One of my earliest memories is of a substitute Sunday school teacher chastening me for putting a coin in my mouth. “That’s filthy,” she said. “Why, you don’t know if a colored man might have held that.” It might just be my imagination playing tricks on me, but it seems as though she immediately followed this up with, “Alright children, let’s sing ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World.’”
Now, this lady probably didn’t consciously think of herself as a white supremacist. She almost certainly didn’t think of herself as subversive of the gospel itself. She never thought about the hypocrisy of holding the two contradictory worldviews together in her mind. She probably didn’t see how her dehumanizing of African-Americans was a twisted form of Darwinism rather than biblical Christianity.
She wasn’t alone.
On the question of civil rights in the American Christian context, there is little question that, with few exceptions, the “progressives” were right, often heroically right, and the “conservatives” were wrong, often satanically wrong. In the narrative of the dismantling of Jim Crow, conservatives were often the villains and progressives were most often on the side of the angels, indeed on the side of Jesus.
The question is not whether the progressives won the argument or whether they should have won the argument; the question is whythey were persuasive, ultimately, on this point (and almost no other) to their more conservative brothers and sisters. The turnaround is striking, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), where a generation ago most conservative leaders were segregationists.
Some, of course, will claim cynically that conservative evangelical leaders, like some national politicians, don’t play with racial demagogy anymore because such appeals don’t “work” anymore in 21st century America. Nobody wants to be seen as a racist. Well, okay, but, even if one accepts that argument, why is it true that a segregationist would be barred (and rightly so) from speaking at the SBC Pastors’ Conference of 2013 and wouldn’t be at the SBC Pastors’ Conference of 1950? Isn’t it because the people wouldn’t tolerate it? Well, why the change? It must be more than just changing American culture since conservative evangelicals have been in the throes of a much-hyped “culture war” on all sorts of issues since the 1960s?
Why is civil rights no longer a “culture war” issue? Why were the voices of the civil rights pioneers persuasive, not only to mainstream America but to conservative Christians as well? Some might argue it is because the culture has changed. But the culture has changed just as much (if not more so) on the question of gender and sexual issues, after three waves of feminism and a sexual revolution, but not so for traditionalist Catholics and confessional Protestants.
The reason SBC progressives, and the larger civil rights movement, were persuasive was because of the mode of their argument. The progressives, as scholar David Chappell shows in his book Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, appealed to biblical orthodoxy and missionary zeal in their arguments, not simply to the arc of historical progress.
This is true at the macro level—think of the King James Version of the Bible woven so intricately into the themes of Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons. It is also true at the micro level. SBC civil rights advocates—from Foy Valentine to T.B. Maston to Henlee Barnette—argued from decidedly conservative biblical concepts.