Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Conservatives, Theology, and Racism

I ran across an outraged comment online.  Not directed at me, and so why don’t I just ignore it?  Why am I bothering all of you with it? Well, just because it was an interesting train of thought.  The writer claimed that the conservative wing of Christianity always claims to be resisting changes for theological, biblical reasons, but those are just covers for being racist and not wanting to have black people in their churches. He’d “had enough graduate credits at seminary” to know that.  That’s a common belief, and I can’t say it’s entirely untrue.  In some denominational splits, like the Presbyterians, there does seem to be something to that. The PCA acknowledged that there was racial animus during the Civil Rights era, as had been accused. Ironically, though no Presbyterian denomination had or has many African-Americans, then or now, the PCA has a greater percentage than the PCUSA. I dislike reductionist claims which rely on mind reading the motives of one’s opponents, but I allow some reading back from actions to possible motives.  Not much.  In the case of the PCA, doctrinal issues have pretty clearly been important, front to back, so leaning too heavily on the race issue seems unwarranted. 

I used to follow the Lutheran differences years ago, and have no sense that the Missouri Synod remaining aloof from unification had anything to do with race.  These are Northern European denominations with few black people to begin with, so I can’t see how we could even talk about this in those terms.  The Congregationalist churches that didn’t go UCC were in New England – not a lot of race in the mix there. The Methodists had a lot of arguing and splitting before the Civil War, but even then, congregational governance and the Wesleyan and Holiness movements figured prominently, and Fundamentalist-Modernist splits were the big deal in the 20th C. 
So I cast my mind on what else he could mean.  Pentecostals have been very welcoming of blacks and Hispanics right from the beginning, as have Seventh Day Adventists.  Are those the conservative wings he means?  Does he mean Mennonites?  Is there some objection to their racial policies that I missed?  Brethren churches?  This is starting to add up in terms of the percentage of Christians he could possibly be talking about.  What does he mean?  Are Catholics considered “the conservative wing?”  The Eastern Orthodox?  They have conserved their theology for quite some time.  Or is this some sort of cultural impression of American conservatism that includes more politics than theology?  I think he mostly means Baptists, but that’s less fun to say because you don’t get the broad political accusation you’re looking for with that.

Sadly, he may be right that he has enough graduate credits at seminary to say this. His statement contains true elements but is essentially false.


james said...

I read a book that was supposed to have left a megachurch pastor in tears that might have a bearing: the difference between individual and corporate understandings of salvation. "An inadvertent side effect of evangelical theology reinforces perspectives on race that are incompatible with “black” social justice theory,"

And I assume that in his eyes, being incompatible with black social justice theory is evidence of racism.
Everything seems to be, these days.

Christopher B said...

A note on Methodists. There are a significant number of African Methodists now, and they aren't theologically liberal. There are enough that they were a major force in the rejection of gay marriage at the recent Global General Conference, much to the dismay of the White American Methodists crying 'Intersectionality'.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Christopher B - the cynical prediction is that the American Methodists will excise them, then have a majority here to do what they want. Well see.

@ James - I wish the shoe were more on the other foot, and the advocates for social justice felt more of an obligation to tie their views into a coherent theology that goes beyond "But Jesus cared about poor people."


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DOuglas2 said...

My parents congregation (recently split from the PCUSA) just called a black pastor, who grew up in a "black" evangelical church congregation that has been having regular joint services with my parents' PC-USA church congregation for decades. At the start there weren't many non-whites in that area of suburbs, so they intentionally joined up with a black church in another community to do stuff together.

Years ago I attended a rust-belt/big-city/near-suburbs baptist church of the Swedish sort (Baptist General Conference then, now the denomination is called 'Converge'). As white-flight had happened in that suburb and the other churches were relocating further into the distant suburbs to be near their parishioners, ( -- selling on their buildings to Pentecostals and black Baptists, mostly -- ) the descendants of Swedes in this congregation said "You know a lot of our congregation are moving away, so as new people move into this neighborhood we really need to be meeting them and inviting them to church, otherwise we'll dwindle to nothing!"

(I joined because it seemed wrong to drive past dozens of other churches to get to church every Sunday, and this was by far the closest church that anyone had recommended to me.)

Just before I started attending in the 80's, they stopped having occasional Swedish-language services, as there weren't enough Swedish speakers to do so. At that point the congregation was about 40% black, 55% white and/or hispanic, and 5% other. Women I met here were the first women I dated who were not of my own race. I left the country in the early-90's just after a new black pastor had been called (The first head pastor not of Swedish heritage), at which point the congregation was just crossing the 50% black threshold. I recently looked them up online and it still has descendants of the original families who started it, and it still fairly equally split between AA & white, with 5% or so others.

I recall in the more-innocent 1980s having late-night discussions in multiracial groups of friends along the lines that there were blacks who were "culturally black" and blacks who were "culturally white" -- very crude categories and language that probably is highly offensive, but this description came mostly from the African-Americans in the group -- but it's my observation that the liberal-wing PC-USA or Episcopal churches I had involvement in all had a few African-Americans who were all of the sort we would have described as CW, and the conservative-wing PC-USA & Anglicans had varying percentages of African-American involvement but were a mix of CB and CW, and welcoming to both (and allowing both in leadership!). Maybe it is more PC to point out that black doctors, lawyers, social-workers and college professors are accepted in some churches where those who don't 'act white' might sense a lot of disapproval and leave.

Anyway, the plural of anecdote is not data, and my wife has pointed out to me that we both gravitate to places and groups that are full of people who are different from us rather than people who are the same as us. But having been in membership in both sorts of churches, my own observations are 180° from your outraged commenter with graduate seminary credits, and this might reflect that both of us have sampling issues in our research. It would probably be unfair to ask him to sing a black-gospel song from memory to demonstrate that he has regularly participated in a church that is accepting of African American people and culture.

RichardJohnson said...

Pentecostals have been very welcoming of blacks and Hispanics right from the beginning, as have Seventh Day Adventists.

My Okie grandmother was a member of the Church of Christ- NOT the C of C associated with the Congregational Church one finds in New England. Fundamentalist. Her church had no blacks- blacks had moved out of town in the Depression. My grandmother had racial viewpoints typical of her place and generation- she was against the 1964 Civil Rights Act- but she had good relations with her mixed race (Indian-Native American) daughters-in-law.

In her later years my grandmother visited my parents in their retirement home in Fla. My parents, though not churchgoers, looked for an appropriate church to go with her to church. My grandmother's pharmacist vetted a church in town(Crossroads?) where my parents lived in Fla. as being appropriate. It was a church with a big congregation - my grandmother's church had 100 or so- and multiracial. At the end of the service a black woman hugged my grandmother, which my grandmother took in good spirit.

Which reminded me of Dick Gregory's crack that in the South, blacks can get as close as they like to whites, but they shouldn't attempt to rise up, but in the North, blacks could rise as high up as they wanted to, but shouldn't attempt to get close to blacks.

I doubt there are a lot of upper middle class liberals eager to welcome a deplorable into their homes.

Pentecostals have made a LOT of conversions in Latin America in the last 30 years.

james said...

AVI, I think one of the issues is that that understanding of salvation is rarely explicitly spelled out and defended, but always assumed. If Jesus wants us to give to the poor, to one side it is just "obvious" that that means individual acts that make me grow closer to God, and to the other just "obvious" that it means collective action that make the church/state/whatever more holy as a group whether you as an individual are involved or not.

Texan99 said...

Maybe he's talking about churches that inexplicably downplay liberation theology in favor of old-fashioned stuff like the Bible?