Home > News > George Floyd’s killing is changing how some white evangelicals talk about race
183 views 9 min 0 Comment

George Floyd’s killing is changing how some white evangelicals talk about race

Here’s the history to this shift.

- August 10, 2020

Amid the summer’s record-breaking Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and ongoing racial inequalities, the evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today has been running robust pieces on race and racism, an important signal. At the same time, White evangelicals as a bloc continue to firmly support President Trump, whom many observers regard as the most openly racist president in recent memory. Given the White evangelical movement’s racially fraught history in the United States, can we expect it to shift its approach on race? Here’s what my years of research into evangelical politics can tell us.

How I’ve done my research

For my book “Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing,” I conducted a qualitative analysis of race coverage in Christianity Today between 1980 and 2010. This involved counting the number of articles directly related to race in the United States; coding them into categories such as race relations, racial history, and current events; and analyzing how the quantity and content of coverage shifted over time. I also studied the complex racial history of American evangelicalism, interviewed scores of people involved in racial change efforts, and attended and observed years of church-based efforts at racial reconciliation or multiracial church-building.

I’ve also watched more recent discussions in Christianity Today over the summer, as I’ll discuss below. From this research, two key insights emerged. First, White evangelical churches have a long, troubled racial history. Before the Civil War, major white conservative Protestant churches split into different denominations over whether to support or oppose slavery. Later, many White evangelical churches, especially in the South, resisted the civil rights movement’s demands to end the brutal reign of Jim Crow, even when their denominations formally supported integration measures.

Second, in recent decades many White evangelical organizational bodies have tried to repent for and pivot away from old racist patterns. A multiracial segment of conservative evangelicalism takes anti-racism seriously and has been speaking out on police brutality, socioeconomic inequality and immigration. Evangelicals who consider themselves anti-racist are seriously discomfited by Trump’s racial politics and may consider becoming more politically engaged in racial justice efforts. (Left-liberal evangelicalism has a different racial history.)

The Floyd protests have changed public opinion about race and policing. Here’s the data.

Thinking about racism as interpersonal rather than structural

During the three decades from 1980 to 2010, Christianity Today’s racial conversation broadened and deepened.

In the 1980s, it discussed “race relations” without self-reflection. Articles about communities of color mainly examined how to win more converts to evangelical Christianity, even when those communities were already some variety of Christian. During the 1990s, “racial reconciliation” became the more popular topic. Urged by Black, Latino and Asian evangelicals, various White evangelical churches and denominations issued apologies, repudiated their histories of racism or tried to reach out across racial divides.

In the 2000s, White evangelicals began launching initiatives to build multiracial congregations, which came to be defined as churches in which at least 20 percent of the congregation was of a racial or ethnic group other than the church majority. A multiracial church could be a mix of White and Black, Asian and Latino, or some other combination, depending on the region. These churches seemed to help their White evangelical members grasp the impact of racial policies. Meanwhile, Christianity Today covered such racially charged topics as the proper Christian approach to immigration policy.

White evangelicals tended to approach racial inequality as a matter of personal relationships — treating one another with love and fairness — rather than a need to scrutinize systemic or structural inequalities. But in 2000, Christian sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith published “Divided by Faith,” which Christianity Today showcased. Emerson and Smith explored the idea that White Christians had difficulty acknowledging the power of structural and systemic racism because of their focus on free-will individualism; their belief that “racism” primarily means personal prejudice; and their notion that social justice Christianity violates the gospel.

After that, Christianity Today’s coverage of racial issues became more sophisticated and less defensive, including spotlighting multiracial church success stories and testimonies. In my ethnographic research and interviews, I observed that as White evangelicals became more aware of the struggles of congregants, neighbors and friends of color, some began to get involved in politics. For example, as they learned about the structural underpinnings of racial and economic inequality, pastors at a multiracial church in Denver advocated for legislation to protect the “Dreamers,” to equalize public school funding across neighborhoods and to house the homeless. Being a White evangelical, they revealed, does not require remaining politically neutral on racial policy.

The Supreme Court closed the door on LGBTQ discrimination. But it opened a window.

In the most recent months

Christianity Today’s coverage of race since George Floyd’s killing has included articles documenting ongoing racial divides within evangelicalism, as well as pleas by evangelicals of color for Whites to move beyond soft racial reconciliation. Sharing their experiences with racism, some Black evangelicals have been advocating rethinking police funding, dismantling Confederate symbols and engaging in political action for real equality.

But White evangelicals continue to avoid advocating for change through political and policy channels. For instance, Timothy Dalrymple, Christianity Today’s new chief executive, in June published a longform essay naming slavery and indigenous genocide as America’s two original sins. He examined many White Christians’ historical embrace of racist policies and structures, and lamented a continuing racial chasm over whether pastors should preach about racism. And he reminded readers of the basics of structural racism: Old patterns of racial injustice continue to reverberate in extreme socioeconomic inequality today.

The TMC newsletter has moved! Sign up here to keep receiving our smart analysis.

In response, Dalrymple proposed “Zacchaeus funds,” collected from “Christians who believe African Americans have been subjected to four centuries of injustice and plunder,” that community boards would distribute to “support rising black leaders in the church and in the marketplace.”

That’s a significant step beyond White evangelicals’ history of seeking forgiveness for their own racial “sins” and leaving it at that. Yet instead of listening to evangelicals of color calling for more political interventions, Dalrymple proposes that the church undertake a mission of community uplift.

White evangelicals have long aligned with the GOP, even under President Trump, to advance socially conservative goals. But at least some may be poised to join their counterparts of color in activism.

Nancy D. Wadsworth is associate professor of political science at the University of Denver and author of “Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing” (University of Virginia Press, 2014)