American evangelicals and race 1: pre-civil rights

Many whites express fatigue with the subject of race and feel like everything has been rectified with the legal changes wrought by civil rights. Now that Obama has been elected President, many feel like they can rest their case. Unfortunately, we’ve still got a long, long ways to go.  Years ago, Spencer Perkins wrote that given that America has been working on racializing society and oppressing blacks for three hundred years, we should not expect everything to be rectified in thirty? (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Rev ed. InterVarsity, 2000, 96.)

Looking at how the American church has responded to racial injustice over the years can be very instructive for our blindness to the present. emerson-divided-by-faithMichael Emerson and Christian Smith do exactly this type of analysis in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 22ff) Before the start of the eighteenth century, only Quakers and a few others opposed slavery. Once they saw its economic advantages, most Anglos began to feel like slavery was necessary for survival. Initially when slaves became Christians, they were freed. But when economic ramifications were realized, the church quickly modified its beliefs and liturgy to insure that they would not be considered as equal –i.e. “free” – brothers and sisters (p. 23).This same concern for economic success led George Whitfield, of the Great Awakening, to lobby Parliament for the introduction of slavery into America’s newest colony, Georgia, where slavery was initially forbidden (26). Eventually, an abolition movement arose – partially due to

a change of theology (the rise of postmillennialism), partially due to rhetoric arising out of the revolutionary war (“all men are created equal”), but perhaps mainly because the economy of the North and upper South no longer required slaves to sustain it (28). Still, only war – “the ultimate show of force and nonvolunteerism” (37) – was able to end slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, even the “hero” of Emancipation, Abraham Lincoln considered the black race inferior (it was agreed upon “common knowledge”). In fact, he wished to have blacks sent back to Africa. “[Because of the suffering we cause each other], we should be separated,” he said (Scott Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), 202ff).

After the Civil War, whites – particularly in the South – felt increasingly threatened by the economic and cultural gains of blacks. These gains threatened their vision of a largely Anglo-Saxon, Christian America (38). In order to subjugate blacks in social and economic life, Southerners instituted Jim Crow segregation laws. Northerners – where there were far fewer blacks –largely went back to ignoring the race problem (39). By the turn of the century, Northerners and Southerners had essentially the same views on race. Yet, during this period, George Marsden estimates that “over half of the U.S. Population and 85 percent of Protestants were evangelical (George Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 1990 cited by Emerson and Smith, 39). While Christians in this era roundly condemned lynching and mob violence, they believed race relations for the most part were running smoothly (40). If anything they pinned existing problems on the African Americans themselves. These problems existed because blacks were poor and uneducated, lacked the positive work habits and had a proclivity for crime. To remedy these problems, blacks needed to become Christians and receive training in self-discipline, moral control, and character building (40). Whites were eager to hold up any African-Americans who shared this view – like for example Booker T. Washington.

In the early part of the last century (1900’s) things were relatively calm, and Christians tended to emphasize individual race relations while ignoring the racialized system (42). Things heated up again after WWII with the “white flight” into new suburban neighborhoods and the resulting urban ghettos. The result of this was the well-known Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. While most of us are generally familiar with the resulting Civil Rights movement and support its changes, it is worth noting that evangelicals in the South resisted these changes, and northern evangelicals largely avoided any involvement (46).

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One thought on “American evangelicals and race 1: pre-civil rights

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Solomon and Barzilla Byerly of Greenville, Indiana engaged in slavery and indentured servants in 1849 according to court records. Slavery was abolished in Indiana in 1820. Lawbreakers, the Byerlys. They took the infant son of Mahala Sutherlin and signed him in as an indentured servant. Robert Floyd is listed on the 1850 Census as living in the household. So when Ben is talking about slavery, people better listen.

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