According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2019, almost three-fourths of Black adults responded that being Black was extremely important (52%) or very important (22%) to how they think about themselves. However, only 15% of White adults responded in the same manner, with only 5% responding that their race was extremely important and 10% responding that their race was very important to how they think about themselves. Although it is not surprising to see this data, as it is mostly known among those who study race, I was curious to know whether or not this statistical significance was also true for Black and White respondents who identified as Protestant or Evangelical. Upon emailing Pew I received data which shows how the respondents who identified as Black Protestants, White Evangelical Protestants or White Mainline Protestants responded to the same question about the importance of their race in how they think about themselves. The table shows that out of the 6,637 total respondents, 2,070 identified as affiliating with one of the three protestant affiliations. Out of 293 total Black Protestant respondents, 244 (83%) responded that their race is “extremely/very important” to how they think about themselves. Which is 8% higher than the NET percentages of all the Black respondents in the study. When compared to White Evangelical Protestants and White Mainline Protestants, Black protestants were 67% and 65% more likely to respond that their race is “extremely/very important” to how they think about themselves.
This data is extremely helpful to us as we research and discuss the experiences of Black males because it illuminates a potential dichotomy between Black and White congregants within predominantly White churches today. It is important to consider how this data may impact the relationship between the two groups when in proximity to one another in a single congregation. In what ways does one’s perception of race impact their worship, biblical interpretations, or social convictions? How might these very different views on race create a different set of expectations for Black and White congregants within a single congregation? And, based on the majority group within the church, whose expectations are more likely to be catered to? When Black and White congregants worship in the same church, the ways in which their racial identity impacts how they think about themselves do not suddenly go away. Consciously or unconsciously, whether willing to admit it or not, both White and Black congregants’ expression of Christianity is impacted by their race. It is important, however, that we do not weaponize this reality in order to promote sinful color blindness or a devaluing of the racial and ethnic identities of all image bearers. It is also important that we resist the sin of ethnocentrism and partiality. Instead, we must always seek to “understand our situation [and racial identity] with the transcendent reference point [of the word of God].”
When examining the history of the American Evangelical church, you will find that race has always played an important role in the identity development of Christians. In fact, many times it is unfortunately the central role.
North American Slavery
Historian Albert J. Raboteau’s chapter entitled ‘The Black Experience in American Evangelicalism: The Meaning of Slavery’ from his edited book African-American Religion provides a closer look at the relationship between Evangelicalism, slavery, and the Black Christian experience. “The opportunity for Black religious separatism was due to the egalitarian character of evangelical Protestantism; its necessity was due, in part, to the racism of White Evangelicals.” He explains that when American Blacks made Evangelicalism their own, and when given the opportunity to take leadership of their own religious life, it did not go unnoticed by White Christians. “The point was not lost on defenders of the slave system who saw the existence of Black churches and the activity of Black clergymen as dangerous anomalies. The racial hierarchy was threatened by any independent exercise of Black authority, even spiritual in nature.” This reaction to Black spiritual authority during slavery is not uncommon today. Modern White Evangelicalism has responded similarly when Black voices begin to gain influence within the religious affiliation and within individual churches. But just because the enslaved African peoples were able to make the religion of Evangelicalism their own, even though they may not have labeled it as such, it does not mean that they were not forced to internalize the ideology of their oppressors in the social organizations birthed after slavery.
“Racists in the north and the south found it necessary to denigrate Black churches and Black preachers by ridicule and restriction in order to be consistent with the doctrine of White Supremacy.” Raboteau explains that slaveholders could determine the external freedom of the enslaved Africans, but it was the enslaved Africans’ Christianity that provided them, and their descendants, with both their internal and eternal freedom. Evangelicalism “served as an important weapon in the slaves defense of his psychological, emotional, and moral freedom from White domination.” “American Slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy, which rationalized and outlived it, not only segregated evangelical congregations along racial lines, but also differentiated the Black experience of Evangelical Christianity from that of Whites.”
During Black Reconstruction, White ministers in the south were some of the most prominent defenders of white supremacy. For these ministers, to advocate for the emancipation of enslaved Africans was to commit a type of racial heresy. This offense was much more costly to a minister than was theological error. Many in the south perceived disagreement on race as a threat to the social order of society itself.
“After the civil war, prominent antebellum clergymen restated the argument that slavery was a God ordained, spiritual institution. They believed that God rescued the Negro from savagery so that southern whites could train them in Christian civilization. Slavery had thus opened up the missionary field of four million people to southern White evangelists.”
At the same time that White Evangelicals were participating in the resistance of Black Reconstruction, they were also aligning themselves politically with the newly reconstructed conservative movement. William C. Turner, in his journal article ‘Black Evangelicalism: Theology, Politics, and Race, tells of Evangelicals during this time boldly identifying themselves as conservative with “unblushing pride” due to their belief that this political stance aligned with Christian beliefs. White Evangelicals during this time believed that their political positions were affirmed by God. This also led them to believe that what they considered to be biblical orthodoxy was also associated with right social beliefs, practices, and systems. Since the merger of White Evangelicalism and socio-political conservatism, Black Christians received little to no acknowledgement as a part of the collective body of Evangelicals. Turner states that this division among Evangelicals, for Black Christians, “serves as a reminder that more often than not peace with God still means conflict with the world.”
Segregation & The Black Freedom Movement
The structural divide between Black and White Evangelicals has almost always been painfully evident to the former, but unfortunately often overlooked by the latter. At its root, Evangelicalism is equipped to address and eradicate the social structures that perpetuate the divide. However, in an American context, White Evangelicalism has historically only concerned itself with conversion efforts aimed at individual persons rather than social systems. The failure to challenge dominant social structures stems from, as Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith conclude in Divided by Faith, a greater concern for evangelism. In response to the wealth of fruit that the American political and economic system has contributed to White Evangelicalism, they have offered their unwavering support. The greater concern for evangelism, in order to not disrupt the system they benefit from, is evident in the way that White Evangelicalism critiques the Black church tradition for its prophetic witness. Its expository and liberating preaching is often declared to be a “show,” its social action is labeled as “anti-gospel,” its persistent and ambitious hope is proclaimed to be “asking too much,” and its exemplary forgiveness is used to justify “moving on from the past.” The concentration on individual hearts and the hesitancy to challenge social systems can be seen in the words of Billy Graham almost 60 years ago in 1963. In an article entitled ‘Negroes Moving Too Fast?’ Billy Graham is quoted giving advice to Dr. King and urging the protestors to “push the breaks a little bit.” Juxtapose this perspective with one of Dr. King’s speeches a few months later, where he seems to directly respond to Reverend Graham’s comments:
“Well, they’re saying, ‘you need to put on brakes.’ The only answer that we can give to that is that the motors now cranked up and we’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality, and we can’t afford to stop now because our nation has a date with destiny. We must keep moving. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of racial justice. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time.”
Kings sentiment here reminds me of the great James Baldwin when he said, “You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
I wonder, in the time since Dr. King labeled the White moderate as the Negro’s “greatest stumbling block,” have White Evangelicals fully removed themselves as a part of this stumbling block? It would seem that, in analyzing the responses from those Dr. King and James Baldwin spoke of, many of the responses given by White moderates then are the same responses Black Christians hear from White Evangelicals today. In the decades since the Black Freedom Movement, in order to have this stumbling block removed, many Black Christians have had to sacrifice their racial, ethnic, and cultural identity at the altar of White Evangelicalism in order to be accepted. And very rarely does this acceptance occur without some form of external assimilation. This sacrifice is often masked or watered down as being “for the sake of Gospel unity,” but in the midst of this sacrifice, Black Evangelicals often see that their White counterparts are not asked to do the same. “Evangelicalism has historically been associated with our White brothers and sisters in Christ. Black Christians have always lived in the peripheral vision of White Evangelicalism—our stories remaining unearthed and untold”
Historian Mark Noll identifies Evangelicalism as stemming “from the renewal movements of the eighteenth century and from practitioners of revival in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” At its core, Evangelicalism emphasizes biblical fidelity, or faithfulness to what the bible teaches, and an adherence to certain beliefs. Those beliefs were most notably codified by David Bebbington who, in 1989, distinguished four beliefs that make up what we now know as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. A focus on Jesus Christ and his death on the cross as key for the atonement for sins and living a new life, acceptance of the Bible as the source of “all spiritual truth,” an emphasis on conversion as a personal, life-changing acceptance of the Christian message, and an activism that obliges one to share one’s faith with others. Crucicentrism, Biblicism, Conversionism, and Activism.
These beliefs became relevant in American Society during the Great Awakening, but their pedagogy and ecclesiology have differed greatly among Black and White Evangelicals throughout history. John Richards details the presence of these beliefs well in the Black Christian expression in his 2017 article. Probably the most glaring difference in the pedagogy and ecclesiology of these 4 qualities regards activism. In April of 2019, I had the honor of meeting Reverend James Lawson and hearing him speak at a Clayborn Reborn event in Memphis. As he reminisced on their work during the Black Freedom Movement, he also seemed to lament at the state of the movement for Black lives today. “There is a difference in the movement of MLK, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and the movement today,” he said. “We weren’t [just] working for civil rights, we were working for the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. We had a care for all of our neighbors, even when that neighbor was a hostile enemy. You cannot overcome injustice with injustice. You cannot use the language of cruelty to people and expect that you’re going to end cruelty to people.” When I think of activism as it relates to Evangelicalism and the witness of one’s faith, I can think of no better example of public witness in American history than the Black Freedom Movement and the historic witness of the Black Christians that Reverend Lawson speaks of.
In light of this history, how is a sociological study relevant to understanding the experiences of Black men in predominantly White churches? My understanding of this relevance began with my introduction to a framework called Grounded Theory. Grounded Theory (GT) is a social science methodology that emphasizes the formation of theory based on common themes extracted from data. These themes are then used to build categories that act as a foundation for the theory. Unlike traditional models, GT begins with a question and/or qualitative data, rather than using an established theoretical framework to analyze the data. “GT allows the researcher to consider his or her ontological and epistemological position. It also permits the expression of different perspectives in that emphasis will be placed on a particular essential method to suit one’s philosophical viewpoint. Such nuances of GT reflect a situation in which its ‘‘users’’ position themselves philosophically to facilitate their interpretation of what is ‘going on.’” GT is what is known as a dynamic methodology. It is instructed by symbolic interactionism “in that it is characterized by the contemporaneously interpreted philosophical perspectives of the researcher in response to their interaction with wider social forces.” By using GT, I am able to utilize and communicate my own ontological and epistemological perspectives as I analyze the data and form the categories that subsequently emerge. This personal perspective is partly based on both my own experience as a Black male in predominantly White Churches and my analysis of historic and contemporary Evangelicalism.
It is the physical and spiritual intersection of race and religion that creates a unique lived experience for Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches. This intersection, after first being filtered through the scriptures, gives the opportunity for further sociological inquiry in order to gain a better understanding of the intersection itself. But in order for this type of study to help inform the church and create healthier churches, it must first be valued and affirmed.
Further reading on Bebbington’s Quadrilateral in the Black Christian expression:
- Black & Reformed by Anthony J. Carter
- Plain Theology for Plain People by Charles Octavius Boothe
- Say It!: Celebrating Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition by Eric C. Redmond
- Experiencing the Truth by Anthony J. Carter
- Reviving the Black Church by Thabiti Anyabwile
Amanda Barroso, Most black adults say race is central to their identity and feel connected to a broader community, Pew Research Center, 05 February, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/05/most-black-adults-say-race-is-central-to-their-identity-and-feel-connected-to-a-broader-black-community/.
Pew Research Center, American Trends Panel, January-February, 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dzJ7lq5YQPCrlLkRdDQ-aW2PYF51F9fJ/view?usp=sharing.
Carl Ellis. 1996. Free At Last? The Gospel and the African American Experience. InterVarsity Press. 154.
Fulop, Timothy Earl, and Albert J. Raboteau. 1997. African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture. Routledge. 93.
Charles Reagan Wilson. 2009. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. UGA Press, 101.
Charles Reagan Wilson. 2009. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. UGA Press, 102.
Turner Jr., W. C. 1989. Black Evangelicalism: Theology, Politics, and Race. Journal Of Religious Thought, 45(2), 40.
Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2001. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.
Jemar Tisby, Did MLK Throw Shade at Billy Graham for his “Put on the Breaks comment?, Jemar Tisby, 09 January, 2020, https://jemartisby.com/2020/01/09/did-mlk-throw-shade-at-billy-graham-for-his-put-on-the-brakes-comment/.
American Masters, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, PBS, 01 August, 2013, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-film-synopsis/2647/.
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail, The Martin Luther King Jr Research & Education Institute, 16 April, 1963, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail.
John Richards, Where Are All the Black Evangelicals: The Rise of Woke Evangelicalism, The Witness, 10 October, 2017, https://thewitnessbcc.com/black-evangelicals-rise-woke-evangelicalism/.
Mark A. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 13.
D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (Routledge, 1989).
John Richards, 2017.
In This Place Speaker Series: Dr. James Lawson & the Future of Memphis, Clayborn Temple, 16 April, 2019, https://clayborn-temple.org/blog/in-this-place-speaker-series-dr-james-lawson-amp-the-future-of-memphis.
Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. (Aldine, 1967).