The more I learn about the history of race relations in America, the more I begin to understand that white supremacy, both within the Church and without, is as persistent as it is adaptable. This is perhaps no more evident than in the current war many evangelicals are waging on the boogeymen of “wokeness” and critical race theory.
Both “wokeness” and critical race theory have been key buzzwords for some time now, in the political arena as well as in the Church. Both these terms, the former of which originating from a complimentary term in the Black community given to someone who is alert to racial injustice and the latter of which being an academic discipline of legal interpretation that few bandying it about actually comprehend, have become evocative and emotionally charged, emblematic of an entire system of thought.
For many evangelicals, this system of thought has been baptized, theologized, and canonized, such that opposing it is tantamount to opposing God himself.
One of the hallmark ideals among evangelicals who see “wokeness” and CRT as existential threats to the Church but who are nevertheless sincerely against, at least in principle, any manner of racial discrimination is the ideology of “colorblindness.”
According to this philosophy, the problems of racism and inequality would solve themselves if individuals could set aside their personal animus toward people of different races, such that they no longer even “see” race, and, to (mis)appropriate the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., judge others not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Alongside this belief is often an abiding denial that structural inequities, both past and present, continue to produce racialized outcomes that negatively impact people of color on a societal scale.
Notably, this colorblind theology has been at the center of the white evangelical project of “racial reconciliation,” a movement which, in the wake of a wave of high profile cases of police violence against young Black men and the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen as a result, has seemingly been all but abandoned.
The reason for the failure of the evangelical racial reconciliation effort, in my view, is owing in large part to the theology of colorblindness being at its center—a theology that has certainly buckled under the pressure of scrutiny from the nation’s latest generation of civil rights leaders but was nevertheless deficient before then.
A closer look at the historical antecedents of colorblindness reveal why.
The Theological Heritage of Colorblindness
As unbelievable as this may sound on the face of it, the ideological ancestor of colorblindness is actually slaveholder theology.
This is where the story began, with white supremacist theology only ceding ground to accommodate the cultural conventions of its day, its territory growing ever smaller through the passage of time, but never being completely rooted out and destroyed.
The work of several historians is helpful in illustrating this point, as the evolution and re-adaptation of white supremacist theology can be traced through the successive legal milestones that gave Americans of color, and particularly Black Americans, more rights and protections under the law.
White Supremacist Theology in Antebelllum America
In his book “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” Mark Noll points out that in the years that led up to the American Civil War, proslavery theologians and abolitionist theologians were at an impasse. While both argued that “the Bible clearly” argued their point for them, they nevertheless ended up on exact opposite sides when it came to the question of slavery.
For the proslavery theologian, since the Bible clearly contains instances of slavery, and African peoples were clearly inferior and meant to be ruled in accordance with the so-called “curse of Ham”—a cultural assumption they never even thought to question—the Bible clearly supported antebellum slavery.
Conversely, many abolitionists theologians sought to downplay or outright ignore instances of slavery in the Bible, instead emphasizing “the broad principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible”—but without directly refuting the key points of the proslavery theological argument.
To be sure, some theologians gave a more compelling abolitionist account of Scripture that reckoned fully with the instances of slavery within its pages. Those nuanced arguments just rarely gained widespread traction. As a result, the two theological camps had views that were firmly held but poorly formed, with very little convincing occurring one way or the other.
As a result, the question of slavery was not answered with scriptural interpretation but with America’s bloodiest war. When the war was over, slavery had ended, but not because anybody had changed their mind.
“As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery,” writes Noll.
Nevertheless, the root of white supremacy in the former Confederacy was never overcome, or even seriously addressed for that matter. Consequently, the theologians and laypeople who believed that Black Americans were inferior beings who needed to be ruled continued to believe thus.
It’s just that since abolition had been forced upon them, Jim Crow segregation would have to suffice.
In the wake of abolition and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments, which gave Black Americans legal enfranchisement and constitutional protections for the first time, terrorist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan inflicted violence, often as masochistic as it was lethal, along with other forms of intimidation on the Black community to keep them from exercising their rights—all in the name of keeping their “Christian nation.”
Thus Jim Crow was established.
The KKK later experienced a resurgence in the 1920s, when this ethic was bolstered in the face of increasing diversity and new moral questions brought on by modernity. As Linda Gordon writes, in the eyes of the Klan, only “a fusion of racial purity and evangelical Christian morality could save the country…The second Klan took off by melding racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical Protestant morality.”
By pairing the morality of Protestant Christianity with the unquestioned racial biases of white Americans, the KKK fostered the illusion that the two were one in the same. Consequently, KKK enrollment swelled to record numbers, as its leaders promised to fight for a people who were “100% American,” that is, white Christians, over and against Black Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
Later in the 20th century when the Civil Rights movement sought to overthrow the Jim Crow establishment that the KKK had helped to create, the Klan returned with a violent vengeance, employing many of the same tactics of their predecessors from almost a century prior.
Notably, one reason the KKK experienced so much latitude in their terroristic endeavors was that while a majority of white Americans, mostly Christians, did not necessarily agree with the violence or vigilantism of the Klan, many carried in their hearts the same unaddressed white supremacist theology that had existed in the nation during antebellum times.
White Supremacist Theology in the Civil Rights Era
When the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, overturning the previous ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson that had established the “separate but equal” legal doctrine of racial segregation, many white evangelicals began clutching their pearls. Consequently, theological justifications for segregation ramped up.
By this time, almost a century after the Civil War, white supremacist theology now conceded the personhood, and even to a certain extent the intrinsic value, of Black Americans. But otherwise, the argument was quite similar: God had created Black people as inferior beings with limited intellect and moral capacity. Thus, forced integration would hamper the flourishing of white Americans—and would actually cause harm to Black Americans as well.
This argument was buttressed by recitations of the Tower of Babel narrative as illustrative of a belief in God’s plan for distinct and separate ethnic groups, alongside eugenics, which posited that Black Americans were biologically inferior and thus would flourish best when placed in a less privileged place within the societal structure.
Though leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention and the denomination that would eventually become the United Methodist Church put out statements of support for integration, the rank-and-file Christians in their congregations would often rise up to oust pastors who saw segregation as a moral evil.
This is indicative of the fact that many southern evangelicals saw the civil rights movement “as an attack on the nation’s well-being and a threat to the right of private institutions, including churches, to exclude anyone they wished,” as writes Daniel K. Williams. Forced integration of churches was tantamount to religious persecution in their eyes.
Nevertheless, through a series of favorable Supreme Court decisions, legislative victories, and the effectiveness of the civil rights movement in changing hearts and minds, desegregation at every level of society eventually became inevitable. But if integration couldn’t be stopped, white supremacist theology could at least forestall it.
However, given that it was becoming increasingly out of step with the norms of American culture to openly argue that Black Americans were inherently inferior human beings and that segregation was divinely appointed, white supremacist theology needed to again readapt.
Never was this more evident than in the integration process of the United Methodist Church.
White Supremacist Theology Amid Desegregation
When various denominations began merging into what would eventually become the United Methodist Church in 1968, the question of how to integrate Black and white congregations into one denominational structure loomed large.
When denominational leaders set forth a plan that would require that governing boards consist of at least 25% Black leaders, segregationist theologians were faced with the very real possibility of operating in a denomination where Black Christians had institutional authority, something they could not abide.
But since the open racism of segregationist theology was now no longer culturally acceptable, white supremacist theology needed a new way to protect segregation while maintaining a veneer of political correctness. To achieve this, segregationist Methodist leaders began to assert that required ratios of Black representation in leadership were themselves a perpetuation of racism—“unconstitutional” and “discriminatory.”
One prominent voice who promoted this new tactic of colorblindness was William Workman, prominent Methodist layman, journalist, and staunch segregationist.
“The problem, Workman argued, was the persistent discussion of race among Christians. What the church needed was simply to ‘eliminate racial distinctions or discriminations in the conduct of Methodist affairs,’” explains J. Russell Hawkins. “In other words, Workman was calling for ending the problem of race by ending attention to race.”
After a fair bit of politicking, segregationist leaders were able to remove requirements of Black representation that had stalled progress on the Methodist merger, arguing instead that governing board appointments be determined by colorblindness: “natural affinities,” “mutual appreciation of merits,” and “voluntary association of individuals.”
Not so ironically, this language was pulled directly from the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling of 1896, in which Justice Henry Billings Brown argued that government requirements of integration would not solve racial inequity, thus establishing the “separate but equal” legal doctrine of racial segregation.
The result was that the denomination was able to limit the influence of Black leaders to “token integration,” averting widespread structural change that would produce true equality, all under the auspices of “colorblind” appointments based purely on “merit.”
The Legacy of Colorblindness Today
While there is certainly no denying that when it comes to race, the landscape of American society, as well as the theology therein, has been completely transformed since antebellum times. Nevertheless, where the root of white supremacy has not been plucked out, the work is not yet done.
When segregation fell, white supremacist theologians were required for pragmatic reasons to conceal their disdain for their non-white fellow image bearers while finding creative ways to maintain as much inequity as possible.
A generation later, many Christians who advocate for similar policies have no such personal disdain across racial lines to conceal. And yet, the failure of justice remains entrenched. What began as a subversive plan to perpetrate racial injustice has now softened to assumptions that are merely unquestioned. But, again: failure of justice remains the order of the day.
As Hawkins points out, “[Racial] separatism lingers today—albeit unintentionally—even with white Christians who desire to see racial unity in their society…White evangelicals who champion racial justice through individual heart changes, or reconciled relationships, or appeals to colorblindness are using the tools fashioned and utilized by their segregationist forebears precisely to avoid the racial justice their descendants now seek.”
Colorblind theology keeps us from furthering racial unity, because that is exactly what it was designed to do.
When we frame genuine efforts to finally move past the racist legacy of the past as a “threat to the gospel” or “Marxist ideology,” championing legislation that keeps our children from being educated about the structural racism of the past and present and projecting the accusation that equity and inclusion are fundamentally racist endeavors—and do so in the name of the Christian faith—we pick up the flag of our ancestors who carried white supremacy in their hearts.
In so doing, we may be a part of furthering a cause that we don’t actually believe in, nor does Jesus.
Seeking to eliminate racial biases in our own hearts is the call of every Christian. But more is required. May the generations that come after us be able to tell the story of how we sought to root out white supremacist theology, in all its forms, once and for all.
FOR FURTHER READING
This article drew heavily from two historical works, both of which are incredibly illuminating. I encourage you to read them!
- “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” by Mark Noll
- “The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy” by J. Russell Hawkins