The Civil-Rights Movement in America lasted from roughly 1955 to 1968 (with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968). That was half a century ago. In what many people would call “remarkable,” 2015 may go down in the annals of American church history as the year that conservative, Calvinist Baptists and conservative Presbyterians decided that racism is a real problem that needs the attention of the church. Why did it take so long?
In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were a white Christian burdened by the racial injustice of America’s past conservative Baptists and Presbyterians during that time would have likely labelled you “a liberal” and relegated the issues of racial justice to the category of “social issues” and not “gospel issues.”
In a capstone of disconnected discussions over the past few years, in 2015 the Calvinistic Baptist community decided to end the moratorium on racial issues as a merely social issue through a series of conversations, conferences, and articles. As I’ve said before, The Southern Baptist Convention, without question, is the leading conservative evangelical denomination in the America on confessing past racism, being completely honest about being on the wrong side of racial oppression, and taking strides toward racial reconciliation (and led by very visible leaders like Russell Moore). For example, Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition initiated, led, and directed a conversation about the response of evangelicals to the Civil-Rights Movement. The entire series was highly instructive and I was honored that Justin Taylor even thought my question was worth investigating. In a follow-up discussion, Russell Moore and Matt Hall had a courageously public and transparent conversation about the failings of Southern Baptists and posted it on social media–an unprecedented move for two white males, in my experience, with high levels of credibility within conservative evangelicalism.
Conservative Presbyterians: In 1976, Randy Nabors was installed as the pastor of a then newly particularized church called, “New City Fellowship” in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. Beginning in 1968, a small group of Christians in Chattanooga, TN believed that racial injustice was an issue that needed to be addressed in the church, by the church. This developed into the racial reconciliation emphasis of this new church that was particularized in 1976. For most of New City’s history their denomination has acknowledged the importance of the church’s racial reconciliation work but treated the racial discourse as an extra-curricular activity and never central to the denomination’s mission. As a result, according to 2014 data, the PCA had 4,556 ministers and roughly 50 of them are African American (that’s around 1%).
One the floor of the 43rd General Assembly of the PCA, the Rev. Jim Baird, one of the founders of the denomination, confessed his own passivity and indifference to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s and early 70s, saying, “but I confess I did nothing to help my black brethren who were suffering. I did nothing.” This was spoken as ministers in the denomination were debating a resolution, offered by the Rev. Drs. Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas, for the denomination to work through confessing and repenting of the Southern Presbyterian/PCA complicity in facilitating resistance and indifference to the end of the Jim Crow era.
Why did this take 50 years? Why was Randy Nabors not taken seriously and embraced as a hero and model throughout the Presbyterian churches in the South beginning in the 1970s? I do not know the answers to these questions fully but I do know, in part, that we would not likely be having these conversations in 2015 if it were not for the scholarship of mainline liberal theologians and historians. Men like Nabors and the African Americans I know of who have been talking about these issues in the PCA for decades did not have enough credibility and they have paid the price for raising the issue at all.
Members of the PCA are largely ignorant of their own denomination’s actual history. Maybe that will change with Sean Lucas’ forthcoming book on the history of the PCA. Therefore, I can honestly say that had it not been for the for the work of Dr. Joel Alvis (Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983), Dr. Peter Slade (Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship), Dr. Stephen Haynes, (The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation) and Dr. Carolyn Dupont (Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975) members of the Presbyterian Church in America would likely never have learned about the role that race played in the formation of the denomination and in the lives of prominent Presbyterians in South during slavery and Jim Crow. These issues were taken seriously only after mainline historians and theologians provided documentary evidence of what many African American pastors and scholars have been writing about for decades.
I am confident to say, then, that the Protestant mainline churches may have just saved the conservative denominations from dying in an America where the only denominations that will survive in the future will have multi-ethnic members and leaders as the country’s racial demographics change. PCA outsiders knew more about the denomination than its own leaders. How did that happen? The narrative of the PCA’s formation has been largely told as only a theologically story–as if those men were not influenced by the cultural currents of the times. For that to be completely true, of course, the denomination’s founders would have been some kind of super humans unaffected by things that have always shaped church movements in the past.
My Protestant mainline friends are wondering why the Calvinistic Baptists and conservative Presbyterians are so celebratory about the current progress in 2015 given the fact the rest of American Protestantism had these discussions 50 years ago. In fact, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy came to the assistance of African Americans during the Civil-Rights Movement while gospel-centered, grace-centered Calvinists did nothing or supported racial segregation from the Bible. However, even with the half-of-a-century slowness to embrace issues that African American and “liberal” Christians regularly raise, we must give credit wherever credit is due. Progress is progress. What Russell Moore and Jim Baird did in 2015 is remarkable given the historical resistance to caring about African-Americans in their respective traditions. It is serving t0 silence progressive critics who believe that conservative evangelicals are committed to white privilege. So, we celebrate progress wherever it happens. Change is coming.
A few years ago, Randy Nabors said that no one in the PCA should be ordained without being able to tell the story of the Southern Presbyterian Church/PCA history of race relations. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll go one step further and say that seminaries should require all of its students to read Alvis, Slade, Haynes, and Dupont, even if some of the details are contested, because without mainline scholars many of us are afraid that today’s Calvinists might never learn what actually happened in this country from professors at the Reformed seminaries across the US.
Now what? Solutions? What do we do? How do we fix it? How do we bring about change? How do we move forward? These are all natural questions. Great questions. There are answers.
In 2013, I put together a book title, Aliens In The Promised Land:
Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions to answer these questions and provide a framework for what it looks like to move from racial reconciliation (looking at the past) to racial solidarity (moving forward). The book includes African-American, Hispanic, Latino, and Asian American perspectives. It’s a book of ideas and solutions that address the entire span of Christian institutions from church planting, denominational leadership, to recruiting students to Christian colleges and evangelical seminaries, and more. Dr. John Frame calls the book “A game changer.” We produced the book because I regularly hear the complaint that “you only highlight problems but we need solutions.” Well, here is a book of solutions and I pray that we don’t have to wait another 50 years to see the action steps mentioned in this book come to pass. The appendix is an outstanding set of practical steps for local churches.
Again, while I can’t answer the 50-year question, we also don’t have to wait until resolutions and overtures pass to start making real change today.