The White Evangelical Christians’ Revisionist Civil Rights History

Some of their leaders are trying to rewrite their roles in major historical moments.

You can rest assured that a major movement is underway in this country when the Mississippi Baptist Convention calls for state leaders to adopt a new state flag, eliminating the inclusion of the confederate flag. Calls are going out for white evangelicals to join in efforts to support the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. That is a good thing.

But even among some who are willing to embrace the overall goals, we are witnessing an attempt to co-opt the anti-racist movements of our past. For example, Joshua Lawson points to verses in the Bible that provide “instructions on how to live in harmony with our fellow brothers and sisters.” But he also wants to claim that he is part of a tradition that was at the forefront of former movements on behalf of civil rights in this country.

Believers living out Christ’s commands to love God and love their neighbors as themselves led the West’s push to abolish slavery. Christians acting out a sincere application of the gospel were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, a movement steeped in the biblical message of neighborly love.

Lawson is right to suggest that there were white Christian leaders in the abolitionist movement, such as John G. Fee. But one of the founders of Christian nationalism as we know it today was Robert Lewis Dabney, an anti-abolitionist, who argued that opposing slavery was “tantamount to rejecting Christianity.” He is perhaps best known for developing a pro-slavery theology that fused religion with a racialized form of nationalism.

When it comes to the involvement of Christians in the Civil Rights Movement to end Jim Crow, Lawson names Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams, James Lawson, and John Lewis. It is true that all of them are Christians. But they also share another thing in common: none of them are white.

Nothing speaks more powerfully to the positioning of white evangelical Christians during the Civil Rights Movement than the letter eight Birmingham ministers wrote in April 1963 titled “A Call for Unity.”

We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

The day that statement was released, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and a month later, Sheriff Bull Connor was using fire hoses and dogs against nonviolent protesters in Birmingham. Five months later, four little girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. There was, in fact, no “new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems” in Birmingham.

It was that statement from white ministers that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote this.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

It was also Martin Luther King, Jr. who, one year later, made the observation that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”

The truth is that, while King lived, the best he got from white evangelicals Christians was distance, and the worst was outright condemnation. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s wasn’t seen as something to be embraced in the spirit of brother/sisterly love, but as a threat to the established order.

One has to wonder if Lawson ever actually read or listened to what King had to say, because he winds up sounding an awful lot like those white ministers in Birmingham.

[The Apostle] Paul shows the choice is neither to dismiss the cries of the angry nor to condone mob violence or vigilante justice. The Christian solution is to empathize with those who are hurting and then to have faith in the fixtures of civilized society to discharge justice as best as possible, knowing God will deliver the final justice in the end…

All Christians can, with confidence, emphatically say the words “black lives matter,” a statement that is resoundingly true. What they should not condone, however, is the BLM movement that removes the forgiveness, hope, and peace of the gospel and replaces those core values with continual protest, fear, and anger.

White evangelicals who are willing to open their minds and hearts to the struggle for equality in this country are to be commended. But a big part of that process is learning from history and not making the same mistakes as those who came before us.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.