Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Matthew J. Hall)

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The movie Selma reminds us that white clergy protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and other African Americans in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights. But it also reminds us—as Anthony Bradley recently observed—that many of those clergy were from the North and were Protestant mainliners, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic. One has to wonder: where were the conservative evangelicals?

I recently posed the following questions to several historians who have studied segregation and religion in the Southern United States during the years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the Civil Rights Movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States? Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes? How did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?

I will be posting the historians’ answers at this blog throughout the week. [See now the responses by Sean LucasRusty Hawkins, and Carolyn Dupont.]

MJHThe first respondent is Matthew J. Hall (Ph.D., University of Kentucky), who serves as vice president of academic services at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also teaches courses in church history and American history. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Essential Evangelicalism: The Enduring Legacy of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway). His dissertation was on “Cold Warriors in the Sunbelt: Southern Baptists and the Cold War, 1947-1989.” You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewJHall.

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As a historian who is also a Southern Baptist, I am in something of a perpetual quandary. In all of my research on the long history of racial justice and the black freedom movement, I find that my fellow churchmen who supported the cause of justice were more often the exception, not the rule. Instead, my research—and that of historians far more accomplished than me—makes quite clear that white evangelicals throughout the South were overwhelmingly opposed to the civil rights movement. They may have couched their opposition in more genteel ways than the Klan—yes, the White Citizens Councils would do the job—but oppose it they did nonetheless.

A couple caveats here. First, it’s worth noting that the evangelical canopy has always been a broad and unwieldy one. Broad enough to include Anabaptists and Campbellites, Wesleyans and Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Lutherans—we should be leery of speaking of it in monolithic terms. But it does seem that in its most traditional forms, regardless of geography, evangelicals were often those not only skeptically removed from the civil rights movement, but directly opposed to it. There were notable exceptions, of course. And, as noted by historians such as David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway, there has always been a stream within the broader evangelical river that has prioritized social action and justice.

But it does seem self-evident that, in the main, white evangelicals—particularly those in the South—were deeply invested in efforts to either uphold Jim Crow or to try to slow down its dismantling. While a previous generation of historians suggested this was symptomatic of “cultural captivity,” I’m not so sure. In fact, in many cases, it seems that evangelical theology—or at least distorted models of it—were part of the reason segregationist beliefs and structures took shape the way they did. The unfortunate reality isn’t that evangelical theology in the South was muted when it came to racial justice, it’s that it was actively used to undermine justice and to perpetuate a demonic system. And that’s the cruelest historical irony of it all: those who loved the “old rugged cross” were often also those who torched crosses in protest of desegregation.

Why was this? Why did this particular subgrouping of evangelicals seem especially vulnerable to this cultural and theological blindness? It was a malady not unique to southern white evangelicals, but it did afflict them in particularly pronounced ways. Let me try to give some historical reasons.

1. Many white southern evangelicals had a deficient doctrine of sin.

Let me be clear. These evangelicals had a very clear understanding of the personal realities of behavior contrary to revealed biblical norms, or at least a somewhat selective list of them. But where they fell short was in articulating a fully-orbed doctrine of sin, one that has deep roots in the Christian tradition and is far more pessimistic about the extent and effects of sin. A classic Protestant understanding of sin might have helped them recognize the ways in which sin infects not only personal individual choices, but also social structures, economic systems, legal codes, etc. But by relegating sin only to the realm of individual choice, it allowed white evangelicals to denounce anything broader as political entanglement that had no connection to Christian ethics or witness.

2. White evangelicals often capitulated to the racist hysteria surrounding fears of intermarriage.

Those who denounced the civil rights movement routinely trotted out the allegation that the cause was fundamentally about “mixing the races” and marrying off blacks and whites. For many southern whites, the thought of their white daughter married and sexually united to a black man was unfathomable. A long and horrendous tradition had developed citing clumsily applied biblical passages that were purported to demonstrate God’s prohibition of such marriages. Evangelicals should have known better and been immune to such poor biblical interpretation. But when opponents of the civil rights movement tried to delegitimize the movement by “warning” of the secret motives of its leaders, far too many evangelicals were susceptible to their tactics.

3. White southern evangelicals were blinded by their majority status to the injustice around them.

Other historians have noted that blacks and whites often inhabited two different worlds. Southern whites often thought they knew the world of subordinate blacks, assuming all was well in the racial hierarchy. Jim Crow allowed for southern whites—including the large number of them who claimed membership in churches—to sincerely believe that everyone within the system was content. Only a few “troublemakers” ever seemed to voice dissent, and those that did often could end up on the other end of a rope, hanging from a lynching tree due to allegations of some impropriety or questionable criminal allegation. In part, this helps explain why so many southern whites excoriated the civil rights movement as merely the fabrication of a group of “outside agitators” sent in to stir up strife among the otherwise docile and happy black population. While they were eventually disabused of that notion, it seemed to them to be the only rational explanation for the powder keg that seemed to have exploded out of nowhere.

4. White southern evangelicals imbibed and perpetuated the Lost Cause mythology.

Developing at the end of Reconstruction and the closing of the nineteenth century, white southerners constructed memories of the Old South and the Civil War that perpetuated assumptions about white superiority, the necessity of racial segregation, and the seemingly victimized status of the region. It found expression among trained historians, but at the more popular level—one deeply infused with religious meaning—it became even more influential as a form of civil religion. For many southern whites, including evangelicals, it provided a worldview that told them that slavery was an unfortunate institution that would have naturally run its course, that the South was marked by a different chivalrous—and more Christian—moral code than the rest of the nation, that the “War of Northern Aggression” was an unconstitutional incursion into southern states’ rights, and that the South still represented the only great hope for long term American stability and prosperity. Well in place by the 1950s, the Lost Cause mythology inoculated massive numbers of white southerners—including Jesus-loving, gospel-preaching, soul-winning churchgoers—to be leery of anything that suggested that the status quo was characterized by injustice and unrighteousness.

Evangelicals are right to prioritize the work of racial reconciliation and its rooting in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But reconciliation by its very nature requires some sometimes unpleasant conversations and mutual understanding to answer the question, “How did we get here?” I’m hopeful for the future of evangelical racial reconciliation in part because I see a new generation willing to look to the past with honesty and to listen, even when it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant. Even more, I am confident that the gospel that reconciles sinners to God and to one another is as powerful as ever.


Editors’ note: The 2015 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit, sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26 and 27, 2015. To learn more go here. Save 20 percent when you use the code TGC20.

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