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.