Southern Baptists grapple with racist history

Critics say that evangelicals’ focus on racism as ‘interpersonal meanness’ hinders progress

The Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, during its national conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2014. The Southern Baptist Convention is taking its biggest step yet to confront the legacy of support for slavery and segregation that still looms over the denomination.
Mark Humphrey / AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, was established in 1845 because of a disagreement about slavery. Its founders, who wanted to allow slaveholders as missionaries, could not have imagined what transpired In Nashville last week.   

“We are not the state church of the Confederate States of America,” the president of the denomination’s influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Russell Moore, proclaimed to an audience of about 500 people, most of them Baptist leaders. “The cross and the Confederate battle flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

Moore’s speech was the rousing opening salvo at a conference on “the gospel and racial reconciliation” hosted by the ERLC, which is devoted to public policy and culture. Initially, the event’s organizers planned a conference to discuss bioethics. But after protests erupted after a grand jury’s decision in December not to indict a police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) decided to shift course.

By many measures, it was a remarkable event for an organization better known for its interest in culture-war topics like sexuality and religious freedom. Talks and panels tackled white privilege, persistent poverty, immigration reform, the perils of gentrification and racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. (One African-American panelist said police officers had pulled guns on him, another said he was handcuffed while police searched for a suspect who looked nothing like him.) Several speakers respectfully mentioned the Department of Justice’s scathing report on law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed last summer by a white police officer. Eighty percent of the denomination’s congregations are majority white, but 45 percent of the speakers at the conference were nonwhite. They included young men and older black preachers, as well as an Iranian-American convert from Islam who chastised those who celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden.

But many still question whether social conservatives — with a long history of strong support for law enforcement and resistance to systemic critiques of racism — are in a position to lead on racial issues. Southern Baptists have a particularly rocky road, with their pro-slavery roots and, more than a century later, their leadership’s widespread failure to support the civil rights movement.

“I’m absolutely skeptical,” said social psychologist Christena Cleveland, an associate professor of reconciliation studies at evangelical Bethel University. “There’s an openness that there wasn’t before, but that doesn’t mean you’re qualified to lead.”

‘The way evangelicals look at race, they think racism is interpersonal meanness.’

Christena Cleveland

social psychologist, Bethel University

The SBC has been wrestling with its ugly racial past for at least 20 years. In 1995 it passed a resolution on racial reconciliation that set out to “lament and repudiate” its roles in slavery and the civil rights movement. (The longtime ERLC president behind that document, Richard Land, was nudged into announcing his retirement in 2012 after making intemperate public remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Land was in the audience at the conference last week, but he did not speak publicly.) Also in 2012 the SBC elected its first black president, a Louisiana pastor, Fred Luter, whose speech at last week’s conference compared racism to more traditional scourges of adultery, pornography and abortion. 

Moore, a white native of Mississippi, has become an outspoken advocate on racial issues since he took over from Land two years ago. He has spoken often about his goal to integrate his denomination’s 50,000 congregations. And after the grand jury decision in the Garner case, he quickly responded online, writing that “a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.” Moore told reporters on Friday, “One of the good things in a very bad year when it comes to racial tensions in America is there have been more conversations among Christians thinking these things through.”

Conservative evangelicals, however, made previous attempts at thinking these things through, starting in earnest in the 1990s. Confessing his previous neglect of the issue, evangelist Billy Graham, whose larger-than-life bronze statue looms on Southern Baptist property just up the street from headquarters, wrote in 1993 that “racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today.” (Then again, his son Franklin Graham recently drew condemnation for his comment that most police shootings could be avoided if “blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody else” would simply obey and respect the police.)

It’s telling, meanwhile, that the term “racial reconciliation” is generally favored over “racial justice” in white evangelical circles. “By ‘racial reconciliation,’ they typically mean getting along at an interpersonal level, making friends, getting to know each other and perhaps worshiping together,” Michael Emerson, a sociologist at Rice University, said by email last week. “Overall, it continues to not mean racial justice, changes in laws or any other structural alterations.”

Some otherwise sympathetic observers question whether Sunday-morning integration will be sufficient to bring about real change on complex political and cultural issues.
Fred Luter Jr. was the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention, elected in 2012. He is also the senior pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Bob Levey / AP

Emerson’s influential 2000 book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” posited that evangelicals’ concerted and sincere efforts to combat inequality “likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.” That’s because they tend to see racism as a matter of the heart rather than one of systemic injustice. Said Cleveland, “the way evangelicals look at race, they think racism is interpersonal meanness.”

Dhati Lewis, a conference panelist and the pastor of an SBC church in Atlanta that is unusual for being genuinely integrated — he estimates it is about 60 percent black — sees the distinction between justice and reconciliation differently. “I don’t think you can truly have reconciliation without justice, but you can have justice without reconciliation,” he said in an interview. “Justice without reconciliation, we call that hell.” By contrast, he described reconciliation as supernatural, and it includes forgiveness and love, “the very essence of the gospel.”

One major focus of the conference was on integration within the church. That’s harder than it sounds; Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” That is still largely true. According to a research group affiliated with the SBC, more than 8 in 10 congregations are dominated by one racial group. But as a goal, Sunday-morning togetherness may be easier to agree on than some of the thornier issues such as workplace discrimination, police conduct and economic inequality that often accompany discussions of race. White Southern Baptists “are political conservatives who believe less government is better,” said Barry Hankins, a historian at Baylor University and a co-author of the forthcoming book “Baptists in America.” He said that almost every black SBC leader interviewed for his 2002 book, “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture,” supported affirmative action, while their white peers universally opposed it.

For that reason, some otherwise sympathetic observers question whether Sunday-morning integration would be sufficient to bring about real change on complex political and cultural issues. Lewis said that he remains unsatisfied with the rudimentary state of racial conversations within the evangelical church, largely because its leadership still consists of “white middle-class men who would prefer not to live in cities.”

Cleveland, the author of the 2013 book “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart,” pointed out one reason for cautious optimism: The style of leadership in the conservative evangelical community tends to be hierarchical, which means believers generally respect and follow their leaders. “In this case, that might actually be helpful,” she said, if leaders are making a sincere effort to address racial inequality.

Moore, one of the most prominent of those leaders, has other reasons for hope. “We’re starting to see more and more conservatives who are coming together on many of these questions and sometimes conservatives who are from very different streams,” he said in an interview in his sunny Nashville office on the final morning of the conference. “When we’re working on areas of criminal justice reform, we find we’re working with more progressive African-American communities and with libertarian groups and with social conservatives who may have different starting points for that conversation. But we all can recognize there are problems with the system.”

The final session of the ERLC conference belonged to Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor from Washington, D.C., who called for confession and accountability regarding racism. “When we come to racial reconciliation and the image of God, we not only have to take seriously what it means to be made in the image of God — we also have to take seriously the seriousness of sin,” he said. After the crowd sang a full-throated version of “Amazing Grace,” Moore took the stage for one final prayer. He ended with the words “Give us the power to fight.”

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