Why Racism Might Defeat American Evangelicalism: Part 2
In a recent post, I introduced a series titled “Why Racism Might Defeat American Evangelicalism.” I mentioned the classic 2001 study of Emerson and Smith (Divided by Faith) in which they identified the American evangelical movement as a predominate white racialized movement, based on their multiple telephone surveys and face-to-face interviews with those who identified as evangelicals. I also mentioned a few reasons racism might defeat the current evangelical movement in America. In this piece, I list four more reasons.
I initially wanted to end this second post by offering a word of hope grounded in the gospel. But, because of space constraints, this post focuses primarily on additional challenges of racism within the current American evangelical movement. I will write follow up posts focusing primarily on the hope of the gospel, and on practical ways to defeat racism in certain parts of American evangelicalism.
Conflation of Christian Identity with Political Identity
Certain American evangelicals conflate political identity with the Christian gospel. To them, to be a Christian is to be loyal to one political party over another. The recent presidential election demonstrated this point in that a large number of those who identify as evangelical voted for the current president. They did so even though his personal beliefs and behavioral patterns are not always consistent with what many would identify as evangelical beliefs or attributes.
Still, during the campaign season, one evangelical leader after another voiced support for the president. Some even justified support for him by asserting they were voting for the office of the presidency, and not for the office of a Sunday school teacher.
One wonders, however, why this same group of evangelicals didn’t apply the same principle to voting for President Obama when he ran twice for the presidency? The answer, in part, is because the term evangelical has now become equivalent with a predominately white and rightward-leaning political identity in certain evangelical spaces.
Even if one offers hard data to show this is not holistically the case in evangelicalism, there are those in some minority communities who at least perceive evangelicalism as a white, rightward-leaning political movement.
Democrats and Republicans have used Christians in past elections to sway segments of Christian voters to the polls to support them and their policies. To use the gospel as a means of gaining political support is biblically problematic, since the Christian gospel has no direct concern with either Republican or Democrat American political ideas or agendas.
Of course, there is at times overlap between the gospel and certain political virtues. But the gospel doesn’t endorse one American political party over another. Both political rightward-leaning and political leftward-leaning evangelicals who conflate Christianity with political identity ostracize many ethnic minority (and some white) communities within the evangelical movement, because ethnic minorities generally hold different political views from many of their white evangelical sisters and brothers.
Thus, if supporting a certain political agenda is a mark of American evangelical identity, then the current evangelical movement may begin to see fewer ethnic minority Christians identify as evangelical.
Merriam-Webster defines tokenism as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are treated fairly.” Behind tokenism is racism, because those who have token minority friends don’t love the token minority, and they certainly don’t care about hearing her or his ethnic minority voice on matters related to politics, theology, art, history, current affairs, business, culture, the bible, etc.
Rather, they love the appearance of not being identified as racist. That is, they want black and brown faces in white spaces, but not black and brown voices, contributions, or ideas in those spaces.
The token minority may be the safe minority whom those in the powerful majority feel comfortable including within their evangelical spaces. But this inclusion may come only after the token has received a stamp of approval from someone of prominence in the majority evangelical culture.
But, as soon as the token minority speaks or acts out of step with the ethnic majority evangelical culture on certain issues, certain folks within the ethnic majority evangelical culture may want to dissociate from the token minority because identifying with her or him is too much of a cultural cost. This dissociation may come to the token minority even when the token’s words and actions are in step with the truth of the gospel.
Sadly, this dissociation may be accompanied by slanderous accusations about how the token minority has abandoned the gospel or is playing the race card. But these accusations are code for “we no longer feel comfortable identifying with our token minority friend, because his words and actions remind us he is culturally different from us. These cultural differences simply make us uncomfortable. And if her or his cultural issues become our priorities, then we may lose some privileges in the evangelical community.”
To state the point bluntly, once a token evangelical minority says or does something that reminds certain people of her or his blackness or brownness (e.g. speak out against racism in evangelicalism or in the culture, constructively criticize a political candidate popular with majority cultural evangelicals, etc.) in ethnic majority evangelical culture, some within the majority (and even some from the evangelical ethnic minority) evangelical culture may want to shrink back from the token minority, or even sever their relationship.
If American evangelicalism has the sin of tokenism in its midst, racism will continue to be victorious in our denominations and institutions. Genuine, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered love for one another is lacking where tokenism is present.
Apathy toward Black and Brown Suffering
One cannot and should not reduce all of the challenges facing black and brown people to racism. Yet, racism has historically contributed to many of the challenges that have faced black and brown people in the American experience. And, yes, it’s also true there are many occasions when black and brown people have found themselves in difficult situations, because of bad decisions and self-inflicted wounds, added to their socially constructed racialized experiences.
However, when clear examples of black and brown suffering due to racial injustice are exposed—as well as other forms of racial discrimination against other groups—evangelicals should show compassion. Evangelicals should grieve when we see any form of human suffering.
And when this suffering arises because of clear examples of racism against people created in the image of God, we should care about those who suffer due to such racism instead of justifying, ignoring, or being blind to it. Racial apathy will not defeat the problem of racism in evangelical spaces. Instead, apathy will help racism thrive in American evangelicalism.
Black and Brown Exodus from Evangelical Spaces
Far too often, I talk with black and brown sisters and brothers frustrated with (what they describe as) racial apathy in American evangelicalism. They also struggle with attending or staying enrolled in certain white evangelical schools, and being members of certain white evangelical churches, denominations, or institutions, even when they are in complete theological agreement.
I’ve heard too many sad stories about a frustrated and discouraged black or brown man or woman who altogether abandons his or her evangelical faith, because neither felt that evangelicalism appreciated or valued her or his unique cultural contributions. I often hear black and brown evangelicals say they neither think their cultural story is even part of the American evangelical narrative that’s often told. Nor do they think fellow evangelicals even care about the black and brown parts of the American evangelical story.
Thus, certain black and brown women and men who were once part of the evangelical community have left it. They perceive it as a politically, rightward-leaning white movement. And they think some evangelical spaces want to colonize black and brown people to forget their cultural heritages, to become culturally white, or to embrace one political identity over another before being admitted as full participants within the American evangelical movement.
In my view, one of the worst things that could happen to the complex American evangelical movement would be a mass exodus of black and brown evangelicals and churches from evangelical denominations and spaces.
The evangelical movement, as complex as it is, is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse in certain parts of the US. To survive, it needs the beautiful ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of minority evangelical women and men. But if black and brown evangelicals continue to leave evangelical denominations and churches and spaces, and if they begin to leave at larger numbers in the future, while the US continues to increase its black and brown demographic, the American evangelical movement stands no chance in defeating racism in American evangelical spaces.
In part 3, I offer a word of hope grounded in the gospel for American evangelicals.