Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Billy Graham, white evangelicalism now, and the history of slavery

Chris Ladd has a blog post about religious fundamentalism and cruelty which is interesting and, and the title indicates, provocative: The article removed from Forbes, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel” Political Orphans 03/12/2018.

Part of his post deals with Billy Graham and the moderate image he constructed and which became part of how he was remembered when he passed away:
White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.
When addressing problems that they don't want solved, i.e., that they don't actually view as problems, "thoughts and prayers" are all that can be done. When it comes to problems they want addressed or laws they want changed, they think being militantly and actively engaged is fine. And that it would be a sin to wait for the Second Coming to take action on those problems.

Ladd covers a lot of historical grounds in a short post. But his basic point is well-founded: that the fundamentalist variant of white evangelicalism was very heavily influenced by the very worldly influence of slavery and segregation. And that influence is still visible today:
What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of [Dallas First Baptist pastor and prominent Christian Right figure Robert] Jeffress and the rest of the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.

Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.
Ladd also observes, "Many Christian movements take the title 'evangelical,' including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist."

It is notable that some white Christians and most African-American Christians draw different lessons that the Christian Right does from conservative/"evangelical" theological beliefs. After all, unless there is a secret version of the Christian Bible that only Christian Rightists ever see - and I'm often tempted to think there is - their Bible, which fundamentalists claim to interpret literally. contains the story of the Exodus, the words of the prophets, the parables and sayings of Jesus that shows solidarity with the poor and extreme skepticism about the capability of the rich to lead godly lives. Their Old Testament contains many injunctions to be just and compassionate to immigrants, and their New Testament tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a foundational story for the Christian religion.

This current article by Bruce Hindmarsh in the conservative Protestant Christianity Today magazine give a useful sketch of the historical roots of what we call "evangelicalism" in the US, What Is Evangelicalism? 03/14/2018:
Seventeenth-century movements of devotion such as Pietism, Puritanism, and the Anglican “holy living” tradition fused to generate a general spiritual awakening first in central Europe and Germany, then throughout the Anglo-sphere. In the middle third of the eighteenth century a number of persons, who later would be drawn into evangelical preaching, passed through crises of personal conversion. The most famous of these in Britain were John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, but there were many others. Most were already baptized, highly observant Christians who nevertheless came to a crisis of conscience and spiritual insufficiency that seemed to demand new and more deeply personal experience of repentance and faith in Christ. They discovered in these conversions new impulses to preach, travel, organize, and campaign for widespread evangelical renewal within their own spheres, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Moravians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Baptists.
Hindmarsh's article gives a broad, non-critical description of what he understands to be "evangelical" in the American sense.

But to understand white American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the social, political, and ideological factors that Chris Ladd discusses also have to be taken fully into account.

Hindmarsh also does not touch on the very large influence of Christian Zionism on Christian fundamentalists today. Believers in the "Dispensationalist" tradition that has been heavily influenced by the British theology and leader of the Christian Brethren sect John Nelson Darby hold beliefs that are particularly congenial to militaristic and warmongering views of the world as well as an underlying anti-Semitic worldview. That also is a theological dividing point that is significant for their politics.

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