It is too simplistic to put it this way, but in some sense Christianity in the U.S. can be divided between those who focus on individual salvation and those who are more concerned about helping to create a moral, just society in which the values taught by Jesus get put into practice.
It's also too simplistic to put it this way, but people who identify as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist generally see themselves as part of the first group while people who identify as Mainliners or progressives often identify with the second group.
For sure there is overlap. The divisions aren't neat and tidy. But I've been thinking about those two broad approaches to the faith more recently as I've been reading White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones, who grew up in what he describes as an evangelical Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but who later became aware of the pro-slavery, racist history of that denomination and who eventually founded the Public Religion Research Institute.
In the book, Jones tries to unpack how different approaches to theology came to inform these two views of what is of primary importance in Christianity.
As he does this, he points out that white-dominated Christianity of all types, across history, has been complicit in promoting the repugnant idea of white supremacy.
"White Christianity," he writes, "has been many things for America. But whatever else it has been -- and the country is indebted to it for a good many things -- it has also been the primary institution legitimizing and propagating white power and dominance."
Christian theologians wrestling with how to understand the "end times" -- or the end of the world or the end of history -- have proposed three different approaches: amillennialism, premillenialism and postmillenialsim. In one of my favorite cartoons, a distraught man sits on his bed while talking on the phone with his pastor. The man says, "Pastor, my wife just left me, I just lost my job and I found out my son is on drugs. Please, please tell me again the differences among a- pre- and postmillenialism."
To make a simplification again, premillenialists think Jesus is coming back (probably soon; maybe next week) to reign on Earth for 1,000 years, while postmillenialists think it's up to them to build and perfect the reign of God on Earth so that Jesus can come back and reign in peace. (Set aside the amillennialists in this discussion.) Christians who identify as evangelical tend to be premillenialists, as they try to convince everyone to accept Jesus as lord before he returns so they can be "saved." Progressive Christians either ignore all of this or are more inclined to act like postmillennialists, even if they don't know the term.
With that as inadequate background, I'll turn back to Jones, who writes: "Prior to the Civil War, it was generally popular for white Christians to be. . .postmillennialist. . .The establishment of the Confederacy represented progress toward God's ideal for human society. After a humiliating and decisive Civil War defeat, however, such an optimistic vision of imminent political realization of Christian ideals held less attraction. By the late nineteenth century, the Lost Cause generation began to adopt a premillennialist theology that held the opposite: the present world represents the work of a sinful and fallen humanity, it will continue to decline and it will be redeemed only by the second coming of Christ."
What difference did that change make? Again, Jones:
"The most significant outcome of this shift is that the logic of premillennial theology undercuts calls to social justice. . .Major human intervention is futile. . .The reorientation of religious faithfulness, with its radical contraction of human social responsibility, has been a hallmark of white evangelical theology ever since, influencing white evangelical thought not just on race but on other social problems as well."
If the evangelical task focuses mostly on bringing people to Jesus while paying little or no attention to social injustice (again, that's an oversimplification), who is the Jesus to whom they're trying to draw people?
Jones puts it plainly: ". . .Jesus is white. . .Whites simply couldn't conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race. And a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationship necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christians would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite."
So, as Jones notes, after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Ala., in 1965, "the Reverend Jerry Falwell gave this response in a sermon: 'Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else -- including the fighting of Communism, or participating in the civil rights reform. . .Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."
But as Jones notes and as nearly everyone knows, the late pastor Falwell "eventually reversed himself, founding his own political organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979 and becoming a major player on the political right." What changed Falwell? Jones says he was "enraged that Bob Jones University, a conservative white Christian institution, had lost its tax-exempt status in 1976 because it refused to rescind its racially discriminatory policies."
Today, you won't hear much about "Lost Cause theology" in conservative churches, Jones writes, "but its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social justice -- created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation -- lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well."
Well, clearly I urge you to read the Jones book for yourself and test his conclusions. But I thought it was helpful to focus on the various millennialist brands of theology to bring some clarity to how American Christianity got to where it is today. What still needs to happen is both repentance and action to rid the faith of any remaining threads of white supremacy (and there are plenty).
If you are part of a Christian congregation, I hope you will be part of leading members there into some deep reflection and action related to this subject. My congregation is trying.
(By the way, Youthfront, a Christian ministry based in the Kansas City area, is offering a free online panel discussion about how and when to speak to children about racial issues. It'll be Nov. 12 and will feature Montague R. Williams, author of the book Church in Color. For details and to register, click here.)
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EARS COVERED, MOUTH SAYING 'LA-LA-LA-LA'
President Trump's relentlessly positive statements about his Covid-19 have a source, this RNS column argues. It's similar to the "Prosperity Gospel." For Trump, the source is Norman Vincent Peale's "power of positive thinking." Another term for it is seeing just what you want to see.
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P.S.: Do you know about Redeem TV? It describes itself as "a ministry of the Christian History Institute and Vision Video" and it "makes movies and television shows available for free around the world, with the help of viewers who donate to the mission of Redeem TV." You can check it out here. I'm a long-time subscriber to Christian History Magazine, and some of you might want to be, too. You can check that out here.