Southern Baptists and the Sin of Racism

Can a denomination that's dedicated to personal responsibility formulate a collective response to structural inequalities in America?

From left: Richard Land, Trayvon Martin, Russell Moore, and Michael Brown (Alex Brandon/Mark Humphrey/AP/Robert Cohen/Reuters/Wikimedia/The Atlantic)

“Racial reconciliation is not something that white people do for other people,” proclaimed Russell Moore in March. Moore, a white man from Mississippi, was opening a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, with an eminently tweetable, infinitely complicated call to end racial division within the church.

As membership in the Southern Baptist church stagnates and baptisms decline, and as America’s younger generations are becoming more diverse and less religious, this kind of rhetoric could seem like a straightforward bid for survival. Millennials care deeply about race and racial justice, so the church has to care, too. Moore’s calls for reconciliation seemed heartfelt, though, as did those of many of the pastors and leaders who met at the Southern Baptists’ conference on race. And they are part of a consistent, longstanding effort. Since at least 1995, the church has been publicly repenting for its history of racial discrimination. Arguably, it has made progress; minority participation in Southern Baptist congregations has blossomed. Yet after two decades, the public-policy arm of the church is still focused almost exclusively on conservative social issues, rather than topics like poverty and mass incarceration, which have a significant impact on racial disparities in America. As the demographics of the church change, the Southern Baptists will have to reckon with these issues—or, perhaps, face future decades of division within their churches.

In 2013, Moore was elected the head of the Southern Baptists’ public-policy organization, called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC. He is full of pithy zingers; he’s a Christian leader suited for the social-media age. Moore has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform, sometimes out of keeping with the Republican Party; in July, he wrote that, “As Christians … our response ought to be, first, one of compassion for those penned up in detention centers on the border.” Many the ERLC’s policy priorities have remained the same, though, keeping a focus on conservative social issues, including opposition to pornography, gay marriage, and abortion; support for two-parent families; and a broad interpretation of “religious freedom,” defending vendors who refuse to provide services for gay weddings and businesses that won’t cover employees’ birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

But the most important change Moore has made since taking office has also been among the most subtle: shifting how Southern Baptists talk about race. For 25 years, Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, was the face of the Southern Baptists in American politics. In the 90s, he led the denomination’s hard-right shift; years later, he became an appointee in the George W. Bush administration. Until 2012, he had his own talk-radio program, Richard Land Live! That show eventually proved his undoing: In a 2012 segment about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Land said that black political leaders were using Martin’s death to “gin up the black vote.” He also said that a black man is "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man." His timing was particularly bad—he spoke just a few months before Fred Luter, a pastor from New Orleans, was slated to become the first-ever black president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Leaders in the church called for Land to be fired, arguing that his continued presence would undermine the meaningfulness of Luter’s election. Eight weeks later, following a review by the ERLC’s trustees, his radio show was cancelled, and the following month, he announced his retirement.

His replacement, on the other hand, has made a point of speaking with empathy and open anger during recent moments of racial tension and violence. “It’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem,” Moore said in response to the death of Eric Garner via police chokehold in New York City. When a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Moore took to Twitter and the blogosphere with stats about how the criminal-justice system disproportionately penalizes black men.

But even as Moore presses for racial reconciliation, his framing remains complicated: Racism, church leaders say, is a result of the sinful nature of man.

That is a distinctively Christian causal claim, one that defines how the Southern Baptists are thinking about racial reconciliation within the church. To a certain extent, it also shapes how the church’s leaders are—and aren’t—thinking about racial disparities as a public-policy issue: Notably absent from the ERLC’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and the decades of Jim Crow that followed. For Southern Baptists, it’s ironic to embrace the former but ignore the latter, for a simple reason: Their denomination helped define the history of American racism.

* * *

In 1860, a Southern Baptist pastor from Virginia, Thornton Stringfellow, defended the institution of forced enslavement of millions of African men and women in Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, with the full force of scripture: “Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command. … Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham's descendant's among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.”

Fifteen years earlier, the Southern Baptist Convention had formed when a group of churches broke away from another loose association of Baptists, called the Triennial Convention. The foreign-outreach arm of the organization had forbidden a slaveholding church elder from becoming a missionary, saying it would violate the organization’s neutral position on slavery. After attempting to negotiate a compromise, 293 dissenting church leaders—representing as many as 365,000 Christians—met in Augusta, Georgia, and formed a new association that supported slavery.

The biblical justification for slaveholding is important: When the Southern Baptists met for their conference this March, they focused not just on racial reconciliation, but on the gospel and racial reconciliation.

When I spoke with pastors and church leaders in Nashville, many cited passages in scripture as justifications for opposing racism. Juan Sanchez, a pastor from Texas, started with the book of Genesis, in which man was created in the image of God. Trillia Newbell, the director of outreach for the Convention, pointed to Revelations 5 and 7 for a vision of equality in the kingdom to come. And in his opening address to the conference, Moore cited verses in Ephesians 3: “Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

Southern Baptists officially believe in Biblical inerrancy, meaning that scripture is “truth, without any mixture of error,” a phrase that dates back to the confession of faith U.S. Baptists adopted in 1833. In 2012, the Southern Baptists voted to reaffirm their belief in inerrancy, in opposition to “some biblical scholars who identify themselves as evangelicals [who] have in recent years denied the historicity of Adam and Eve and of the fall of mankind into sin, among other historical assertions of Scripture.”

But if Southern Baptists in 1860 believed the scriptures justified a system of slavery based on race, and Southern Baptists in 2015 believe the scriptures justify total opposition to racial discrimination, did one group err?

Sanchez, the pastor from Texas, thinks so. “The people who used the Bible, for example, to argue for slavery—they were using the argument for evangelizing the heathen,” he said. “I would argue that they were flat out wrong—they were teaching contrary to our Lord Jesus Christ’s teachings.”

To Sanchez and other contemporary Southern Baptists, racial equality is the logical extension of Christianity. “What I find hopeful and encouraging [is that] throughout the history of the church, there have always been people who misinterpreted what the Bible thought for their own purposes,” Sanchez said. This is hopeful in the sense that there’s historical precedent for internal shifts on theology within a denomination that believes in biblical inerrancy. It’s perhaps less hopeful in the sense that in America, the Bible has been used to justify discrimination and violence, particularly against people who are black.

Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology and race at the University of Chicago and an ordained minister with the predominantly black American Baptist denomination, said this focus on scripture can be misleading: Reading the Bible inevitably requires interpretation. “No one has shown me literal passages where the Bible speaks to racism in America, ever,” he said. “Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, there have been many things between … the good news of the gospel on the one hand, and how is it inflected or impacted by the historical culture of that period.”

This is perhaps no truer for any American religious group than the Southern Baptists. Although the denomination now has churches all over the United States—and the world, for that matter—it’s a historically Southern church, and it’s also the historic church of the South. As early as the 1870s, the church had more than one million members, primarily below the Mason-Dixon line; those numbers grew steadily for most of the 20th century. The attitudes of the church as a whole are only as enlightened as the attitudes of its members, who haven’t always been supportive of racial change.

In an interview, Land, the former head of the ERLC, said that during the 1950s and 60s, “there was a split between the ordained full-time ministry people, who were more open to integration and to racial reconciliation, and the laity.” The organization that preceded the ERLC, called the Christian Life Commission, was vocal in its support of racial equality and integration. After the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the Commission adopted a resolution praising the ruling and urging “Christian statesmen and leaders in our churches to use their leadership … [so] this crisis in our national history shall not be made the occasion for new bitter prejudices.” This was “back when you could get killed,” Land added. Foy Valentine, who led the Christian Life Commission from 1960 until 1987, got death threats for issuing calls for racial reconciliation. Under Valentine’s leadership, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention was relatively progressive—“we found his membership card in the ACLU in the files when he left,” Land noted darkly—but when Land took over as head of the agency in 1988, it took a distinctly conservative turn. The Convention became more tightly aligned with the Republican Party, particularly on the issue of abortion; after George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban in 2003, Land was one of a number of ministers, including Jerry Falwell, who joined the president in the Oval Office to pray.

But the issue of racial reconciliation always loomed. In 1995, Land orchestrated the Convention’s first official apology for its role in perpetuating slavery and racial discrimination in America. “We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest,” the resolution read. “We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” The resolution was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the denomination’s founding—and intended to mark a turning point in Southern Baptist history.

And yet. At the conference in Nashville, “one of the speakers was saying racism is a hydra-headed monster that has to be attacked every way,” Land said. To him, it sounded like something Valentine had said during a meeting of the Southern Baptists back in January of 1989: that racism is fresh and lethal, as if it had metastasized. “And I thought, we’re still doing the same thing,” he said.

* * *

Although all Southern Baptists ostensibly share certain theological beliefs, there are significant cultural differences between black and white church communities.

“Most of my white brothers and sisters place a great emphasis on individualism and meritocracy,” said Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor who heads a church in southeast D.C. “Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we've had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in ‘we.’ And white Americans go pretty quickly to individual and speak of ‘I.’”

This is why black Americans reacted so strongly to cases like the shooting death of Michael Brown, he said—the black community’s experience of being over-policed in Ferguson spoke to a collective experience that African Americans tend to share.

“Our great gospel concern is that people survive their encounters with law enforcement authorities, and survive their neighborhoods with people who look like them long enough to hear the gospel.” Anyabwile quoted the missionary Carl F.H. Henry: “The Gospel is good news only if it gets there in time.”

This has important implications for the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy priorities. “One of the things we have to repent of as a denomination or as conservative Christians, we got to repent of shrinking the idea of justice down to abortion and homosexuality,” Anyabwile said. “There's far more going on in the world affecting far more people that we also ought to be concerned about.”

The issues he mentioned included criminal-justice policies, education funding, and the alleviation of child poverty—largely liberal and Democratic agenda issues, ones that have not been the focus of the ERLC. The reason for this, Moore says, is that scripture is clear on social issues in a way that it’s not on structural economic issues. “No one wants to see a social safety net discarded. We need it,” he said. “But these debates aren’t settled by scripture. If a Christian says we shouldn’t raise [the minimum wage] because it might hurt business, that’s something we have to consider.”

On the other hand, issues like opposition to abortion are drawn directly from the Bible: Societies have an obligation to “safeguard lives,” he said. “I wish we were in a situation where we had two pro-life parties,” he added. “I started my career working for a pro-life Democratic congressperson, and he was pro-life, pro-family. That world doesn’t exist anymore.”

But opposing abortion and being vocally “pro-family” have racial implications, too. Black women are more likely to have children outside of marriage than women who are white, Hispanic, or of any other ethnicity. In 2013, 71 percent of black women who had babies were single. By comparison, roughly half of new Hispanic mothers were unwed, along with less than a third of white women. In general, single mothers are very poor—roughly 40 percent live in poverty, including 46 percent of black women and nearly 47 percent of Hispanic women. This is not the case in the rest of the developed world; a 2012 study by scholars at Duke and Stony Brook University found that the rate of poverty among single mothers in the United States is higher than that of women in 18 other affluent democracies.

Moore said that churches have an obligation to reach out to unwed mothers: “It’s hard to be pro-life without helping these women.” He framed this outreach in terms of pastoral care, rather than public policy, however—even though widespread poverty is arguably the issue that most affects single moms.

For many women, and particularly women of color, ideals of sexual purity and stable marriage might not be attainable. Since those are such a central part of Southern Baptist teachings, churches faces a difficult challenge in trying not to alienate those who don’t live up to the Biblical vision of family life. “We just need to do a better job of [framing] the Biblical good life as an attractive, winsome thing, and not a hand slapping,” Anyabwile said. “Sometimes the most difficult thing to hear in churches are those comments that are spoken from the pulpit that are cheap comments to get a laugh or to get an amen but actually are condemning. Those are easy things to say; they're not easy things to fix.”

Still, Moore and Anyabwile both insisted that these ideals are important, perhaps even more so for unwed women. “I don’t know anyone more passionate about two-parent families than a Christian single mother, white or black,” Moore said. But from this conference, it’s hard to know for sure what Southern Baptist women—single, married, black, or white—think of this issue, or any other. Over the course of a two-day program that featured close to 40 speakers, there was only one woman included in one of the main sessions.

That woman, Trillia Newbell, said she faced outright discrimination from parents of potential boyfriends and people in her neighborhood as she was growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the 80s and 90s. Even after she became a Christian at 22 and joined a non-denominational church, “at times, I felt very different, set apart,” she said. “People would ask questions—things like questions about my hair.” She agreed that family life is a particular concern for black women in the church—particularly if they attend a predominantly white congregation. “One of the things that I worried about was: Would I be able to marry someone?” she said. “Would I be pursued? And if I was, would their parents accept me?”

I spoke with Joy Pigg, a student at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, during one of the conference breaks. She was there as a student ambassador, manning a booth on behalf of her school. A couple booths down, a sign for another Christian college listed out potential paths for incoming students, including “homemaking.”*

Pigg said the conference was a good step for the church to take, and that it needed to happen. “But I wish there were more women in this conversation.”

* * *

Because of the Southern Baptist Convention’s past—and America’s troubled history of slavery and discrimination—conversations about race tend to focus on the relationship between blacks and whites. But the future of the church may depend on a different group: Hispanics.

“I’ve said for years that if our Convention in 2030 doesn’t have sessions in both English and Spanish and have subtitles, it will mean the Convention doesn’t exist,” Moore told me. Based on demographics alone, he may be right. Roughly 21 percent of Americans born between 1980 and 2000 identify as Hispanic, compared to only 6 percent of people over the age of 65. Although Hispanic Americans are predominantly Catholic, that’s slowly changing; between 2010 and 2013, the share of evangelicals among Hispanic Americans grew by 4 percentage points. Some of these demographic patterns are already starting to be reflected in the church: Since 1998, the number of congregations that identify as mostly Hispanic has grown by nearly 40 percent.

Bringing the next generation of believers and leaders into the church presents a novel and welcome challenge, Moore said. “[Millennials] are not Christians because they have to be in order to be seen as good people in their communities. They want to follow Jesus. It used to be if a child hadn’t been baptized, people would think ill of his parents. Those days are over—good riddance.”

But even if America’s young people do have more freedom to choose their identity as Christians than their parents or grandparents did, Moore has his work cut out for him: Fully one-third of Millennials aren’t affiliated with any religion in particular. Only 11 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 identify as white evangelical Protestants, compared to 27 percent of people over 65. (Comparable data for black and Hispanic evangelicals was not available.) Moore claims that the most vibrant parts of the church are full of young people who want to engage authentically with the gospel, which may be true; but in general, fewer young people seem to see the teachings of the gospel as part of their authentic selves.

Different Christian groups in America already split over political priorities. Although there’s not much data specific to Southern Baptists, among Hispanic evangelicals, nearly half say they lean Democratic, while less than a third lean Republican. Among white evangelicals, though, roughly 69 percent lean Republican. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of Hispanic evangelicals said they prefer a bigger government that provides more services, rather than a smaller government that provides fewer services. An earlier Pew report found that, presented with the same question, 70 percent of white evangelicals favor smaller government.

A lot of these political differences seem to depend on different interpretations of responsibility. “You take a community like mine, when you talk to an individual about work, one of the things you notice is heavy despair, this nihilistic sense of hopelessness and numbness that is in part engendered by the many encounters they have had with societal pressures,” said Anyabwile. “That numbness is part of what you have to overcome in order for that person to take personal responsibility.”

At times, political differences can cause tension in congregations, Moore said. “I remember being a church one time where a young man, maybe 14 years old, came down to the front and was talking to me—African American young man, it was the first time he had ever been to church—and he was asking me questions about heaven. He was wearing an Obama t-shirt. But this man in the church, an elderly white man, walked by and said, ‘You need to get a different t-shirt.’

“And my response was to say, ‘Here is this kid, his first time in church, asking how to inherit eternal life, and all this guy cared about was his t-shirt.’”

This kind of division may be evidence of a broader problem: It’s disorienting for a denomination that’s been steadily growing since 1845 to find itself suddenly in retreat. In recent months and years, the response among conservative evangelicals like the Southern Baptists seems to be a heightened sense of persecution at the hands of a secular majority—ironically, Christians are learning to practice their own sort of identity politics, using claims of religious liberty as a shield against the growing normalization of gay marriage and more. It’s these issues, where the Southern Baptists see themselves as an embattled collective, that define the ERLC’s public-policy agenda.

But for the most part, Southern Baptists still see the issue of race as a matter individual hearts and minds, not collective experience and collective policy. Church leaders left Nashville with promises to improve diversity in seminaries, plant churches in urban areas, and listen—truly listen—to the experiences of others. Undoubtedly, these are all good things. But they might not be enough to lift up struggling black and Hispanic communities—or for that matter, struggling white communities. As Moore said, racial reconciliation is not something white people do for others. It might be something, though, that sinners can do together.

* This article originally attributed a sign listing potential majors for incoming students to Union Theological Seminary. We regret the error.