Evangelicals and White Supremacy

Carolyn Renée Dupont’s Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 is a challenging book, both in terms of history and theology. What follows is the first of a two-part review. This week, I lay out Dupont’s arguments. Next week, I’ll flesh out the story and assess those arguments.

Dupont challenges much of the existing historiography of white religion’s role in the “civil rights movement.” Instead of being passive bystanders or “weak” opponents of the CRM, in her portrait white Mississippi evangelicals vigorously defended white supremacy. They barricaded their churches against integrationists, they offered biblical defenses of segregation, and — despite their insistence on the “spirituality of the church” — they involved themselves in the political defense of white supremacy. [I find useful Dupont's insistence that we use the term "white supremacy" to define what opponents of the CRM sought to preserve.] In this argument, Dupont sets her thesis up against David Chappell’s Stone of Hope, in which Chappell contends that white southern Christians failed to match the religious fervor of their opponents. More generally, she suggests that in their later conversions to racial egalitarianism, white evangelicals have often conveniently forgotten their (or their churches and parents’) prior support for Jim Crow. Southern evangelicals did not simply ignore the political strife of the 1960s through their concentration on evangelism and personal salvation. Instead, they were active belligerents on the wrong and losing side of history:

the proactive defenders of segregation who defied the Supreme Court, voted for segregationist candidates, drafted and promoted anti– civil rights legislation, herded black activists into jail, and formed citi­zens’ groups to keep the dream of white supremacy alive did not morph into weak, mealy, other-worldly idealists upon entering their houses of worship. To the contrary, they employed the same pragmatic calcula­tion and worked with the same enthusiasm for white supremacy inside the sanctuary as out. They cared no less about keeping their churches segregated than their schools, and they worked as diligently to control religious discourses as political ones.

Second, Dupont argues that the spiritual and religious battle over civil rights contributed significantly to the restructuring of southern (and, to a certain extent, American) religion. It was during these years that Presbyterian conservatives formed the Presbyterian Church in America, that conservatives began their takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, and that conservative evangelicals left the United Methodist Church (“in droves,” per Dupont). She suggests that such denominational strife bore a connection to the political strife over civil rights and, by creating institutions less burdened by theological diversity,  paved the way for the emergence of the religious right. “Evangelicals no longer voice caution about political activity,” she writes, “because, in their resurrected and monolithically conservative form, no challenge to their politics can arise to trouble unity within these bodies.”

Finally, Dupont moves beyond a strictly historical analysis to offer a critique of certain forms of conservative evangelical theology. In her view, “theology shaped evangelicals’ responses to the demand for black equality.” Evangelical literalists, she writes, tended to “construe segregation as outside the purview of Christian concerns,” whereas moderates with more flexible views of the Bible more often embraced a “moral critique of segregation.” More to the point, she condemns the evangelical fixation on evangelism, especially when offered as a potential solution to social problems (as evangelicals across the country tended to do during this time period). Dupont concludes that “certain ways of viewing sin, morality, and individual responsibility structure a people’s thinking so as to obscure and discount collective and corporate responsibility.”

Much food for thought, coming next week. In my view, even putting specifics aside, I am incredibly grateful for books such as David Chappell’s and now Dupont’s which place religious at the heart of the American conflict over civil rights. The CRM was a political, social, and spiritual crusade, with Christians on both sides of the movement. I always emphasize this fact when I teach about the CRM, because I feel that most students do not receive that impression in their high school classes or in many undergraduate history courses. Regardless of what anyone might make of Dupont’s critique of evangelical theology, I am grateful to her for further recovering the central role of religion in the civil rights era.

  • davidrswartz

    Great review of a fascinating book. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it (the review and the book).

  • Luke Harlow

    What I’ve read thus far of Dupont’s book is perceptive, lucid, and well argued. This is an important book. Thanks for review, John.

  • https://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/blog/ Alan Bean

    I am so thankful that Dupont is tackling this issue. Anyone who has researched the CRM in Mississippi (in particular) knows how difficult it was for white citizens to break with the prevailing consensus. Supporters of the status quo used the phrase “white supremacy” to describe their stance, so it isn’t unfair to describe their views in this way. Moreover, since virtually everyone who dared to speak publicly shared the same view, it was very difficult for the culture to respond to the moral crisis posed by the CRM honestly. And this wasn’t just in the 1960s; it remains true today.

    Alan Bean

    • John Turner

      Alan,

      Sorry your comment got stuck in moderation until now, but thanks. Yes, I think it’s an important phrase.

  • Gregory Peterson

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one concerned about SBBA…Selective Bible Belt Amnesia.

  • Daniel Merriman

    The question that comes to my mind is ” Which South?” I was born and raised in East Tennessee in 1950 and recall a very mixed picture. Certainly the Baptist churches I grew up in and around were not in the vanguard of opposition to segregation, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the church people I knew who were willing to die in the last ditch to maintain Jim Crow. By and large, folks recognized which way history was moving and either figured they would have to live with it or that it was about time for things to change.

    • John Turner

      Daniel,

      Thanks for this response.

      Your comment reminds me of Chappell’s argument in Stone of Hope, that opponents of the CRM simply didn’t have as much religious fervor as the pro-civil rights activists.

      And I’m sure there would be substantial regional differences.

      • Daniel Merriman

        I look forward to the next installment of your review. As I understand them, I think both authors’ models are kind of flat. My strong memory is growing up among adults who were very conflicted about the CRM, neither active opponents nor supporters, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them escapist. I recall a lot of fear that a peaceful solution would not be found. History is messy and contingent. John Kennedy could never have gotten a strong civil rights bill through Congress. Lyndon Johnson could and did–twice. The country dodged a huge bullet as a result.

  • gregmetzger

    Thanks for the heads up on this book. Looking forward to your second part.


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