Is Evangelicalism White?
Increasingly others are joining me (or I am joining them) in criticizing the tendency of American sociologists or religion, their researchers, and the mass media to identify “evangelical” as a white phenomenon. I find this equation both bewildering and disturbing.
Now, I have to admit that when there was a semi-organized “evangelical movement” in the United States it was primarily led by Caucasian males. In my opinion, that post-World War 2 movement that looked to Billy Graham and his ministries for at least symbolic identity and leadership, died some time ago. It no longer exists. To those who think an evangelical movement does still exist I simply say “Show me.” I don’t see it—at least nothing like the evangelical movement I grew up in and was part of for much of my life. As I have said here before, evangelical historical George Marsden says it died out in about 1976. I think later, but that may have been the beginning of its demise. Now it is dead and gone. There are, of course, remnants and relics of it, but there is no even relatively cohesive “evangelical movement.”
For a long time now, I have insisted on a distinction between evangelicalism as a spiritual-theological ethos (well described in my late friend Stanley Grenz’s book Revisioning Evangelical Theology) and evangelicalism as a sociological-religious movement. Historically and sociologically speaking, evangelical movements come and go and many people display and live out an evangelical ethos without ever connecting with any evangelical movement.
I have also insisted that any evangelical movement, insofar as it is not headquartered with membership, is a centered set rather than a bounded set. And the evangelical ethos has a center but no boundaries.
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Clearly, to anyone who studies the evangelical spiritual-theological ethos, evangelicalism as an ethos is not white. It exists all around the world, mostly in relatively conservative Protestant churches but not exclusively in them. Along the way I have met Catholics I consider evangelical and conservative Protestants I don’t consider evangelical (in the “ethos sense”). And I have long considered most African-American and Hispanic Protestant churches in the U.S. evangelical—in the ethos sense.
Now, briefly, back to the post-World War 2 evangelical movement in the U.S. I was pretty well connected with it and knew some of its leaders (e.g., my uncle who was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals for years). I made a point of asking leaders of that now defunct evangelical movement why there were so few African-Americans in it. They said “We invite them, but they don’t choose to participate.” Over the years I came to suspect that answer was not entirely honest insofar as African-Americans were not invited to be central to the movement. But I do remember some leading black evangelicals who were important and influential. I will just name two here. Both are probably largely forgotten.
There was Rev. E. V. Hill, long-time pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The other one was Tom Skinner, who Christianity Today labeled “the prophet out of Harlem,” who wrote several books about black evangelicalism and was a speaker-in-demand among evangelicals in the 1970s. There were others like Hill and Skinner, but those two come to mind.
Sadly, in my opinion, the leadership of the now defunct post-World War 2 evangelical movement in America did not work hard enough to de-center whiteness—within the movement. So, many African-American evangelicals started their own alternative to the National Association of Evangelicals called the Black National Evangelical Association which still exists.
I have for a very long time considered “evangelicalism” or “being evangelical” a spiritual-theological ethos and identity. So what are the positions that constitute its center?
Three will always be some disagreement about that, but even most evangelicals of color who I know would agree that the center of the evangelical spiritual-theological ethos, that distinguishes it from other Christians, consists of Jesus Christ as more than only savior but also lord and personal friend—someone with whom we can and should have a “personal relationship” that transforms us into his likeness, the Bible as God’s written, uniquely inspired and authoritative Word, salvation by grace alone through faith expressed initially and continuously as decision (conversion through repentance and trust in Jesus Christ), emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation of salvation in its entire spectrum, and dedication to change the world through evangelism and social transformation.
I know there are others who would “fill out” the center with more detail. I will just add that there are usually the following elements as part of the center of being evangelical: a strong desire to worship and serve Jesus Christ along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to pray and read Scripture not only for study but also for devotional enrichment and discipleship, a deep and profound concern for holy living. What constitutes “holy living” is a matter of discussion and some disagreement among equally evangelical Christians.
There, that is my description of “evangelicalism” for today. (Tomorrow it might be slightly different!) There is nothing “white” about this. Almost every African-American Christian I have ever known would agree whole heartedly with this description of what it means to be authentically Christian. So would almost every Hispanic Protestant Christian I have ever known. So do most Asian Protestant Christians I have known.
But here’s the catch and the necessary caveat: I am white and so cannot speak for non-white evangelicals—as one of them. I want to hear what those who call themselves evangelical in the non-political but spiritual-theological sense mean by “evangelical.” I speak from a position of whiteness that I think has been at least informed by my rich relationships with non-white evangelicals (and non-white non-evangelicals!).
There are “stirrings” about a meeting of non-white evangelicals later this year in Chicago that have caught my interest. I may say more about it here later.
Please bear with me as I conclude by saying that when I was involved with the Evangelical Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion we always had persons of color and women (and some women of color) on the executive committee. We and they strove to have non-white persons and women on the programs for our unit’s sessions. That’s an inadequate effort, but I think it at least points to some effort on the parts of evangelicals to be inclusive and not white-centered.
Announcement: Conference “Liberating Evangelicalism: Decentering Whiteness,” September 19-21, Chicago. See www.liberatingevangelicalism.org. What I wrote above is not a criticism of this group or conference. I plan to attend if possible. I assume by “Evangelicalism” the organizers mean the American evangelical movement and the contemporary tendency of the media and the public in general to identify “evangelical” with being white. I couldn’t agree more that this is a terrible mistake that needs to be corrected.
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