In our modern era of civil rights for all Americans, not just those who have white skin, the evangelical church has had to adjust to a new way of thinking about race.
From the founding, white Americans have viewed themselves as superior to “colored” people. Back when America’s God was doling out rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for those willing to take up arms against their fellow British Christian brothers, it was “self-evident” to America’s founders that such rights did not apply to blacks, Native Americans, and women of all colors.
Put simply, it was “self-evident” to early American “Christians” that the rights dispensed by America’s God at the nation’s founding were intended only for the white race and no one else. That is a sad fact that modern Christians do well to humbly remember.
The great injustices caused by racism and slavery in America eventually led the country to a full-blown civil war. (In fact, America is the only nation that I could find, in my own research, that had to take up arms against each other in order to end slavery.)
While slavery was finally abolished on December 6, 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, it only came after at least 600,000 American soldiers died in armed conflict. This was one of the worst episodes of Christian-on-Christian bloodshed (aside from the Revolutionary War) in recent memory.
Of course, the abolition of slavery did relatively little to improve the physical safety and rights of blacks in America. An honest survey of racial segregation, discrimination, and violence during the notorious Jim Crow era makes this clear.
Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by federal and state governments, and prior to the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, most evangelicals, especially in the South, believed racial segregation was “biblical.” During this time, far too few evangelical pulpits challenged the validity of racial segregation as a “Christian” doctrine.
When the federal government overturned the legal basis for racial segregation, evangelical preachers were caught in a catch-22. One one hand, they realized the times were changing and that desegregation was inevitable. But on the other hand, they had codified and systematized the separation of races as a “biblical” command and therefore felt as if the federal government was persecuting them for their deeply-held beliefs and convictions.
While most writings and recordings of pro-segregationist evangelical preachers are hidden away from public view, one example can be found in the Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (1963), which was one of the first study bibles produced within the Pentecostal community. In this clipping, you can read for yourself how many evangelicals used the Bible to defend their views on racial segregation.
It is heartbreaking that, in times past, American evangelicals used the Bible to condone blatant racism and discrimination against their own neighbor. But it is also sad that modern evangelicals now have so little to say on the topic of race, after having so much to say in times past. Instead of reaching out to white nationalists and other wayward souls who still believe former evangelical teachings on race (many across the South), most evangelical pulpits remain silent on the topic as racial tensions rage across America.
BOTTOM LINE: We don’t need evangelical pulpits to simply tell us that racism is a sin. That is obvious to anyone who has read the words of Jesus. What we do need, however, is for evangelical leaders to lead the way in helping America heal its deep racial divide through sound teaching and condemnation of hateful attitudes with the same fervor they once used to fan the flames of racism for decades.