A Personal Perspective on Black and White Evangelicalism
These are merely thoughts based on my own, personal history, my historical researches, and my inner anguish—over the state of American evangelicalism. I apologize for any concern, consternation or other harm my thoughts may cause anyone. I welcome thoughtful, civil responses.
My own spiritual-theological identity has always, for sixty-five years, been “evangelical.” I won’t go into all the reasons for that, but only say that I grew up and remain evangelical in what I understand to be the truest and best sense of the word.
The seminary where I teach calls itself “evangelical.” That is a problem for many folks who, in my opinion, tend to interpret that word through the media’s misrepresentations of it. The American media tend to portray American evangelicalism as exclusively white, male-led, nationalistic (American exceptionalism) and ultra-conservative socially and politically. That was not my experience growing up and living among American evangelicals.
My great-grandparents and grandparents were members of two evangelical denominations: The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the Evangelical Free Church of America. When I was a child, growing up, I knew both of those churches to be what would now be called “progressive”—among evangelicals. Both, for example, were pioneers in ordaining women and having women pastors. My parents “converted” to Pentecostalism; I grew up in churches that were open to African-Americans and people of all races and ethnicities and had women pastors, evangelists, church planters and denominational leaders.
I never heard the word “inerrancy” until I attended a mainstream, evangelical Baptist seminary. Only then did I learn that “women should not be pastors or teach men.” The social location of the seminary was predominantly white, middle class, and male-led and I struggled with that.
During my seminary years I gravitated away from Pentecostalism toward being Baptist and toward inserting myself, hopefully influentially, in the wider American evangelical world. Over the years I have taught in three Christian universities with evangelical reputations (more or less).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
While I was still in seminary I began to read and then associate with what I call “progressive evangelicalism.” I saw and experienced that fundamentalism was gradually inserting itself into mainstream evangelicalism and pushed back against that as best I could. I was taught that “we evangelicals” were not fundamentalists. Gradually, however, the line between the two communities of relatively conservative American Protestants began to blur and even dissolve. I was not then and I still am not prepared to give the identity “evangelical” to the neo-fundamentalist (almost all white and male) who have somehow convinced the media that they are the “true evangelicals.” I have written many articles and some books pushing back against that, but it feels like trying to hold back a flood with a finger in the dike (to use a Dutch illustration).
Along the way, as an American evangelical student, scholar, teacher, editor, author, I have developed strong resistance to any identification of true, authentic “evangelical Christianity” with American nationalism, conservative political ideologies, “whiteness” and “maleness.” I think my “new consciousness” about these issues began from my own roots and also from reading every issue of a magazine published while I was in seminary titled The Post-American. It later became Sojourners. Through reading it and coming to know its editors, writers, publisher, etc., I adopted the view that “mainline American evangelicalism” as a movement is deeply, profoundly flawed. Its whiteness is one of its major flaws and that, in my opinion, is tied in with its “take over” by fundamentalists who tend to blend together American nationalism, ultra-conservative political ideology, and evangelical Christianity.
Over the now thirty-six years of my academic involvement with American evangelicalism I used whatever influenced I had to “push back” against the flood of neo-fundamentalist evangelicalism and especially the popular image of all evangelicals as American nationalists, white, male-dominated, and politically and economically conservative. So I have tended to associate myself with like-minded evangelicals who, in my opinion, are all too few because the media has portrayed “us” (evangelicals in America) in their own way. Popular opinion, shaped by the secular media, has come to think of “American evangelicalism” as something I cannot personally identify with.
However, I have never been ready to surrender my own evangelical identity. It is a big part of who I am.
What I have done is state very publicly (on my blog, in books and articles, in papers read at professional society meetings, etc.) that, in my own personal opinion, the American evangelical movement is dead and gone. The major reason is the divisive influence of ultra-conservative neo-fundamentalists who have somehow managed to capture the label “evangelical” in the public mind.
What I have done, then, is argue that there is a difference between evangelicalism as a movement and evangelicalism as an ethos. When I call myself “evangelical,” and when my seminary calls itself “evangelical,” I/we are not identifying with any movement; I/we are identifying ourselves with a historical-theological-spiritual ethos deeply shaped by post-Reformation: pietism, revivalism, missions, and profound emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only message that brings true and holistic transformation—both individually and socially.
There really is no alternative label for this distinctive theological-spiritual ethos than “evangelical” and Christians around the globe have adopted it; it is not unique or even distinctive to the United States. And therein lies part of the problem; today’s secular media, influenced by certain neo-fundamentalist, self-appointed spokespersons for “evangelicalism,” have identified being evangelical with being pro-American nationalism, white, ultra-conservative socially and politically, and male-led. None of this is true of the universal evangelical ethos.
What I am calling the “evangelical ethos” is found just as strongly in African-American churches as in predominantly white churches. There are many African-American evangelicals in this sense of “evangelical” and many of them have and still do identify as “black evangelicals.” What they mean is what I mean—“evangelical” in the ethos sense, not in the movement sense.
Please be patient with me as I mention some leading, influential African-American evangelicals who have played a part in my life and have informed my “brand” of authentic evangelicalism. I have met all of these people and consider them true evangelicals—as they do so consider themselves. They are, to me, heroes of authentic evangelicalism that transcends race, gender, culture and nationality.
Before I mention names, however, I will note that there exists and has long existed an organization in the U.S. called The National Black Evangelical Association (www.the-nbea.org). This organization’s Statement of Faith is thoroughly evangelical in the broad, ethos sense. It is essentially no different from most white evangelical Statements of Faith. Their spirituality is Bible-centered, Jesus-centered, gospel-centered and conversionist.
One of the first black evangelicals who came onto my personal “radar screen” and whose books I read and whom I eventually met and had “table fellowship” with was black evangelist Tom Skinner. His widow still leads a “leadership institute” named after him. He was a prophet to predominantly white evangelicalism as well as to black evangelicals. He wrote several books and spoke at national meetings of both black and white evangelicals about subjects like “How Black is the Gospel?” He was never afraid to confront white supremacy among evangelicals while remaining authentically evangelical without apology.
Another black evangelical who influenced me and with whom I also had “table fellowship” was William Pannell who is an “icon” among progressive evangelicals. Evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary has an institute named after him. He still lives and is active in promoting racial diversity and even “blackness” among American evangelicals.
More recently (speaking here of younger black evangelicals) two very influential African-American evangelical scholars, authors and speakers are my friendly acquaintances Wheaton College theology professor Vincent Bacote and Fuller Seminary theology professor Anthea Butler.
These black evangelicals are among a vanguard of evangelical Christians in the U.S. pushing back against the “whiteness” of the evangelical movement while at the same time calling themselves “evangelical”—in my “ethos” sense of the term. Both, however, are deeply embedded in evangelical institutions and in the larger (non-fundamentalist, progressive) evangelical movement (if it can be called that anymore).
I will go out on a limb here (and hope for understanding or at least forgiveness) and claim that allowing the American secular media to re-define religious categories such as “evangelical” is very wrong. I believe that that Satan want this to happen and we who allow it to happen are cooperating with them (mostly unconsciously and unintentionally). The secular media, who have no real Christian sensibilities, are not interested in truth in religion; they are only interested in sensationalism. And they have played directly into the hands of neo-fundamentalists who are often more dedicated to American exceptionalism, white supremacy, male superiority, and anti-human capitalism (Social Darwinism!) than they are in the true gospel of Jesus Christ which is liberating of all that dehumanizes people and which transcends all human differences.
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