The church in the age of MLK: the culture and us

mlk_giving-speechThanks to the memory section on Facebook, an article written by Dr. Anthony Bradley popped up from two years that I shared titled The KKK, Selma, and Southern Christianity. It was a raw reflection from seeing the movie Selma but also being from the South, he knew all too well the realities that existed for black citizens especially having parents that lived through Jim Crow.

But he makes a specific point regarding the church;

As a theologian, this is where the movie became really interesting. Those who joined King were mainly Jewish, Protestant mainliners from the North, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox. Conspicuously absent were conservative Protestant evangelicals, especially those from the South. In fact, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America was the highest ranking non-black religious figure in America to join King in the Selma march. This raised several questions for me: What was different about Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions that allowed them to freely join the fight for voting rights while evangelicals chose to do nothing or join the cause to support Jim Crow? Where were the Calvinists who believed in total depravity? Where were the evangelicals? Where was Billy Graham? Where were the Jonathan Edwards fans? Where were the Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, Methodists, and so on? I am asking because I do not understand.

What is it about southern evangelicalism that prevented those churches historically from seeing the plight of blacks as connected to the Gospel and the command to love God and neighbor? Maybe there is a real deep theological flaw in what is known as “evangelical theology?” Maybe the evangelicalism of the 1940s, 50s and 60s did not really understand the Gospel as clearly as many are lead to believe. I honestly do not have the answers to these questions but if evangelicals were so blinded by these issues during the Civil Rights Movement it makes me wonder what evangelicals might be missing today.

These are great questions, especially considering the fiercest defenders of segregation were evangelical Christians. A common retort that I’ve heard is that people weren’t really Christians. I think that’s a cop out. But perhaps the answers are probably more obvious and sobering than we might think. I believe the cultural forces that saw black citizens as inherently undeserving of equal rights and treatment were so permanently entrenched in the church, that Bible reading and believing folks accepted this premise without batting an eye. How else do you explain the cognitive dissonance?

book-cover_for-a-continuing-churchNothing affirmed that belief for me more than this gem of a book, For a Continuing Church, written by Dr. Sean Lucus that I read last year. Dr. Lucas is a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, a church historian, and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). The book traces the decades of developments that led to the establishment of the PCA in 1973 from the departure of the larger Presbyterian body in the South (PCUS).

For decades the conservative contingency of the PCUS expressed growing concerns of the social progressive thought that was infiltrating the southern Presbyterian denomination.  Dr. Lucas provides an historically rich sketch of those who sought to combat this intrusion with efforts to preserve the foundation of Presbyterianism and it’s core doctrines in adherence to the inerrant of word of God and the biblically formed Westminster standards. Conservative leaders rightfully challenged the diminishing of core values of Presbyterianism against liberal doctrine, Communist sympathies, and what was perceived to be too much involvement in social concerns.

However, the social concerns told a different story. A prominent aspect that was incredibly hard to digest was the overarching attitudes towards African-Americans and the fight for equality. As the U.S. confronted the growing awareness of disparate treatment towards its black citizens, especially in the South at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, the sentiment of conservative leaders within the denomination echoed the resistance to change expressed in the dominant Southern culture. Particularly after Brown v. Board of Education, conservative leaders viewed any kind of efforts of racial integration as a symptom of progressive thought that was infiltrating the church.  That purity of races should be maintained was the rallying cry of these conservative leaders so much so that these leaders adamantly opposed any efforts of racial integration and justice both in and out of the church.  To be sure, tensions were at a peak by the time the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. There were a number of statements reflecting this opposition that quite frankly made me cringe.

For a Continuing Church provides a glimpse of how easily blind spots can impede our ability to embrace a full expression of the church as it was meant to be. As I read through the book, I had no doubt that conservative leaders who sought to maintain the integrity of biblical faithfulness were sincere in their desire to fight against all the factors that they believed undermined it. But sadly, they could not see the harmful attitudes at work against those who shared their same humanity, and moreover for some, the same union in Christ. As Lucas points out, “This merger of doctrinal, political, racial, and economic conservatism represented the worldview of southern Presbyterian conservatives. In their minds, it was not possible to separate the strands.” Change of attitudes would be slow to change.

For me, its very fitting that the Civil Rights Movement grew out of the church, especially considering the biggest blind spots came from within the church. Sadly, there are still some today who believe that the church should not experience true integration.

Thankfully, my denomination has taken steps to publicly recognize the disparities and injustices that occurred by opposing equal rights and value of black brothers and sisters in Christ by passing Overture 43 at the 44th General Assembly built on the work Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan, in consultation with African-American pastors in the denomination. Given the cognitive dissonance and harmful impact that existed for so long, this was a necessary step to the kind of reconciliation that King fought for.

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
This entry was posted in church life, culture, ecclesiology (church) and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The church in the age of MLK: the culture and us

  1. I appreciate the article, although I do wonder if we are repeating portions of American history. On one side, there is still a denial of basic historical facts of how various southern evangelicals viewed African-Americans (and others); on the other side, there is still the false conclusion that suggests that the only way in which you can truly approach matters of justice is through purely social justice categories. At some point, this conversation needs to progress forward.

  2. Minister Donald Johnson says:

    Lisa: A great and informative article you’ve penned. Thank-you for addressing and echoing a contemporary and prevailing Christian issue needing attention, empathy, honesty and resolution. I pray we all continue growing in the grace and knowledge of our our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as an evangelical and spiritual imperative, (2 Peter 3:18).

  3. Harold R Holmyard says:

    Thanks, Lisa. I did not know about this book, nor about the absence of evangelicals in the Civil Rights movement.

  4. Raymond L Nearhood says:

    As I shared on your Facebook page, it seems that there has been a lot of work done to explain the absence of white, Southern evangelicals in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. The answers are, of course, not monolithic. But, it seems the reasons for the white, Southern evangelical non-involvement boils down to the affects of racism in the churches, and a strong aversion to misogyny, even among those that otherwise abhorred racism in other forms. Among some, it seems, there was such a strong theology of individual piety that even the more moderate evangelicals looked on a movement that sought broad social change as a detriment to the work of the gospel in the person (salvation of the the individual brings change to the individual, salvation of many individual black people – they would argue – would lead to group change in the black community, and the blights of the black community in America would be relieved from within) while ignoring or downplaying the social structures that perpetuated the blights of the black community in America – and ignored or downplayed the role of the white evangelical churches to come along-side and lift up their brothers and sisters in Christ in different communities.

    But, that was the South. Information on the (mostly) Northern, white evangelicals is much harder to find. So far, from what I can gather, there are four reasons for the white Northern evangelical non-involvement in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

    1) Association – the Christian core of the Civil Rights movement was very quickly theologically liberal. Dr. King (as the figurehead central personality of the Christian Civil Rights movement) and the Mainline white Protestants that dominated the public face of the Civil Rights movement were theological liberals to a T. The Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy of the 20s through 40s and the strong denominational breaks from that controversy were fresh in the evangelical mind. Most of these churches had a strong aversion to any sort of association with theological liberals in just about any way. To associate themselves, they felt, with a movement dominated by Modernists who denied the virgin birth of Christ; who denied the ontological divinity of Christ; who denied the resurrection as true; who denied creation ex nihilio; and who denied the substitutionary atonement would do two things – 1) dishonor God giving tacit approval to these abhorrent blasphemies and 2) infect their churches with liberalism.

    2) Theology of personal piety – similar to the southern evangelical theology of personal piety that ignored or downplayed social structures that perpetuated the blight of the black American community, the Northern churches did much of the same. The difference being, it seems, that the northern churches had a history of coming along side their black brothers and sister – in many cases, less adverse to integration and wrongly seeing segregation (as it was and is in the north) more of an accident of social organization than a systemic issue.

    3) Suspicion of the Civil Rights movement from the budding Religious Right – on your FB page I mentioned Dr. Carl McIntire and his vocal opposition to the Civil Rights movement. His opposition was not based on race or race relations, though. He saw within the movement a socialist/communist ideology that he vehemently opposed. So deeply entrenched in Cold War nationalism was the Religious Right that often times they missed the forest for the trees (even if, in the case of the Civil Rights movement, their suspicions were at times justified).

    4) Racism – shock of shocks! There were racists in the North, and even when a churches leadership found solidarity with Civil Rights movement and were willing to associate (Campbellite churches, for example, were not adverse to broad ecumenicalism in support of certain causes) that leadership found a deep divide among the laity and were met with strong opposition.

    • Raymond L Nearhood says:

      But, I must add – this is in no way an understanding from thorough study. As I said, that is hard to find. it’s more of the impression I get from sources – and minor comments from learned people – but in no way reflects the work of historians on the subject. I simply cannot find that (on the internet).

    • Ray, it’s pretty clear from Dr. Lucas’ wonderful treatise that points 1-3 were pretty much the reasons for lack of involvement in the South as well. He does have a chapter on the PCUS’ consideration of joining the northern church, but if I recall, the overwhelming reason was due to both theological and political liberalism. The latter pushed for racial integration, which was an affront to this band of southern conservatives who could not separate the cultural implications of southern heritage from their theology. In fact, he points out that in terms of a theologically liberal trajectory, the northern church was way ahead of the South. I suppose there were racists in the North, too. But based on what I read (maybe I’ll need to re-read), there was not the same kind of discrimination that the southern church experienced. Now if you’re talking about the OPC, then that’s a whole other subject.

      • Raymond L Nearhood says:

        “But based on what I read (maybe I’ll need to re-read), there was not the same kind of discrimination that the southern church experienced.”

        I think that is pretty spot on with what I’ve read. Like I said, even where there was a shared theological understanding in the Northern and Southern churches of personal piety that either ignored or downplayed systemic issues, the Northern churches were at least willing – and sometimes actively pursuing – to come along side their brothers and sisters in Christ and, in some cases, looking to integrate their churches. Their view wasn’t that there *should* be segregation, but that segregation was – in a sense – “just they way things were”… an accident of societal organization that may or may not have needed to be overcome.

        Concerning my comment about racism among the laity in Northern, white evangelical churches – although, I’m sure it existed – I have no idea widely held it was or how much of an affect it had. Really, the comment is based on one line from a single paragraph I found while looking this up on the interwebs.

      • Raymond L Nearhood says:

        Also, I was talking about the OPC – but only in the sense that I would identify them (at the time) as a mostly Northern, white evangelical denomination with the same genesis as the Bible Presbyterian Church. Not because I have any specific knowledge of the OPC’s activity concerning the Civil Rights movement.

        But, now you have me interested. Any sources I can look up?

      • Raymond L Nearhood says:

        So, given that 1-3 are at least somewhat common reasons for non-involvement of white evangelicals in the Civil Rights movement, it raises a question for me that I’ve never really thought about before:

        Hindsight being what it is – would it have been right for conservative evangelicals to march in Selma, especially while there was a concern of association with theological liberalism and the reasons for that concern?

      • Harold R Holmyard says:

        Sure it would have been all right for evangelicals to participate with Martin Luther King, Lisa. Recently Catholics and Protestants have worked together regarding pro-life issues. Billy Graham invited all sorts of clergymen to his crusades who were interesting in saving souls. People working together on an issue only need to agree about that issue. If they had to agree about everything, there would be little large-scale religious cooperation. As far as fears of miscegenation go, it seems likely that the confusion of languages at Babel led to the isolation of gene pools that led to various type of physical humanity. So being against miscegenation is really being against what would overcome the consequences of early human sin.

      • Ray Nearhood says:

        Fair enough. The reason I ask is that I think it is important to understand our history and to learn from it. In the same way that I read almost all church history, when getting into the details of white evangelical non-involvement in the civil rights movement, I read to learn what points were being made, which points were valid, which were invalid, and what could have or should have been done differently. And then, I want to take those lessons and see if and how I can apply them to the same or similar situations today.

        From my perspective, having been born in the late 70s and seeing racial animosity and systemic issues as they are today, I can look at the facts and pick out some easy things – easy from my perspective, understanding that in that time and place it wasn’t easy… is should have been, but wasn’t.

        Easy thing one would be – ALL of the church should have been, and should now be, strongly against segregation based on race (creed, nationality) and whatever segregation there is must be based on actual accidents of social order (like borders and language differences). Active, but not forced, attempts at integration of all races, creeds, etc… should be pursued where they are able, and even where accidental segregation is, there should be a unity pursued in Christ that is shown in building each other up, not keeping each other out.

        Easy thing two, aversion towards miscegenation (a horrible sounding word, IMO) is ridiculous and should be treated as such, especially within the body of Christ. For these two reasons, it is easy to oppose Kinists, for example.

        Easy thing three is that a theology of personal piety that is based of the New School’s view of man from the Old School / New School debate of the mid-1800s ought to be rejected outright. That is what was going on in much of the Fundamentalist American churches of the mid-20th century. I won’t too much into that, but to say that American individualism and bootstraps anthropology is not keeping with the Biblical view of man, neither is it keeping with a Biblical covenantal view of redemption.

        Easy thing four is that racism is an absolute evil, an affront to the imago Dei in mankind and to God. It should be vehemently opposed at every turn. So, Jim Crow laws – and anything that looks like it today – are, in turn, evil. That is why I can support the Voting Rights Act. It is, as Jeff Session said, an intrusive law, but rightfully so. Suppression of voting rights should be intruded upon by the very institution whose job it is to protect those rights – the Federal government.

        BUT, one not so easy thing for me is the question of association and how that should look. I, for one, can agree with Roman Catholics on the sanctity of life. We can, with two voices, say the same thing to the powers that be, “Human life begins at conception and should be protected. Abortion is evil, should be illegal, and punished under the law.” But, at the point where our voices become disparate, I cannot in good conscience partner with the pro-life Catholic. So, where they appeal to the Church, the pope, and the magisterium, I must back away and say “I cannot partner with Rome on the question of the evil of abortion. They are right that it is evil, but they are wrong in their explanation of ‘why.'” Nor can I partner with the group Abolish Human Abortion (look them up) even when they are ostensibly part of “my side.”

        But, even more closely related to the question at hand – what about the Black Lives Matter movement. I can agree with the voice of the movement that there remains systemic racist realities that need to be opposed, fixed, and relief made. However, at this point, I could not associate myself with the movement because (and I know it isn’t a monolith) it is aligned with far left ideals and theological liberals that have grown more and more entrenched in liberal theology since the 60s.

        My concerns about association are the same as the folks in the 50s and 60s – 1) partnership (with BLM or with Rome on abortion) gives tacit approval to their views and 2) liberal theology (or magisterial authority) will infect the church when tacit approval is given – because even if you vocally oppose those views with which you disagree, actions (as they often do) speak louder than words.

        So, what does a conservative (theologically) evangelical do? Well, it isn’t what was mostly done in the in the 50s and 60s – become a silent footnote or in active opposition to the very issues at the core of the movement.

      • Funny thing about Graham’s efforts outlined in a chapter that Lucas has devoted to that, the conservative Presbyterians were supportive of his crusades at first especially given that the gospel was being preached on such a massive scale. But they started withdrawing support when it became clear that Graham had integrated meetings. This is how deeply entrenched the segregationist mindset was. So it wasn’t so much because of ecumenical concerns.

      • Harold R Holmyard says:

        I wonder if white racism of recent centuries might be a bit like ancient Jewish contempt for Gentiles. Both may have been partly due to advantages conferred by knowledge of God. Many people think that science was possible through faith in an orderly God whose mind had instilled laws in the universe. The sort of technical progress such thinking allowed made peoples around the globe not exposed to the Judeo-Christian tradition seem backward to the Europeans traveling to their lands. Of course, there would have been some moral darkness in the ancient Gentiles and more modern unreached peoples that could invoke a sense of superiority in non-devout people from the ancient Jews or more modern Christianized nations.

      • Ray Nearhood says:

        Resolved – I need to get that book.

    • Harold R Holmyard says:

      Hi, Ray. On the 5th line of your 1st paragraph above, did you mean “misogyny” (hatred of women), or was the word really supposed to be “micegenation” (interbreeding of racial groups)? Thanks.

  5. John Hardie says:

    Dear Lisa,
    I am struggling with how to respond to your brother brief piece. I am torn, as they say, between two lovers. On the one hand, you do an admirable job describing the primary emphases of the volume by Sean Lucas – I think you are right to point out the value of Sean’s scholarship. Defying the adage about the devil being in the details, Sean gives painstaking care and attention to the details – his love and concern for the origin of the ecclesial tradition which has come to be known as the PCA is clealy evident on every page of the book. Sean Lucas clearly cares about the PCA – that care is expressed through Sean’s scholarship, his thoroughness in attending to minute details. Hence, one metaphorical lover has been identified; how bout the other lover? While Sean Lucas describes the details of Conservative Presbyterians’ opposition to the Civil Rights movement, should you grant such church leaders a hall pass so easily? Again, I have in mind the second metaphorical lover – yet she is not whole – she has suffered rape at the hands of men whom, quite frankly, should not be let off the hook so easily.

    You have offered us a fair depiction of the book Sean Lucas clearly poured over for quite some time.

    But do you offer us an adequate evaluation in terms of ethical analysis of the actions and words of those so-called church leaders described in Sean’s book?

    Best,
    John
    ________________________
    John T. Hardie, Ph.D.
    john.hardie@aya.yale.edu
    gracenorth.org

  6. John Hardie says:

    Lisa,
    Just read my post again. In the first line – if you could delete “brother” – not sure how that made it’s way into the sentence. Thank you.
    The question I am pressing assumes for the moment what I take to be your initial assessment of Sean Lucas’s For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the PCA (P&R, 2015) [writing this on my phone and can’t figure out how to put the title in italics]. That initial assessment is Sean did a fine job detailing the “historical” origins of this stream of concerned conservative Presbyterians who ended up forming the PCA. I am in agreement that the book is a “gem” in the sense of a piece of painstakingly meticulous care and attention devoted to the source material Sean chose to focus upon. The volume is devoted to researching and presenting source material in terms of documenting the words, statements and actions of those who longed for such a continuing church. We should all grant that Sean Lucas has taken seriously the historian’s task of devoting a great deal of time to primary sources in sketching his account. This is a devoted book in multiple senses. Granted the virtue of For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the PCA in terms of a piece of meticulous scholarship devoted to mining certain sources, there still remains a whole litany of questions to be asked by anyone wanting to take seriously what these men said and did. In other words, let’s grant Sean provides an account that accesses more historical documents detailing the statements of the concerned conservative Presbyterian leaders who eventually formed the PCA – and Sean does so more providing a more fully documented account than any other account of the formation of the PCA as a denomination to date. Having granted that, what are we to make of what was actually said and done by these men? Do we not have just as serious an obligation to consider ethically their words and statements? You do make a few allusions in this direction. Overture 43 is invoked. The commitment of these church leaders to segregation is clearly problematic. Their view of black people makes you cringe. I am feeling you on all that. But I am also wanting more – more evaluation – more evaluation of the words and actions of these men as presented by Sean – more theological evaluation, more ethical evaluation (as if those could be separated – they can’t), more evaluation of their view of black human beings, more evaluation of how a group of men ostensibly committed to the authority of Scripture said and did what they said and did. In other words, if we were to grant Sean Lucas gives us the fullest account to date of what these men said and did, what are we to make of it?

    • Hi John, thanks for that thoughtful evaluation and pointed questions. I do think you are right to highlight the egregious nature of the segregationist mindset. In addressing issues of racial reconciliation, I think its paramount to get at those “why” questions: why did white people not want to mix with blacks? What was it about black skin that was deemed inferior? Answering those questions becomes instructive for us now. But I also fear this perpetual imposition on the church now as if it is a problem that exists now in the same manner it existed then. What I do appreciate about efforts in the past number of years is the acknowledgment that the church did not behave as it should have through it’s egregious display of the sin of partiality. As I point out in this post, much of this was cultural. While there are vestiges of this kind of thinking in spots, overall the cultural mentality has shifted. So I do think we need to be careful of treating the church now as it was then and not be satisfied until we’ve demanded our pound of flesh. I confess I do struggle at times of where that line is.

  7. Pingback: Another question: on being woke and Christian | Lisa Robinson

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