FOR THOSE WHO WERE NOT ABLE TO OPEN THIS WHEN IT FIRST CAME OUT . . .
While cities and states have been struggling to adapt to life amid the
coronavirus, it is possible that another pandemic afflicts American society in even greater proportions. For this reason, it is difficult to overstate the timeliness of a recent collection of essays edited by Gerald R. McDermott: Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation (Acton Institute Press, 2020). The essays comprising this volume issue from a February 2019 conference at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, that boldly, yet in a faithfully Christian manner, dared honestly to assess race relations in America.
But where to begin, given our national paralysis on racial matters? And who can presume to speak with any measure of authority on such matters?
A Notable Deviation
Discussions of race in our day, especially in the academy,
typically take the form of “affirmative action,” enforced
“diversity,” calls for reparations for past “sins,” or reverse
discrimination, and they usually proceed on the assumption of universal and systemic institutional racism. The convocation at Samford deviated from this in notable ways.
In contrast to the standard secular perspectives on race that inform the culture around us, this
gathering was utterly unique in purposing to understand race, race relations, and
the racial tensions of our day in light of particular transcending theological commitments—commitments that have a “covenantal” quality about them.
These commitments find expression in both the Old and New Testaments. They are anchored in the acknowledgment that the sovereign Lord of the universe deals both with individuals and with nations. That he deals with individuals can be illustrated by Pauline theology—for example, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). That he deals with nations, blesses and judges entire people groups, and holds nations and kingdoms accountable in various ways is affirmed again and again throughout the entire Old Testament, from the Pentateuch to the Prophets.
One need not be a Puritan to affirm these basic scriptural truths. “Providence” is not providence unless there is a God of the nations who guides human history, which means that he raises up and deposes various kingdoms,
nations, and powers for his own redemptive purposes.
Scripturally, it is non-controversial that God deals with
both individuals and nations.
At least to those contributing to this remarkable volume it is non-controversial. But to suggest that race relations in America might be viewed in the light of a national
“covenant” or binding social “contract” or transcendent
moral principles would strike most contemporary Americans—whether politically left or
right of center—as unfashionable
at best and idolatrous or blasphemous at worst. Perhaps in generations past this view of America
might have been held. But in the
secularized world of the twenty-first century, where the transcendent has been bleached out,
such a perspective is regarded
as narrow-minded, bigoted, and
intolerable. Even if it is true.
A Shared Conviction
That our national dilemmas are
moral and spiritual in nature
is the fundamental conviction
shared by the contributors to
Race and Covenant. And that such
a volume was conceived and edited by Gerald McDermott, perhaps
the most knowledgeable living
authority on Jonathan Edwards,
is not insignificant. Edwards, it will be remembered, was
not only the third president of Princeton University (at the
time the College of New Jersey) but arguably America’s
greatest theologian—one who affirmed in the eighteenth
century the idea of a national “covenant.”
A century later, Abraham Lincoln would give expression to this conviction and serve in the unenviable role of witnessing to the fact that, because of divine law, “nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world,” as in fact “the awful calamity
of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be.” Has
this form of divine judgment been sent, Lincoln asked, “to
the needful end of our national reformation as a whole
McDermott and the other contributors to Race and
Covenant are keenly aware of the irony and paradox manifested in efforts to confront race and racial tensions in the twenty-first century. Race relations in America, as they
are keenly aware, have come a long way since the days of
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The civil rights
movement of the 1960s put a legal end to segregation,
and affirmative action policies have affected government programs, business and industry, higher education, and
the media in unprecedented ways. Economic distinctions
in the labor force between whites and blacks have virtually
disappeared. Based on recent data from the Pew Research
Center, racial intermarriage is growing more prevalent in
the U.S., with four-in-ten adults saying that it is a good
thing. The results of a 2013 Gallup Minority Rights and
Relations poll were even more positive, indicating that
87 percent of Americans approve of interracial marriage.
And in two elections, a black man
was elected U.S. president. These,
most assuredly, are not signs of a
society steeped in racial bigotry.
At the same time, it seems
that American culture has never
been so thoroughly denounced as
“racist”—deeply, profoundly, institutionally—as it presently is.
For example, Black Lives Matter
(BLM), an activist organization
founded in 2013 and committed
inter alia to freeing blacks from
“white supremacy,” suggests on
its website (www.blacklivesmatter.com/about) that the only racial problem in American culture
is white racism, and that any and
all means may be used to “free”
American blacks from “deadly oppression” by whites. Yet the truth
of the matter is that, tragically,
the specific things for which BLM
stands would, in the end, lead to
greater forms of social-cultural oppression and racial
bondage than the purported ills they decry.
The contributors to Race and Covenant, most of whom
are black, reject the line of thinking that BLM and other activists promote. They argue, instead, on the basis of Christian theology and moral first principles, that: (a) the solutions to the problems that bedevil and fracture American
society are spiritual and not political or narrowly “racial”
in nature; (b) a concept of “covenant,” by which we entreat
the Ruler of the Nations to bring humility and healing into
our midst, can facilitate the healing that is necessary; and
(c) a common identity—our having been created in the
imago Dei—and not “racial justice” as conventionally understood must guide our vision.
The Three Parts—An Overview
Aside from an introduction by McDermott and an epilogue,
Race and Covenant is divided into three principal parts.
Part One, “The National Covenant in Scripture and History,” features two Jewish scholars, Joshua Berman and Mitchell Rocklin; a Methodist scholar, Mark Tooley; and a Catholic political scientist, James Patterson. Berman and Rocklin remind us of the Old Testament origins of the notion of covenant and the reality of exile for the covenantal
people. Tooley and Patterson survey America’s history
and the role that covenant has played in it, particularly
in our churches and in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both are aware that the idea of covenant, whether in our
national history or in the church’s
history, will need rediscovery—a
task that will not be easy.
Part Two, “Race, Covenant,
and Contemporary American
Society,” features reflections by
political scientist Joshua Mitchell, economist William Allen, social scientists Glenn Loury and
Jacqueline Rivers, and religious activist Alveda King.
Joshua Mitchell contends
that, as a nation, we are at an
impasse between the “liberal
politics of competence” and the
“identity politics of innocence.”
An identity politics that claims
“innocence” while calling out others’ transgressions is, as
Mitchell observes, morally deficient. After all, precisely
who are the transgressors? And who are the innocents?
William Allen challenges the conventional wisdom
about Martin Luther King, Jr., observing that King helped
create a flawed and insulated understanding of black culture and black community by removing it from the warp and woof of wider American culture and American principles. The fruit of such thinking, Allen believes, has recently been on display in the “1619 Project.”
Glenn Loury contends for “transracial humanism” over
against “racial justice” as conventionally understood—a
distinction, he believes, that would help people transcend
narrower racial differences. Jacqueline Rivers assesses the
all-important state of the black family and reminds us of
the significance of marriage as a covenant, which must be
acknowledged if we are to confront in any serious way our
And Alveda King considers the national covenant in
the light of “the right to be born.” She traces the modern
history of abortion from the eugenics movement of the
early twentieth century, citing the influence of Margaret
Sanger and the role of Planned Parenthood up to the present. The effects of abortion on the black community, King reminds us, are unprecedented and infinitely tragic.
Part Three, “Racial Supremacy and Covenantal Reconciliation,” examines the theology and practices of a covenantal community. Through their respective chapters,
political scientists Carol Swain and Derryck Green, both
black, call us to think Christianly—and “covenantally”—
about race. They decry the conventional view that blacks are largely absolved from moral responsibility for self-destructive as well as community-destructive behaviors.
Both condemn the “new racism” that reigns in the academy
and in major cultural institutions, as well as the double
standard for public speech that permeates these institutions, including the major media. And they are critical of
the attempt by blacks to shame other blacks who reject
groupthink and identity politics.
Seminary professor Oswaldo Padilla reflects on the relationship of the Hispanic church
to American culture and to a
national “covenant.” His unique
contribution in the volume is to
suggest that the Hispanic church
can serve as a “bridging vocation,”
whereby we might come to realize
a richer multi-ethnic fabric of the
And community leader Robert Woodson, whose five-decade
career has been devoted to encouraging grassroots change in
argues for the importance of educational opportunities
and alternatives in those communities. Woodson identifies numerous “success stories” that have transformed
communities over time, providing individuals who live in
those communities with “liberty and justice for all” in accordance with our national covenant, the Declaration of Independence.
Black Lives That Don’t Matter
It is impossible to overstate the timeliness and value of this
remarkable volume. I know of few resources that attempt
to do what its editor and contributors have attempted.
Even before the George Floyd incident occurred in May
2020, America has had a desperate need of a national conversation on race and race relations. The problem, as I have
intimated, is that virtually every segment of American society is predisposed against having a conversation that is
anchored in what is true and what corresponds to moral
reality. Christians, in reacting to national events, are paralyzed, and both secular and religious activists combine to
make it well nigh impossible for a truly Christian voice to
be heard in the marketplace of ideas.
It is difficult to counter the stereotypical—and largely
false—narrative on race that has overwhelmed American
society. One basic place to start might be to question, at the
most fundamental level, whether Black Lives Matter—both
the organization and the slogan that has been uncritically
adopted by an unthinking American culture—represents
an honest and truthful attempt to further racial discourse
in the U.S. Merely visiting the BLM website leaves one with a clear impression that this is not the case. In truth, it would appear, based on readily
observable evidence, that not all black lives
matter to BLM. Three telling examples—two
of which are addressed in Race and Covenant—need identifying.
First and most important, as Alveda
King (a niece of the civil rights leader) observes in her incisive chapter, not all unborn black lives matter. In fact, based on
national statistics, about one-third of black
lives never make it out of the womb alive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control,
black abortion rates are roughly three times
those of whites and Hispanics, and according to the Guttmacher Institute, the rate is
five times that of white women (which itself
is tragically high). This amounts each year to
the murder of roughly 136,000 black lives, a
figure that somehow escapes Bureau of Justice statistics. In New York City, astonishingly, thousands
more black babies are aborted each year than are born
alive, a trend that has been ongoing. Why do these huge
numbers of unborn black lives not matter? Shouldn’t that
be part of a national conversation?
Part of the reason for this social pathology appears
to reside in a second significant untruth of BLM ideology:
the fact that black fathers’ lives seem not to matter to the
black community. Why is that? We are justified in asking
whether a fruit of “white supremacy” is the fact that black
women are unable to find and keep young black men who
are willing to assume the responsibility of becoming real
fathers to the children they sire. Is this blight—a blight, I
grant, that is culture-wide and not confined to the black
community—due to “systemic injustice” and “deadly oppression” foisted upon blacks by whites?
The Illustrative Case of George Floyd
Here it is necessary to mention George Floyd, who was
raised to sainthood in May 2020 for presumably having
died as a result of “police brutality” in Minneapolis. Recall,
for a moment, the nation’s reaction: people everywhere
were appalled, and the chorus was deafening: Another
outrageous incident of police violence. Racist police action.
As it turns out, alas, Floyd was neither a saint nor a
martyr. Even a cursory examination of his unfortunate
journey reveals him to have been less a martyr than a
public menace. Over the decade 1997–2007, according to
Harris County (Houston) court records, Floyd had been
arrested nine times, with several of those arrests related
to the distribution of cocaine. In 2007, he was charged with
armed robbery in a home invasion, which resulted in a plea
deal and a sentence of five years in prison.
After leaving Houston for Minneapolis, Floyd worked
variously as a truck driver and bouncer, but was unemployed at the time of his arrest, which was precipitated by a charge of using a forged $20 bill to buy cigarettes in
a convenience store. There was some controversy over
Floyd’s state of mind at the time of his arrest. Police reports indicate that Floyd “physically resisted officers” and
that he showed signs of fentanyl intoxication and of having
methamphetamine in his system at the time of his arrest,
but the drugs were not listed officially in Floyd’s cause of
Here we might add the fact that Floyd had fathered
five children with several women, including a six-year-old
daughter who was living with her mother in Houston at
the time of his arrest. Five more children growing up without a father. And this is the primary reason why I mention
Floyd: not because of his criminal record or the unwise
decisions he made throughout his adult life, but because of
his contribution to the problem of fatherlessness, which, as
several contributors to Race and Covenant note, is ravaging
the black community.
It is worth noting that no other minority in the U.S.
suffers from such malignant intraracial trends—abortion,
family decomposition, and fatherless children. But there is
Overrepresented Among Criminals
Yet another category of damning evidence that not all black
lives matter concerns violent crime in the U.S. And it is here
that both black and white activists take aim with deadly
precision at “white supremacist” culture, refusing to acknowledge the reasons for the plague of predatory (and fatherless) black males. Consider, just for starters, these
• Blacks become homicide victims at roughly six times the
rate that whites do.
• Blacks comprise roughly 45 percent of all felony murder
victims and 60 percent of the perpetrators, even though
they comprise only 13 percent of the national population.
• Blacks account for roughly two-thirds of all drug-related
And this does not even take into consideration the high
rate of black incarceration, a phenomenon that cannot be
explained merely by citing “injustice,” “white supremacy,”
and “white oppression.” It is disingenuous and morally despicable to argue, as so many social activists do (both black and white), that the huge numbers of incarcerated blacks
point to a system that is biased against blacks. None of
these activists seem willing to raise the question of black
self-responsibility or the matter of “civil society” and the
need to protect the common good. Should predatory black
males, who comprise the majority of our prison population,
be let off the hook whatever their crime simply because of
race? What is the alternative? No matter, for black victimhood is the dominant narrative in American culture, andcursed is the one who challenges it.
But let us challenge the narrative just the same. In fact,
let us connect the dots and acknowledge that most black
crime, including murder and drug dealing, is the fruit of
Debunking a False Portrait
In truth, American society is witness to an assault on black
lives. But that assault has nothing to do with white racism,
white “privilege,” or white “supremacy.” Rather, it has its
roots chiefly in problems within the black community that
appear to be endemic—or shall we say pandemic. These
problems, moreover, do not automatically (or necessarily)
justify calls for “racial reconciliation,” though such calls
seem to be the church’s knee-jerk response at present. One
grossly inaccurate portrait of black victimization concerns
supposed racist application of force by police and law enforcement agents. Some comment on this false perception, which needs to be challenged, is in order.
What will never be reported through mainstream
news outlets is the actual lack of evidence of police brutality and racism in the context of violent crime. Contributing to recent data is a study by David J. Johnson et al.,
“Officer Characteristics and Racial Disparities in Fatal
Officer-Involved Shootings,” published in July 2019 in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Motivation for this study, which followed on the heels of several high-profile police shootings of black males, was said by the authors to be a “widespread concern about
racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings and
[the belief] that these disparities reflect discrimination
by White officers.”
The researchers sought to create “a comprehensive database of officers involved in fatal shootings during 2015,” and were able to obtain officer information from “all 684
police departments [that] had officers involved in a fatal
shooting” through January 2016. Summarizing the results
of this noteworthy study, the authors observe: “We did not
find evidence for anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in
police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything,
found anti-White disparities when controlling for race-specific crime.” Correlatively, white officers were “not more likely to shoot minority civilians” than non-white
officers. In addition, black and Hispanic officers (compared
with white officers) were found to be more likely to fatally
shoot black and Hispanic civilians.
A 2016 econometric study done by a black professor of
economics at Harvard, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., confirms these
findings. Titled “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” and published in the Journalof Political Economy, Fryer’s study was conducted jointly
with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Like the
PNAS study, this analysis notes that a primary obstacle to
the study of police use of force is the lack of readily available data. Nevertheless, it found that, even in contexts where blacks and Hispanics are “more than fifty percent
more likely [than whites] to experience some form of [nonlethal] force in interactions with police,” when it comes to the most extreme use of force—officer shootings—there
are “no racial differences in either the raw data or when
contextual factors are taken into account.”
One of the few national studies done to determine
whether racial disparities were present in shootings involving white police officers was initiated in 2015 and subsequently published in 2019 in the journal Public Administration Review under the title “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” This study found that
white officers were no more likely to fatally shoot black
or Hispanic civilians than non-white officers, although its
findings were based on a relatively small subset (19–23
percent) of all fatal shootings nationwide. The findings of
this study comport with those of a 2018 study published
in the Journal of Crime and Justice—“Disparity Does Not
Mean Bias: Making Sense of Observed Racial Disparities
in Fatal Officer-Involved Shootings with Multiple Benchmarks.” The results of that study, based on the benchmarks of “population, police-citizen interactions, or total arrests,”
were that “black citizens appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers.”
As it turns out, the myth of “police brutality” is precisely that—a myth. And as Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute has reminded us in her important 2016 book The War on Cops and more recently in “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” a solid body of evidence finds no
structural bias in the criminal justice system with respect
to arrests, prosecutions, or sentencing. Deviant behavior,
not race, determines most police action.
The Leaven of Truth
In conclusion, I would argue that not only wider American
culture but the Christian Church is in desperate need of
resources to help us think sanely and truthfully about race
relations in the present moment. Even as I write, I find today in my mailbox the latest catalogue (Fall 2020) of books being published by one of the largest religious publishers
in the U.S. Among its offerings are the following:
• Decolonizing Christianity: Becoming Badass Christians, by
Miguel A. De La Torre, which (according to the catalogue)
“echoes James Cone’s 1970 assertion that white Christianity is a satanic heresy”; “white American Christians have
aligned themselves with the oppressors who subjugate
the ‘least of these’—those who have been systematically
marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.”
• Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial
Reconciliation, 2nd ed., by Jennifer Harvey, which “explores
what a reparations paradigm can actually look like” and
calls for Christians to oppose “racist social structures
• After Whiteness, by Willie James Jennings, which “reflects
on the distortions wrought by whiteness” and calls for “a
massive cultural shift away from white, Western cultural
These offerings are by no accident, for on the inside cover of the catalogue, the publisher’s editor-in-chief introduces its contents with the words, “Can you
breathe?”, followed by the observation that “most white
people don’t worry about getting a knee on their neck.”
He then concludes: “The COVID-19 and anti-Blackness
pandemics inflict physical damage . . . but as publishers
we know they are related.” Consider the sheer hubris and
distortions that reside in this pronouncement: “As publishers, we know the governing reality of ‘anti-Blackness pandemics.’”
The above simply illustrates that many elements in
the Christian Church—with publishers leading the pack—
are in an advanced state of moral confusion. This is why
Race and Covenant should be in every Christian’s library.
Christian leaders, pastors and priests, educators, and laypersons need to be armed herewith for the cultural battles ahead. And given the events of 2020 and beyond, we can
expect that racial discourse, without the leaven of truth,
will degenerate and become far more “oppressive” than
anyone might have imagined in our lifetimes.
Contributing editor J. Daryl Charles is the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics. He is the author or editor
of twenty books, including Retrieving the Natural Law (2008),
Natural Law and Religious Freedom (2018), and, most recently,
Just War and Christian Traditions (forthcoming). He is also coeditor of Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for aFallen World, Volume 3 (2020). He has weighed in on the issue of
how Christians should think about racism at the Acton Institute
blog (https://blog.acton.org/archives/116656-how-christians-should-think-about-racism-and-police-brutality.html). He can be reached at email@example.com.