Race, Gender, and the Limits of Evangelical Identity

By: Isaac B. Sharp

April 22, 2021

Responding to: The Future of U.S. Evangelical Christianity

Race, Gender, and the Limits of Evangelical Identity

At first blush, current controversies over race and gender in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) appear to be simply the latest example in a series of recent, high-profile, in-house debates, which have roiled the contemporary evangelical world for the past five years. Perhaps an evangelical reckoning really is at hand.

The stakes in this particular case certainly seem especially high. Although the SBC is by no means the only slice of the contemporary evangelical pie, it is the biggest denominational piece by far and currently serves as home base for many of evangelicalism’s most powerful leaders. To suggest that as goes the SBC so goes the U.S. evangelical world, in other words, would barely be an overstatement at this point. Given the size and influence of the denomination, the potential implications of its du jour controversies really are that far reaching. 

Current debates over complementarianism and critical race theory (CRT) in the SBC are thus more than just an in-house denominational battle about race and gender. In a real sense, they are proxy wars over the place and status of women and Black Christians in evangelicalism writ large.

Current debates over complementarianism and critical race theory in the SBC are more than just an in-house denominational battle about race and gender.

To better understand why this is the case, one must first know a little something about the nature and recent history of evangelicalism. Without either an official magisterium or a list of card-carrying members, evangelicalism is by nature an amorphous, decentralized tradition that insiders and outsiders alike have a hard time defining with any precision. Due in part to the flexibility of the category, evangelicalism has almost always included more internal theological and ideological diversity than its portrayal in both popular and scholarly sources. Historians have traditionally counted as squarely within the evangelical tradition, for instance, a wide range of Protestants—from Wesleyan-Pietists and revivalists, to Reformed-Calvinists and fundamentalists, to charismatics and Pentecostals, to Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and non-denominationalists, to name just a few—with a host of particular and often contradictory theological and denominational beliefs. 

The only problem with all of this internal diversity is that evangelicalism’s (often-self-appointed) gatekeepers have frequently and simultaneously been ill-equipped to deal with it. Evangelicalism, in other words, has often been a tradition with significant internal pluralism led by successive generations of mostly white, conservative, and male pastors, theologians, and evangelists who have been profoundly anti-pluralistic. 

Evangelicalism has often been a tradition with significant internal pluralism led by successive generations of mostly white, conservative, and male pastors, theologians, and evangelists who have been profoundly anti-pluralistic.

The problem became especially acute in the context of recent U.S. history, where the post-WWII “neo-evangelical” movement, institutionalized in organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today, became the mainstream version of evangelicalism by uniting millions of generally conservative Protestants under the banner of an interdenominational evangelical identity. In this case, an identity crisis was baked-in from the start. Because along with the success of an evangelical identity just flexible enough to include dozens of varieties of Protestants came an ongoing series of questions and debates about the limits of evangelicalism. From the outset, for example, the architects behind what became mainstream twentieth-century evangelicalism were forced to reckon with questions like: Should Pentecostals be included as “real” evangelicals? What about the most sectarian kinds of fundamentalists? Would mainline Protestants qualify? What about theologically conservative Black Christians?

Over the decades, subsequent debates over the limits of evangelical-ness included everything from whether Calvinists and Arminians were both truly evangelical, to whether Karl Barth was an evangelical theologian or a liberal heretic, to whether or not someone could be a soundly evangelical Christian and vote Democrat.

By the end of the twentieth century, a long line of these debates had resulted in a series of ad hoc decisions over the specifics of what it would mean to be a capital-E evangelical in the contemporary U.S. context. In many cases, the rulings were effectively final. But in some instances, the verdicts needed re-adjudicating periodically over the years. 

Current controversies in the SBC are a prime example of the latter variety: debates over the boundaries of mainstream evangelicalism that have been fought numerous times in the decades since the mid-century evangelical movement trademarked the label. 

Debates over CRT, for instance, are a thinly veiled proxy for deeper underlying struggles over the nature and limits of Black Christian involvement in a denomination founded in defense of slavery. In recent years, the SBC has had some success attracting Black pastors. But when pressed, the predominately white leadership has consistently refused to accommodate requests that might alter the denomination’s white supremacist cultural trappings. Despite agreeing with many or most of the SBC’s theological commitments, many Black pastors have now been left wondering whether a denomination that treats any discussion of racism’s structural and systemic basis as a threat to orthodoxy has room for them after all. 

Debates over critical race theory are a thinly veiled proxy for deeper underlying struggles over the nature and limits of Black Christian involvement in a denomination founded in defense of slavery.

With this question, they join a veritable tradition of Black Christians who either self-consciously chose or unwittingly found themselves living and moving within the predominately white world of mainstream twentieth-century evangelicalism, only to eventually discover that there were limits to what they could say and do in white evangelical spaces shot-through with racism. In fact, twentieth-century evangelical history is replete with stories of Black, self-identified evangelicals like Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, William Bentley, William Pannell, and Edward Gilbreath who later recounted the difficulty of inhabiting a religious identity designed for, controlled, and policed by white evangelical leaders based on unacknowledged white cultural assumptions. Even while adhering to a long list of regnant evangelical orthodoxies, it often only took one discrepancy—voting Democrat, revering MLK, or protesting racism, among others—for such figures to have their evangelical credentials called in to question. The verdict? The limits of capital-E evangelical identity end where Black cultural touchstones begin. 

The departure of Beth Moore, one of the most influential religious teachers in a generation, from the SBC likewise is an example of a perennial test for the limits of mainstream evangelicalism. As a massively popular, high-profile teacher who also happens to be a woman in a denomination that prohibits women from preaching, Moore’s tenuous position as a teacher-but-not-preacher was tested and questioned when she refused to bow to the denomination’s prevailing pro-Trump orthodoxy. By driving Moore out of the SBC, evangelical leaders are once again doubling down on women’s subordination as a strict requirement of evangelical faithfulness.

This too is a verdict that evangelicalism has reached before, but that has been similarly difficult to enforce. Hierarchical gender roles undeniably became a hallmark of twentieth-century evangelical identity. But not until a variety of explicitly feminist evangelicals like Nancy Hardesty, Letha Scanzoni, and the late Virginia Ramey Mollenkott were sufficiently marginalized from mainstream evangelical discourse by the invention, rise, and spread of “complementarianism” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Egalitarian evangelical groups like Christians for Biblical Equality still exist of course, but their influence pales in comparison to complementarian groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the SBC—which fortuitously codified female subordination in its denominational statement of faith and simultaneously began positioning Southern Baptists as official capital-E evangelicals for the first time in the final years of the twentieth century. 

The deck remains stacked against those who might hope for a more open and egalitarian evangelical mainstream with enough room for insubordinate women and Black evangelicals alike.

Whether or not recent controversies over CRT and complementarianism in the SBC represent the beginnings of an evangelical reckoning remains to be seen. But if previous ad hoc verdicts about the limits of evangelical identity are any indication, the deck remains stacked against those who might hope for a more open and egalitarian evangelical mainstream with enough room for insubordinate women and Black evangelicals alike. Because the current powers that be in the evangelical establishment are likely to do everything within their power to ensure that evangelical identity remains calibrated primarily for white complementarians like themselves.

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