Friday, December 04, 2020

Jones - White too long: The legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity

The bottom line of Robert P. Jones’ White too long: The legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity (2020) is that the Christian church in America was founded and sustained by many who perceived themselves as faithful to God’s purpose in their lives while being equally adamant that they were justified in subjugating and owning other human beings - slaves. Jones identified a letter
from the Reverend Basil Manly, Sr. on November 25, 1844, to the Baptist Triennial Convention as the impetus to establish the Southern Baptist Convention in 1859, which had the explicit purpose of allowing members of this Christian denomination to own slaves and force their uncompensated labor. It wasn’t only Baptists - around this time “Virtually all of the major white mainline Protestant denominations split over the issue of slavery” (locator 135).

While slavery was officially defeated in the Civil War, the south quickly replaced it with Jim Crow laws that forced segregation and continued to victimize former slaves. Dedication to white supremacy (beliefs and practices based on the fundamental belief that white people are more valued than others) persisted in the south and throughout the Christian church. This period in the southern states, dubbed as the “Redemption,” used the key Christian ideas of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation as metaphors for the suffering they experienced as white plantation and slave owners during and after the Civil War.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations began to recognize the devastation of slavery and segregation and made official statements against racism and discrimination. Sadly, the white supremacist backstory continued unabated and members of churches throughout the U.S.A. to this day hold views of African Americans that are significantly more negative than those who are not affiliated with any faith community.

I’ve struggled to understand why all Christians (and other people of faith) can’t see that the Bible and other religious books clearly call us to challenge injustice, racism, and economic inequality. Jones offered very helpful insight into this question in his description of the premilliennialist and postmilliennialist perspectives held among Christians.

Jones explained that a premillennialist theology sees the present world as a sinful place dominated by fallen humanity, which will continue to decline until the second coming of Christ. This view is common among many white Christians today and is most distinctive in the teaching that each individual has a personal relationship with God and that, while each Christian waits for Christ to return to set the world right, the focus should be on one’s own spirituality. The premillennialist “white evangelic cultural tool kit”… is based on a view that moral vision is restricted “to the personal and interpersonal realms”… involving “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (locator 1559).


By contrast, the postmilliennialist view is that “Christ will return… only when society has advanced sufficiently toward the ideal of a Christian civilization” (locator 1488). The postmilliennialist theology thereby requires putting the teachings of Christ in action in one’s daily life and working toward a more just, equitable, and humane society. It is easy to see how the differences in these views result in radically different notions of Christian faith and responsibility.


Jones’ book includes conclusive evidence of how southern whites sought to preserve white supremacy through laws and symbols that portrayed the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. The common view of Confederate statuary and memorials (1,747 documented in July 2019 by the Southern Poverty Law Center), many of which were enshrined in Christian churches, is that they represent an honorable history that must be preserved in order to understand ourselves better as a nation. No, the “lost cause” movement came in the 1920s and through to the 1950s as an assertion of white supremacy and a strong message “marking the territory and resisting black equality and empowerment” (locator 1922).

Jones also provides an extensive summary of surveys confirming the preservation of white supremacist views among many evangelical Christians as well as other mainline denominations. Evidence indicates that the sparks of white supremacy within Christian churches have been fueled by the perceived decline of white identity and culture and that this is a primary driver of right-wing extremism (locator 1698), a view that was reinforced in a recent Christian Science Monitor article titled, "Will 'stolen election' become a new 'lost cause' for evangelicals?" This article described the Jericho March on Washington, D.C. of December 12-13, an event based on the belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. The organizers of the march called on "all patriots and people of faith" to come together "until the walls of voter fraud and corruption fall down and the American people are allowed to see the truth about this election." The march featured prominent evangelicals, Michael Flynn, and was encouraged by Trump, including a fly-over in his helicopter on his way to a golf outing. And, of course, we can now look back at the December 12-13 gathering as a prelude to the January 6, 2022, insurrection and assault on the U.S. Capital.

A tragic example of contemporary Christians taking a stance that advocates measures that embrace white supremacy is Grove City College. Responding to parent and alumni complaints, Grove City's Board of Trustees sponsored and then endorsed a report that guts its diversity and inclusion efforts, taking the institution back 100 years. The Open Letter to the Board of Trustees by Jemar Tisby is beautifully written from a Christian standpoint and challenge's the Board's action.

While Jones provided examples of how some Christian leaders have awakened to their responsibility in calling out racism and discrimination in the church, he concluded at the end of the book (locator 3619) that “What few whites perceive, and this is a truth that has come late to me, is that we have far more at stake than our black fellow citizens in setting this right.” “…how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationship with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God” is the reckoning that is no longer avoidable.

No comments: