Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is associate minister at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, director of the School for Conversion, and author of Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good.
When Jimmy Carter told Americans he had been “born again” in 1976, the phrase was strange enough outside of evangelical church culture that political reporters had to explain what an evangelical was. Nearly half a century later, most Americans know exactly what a reporter means when she writes about the influence of the “evangelical vote.” Ironically, President Carter no longer fits the profile. The popular imagination of “evangelical” as a reactionary white culture of religious nationalism is the result of four decades of organizing by the religious right in America. But it is also the by-product of the broader Christian community’s failure to offer a robust alternative witness in American public life. This imbalance has led to an identity crisis for Christians who are raced “white” in America. In short, we have come to a juncture where we are being forced to choose between membership in a race and membership in the universal body of Christ.
We have come to a juncture where we are being forced to choose between membership in a race and membership in the universal body of Christ.
How did we get here? The conflation of white culture and Christian identity is a syncretism as old as the idea of whiteness itself. Whether you trace the beginnings of whiteness to the acts of the Virginia Assembly in the seventeenth century or to the writings of divines like Cotton Mather in colonial New England, white citizenship in America was blessed by Christian voices from the very beginning of the American story. Many of the abolitionists who resisted the notion that God had ordained white men to own their human siblings also acted as people of faith. Quakers, dissident Baptists, and Black Christians—both enslaved and free—insisted upon a fundamental distinction between the Christianity of slaveholders and the Christianity of Jesus Christ. Every major U.S. denomination in the nineteenth century split over this distinction, a generation before the nation was divided by Civil War.
The church in America has not reckoned with our complicity in perpetuating what Frederick Douglass dubbed “slaveholding religion,” over and against the abolitionist Christianity that challenged America’s racial allegiances. I have written about how the theological and practical accommodations of slaveholder religion shaped a distorted Christianity in America that never went away, even when the slavery it justified was abolished. When Southern white preachers called upon their congregations to “redeem” the South from Northern occupation and “Negro rule” in the 1870s, most white Christians opted for national unity over the cries for justice from formerly enslaved people and their allies who were terrorized by lynch mobs. When a Social Gospel emerged in the late-nineteenth century to challenge racism, as well as the ravages of corporate greed of factories that valued profit over people, many Christians—Black and white—again recognized the tension between a faith that props up the status quo and the Jesus who calls disciples to stand in solidarity with the disinherited of the earth. But Christian libertarianism once again blessed an unjust system and taught white Christians to understand their faith as a personal relationship with God that fit neatly with the emerging free market faith of their corporate sponsors.
The church in America has not reckoned with our complicity in perpetuating what Frederick Douglass dubbed 'slaveholding religion,' over and against the abolitionist Christianity that challenged America’s racial allegiances.
If we listen closely to the most prominent moral voices of the mid-twentieth century—think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day—they challenged Christians to choose between the lies America has too often accepted about who we are and the truth Jesus proclaimed when he declared “blessed are the poor.” Their prophetic challenge to white Christians was to choose between a faith that accommodates injustices based on racial identity and a faith that compels us to work for a new world in the way of Jesus. But rather than “choose this day whom ye will serve,” as the Bible commands, much of American Christianity chose to preach a Jesus who offers eternal salvation and personal peace without getting too involved in the affairs of this world.
In the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter faced a backlash from white Southerners because the IRS would not allow them to turn their churches into segregation academies, organizers of the New Right in American politics saw an opportunity to build a white voting bloc based on faith rather than race. What we now call the “religious right” was organized by political operatives who convinced preachers like Jerry Falwell, who had been apolitical, that their “family values” and “biblical worldview” were threatened by an American electorate that was becoming less white. Between the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which re-enfranchised millions of Black voters, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which opened the door to non-white immigrants from around the world, the Civil Rights Movement created the possibility of a multi-ethnic democracy in America. The religious right was founded as a twentieth-century redemption movement to take back the nation for white people in the name of God.
The religious right was founded as a twentieth-century redemption movement to take back the nation for white people in the name of God.
Whether we look at the recent rise of “ex-vangelicals,” the steady departure of “nones” over the past three decades, or the decision by prominent insiders like Beth Moore and Charlie Dates to “leave loud,” most indicators of a reckoning within evangelicalism today are best understood as a response to the culture wars that the religious right created to recruit white Christians as a reliable voting bloc for the Republican Party. By pitting a white cultural identity against immigrants, non-white neighbors, science, and the “liberal media,” the religious right has consistently told white Christians that their faith compels them to side against their neighbors. In some places this has worked to sustain a culture that produces a reliable base each election cycle. But the law of diminishing returns—as well as a shrinking white majority—has compelled the organizers of the religious right to become more extreme, compelling many to side with their neighbors over the distorted religious narrative they have been sold.
While such an identity crisis is certainly agonizing for individuals and uncertain for religious institutions, it may well be the moment that forces white Christians to face the question we have successfully evaded for 400 years—namely, whether we will follow Jesus or continue to accept a slaveholder religion that accommodates injustice. If we are willing to make our choice for Jesus, the good news of the Gospel is that God has always been able to raise up from among the rejected stones of this world the human resources to reconstruct society. Though our institutions have often ignored them, such witnesses have been among us all along the journey of this story we call America. Whenever we can commit ourselves to follow their lead, a new kind of Christian identity is possible in American life.
Whatever we call it, this new religious movement offers the promise of a shared identity beyond the racial lies that have perpetuated so much injustice in our common life.
My own experience over the past decade has been that just such an awakening is happening on the edges of our ecclesial and para-church institutions. As a part of today’s Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, I have worked among movements organized by low-wage workers, undocumented immigrants, water protectors on Native lands, and voting rights activists; I have met faith-rooted people who, even though they no longer attend worship services in a church, still know that their work to build beloved community is creating spaces where Jesus is present. When we sing freedom songs or cry out prayers for justice in those spaces, our public worship is akin to the camp meetings of the early nineteenth century where the Second Great Awakening broke out, elevating new voices of authority in American religious life and radically altering the structures of ecclesial membership as people who experienced soul salvation founded new denominations without the sanction of existing church authorities.
Yes, American evangelicalism is dying. And yes, a new faith community is getting born. Whatever we call it, this new religious movement offers the promise of a shared identity beyond the racial lies that have perpetuated so much injustice in our common life. May God speed the day when this new thing grows large enough to choke out the last weeds of slaveholder religion.