By The Rev. H. Gene Straatmeyer
George Gallup wanted to know if racism was still prevalent among Christians in this new century and he did it by measuring the response of Christians to an African American family moving in next door. What he discovered was that racism still exists among Christians, and evangelical Christians are twice as likely to oppose black neighbors as are non-evangelical Christians.
Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their book, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” come to a very harsh conclusion. They conclude that “White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate a radicalized society than to reduce it.”
The weakness of evangelical theology on racism is twofold: first, the belief that the only way to solve social problems is to change individual hearts and second, the lack of understanding of the structural causes of inequality. That is why evangelical leaders were almost entirely absent during the Civil Rights Movement. Some, like Billy Graham, were silent, while others openly supported segregation.
This flawed theology was in place when I first went to Mississippi in the early 1960’s. Accompanied by my wife, we didn’t tell our parents or congregation where we were going because they didn’t understand what the Christian faith had to do with the Civil Rights Movement. As Christians, our parents, and others of their generation, were taught that the mission of the church was to evangelize – nothing else. In their theology, anyone who was involved with Civil Rights was branded a liberal (a lover of “the social gospel”), not a positive label then – or now, with evangelicals.
Jim Wallis of “Sojourners” says he was invited to leave his church over the issue of race when he started asking about the black/white problems in his hometown of Detroit. Parishioners said, “Christianity has nothing to do with racism.” If so, he argues, why was the primary theme of Paul’s missionary journeys to reconcile two peoples, Gentiles and Jews – in the body of Christ?”
Ronald J. Sider, a professor at Eastern Baptist Seminary says “Social influences have a profound impact on people in one direction or another… Bad structures foster immoral behavior. Good systems encourage moral actions…. If we understand this, we will work to overcome racism and economic injustice through both personal and structural strategies.” He adds that when asked to explain the lack of equality between blacks and whites, conservative Christians are six times more likely to cite the lack of motivation than unequal access to education. Eighty-seven percent of evangelicals said the best way to end racism is to get to know a person of another race personally, not to integrate neighborhoods.
Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, attempted to push individual black/white friendships. His belief was, “God moves in one heart at a time. The way to change men (is) to change their hearts.” So, he went on a national speaking tour advocating racial reconciliation. He later reported the results of the tour in his book, “Sold Out.” He said everywhere he went he was greeted with wild enthusiasm but when he finished the speech on his plan for racial reconciliation, what followed was “a morgue-like chill.” He later concluded that “a major reason attendance dropped dramatically in Promise Keepers’ stadium events was his stand on racial reconciliation.”
Ron Sider points out how important it is for Christians to eliminate racial bias in their own lives and in their churches. He says “Evangelicals may have some good biblical theology about the body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black or white, but if they do not work out this theology in practice, such that white evangelicals welcome black neighbors and work to end racist structures, then…the whole thing stinks.”
He further argues that Wilberforce and other Christian abolitionists, in their attempt to end slavery, didn’t argue that the only way to stop this horrible treatment of human beings was to convert all the slave holders. They argued, instead, that it would take a new law to make slaveholding illegal. The status of slaves changed only when the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, made slavery illegal.
So prejudice continues among Christians and in their churches long after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and remains a problem today. Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week. Even when African Americans are Christians, those Anglos who harbor racist beliefs, don’t want them as relatives, don’t want them in their neighborhoods and don’t want them in their churches. Such believers are Christian segregationists. Ron Sider calls this a “scandal of the evangelical conscience.”
Rotary International has committed itself to eliminating polio in the world. We Christians should do the same with the sin of racism. To do that, we will have to engage in a prophetic ministry to change the laws that keep people of color in poverty, denies them justice in the courts and keeps them from being accepted in their neighborhoods. In addition there is an urgent need to let Christ’s love be seen in us. I’m betting that Jesus wouldn’t have been found in Gallup’s poll as one objecting to a black family as a next door neighbor.
And I can’t help but wonder how racism will affect our next election. I hear too many people, some of whom are Christians, use the “n” word when they talk about our President. I can’t speak for non-Christians but I can speak to Christians. Using the “n” word is way out of bounds for a follower of Christ and particularly when speaking about the office of President, which requires our respect.