Christian magazine’s timidity in ’60s betrayed civil rights movement

Christian magazine’s timidity in ’60s betrayed civil rights movement September 13, 2019

An excellent August post in Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog illustrates how evangelical Christianity greatly helped perpetuate racism in America in the past, as it continues to slavishly do in tandem with the Trump presidency.

christianity today civil rights history censorship
Top left: Alabama police attack Selma to Montgomery marchers, known as “Bloody Sunday,” in 1965. Top right: Marchers carrying banner “We march with Selma!” on street in Harlem, New York City, New York in 1965. Bottom left: Participants in the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama during 1965. Bottom right: Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, their families, and others leading the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. (Infobox, Public Domain)

The post refers to a 2009 book by Yale theology professor Peter Goodwin Heltzel — Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics — about how the magazine Christianity Today (CT) was complicit in creating roadblocks to civil rights progress in the 1960s.

“In 1965 [CT editor Carl F.H.] Henry sent Frank E. Gaebelein to cover the march in Selma, Alabama,” Heltzel wrote. “An associate editor of Christianity Today and the founder and headmaster of the Stony Brook School, New York, Gaebelein went to Selma and was so inspired that he wired Henry in Washington, DC, that evangelicals needed to join the march. But Gaebelein’s stories of the Selma march never saw the light of day.”

Gaebelein’s first article, “The March to Montgomery,” which preceded the march, was published in CT the April 9, 1965.

The first two paragraphs of story are stirring, with an air of impending history:

Under the bright spring skies of Sunday morning, March 21, a crowd of 8,000 stood before the twin-towered brick facade of Brown’s A.M.E. Chapel in Selma, Alabama. On the steps, an ecumenical service was in progress, the prelude to a historic fifty-mile march from Selma to the state capitol at Montgomery.

“‘Those of us who are Negroes don’t have much because of the system,’” said Dr. Martin Luther King. ‘We don’t have much education and some of us don’t know how to make our nouns and verbs agree. But thank God we have our bodies, our feet, and our souls. We want to present our bodies and feet so the world will know the truth as we see it. We’ll march with great love for America, because we have a great faith in democracy.’”

It was Gaebelein’s last story about the march.

Two men blocked further CT reporting on the historic event: J. Howard Pew, a Texas oilman and financial supporter of the magazine, and L. Nelson Bell, famed evangelist Billy Graham’s father-in-law, who was an editorial advisor for the magazine and a segregationist.

“Pew and Bell did not want Christianity Today to speak out too critically against racism and capitalism, because they thought it would alienate important segments of the magazine’s constituency,” Anne wrote in her post.

In his book, Heltzel explained:

“Pew and Bell understood white power and privilege and were not eager to see it unveiled and dismantled. They insisted on running more articles on communism, which accelerated the production of white male capitalist citizens who increasingly placed their rust in their “Christian nation.”

Afterward, Henry tried to navigate a middle path as an “evangelical moderate” — between segregationists and “radical integrationists” — as did many of the day’s Southern Christians, but as Heltzel points out, such conservatism disingenuously slow-walked integration and did not fully face up to the immoral and historical legacy of systemic slavery in the U.S.

In fairness, Anne points out that CT continues to try to amend for its past transgressions by giving fuller expression on its pages to Christian ministers of color and a more robust debate on racism and religion. She refers to its August 9 article, “Jesus Deliver Us from This Racist Evil Age.”

“But when I see Christianity Today publish pieces like this,” Anne writes. “I can’t help but feel that there remains something in the magazine’s own past — and in the past of white evangelicalism as a whole — that has never been reckoned with. No amount of publishing articles by POC [people of color] today will erase the past. The past has to be accepted, owned, and understood, or we will attempt to move beyond it only imperfectly.”

Indeed, Americans have been ill-served in the past not just by what was inaccurately written but what should have been written that wasn’t.

Image/Wikimedia/Public Domain

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