Jacob Alan Cook is the author of Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith. Cook has done his homework, collecting receipts and documenting support for his argument on the intrinsic whiteness of American evangelicalism. His long essays for Baptist News can seem a bit like homework for us, too, but “Putting the white in witness since the 1940s” is worth the time and effort it takes to digest.
Part of what makes Cook’s argument about the pervasive whiteness of evangelicalism so powerful is that this isn’t his primary target. His larger argument has to do with the self-serving self-deception inherent in “worldview theory,” and the semi-conscious assertion and defense of white supremacy baked into the “evangelical worldview” is something he highlights as a particularly glaring example of that flaw.
“The form of a world-view,” Cook writes, “its all-seeing, all-ordering tendency — drives human beings to narrate whatever they think they know, however grizzly it may be, as the stuff of divine revelation. And in so doing, one can enjoy the support of likeminded others and claim the moral high ground without making much of an argument.”
In other words, he’s not so much coming out to say, Wow — white evangelicalism is really racist, but to say, Be careful of this ‘worldview’ business because it can lead you to confuse your worst aspects with the will of God and you can wind up rationalizing the kind of extreme moral depravity demonstrated by, for example, generations of really racist white evangelicalism.
Cook’s “Putting the white in witness” isn’t about the Fox-News-driven 21st-century white evangelicalism of Trump-worshipping court evangelicals, or about the hyper-partisan white-resentment politics of fire-breathing polarized extremists like Franklin Graham, Charlie Kirk, Ted Cruz, David Barton, and Sammy Alito. He’s documenting how all of that was on full display in white evangelicalism long before the rise of the “religious right” and the “Reagan Revolution” of the Second Redemption.
One of the main figures in Cook’s essay is Harold Ockenga, a respected and respectable pillar of mainstream, Billy-Graham-style mid-century institutional white evangelicalism. Ockenga was a founder and long-time president of Fuller Seminary, the founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and the chairman of the board of Christianity Today for decades.
And here is Harold Ockenga, speaking to the NAE in 1957: “There is nothing biblically, nothing morally, nothing legally against [integration], but it is not wise, that is all, for expediency’s sake because it is selfish.”
As protests grew during the long filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Ockenga chided Northern whites involved in demonstrations in St. Augustine, Fla., as “doing more harm than good.” He argued: “The whole situation is rapidly deteriorating. If we break the law by forcing the situation, we are going to encourage the extremist groups. We ought to be careful what we do.”
And, from 1972: “I for one cannot understand how any of you men of evangelical conviction can back Mr. McGovern.”
It’s baked in and it was baked in from the start. The white supremacist leaven hath leavened the whole lump.
(Sometimes you’ve gotta go with the KJV. “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” just isn’t as much fun to say.)
Paul’s warning there in Galatians 5:9 underscores the difficulty of any attempted “deconstruction” of white evangelicalism that aims to distill an essential evangelical faith untainted by white supremacy. Here is your loaf of bread. How do you remove the yeast to turn it into a loaf of unleavened bread? I’m pretty sure you can’t. You’re gonna need to toss that loaf away, start over, and reheat the oven.
Cook also discusses, as foil or antidote or counter-example, “The curious case of Bill Pannell” — meaning the author, evangelist, and long-time Fuller Seminary professor William E. Pannell. This bit from Pannell is on point:
As he weighed the feedback he received from his conservative white evangelical frenemies, Pannell called out the tendency toward a certain set of politics. He mused, “My white brother … taught me to sing ‘Take the World but Give Me Jesus.’ I took Jesus. He took the world and then voted right wing to ensure his property rights.”
I hear some “amens” to that. But I can also hear the uncomfortable lack of them from other parts of the congregation.