to apologize for his previous views, and giving interviews where he emphasized the close relationships he had with black friends.  By the end of life, Wallace was exchanging Christmas cards with people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, and writing to the man who shot him to urge him to seek forgiveness from God just as Wallace had himself.  I’m too early into the research to know how it’s going to turn out, but I think Wallace’s life holds a lot of promise to explore the intersections of race and religion and to understand the potential for and limits of forgiveness and redemption.