The lingering ‘color line’ scandal in American Christianity – Baptist News Global


In addition to Halloween yesterday, many in the Protestant Christian world celebrated Reformation Day, commemorating the time when Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. This is commonly understood as the triggering event that led to the birth of Protestantism, the break with the Roman Catholic Church, which produced, in the American context alone, about 200 confessions.

With Luther as a model in Christian circles, these schisms are for the most part explained in theological terms. But I thought back to a different understanding of denominationalism that sheds important light on the racial calculation we face again in this country, as well as the complicity of white Christian churches that have led the way.

Almost a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr denounced what he called “the social sources of confessionalism” in American Christianity. His book bearing this name questioned the internal church scenario that the proliferation of Protestant denominations was due to intra-church theological disputes. They have often relied on competing scriptural evidence texts for legitimacy regarding issues such as the correct method of baptism, the organization of the church, understanding the distinctions between clergy and laity, design and number. sacraments, and the use of instruments, icons and stained glass.

Niebuhr, however, argued that these divisions “have their roots primarily in the relationship between religious life and the cultural and political conditions prevailing in any group of Christians.” He sent a sharp warning to those who readily believe in the stories Christians tell each other about these shattered identities: “Only the purest novice in history will seek the explanation of such opinions in the texts of proof which they claim. derive.

The “moral failure of Christianity”

Beyond a simple lack of Christian unity, Niebuhr argued that these schisms reflected something much more outrageous. The “evils of confessionalism”, as he put it, lie in the fact that the divisions were not only honest theological disagreements between Christians of goodwill, but rather the acquiescence of Christians and churches to the prevailing prejudices of culture in the broad sense.

Reinhold Niebuhr

In a remarkable passage, Niebuhr sets out his indictment against this “moral failure of Christianity”:

Confessionalism in the Christian Church is such an unrecognized hypocrisy…. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of human society…. The division of churches closely follows the division of men into castes of national, racial and economic groups. He draws the colored line in the church of God; it maintains the misunderstandings, the self-exaltations, the hatreds of chauvinistic nationalism by perpetuating in the body of Christ the false differences of provincial loyalties; he sets the rich and the poor apart at the Lord’s table, where the fortunate can enjoy the bounty they have provided while others feed on the scraps offered by their poverty.

Predictable Faith Affiliations

Niebuhr’s indictment is still pending a century later.

Even among non-Hispanic white Christians, you can still, with considerable accuracy, predict denominational affiliation from variables such as income and education levels alone. A friend told a true story that captures this reality. When he asked his father how they became Presbyterians, the answer came back, “Well, your grandfather was a Baptist. But he made enough money that we could ignore the Methodist and go right over to the Presbyterian. ”

Growing up in our white working-class corner of Jackson, Mississippi – though we’ve never expressed it so explicitly – we considered ourselves happy above the Pentecostals down the road, aspiring to compete with the Methodists in our neighborhood. , and resentfully below Episcopalians across town, at least when you bother to think about it.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s lament that 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America remains largely true. Only 16 percent of American churches today are multiracial churches. And there is growing evidence, as I noted in an article for Information service on religion this summer, which the few African Americans who have ventured into evangelical white spaces are reconsidering after the unwavering support this group has given to a president whom a majority (57 percent) of Americans see as encourage white supremacist groups.

These racial divisions in the church are not just accidental or intentional due to cultural differences, as history tells in white Christian circles.

These racial divisions in the church are not just accidental or intentional due to cultural differences, as history tells in white Christian circles. Instead, the borders were guarded with “white-only” membership policies, city ordinances, and even deacons posted on the porch as bouncers, with sheriffs as executors, to prevent non- Whites to enter the sanctuary.

The last campaign by Medgar Evers before he was shot in his own driveway was an unsuccessful effort to integrate white Christian churches in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. What about the man who pulled the trigger? A white member in good standing of a Delta Episcopal Church.

Two opposing groups

Across academia, cultural and political differences between Christians based on race and ethnicity remain so pronounced and stable that social scientists, including our research team at PRRI, routinely screen those who identify as Christians in surveys by race and ethnicity so that their analysis corresponds to real-world divisions.

In the religious landscape, no two groups have more opposing voting patterns and political attitudes than White Evangelicals and African American Protestants, a majority of whom also see themselves as born again or evangelical. The AP Votecast 2020 presidential exit poll, for example, showed that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, while 92% of black Protestants voted for Joe Biden. Notably, this is a wider gap than between white evangelicals and Americans without religious affiliation.

Even the term “evangelical” – the English translation of a Greek word in the New Testament literally meaning “good news” – is linked to different identities and values, depending on the race of the adherent. According to PRRI data As of August, nine in 10 (90 percent) of black Protestants who identify as evangelical / born again have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, including more than seven in 10 who have very unfavorable views of the former president. In contrast, white evangelical Protestants have a favorable two-to-one opinion of Trump (66% in favor, 34% against). And it’s not just about Trump. White Evangelical Protestants are more than twice as likely as Black Evangelical Protestants to believe, for example, that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” (50 percent versus 22 percent).

“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. ”

“The color line”

Niebuhr’s 1929 reference to “the color line” was inspired by WEB Dubois’ use of the term two decades earlier in Souls of black folk. Thinking back 60 years to the eclipse of the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction and the dawn of a new century, DuBois said, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.

While working on White too long, a devastating idea became clear to me: given the cultural, political and moral power that white Protestant Christianity wielded in America, it was historically the most capable and responsible institution to end slavery , segregation and other forms of racial discrimination and oppression.

If at any time in our history we white Protestant Christians were united with a bugle “No!” To white supremacy, the country could have taken a different path. We still have to do it. Tragically, a hundred years later, the color line continues to be the problem of the 21st century. May we be the generation that will prevent this from being true for another century.

Robert P. Jones (Photo by Noah Willman)

Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of PRRI and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, which won a 2021 American Book Award.

This column originally appeared on the Robert P. Jones sub-stack #WhiteTooLong. In partnership with the author and PRRI, every Monday BNG will feature a new Jones column.

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The Color of Compromise: The Racist Legacy of American Christianity Calls for “Repentance and Redress” | Opinion of Bill Leonard

The colors of America | Comment from Michael Malloy

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