Amid Culture War Over Racial Unity in the Church, Could Black Christians be the Ones to Save the Evangelical Movement?

Photo credit: Boyoun Kim

Not long ago, when Southern Baptists in Knox County, Tenn., invited Walter Strickland to speak at one of their meetings, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Mr. Strickland, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is one of the few African-American scholars teaching at a Southern Baptist seminary. He has made his career in the midst of a culture war: not the familiar clash between progressives and conservatives, but a battle within the ranks of conservative evangelicalism.

When he arrived, he “parked strategically by the exit, facing out,” he told me, in case he needed to make a quick getaway from the roomful of evangelicals who might not like what he had to say about institutional racism. Yet the Knox County Baptists kept him late, peppering him with thoughtful questions. “I almost missed my flight,” he said, laughing.

Many white evangelicals say they want to cultivate diverse congregations and dispel the liberal image of the racist, pro-Trump evangelical. “I think people are hungrier for this conversation,” said Mr. Strickland, who travels around the country to advise Christians on how to recognize and mitigate systemic racism. “The reality of Donald Trump and all the issues we’ve faced since his candidacy have really hardened the hearts of some, but it’s also ripped many people even farther away from conflating the Republican Party with the party of Christ.”

Some of the Christian right’s most prominent leaders have split over Mr. Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric. They disagree over how to fulfill the earthly duties of Christians — especially the obligation to make this fallen world look more like the Kingdom of God foretold in the Book of Revelation, when people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” shall stand together “before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Last spring, two influential conservative evangelical groups hosted a splashy conference in Memphis called “MLK50” to “reflect on the state of racial unity in the church and the culture” on the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But other conservatives complained that the event was, as one writer put it, “dripping with critical race theory, intersectionality and cultural Marxism.”

A few months later, the prominent California evangelist John MacArthur, along with like-minded conservatives, published a proclamation denying “that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” More than 10,000 supporters signed his statement.

Conservatives’ theological objections to these discussions of racism and socio-economic inequality are hardly new. They echo the old fundamentalist charge against the Social Gospelers: that Christians who focus too much on trying to reform the unjust institutions of this world risk playing down the call to salvation in the hereafter — and also become pawns of godless social engineers.

They have adopted an evangelical version of the “colorblind conservatism” that has steadily gained traction since the 1960s, when Republicans began accusing proponents of desegregation and affirmative action of stoking identitarian conflict and “reverse racism.” “It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity,” Mr. MacArthur wrote last summer. “They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they seem to disdain in favor of fleshly factions.”

But this old debate has taken a new turn. Mr. MacArthur’s statement on social justice provoked a backlash from fellow conservatives, like R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He cautioned that “part of what it means to be made in God’s image is that we are accountable to divine justice and to seeking, through human flourishing, to see God’s justice reflected in a fallen world.” Mr. Mohler helped to purge his seminary of moderate faculty members in the 1990s, but last year he commissioned a report about the school’s complicity in the “horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”

“A lot of the people I’d consider my spiritual fathers or heroes of the faith, people I look up to, for the first time that I can remember, there are serious disagreements between them,” Adam Robles, who helps lead a small church in Rutland, Vt., told me. He signed Mr. MacArthur’s statement.

Mr. Robles, who is Puerto Rican, started a YouTube channel in 2017 “to respond to the social justice stuff,” he said. “I’ve mostly gone to multiethnic churches in my life,” he told me. But he worries that as more Christians try “to attain this supposed ideal of the multiethnic church, they end up breaking the commands of God in other ways, showing partiality.” He said that criticizing the vogue for affirmative action and multiculturalism has become so politically toxic among evangelicals that he half-jokingly calls himself part of “the Evangelical Intellectual Dark Web.”

Do conservatives like Mr. Robles actually have reason to be on the defensive? After all, white evangelicals have been paying polite attention to racial justice and claiming to celebrate diversity for decades. Their intentions may be sincere, but their actions have generally seemed shallow. “You get solutions like: We’re going to hire an African-American person on staff; we’re going to change up our worship and music style,” said Will Acuff, who trained as a pastor before cofounding Corner to Corner, a faith-based nonprofit group in Nashville. “The churches gravitate toward the simplest things you can measure and quantify.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Molly Worthen