Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision

To hear Tim Keller talk, you’d think the Christian church was responsible for every progressive social step forward that Western civilization has taken. In order to support this idea, Keller turns in chapter four of The Reason for God to address the developments of the Abolition movement and of the Civil Rights movement in the Unites States, claiming that both of these causes owed their successes to the Christian faith. I have some…issues…with his treatment of these subjects. But first a word about the use of the word “Christian.”

A Very Slippery Label

It is rather convenient that over the last half century so many members of this faith have come to speak of the Christian religion as if it were a single, unified, monolithic thing.  The reality is that there isn’t really one single Christianity, but many “christianities,” each one picking fights with the others over matters they swear are so important that thinking differently on those things is tantamount to betraying the gospel itself. Those divisions render them unable to worship under the same roof, unable to train at the same seminaries, and unwilling to share funds for joint mission efforts, property holdings, or sometimes even for local charitable causes.

There once was a time when, if you asked Christians to what religion they belonged, they would reply with the names of their denominations.  My Presbyterian grandmother used to speak of Methodists like they belonged to an entirely different religion, and Roman Catholics were most definitely not real Christians. Once upon a time, intermarriage between denominations raised an eyebrow, whereas now it’s a mundane thing—a move which hardly inspires any social commentary. Something has changed, and the circumstances which precipitated this change may surprise you.  More on that a little later.

But I’m going to argue throughout this chapter review that Keller is guilty of taking credit for positions championed by other kinds of Christians, kinds which his particular tradition would have fought tooth and nail—and in fact did fight in their own time—only to turn around and act today like they spoke for the entire religion. He first admits that the church got a number of issues wrong over the course of its long history, but then claims that each time the socially progressive cause won out, it should count as “self-correction,” as if it weren’t the overriding influence of culture that effected the change, and as if his tribe among many others didn’t bitterly oppose these developments every step of the way.

Keller offers two key witnesses to establish his case, starting first with the effort to abolish slavery.

Conservative Christianity and the Abolition of Slavery

Throughout his entire apologetic work, Keller keeps making sweeping (and highly selective) claims like the following:

Even though slavery in some form was virtually universal in every human culture over the centuries, it was Christians who first came to the conclusion that it was wrong…[It] was abolished because it was wrong, and Christians were the leaders in saying so. (p.64-65)

But hold on a second. Christians were also the leaders in perpetuating this inhumane institution.  It was churches that validated, protected, and enshrined the practice of owning other human beings long past the time in which industrial innovation provided a way out of such a heavy dependence on human labor.

One need look no further than to the testimony of Frederick Douglass, who was a former slave, a tireless proponent of the Abolition movement, and a bitter critic of the church’s place in supporting this institution.

Revivals in religion, and revivals in the slave trade, go hand in hand together. The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood…We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy bibles and communion services for the churches.[1]

Keller wants to claim the efforts of British politician William Wilberforce, an Anglican, and of American preacher John Woolman, a Quaker, as evidence that Christianity deserves the credit for the abolition of slavery, first in Great Britain and then in the United States. But what were the perspectives of Keller’s tribe during this time period?  Were they similarly engaged in fighting back the slave trade, using the principles of the Christian religion to fight for the equal rights of African slaves?

As it turns out, both of the most famous Reformed evangelists of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were slave owners. In fact, not only were they both slave owners, but George Whitefield was himself instrumental in legalizing slavery in the Georgia colony in 1751.[2] Previous to that time, there was a colony-wide ban on slavery, but Whitefield wanted to make his orphanage in Savannah financially self-sufficient, and it was plain to him that such an end could not be achieved until the trustees of the colony agreed to reverse their policy.

whitefield3

Because the Bible in both Testaments, Old and New, accepted slavery as a normative institution, and because nowhere within the text does it censure slave owners or anywhere denounce the institution itself, those factions of the Christian faith bearing the highest view of scripture almost uniformly opposed the abolitionists, accusing them of attempting to destroy the authority of divine revelation in surrender to the surrounding forces of modern culture.

One hundred years after the revivals of Whitefield and Edwards, the Princeton Theological Review was still championing the legitimacy of slave holding (see an excerpt here). In Keller’s own backyard, some of the strongest expository preaching against the Abolitionist movement came from the pulpit of Henry Van Dyke, who was for nearly 40 years the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn (and incidentally whose son by the same name wrote the famous words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”). In 1861, Van Dyke preached:

When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.[3]

Van Dyke was far from alone in his opposition to this movement. The Southern Presbyterian churches were of course even more vehement in their defense of the institution of slavery. But his testimony here is relevant in that it shows how their views were often shared even by Northern Presbyterians (just like Keller, Van Dyke hailed from Pennsylvania, and just like Keller, he was a conservative Presbyterian minister). To whatever extent a Christian group held the authority of the Bible over against the creeping influence of progressive and liberal culture, that group supported the institution of slavery and opposed the abolitionists.  Van Dyke minced no words, saying:

…the tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evil—root and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures.[4]

Conservative Christians (like Keller) during the time of the Abolitionist movement were not found on the side of supporting social progress, they were found opposing it, wielding Bible verses and the most adamant of rhetorical criticisms of liberal culture.  It eventually took a war to eliminate this insidious institution, and many a Christian pastor, deacon, and elder donned the gray uniform of the Confederate soldier in order to fight for their right to own another human being.  Slavery in the United States was eventually abolished, not by sermons, but by muskets and cannons.

We will return to the role of religion in the ending of slavery in the U.S. at the end of this review. But first we must turn to address Keller’s second witness in his case for the progressive power of Christianity: The Civil Rights movement.

Conservative Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement

Keller wants to credit his religion for the hard-won successes of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1960’s, using Martin Luther King, Jr., as his shining example.

…there is no way to understand what happened until you see the Civil Rights movement as a religious revival...When Martin Luther King, Jr., confronted racism in the white church in the South, he did not call on Southern churches to become more secular…He invoked God’s moral law and the Scripture. (p.66)

But King’s appeal to white churches didn’t bring about any significant change within those churches. It was nonviolent political resistance and public protests that brought about real change, followed by sweeping legislation which the white evangelical leaders of the 1960’s bitterly opposed. In fact, white evangelicals, concentrated most densely in “the Solid South,” disapproved of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so uniformly that after its passing, virtually every state in the region switched political parties, immediately aligning themselves to the Republican party in a union that has not faded to this day, even half a century later.  It is astounding that Keller would suggest the preaching of leaders like Dr. King made even a dent in the prejudices of the white churches in the South.

In his book The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen R. Haynes tells of a series of “kneel-ins” meant to expose the resistance of white evangelical churches to the racial integration of their congregations, starting with the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, TN.

Joe Purdy (a black student at Memphis State University) and Jim Bullock (a white Southwesterner) attempted to worship at (SPC) in suburban East Memphis. Fearing that the congregation might be targeted for interracial visits, the SPC session had arranged for several men to stand guard. As the students approached the church’s main entrance, Purdy was asked if he was “African.” When he answered, “No. I’m an American, but I’m black,” Purdy and Bullock were told they could not enter the sanctuary…Seeing their path blocked by men in suits and police approaching from the rear, they knelt to pray.[5]

kneel-in
Blocked from attending First Methodist in Americus, GA

Haynes goes on to describe a series of demonstrations like this one in front of the same church for eight consecutive Sundays, sparking a regional movement that to this day has received remarkably little attention, perhaps because of the tendency among white evangelicals to underemphasize the ferocity of their opposition to racial integration during the days in which the national legislation was still being hammered out against their protestations.

Remember what I said at the beginning about Christianity not being a monolithic thing, made up instead of many competing “christianities?”  Keller is once again wanting to claim for his religion credit that rightly belongs to a subset of his faith which his own tribe opposed rather than supported, and which depended upon civic action following the progressive direction of the surrounding secular culture, at times requiring enforcement by the National Guard. Remember I’m from Mississippi. I know this part of our history very well.

So what was Keller’s tribe’s position on the integration of blacks and whites in public spaces? He didn’t enter the ministry until years after this movement was essentially over, but his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of America) formed in the wake of it.  The seminary from which I received my theological education (Reformed Theological Seminary) was chartered in the heart of the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights movement and was at the time one of only two flagship seminaries associated with the churches which later came to form Keller’s denomination (the other being Westminster Seminary, from which Keller got his doctorate).

It is no coincidence that my seminary was placed where it was, at the time that it was, nor is it any coincidence that Keller’s denomination was formed out of the remnants of the old Southern Presbyterian Church. They were the hardliners on matters of biblical authority and were the most resistant to capitulating to the liberal social agenda on matters like divorce, the ordination of women, the “modernist” approach to biblical studies, and yes, even to the enforcing of integration in public spaces in the United States.

Haynes reports that The Southern Presbyterian Journal, started in 1942 by Presbyterian medical missionary L. Nelson Bell (father-in-law of Billy Graham, with whom he later founded Christianity Today in 1956) routinely featured arguments against integration, citing the biblical story of Noah as a justification for the continued separation of races.

The Journal‘s 1942-1966 theological case for segregation had four overlapping legs: the curse of Noah, divine approval of geographical segregation and disapproval of miscegenation, biblically-mandated cultural segregation, and Jesus’s implicit support for segregation.[6]

Bell himself typified the ambivalent attitude of conservative Presbyterians toward integration. On the one hand, he often stopped short of the boldness which his own Journal contributors displayed in claiming biblical warrant for racial segregation. On the other hand, like most other Southern Presbyterians (who, let’s remember, later formed the PCA, the denomination to which Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian belongs), Bell didn’t see this as a fundamental issue for his faith, nor did he feel the government should meddle into the issue but should instead leave it up to the churches themselves to decide.

The thing that disturbs me is the hue and cry in liberal circles in the North that only those churches that are integrated are truly Christian. This is just plain foolishness.[7]

Funny thing, that label “Christian.”  Even the great L. Nelson Bell refused to allow that word to be tied to such a politically divisive cause because his theological tradition stood firmly opposed to the idea. For him, this was one among a litany of liberal agendas which he and his cohorts would eventually use as rallying cries to call for a new denominational affiliation, the PCA, officially formed in December of the same year that Nelson passed away.

Why Christianity Can’t Claim Credit For This Stuff

In the summer of 1865, just three short months after the conclusion of the Civil War, famed Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (whose works I am certain Tim Keller had to read on multiple occasions during the course of his theological education) offered a sober warning to his fellow Northern Presbyterians about gloating over the apparently providential victory of the Union forces against the South, and the subsequent success of the abolition of slavery:

It is easy to say  that we are right and they are wrong…(but) it is largely…because every man, and every body of men, are more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion, and of the life of the community to which they belong.[8]

Hodge was here displaying a remarkable level of self-awareness and sociological nuance according to evangelical historian Mark Noll, himself a Reformed Christian.  While many of his fellow churchmen wanted to claim that it was their superior grasp of Christian social ethics which empowered them to choose the right side of this political and theological crisis, Hodge had to admit that their differences fell so obviously across geographical lines that it was no use crediting their religious sensibilities for the direction in which they went.  Noll put it this way:

The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery…

But the Civil War was won and slavery was abolished not by theological orthodoxy but by military might and a hitherto unimaginable degree of industrial mobilization.[9]

Would that Keller and others like him take those words to heart and stop claiming that it was the Christian faith “self-correcting” which brought about these progressive changes in Western society, especially since his theological tradition was more closely aligned with the losing side on both historical examples he chose to highlight in this chapter. It is historically inaccurate to pick and choose only the winning sides, claiming that those were the True Christian™ perspectives from the very beginning. Again Noll puts his finger on the lingering results of this lack of awareness as it pertained to the ongoing development of Civil Rights in the 1960’s:

Although the war freed the slaves and gave African Americans a constitutional claim to citizenship, it did not provide the moral energy required for rooting equal rights in the subsoil of American society or for planting equal opportunity throughout the land.[10]

I would argue that the absence of that moral energy still affects American life today, predisposing modern evangelicals to follow virtually any and every public spokesman who pays lipservice to the Christian faith regardless of whether or not he displays any deep devotion to the ethical demands of its titular founder. Failing to learn the lessons of its own history, over time the conservative church has picked new cultural battles upon which they want to argue that the success of the gospel itself depends. And just as surely as they lost the last two culture wars, they will almost certainly lose these as well.

And the Next Historical Revision Will Be…

At moments like these, when it becomes apparent that the historical vision of an entire theological tradition is as cross-eyed as George Whitefield’s strabismic stare, the greatest casualty from the lack of self-awareness arises from their inability to see how many different ways they are standing on the wrong side of social progress today, in their own time. Keller himself sounds for a moment as if he understands this, hypothetically acknowledging that it’s possible for cultural biases to be enshrined in the temporal variations of any religion.

Hitchens’s point is fair. Religion “transcendentalizes” ordinary cultural differences so that parties feel they are in a cosmic battle between good and evil. (p.56)

But then of course Keller argues that his faith is immune to this because what he has is NOT a religion (That’s called special pleading, by the way, which to people outside of the Christian faith is seen as a logical fallacy; but to those inside of it, it’s just normal).  He argues that Jesus was critical of religion, drawing on a deep heritage of prophetic voices in the Old Testament. To some extent I think he is correct, there.  In fact, one of these days I am going to write a post arguing the possibility that Jesus harbored a number of proto-humanistic notions which, if he had been born at a later date, might have made him better suited to the Freethought community than to Judaism or perhaps even to Christianity.

But Keller himself enshrines cultural differences surrounding both sexual orientation and the role of women, unable to see that his tradition today exemplifies the same fundamentalist ethos which got his theological forbears into trouble in generations past.  Speaking about his own tradition’s stubborn resistance to rethinking their own perspective on same sex relations, Keller confesses:

If you say to everybody, “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin is a bigot,” you’re going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible, completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You’re basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their faith out the door.

Evangelical scholar and fellow Westminster alum Peter Enns pushes back at this notion, asking:

“What’s wrong with some disassembling?” and “Why does disassembling have to be tied to having or not having faith?”

Keller has, perhaps unwittingly, put his finger on the entire problem evangelicals face when confronted with any issue that runs counter to evangelical theology: “You’re asking me to read my Bible differently than my tradition has prescribed, and so I can’t go there. If I do, my faith is kicked out the door.”

Enns is most often concerned with topics like evolution and science denial, but other evangelicals like Matthew Vines and Brandan Robertson have argued in varying ways that an acceptance of homosexuality can peaceably coexist with an evangelical approach to the Christian faith.  Keller’s denomination cannot allow for such an accommodation, and my own tradition (Southern Baptists) have similarly made this single social issue a central feature of their political identity in America today.

Fighting same-sex relations seems to be the hill many evangelical churches have chosen to die on today, naively believing that God will honor their sacrifice by bringing their tradition back to life after all is said and done. But if history is any indication of what will happen in reality, those who so bitterly oppose this social change today will eventually die away, leaving it to their descendants tomorrow to claim that their theological tradition was always on the right side of this issue.

On the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Obergefell v. Hodges case this past summer, I went on record predicting that 50 years from now evangelicals would claim they were responsible for bringing marriage equality to pass.  Sure, to those of us standing here today listening to the apocalyptic outcries of evangelical preachers around this single issue, that sounds like a ridiculous impossibility.  But if history is any indication of how this will play out, the very short historical memory of the evangelical tradition will rewrite this story so that Vines and Robertson will represent True Christianity™ in our day just as surely as Wilberforce and King represented it in theirs.  Mark my words. I am virtually certain it is going to happen.

The Seedy Origins of the Christian Right

One last word before I leave Keller’s irresponsible treatment of Christian history in chapter four of The Reason for God.  At the beginning of this article, I intimated that the historical origins for a unified, monolithic Christian identity may surprise you.  While my grandparents grew up in a world that viewed denominational identities as fundamental, at some point over the course of my lifetime it became common practice to portray all Christians as united under a constellation of common social causes.  To most onlookers, those issues would include things like opposing abortion, fighting for the traditional definition of marriage, and maybe opposing sexual license or some other such moral cause which they feel should culturally separate Christians from the rest of the world.

But those weren’t the causes that helped bring together opposing conservative factions of the Christian faith for the first time. Randall Balmer, contributing editor for Christianity Today, recounts a story in his book Thy Kingdom Come which reveals that it wasn’t a fight against abortion but a different cause altogether which precipitated the eventual uniting of the Religious Right under a single political identity.  Balmer speaks of a meeting of the most influential kingmakers of conservative Christian politics including the architect behind the Moral Majority, Paul Weyrich.

“Let’s remember,” he said animatedly, “that the Religious Right did not come together in response to the Roe decision.” No, Weyrich insisted, “what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.”

For his part, Weyrich saw the evangelical discontent over the Bob Jones case as the opening he was looking for to start a new conservative movement using evangelicals as foot soldiers…

Weyrich, whose conservative activism dates at least as far back as the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, had been trying for years to energize evangelical voters over school prayer, abortion, or the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution. “I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” he recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”

In other words, the primary reason evangelicals today see conservative Christianity as a unified, monolithic identity goes back to an effort among fundamentalist hardliners to preserve their own racially discriminatory practices within their educational institutions.  In one of the greatest twists of irony in this whole story, even the tendency among evangelicals to claim as their own the progressive work of luminaries like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr., despite the fact that these men fought for traditions which conservative Christian churches bitterly opposed, owes its origins to the persistent presence of racism within their own collective history. Not so noble a reason, after all.

If this chapter of Keller’s book can be relied upon to provide any indication of his objectivity or precision on any other matter addressed within its pages, you have my fullest sympathies if you decide the rest of the book isn’t even worth the read.  I, on the other hand, plod along…

(Other Posts in this Series)

[Featured image: Daily Telegraph]

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Footnotes:

1 –  American Slavery, by Joseph Sturge, London, 1846. From an address delivered at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, May 22, 1846.

2 –  On Whitefield’s place in the legalization of slavery in Georgia: Source link here.

3 –  p.19, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark A. Noll

4 –  p. 3, Crisis.

5 –  p. 56, The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen R. Haynes.

6 –  n.14 on p. 286 in Segregated. See also this article on the origins of the PCA, Keller’s denomination, by Kenneth Taylor, and for more on Bell’s leadership in The Journal, follow this link here.

7 –  p. 193, Presbyterians and American Culture, by Bradley J. Longfield.

8 –  p. 93, Crisis.

9 –  p. 160, Crisis.

10 – p. 160, Crisis.

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