“If it’s just a social-justice thing or a cultural thing, it’s easy to dismiss, because that bases the conversation in ideology,” Arthur Satterwhite III, the vice president of multiethnic ministries at Young Life, a prominent youth-ministry organization, told me. Some white pastors seek out Black voices who echo their own political beliefs, Mwuara told me. “I literally had to go on social media and just say, ‘Please do not send me any more Candace Owens videos,’” he said, referring to the right-wing commentator and former communications director for Turning Point USA. When pastors do this, according to Mwuara, they see it as “teaching us something that we have missed. The problem with that is that you are really discounting 90 percent of Black Americans’ viewpoints.”
No matter how much goodwill they may have, white evangelical leaders repeatedly say and do things that are wildly hurtful to people of color in their communities. In June, at the peak of the protests against Floyd’s death, Louie Giglio, the Atlanta megachurch pastor, said in an onstage conversation with the popular hip-hop artist Lecrae and Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy that the term white privilege should be replaced with white blessing to “get over the phrase” that shuts down conversations on racism. Afterward, according to The Washington Post, Lecrae stepped into his unofficial racism-consultant role, telling Giglio how uncomfortable he was with the suggestion. (Giglio later apologized.) Last month, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, tweeted an image of a face mask decorated with one person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface. Several dozen Black alumni of Liberty University, including pastors and other Christian leaders, sent a letter expressing their outrage at his “infantile behavior.” (Falwell Jr. later apologized.) Jua Robinson, a pastor who founded a multiethnic church in Boston and was one of the Liberty letter’s signatories, told me he has become accustomed to seeing white Christian leaders get flummoxed by issues of race:When Robinson was in his early 20s and working on the staff of Athletes in Action, a ministry of the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, he asked a worship leader to try playing a gospel song. She got flustered, and “basically walked away from it,” he told me. “The chords may be a little different, but if you know that I’m here, and others may appreciate it, why not at least give it a try?” Robinson is often the only Black person in the room at church-related events, he said, and he is regularly asked to speak to his colleagues about race. “Some of these people don’t really have relationships with people of color,” he told me. “I felt like God had given me a voice and a lane and a certain level of trust.”
In recent weeks, as the country has confronted the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of racist violence, white pastors have put out statements and hosted Sunday-morning conversations about the scourge of bigotry in our nation. Yet even these good-faith efforts often indulge “the empty sentimentality that people associate with racism,” Pinckney said, and focus on individual relationships and behaviors: “We need to love each other, to treat each other well.” This is no accident. “Evangelical theology tends to be very personal, highly relational, and therefore, engaging issues of systems and structures becomes incredibly difficult,” says Greg Jao, the director of external relations at InterVarsity, an influential ministry organization that focuses on college campuses. Many white evangelicals may be on board with the idea of banishing racism from their heart, but may not be ready to confront the policy issues, such as racist policing, that enable the kind of violence that killed George Floyd. As of 2018, 71 percent of white evangelicals believed that incidents of police officers killing Black men are isolated and not part of a broader pattern, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. “A mainly intrapersonal, friendship-based reconciliation [is] virtually powerless to change the structural and systemic inequalities along racial lines in this country,” Tisby told me.