In the current “moment of reckoning” on racial justice, white Christians need to tell the truth about how they historically benefited from systemic racism if they want to “rescue the faith,” an author and researcher with deep Southern Baptist roots told an online audience.
“Speaking as a white Christian, we have inherited a Christianity that was by design built to be compatible with slavery, segregation and white supremacy,” said Robert P. Jones, founding chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute.
“We’ve inherited that. It’s in the DNA. … We really do have to find the will and conviction to have the hard conversations, to tell the stories, to really rescue the faith from the distortions that history has brought forward to us.”
Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, participated in “A National Conversation on White Supremacy and American Christianity.” The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty sponsored the livestream event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that drew an audience of about 1,000 viewers around the country.
‘Tell the truth’
In response to questions from moderator Adelle Banks, reporter for Religion News Service, Jones said he wrote his book based on his belief White Christians need to “tell the truth about where the church has been and the legacy of where the church has been that is still very much with us today.”
Jones described his early years in Jackson, Miss., recalling when the first Black students attended his elementary school in the 1970s—about 20 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools. He also remembered Ku Klux Klan representatives distributing literature and collecting donations on a corner outside a youth sports facility in his hometown.
In the Southern Baptist church he attended, Jones said he heard nothing but “a deafening silence” about racial justice issues. In spite of attending Mississippi College—a Southern Baptist school—and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Jones noted he did not read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” until he was a graduate student at Emory University.
‘Not just a white evangelical problem’
In a sense, he said, white supremacists such as the KKK can “soothe” the conscience of many white Christians who easily can distance themselves and their institutions from such overt racism but ignore systemic injustice.
“This is not just a white evangelical problem,” Jones stressed, pointing to his research. “This is a white Catholic problem, and this is a white mainline Protestant problem.”
PRRI research showed white Christians—white Catholics and mainline Protestants, not just white evangelicals—are twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated white Americans to call the killing of African American men by police “isolated incidents and not part of a broader pattern,” he said
Questions about the perceived meaning of the Confederate flag showed similar results, he added.
“The inability to see structural racism is really what we’re talking about. … On these kind of questions—the killing of unarmed African American men by police, the display of the Confederate flag—who is closer to African Americans? It is not white Christians. It is whites who are not Christian and the religiously unaffiliated.”
Given changing attitudes among Millennials, white Christian churches must confront the embedded legacy of white supremacy or risk losing the next generation, Jones warned.
“I think silence is no longer going to be acceptable,” he said. “White Christian churches are losing members. … Young people are not going to tolerate silence on the issue of racial justice today.”
No faith freedom without racial justice
BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler drew a direct line from rising Christian nationalism to deeply entrenched white supremacy.
“To be clear, our call to action is to work to dismantle white supremacy from our society, from our religion (and) from ourselves,” she said. “We do not take on this charge lightly. There is no quick fix. White supremacy is firmly lodged in us and in our institutions.”
A commitment to religious freedom for all and human freedom for people of all races intersect, she stressed.
“We won’t have faith freedom for all without racial justice,” she said.
From the Confederacy to modern Christian nationalism, American Christianity too often has allowed itself to be “co-opted” by political movements that benefit the powerful by marginalizing the vulnerable, she asserted.
Christian nationalism—which Tyler defined as “a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities”—is a “pervasive” virus infecting “all aspects of American life.”
“It feeds on a carefully curated and white-centered version of history,” Tyler said.
Christian Nationalism distorts the gospel
Christian nationalism and its misappropriation of religious symbols distorts the message of Jesus Christ, she emphasized.
“If those of us who call ourselves Christians do not distance ourselves from the misuse of our faith for political reasons, we risk not only tarnishing Christianity’s reputation with the general public but distorting the gospel of Jesus beyond recognition,” Tyler said.
“This kind of power-broker Christianity has been used to perpetuate racial subjugation for generations and has contributed greatly to the trauma and pain in our streets right now. Christians have a choice now about which side they will be on—the oppressed or the oppressors.”