Should Evangelicals Compare Themselves to Blacks Under Jim Crow?

Should Evangelicals Compare Themselves to Blacks Under Jim Crow? August 29, 2019

Remember all that talk about conservatives giving up on liberal democracy? Conservative commentator David French has been urging conservatives to focus on winning hearts and minds, on persuading people to their point of view, and on working within our system of liberal democracy rather than working to upend it by force. I didn’t realize this was such a controversial viewpoint, but it seems that in some quarters it is.

The contrary view is that conservatives should dispense with trying to persuade people or with creating change the electoral system, and instead use the power of the state to enforce conservative political and moral positions on everyone else whether they like it or not. On second thought, I am familiar with this viewpoint.

At Vox, Jane Coaston has argued that the disagreement is “more aimed at libertarian influence on conservatism than at French himself.” Should conservatives aim for a sort of live and let live approach, taking aim only at what they see as discrimination against conservatives and attempts to suppress conservatives’ freedom of speech? Or should conservatives work to reinstate a traditional moral order on the population as a whole?

After a flurry of back-and-forth, French waded back in to defend his perspective in a National Review article titled Black American History Should Give Evangelicals a Sense of Perspective — and Hope. “The promise of liberty upon which black Americans called is still true for contemporary Christians in far less trying times,” reads his byline.

French contends that evangelicals shouldn’t give up hope in their ability to create change and achieve fair treatment in the future, even though they are discriminated against and badly treated in the public square today.

He begins as follows:

One of the most striking aspects of modern Evangelical political thinking is its projection of inevitable decline, as if the present trends of secularization and increasing religious intolerance represent the first stages of an irreversible slide. The result is a fearful defensive crouch in the face of challenges to religious liberty that are serious but not grave and workplace discrimination that is troublesome but not crippling.

Another way to frame the challenge is that in parts of American society — especially in higher education and Silicon Valley — it’s not easy to be a traditional, orthodox Christian any longer. You’ll face threats to your liberty, to your career, and to your social standing. There’s a real (and often justified) concern that publicly stating the most basic tenets of your faith could result in suffering very real personal and professional costs.

I understand what French is trying to do here. French is worried that evangelicals are giving up on liberal democracy, due to a sense that they have irrevocably lost the culture wars. He worries that evangelicals—and conservatives in general—are turning toward a politics of coercion, a theocracy that no longer cares about winning the culture, about changing hearts and minds, but only about achieving its goals by force.

French, then, is gently reminding evangelicals that, even when things were much worse for African Americans, they never gave up on America, or on liberal democracy.

Let’s put aside the question of support for Donald Trump for a moment. He’s not going to dominate American politics forever. He may not even dominate it two years from now. American Evangelicals — especially the conservative Evangelicals who feel most culturally embattled — face questions that will define their public posture potentially for generations.

They would do well to learn some valuable lessons from black Americans, especially the black church — a community that faced infinitely greater odds, confronted a far more hopeless future, and yet ultimately made extraordinary strides towards securing the blessings of American liberty.

Once again, I understand what David French is trying to do. However.

To begin with, I’m not sure French’s history is quite right. The civil rights movement succeeded because the federal government stepped in and forced states to give African Americans the vote; forced private companies to serve African Americans; and forced school districts to oversee desegregation plans. Civil rights activists didn’t entertain much hope that white southern racists would change their minds, or be voted out.

Perhaps French is thinking about the role the courts played, and arguing that evangelicals should look to the courts to protect their rights too; perhaps he’s thinking of the many decades of work African Americans put in before the federal government and the courts arrived at a point where they were willing to do something.

It is absolutely true that images of civil rights protests in the south and the violence with which they were met—broadcast on TV and in newspapers—changed minds in the north. If these minds hadn’t been changed, the federal government would very likely have left things in the south to go on as they had for nearly a century. (There’s also the little business of these images making the U.S. look bad, in the middle of the Cold War.)

In his article, French explains this change as follows:

[S]everal years ago I had a fascinating conversation with the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, an early member of the Congressional Black Caucus. I asked him why the civil-rights movement — after so many years of subjugation and segregation — had made such rapid legal gains in the early 1960s. His response was immediate. “Almighty God and the First Amendment.” The First Amendment gave them a voice, and God softened Americans’ hearts, enabling them to finally hear the message.

French’s argument seems to be that evangelicals shouldn’t conclude that they have irrevocably lost the culture wars; turn to the government to put force behind their rights or moral code; and give up on the power of the first amendment and the power to persuade people to recognize their rights and the validity of their arguments. He argues that black Americans didn’t give up on their ability to persuade, that even in the darkest hour black Americans believed in the promise of America and in their ability to realize that promise.

I’m still not sure this is quite the correct reading of civil rights history. There actually were some African Americans who gave up on white America’s ability to change; the civil rights movement wasn’t a monolith. Regardless, a piece of this argument is certainly correct: Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the 1619 Project that black Americans have worked for centuries to force America to live up to its promise. “America wasn’t a democracy, until black Americans made it one,” she wrote. French’s intention, in this article, is to warn evangelicals against giving up on the promise of America, and the American system.

Perhaps I’m letting a focus on French’s history get in the way of addressing a more important point: French’s comparison of evangelicals’ current situation to that of African Americans under Jim Crow. To be sure, he states that evangelicals live in “far less trying times” than did black Americans during the civil rights era. But the fact that he felt the need to make the comparison at all shows the depth of the evangelical persecution complex.

Just how trying are the times, for evangelicals? Certainly, companies like Chick-Fil-A, which fund anti-gay organizations, has come in for heavy criticism among those who are progressive and left-leaning, and the American consensus has swung strongly in favor of gay marriage. But if I may just point this out, there is still a Chick-Fil-A on every corner, and LGBTQ youth are still being kicked out of their homes by evangelical parents.

I attended a large state college in the Midwest. I got nervous laughter from my classmates when I stated in class that I believed the world was created 6,000 years ago, but I still got an A. And guess what? Campus Crusade for Christ as the biggest organization operating on campus. Whole crowds of students from my dorm would flow out in the direction of the large campus hall where CRU met like clockwork every Thursday just before 7pm.

Evangelicals who cry persecution have never had to live a day as an atheist in rural America, or as a Muslim basically anywhere in America. They mistake disagreement with discrimination.

That French would feel the need to compare evangelicals’ current position in the U.S. to African Americans’ situation under Jim Crow in order to make them listen to his argument—even with all of his caveats about how things aren’t quite as bad for evangelicals today as they were for African Americans—demonstrates just how ballywack the evangelical persecution complex has become. It really is that bad. 

Indeed, French himself seems to know this:

It is truly odd that, in the face of far lesser challenges to liberty and equality, there are conservative Christians who not only despair of the future — they despair of liberalism itself. They despair of decency and the power of persuasion to alter human minds, and they act often as if God simply doesn’t soften human hearts any longer.

This profound pessimism is, quite frankly, mystifying. I’ve lived and worked in the deepest of deep-blue secular progressive America, and I’ve worshipped and spoken freely. No, this speech hasn’t been unopposed, and there have been challenging times, but Evangelical Christians can and do thrive in every part of American society in a way that black Americans in years past would see as success beyond anything they could reasonably hope to attain.

So which is it—are evangelicals free to worship and speak even in blue secular progressive America, or do they risk losing their liberty and careers merely by existing, as French asserted at the beginning of his piece? These can’t both be true.

It’s as though French realized at the end of his piece that he’d been a bit hyperbolic at the beginning, and added this paragraph to allay concerns that he was overstating the case, but see going back to edit his earlier paragraph as all that important. Or perhaps French wrote what he did at the beginning because he felt evangelicals wouldn’t listen to him if he didn’t first affirm the direness of the plight they believe they are in, and then added this contrary note at the end because he really doesn’t actually believe it’s as bad as all that.

Neither option is all that great.

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