Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

In the weeks since George Floyd’s death, Philip Pinckney has been inundated with messages from white evangelical pastors who want to take a stand against racism: 40 to 60 phone calls a day, dozens of texts and email chains, endless drafts of sermons and articles. The 34-year-old Black pastor has spent his life in spaces where his race is a point of contradiction. He trained as a cadet at the Citadel, the South Carolina military college whose officers helped orchestrate the attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. He planted a church with the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination founded to defend slaveholding. Now, as the country reckons with more Black deaths at the hands of police, he has taken up a role he often gets drafted to: an unofficial racism consultant to the white evangelical world.

“I don’t know any Black person who raised their hand and said, ‘Yup, I want to do this,’” he told me by phone, driving from Charleston to Columbia to talk with a group of pastors about race and Christianity. “We came into this to plant churches and to disciple people and to raise families and to proclaim, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ And yet, there is this blindness. There is this ignorance. There is hostility that we feel a unique compulsion to move towards.” As Pinckney recently scrolled through his text messages, he noticed that some white pastors reach out only when racial violence is in the news. “We may not have talked since the last Black murder,” he said.

A quiet network of Christian leaders like Pinckney has coalesced around the country—a sort of informal fellowship of Black pastors, nonprofit staffers, and ministry leaders who move in predominantly white evangelical circles. While prominent white pastors often get the attention for their statements on racism, their younger, less powerful Black colleagues typically work behind the scenes to facilitate them. The evangelical world can be a distinctly challenging place in which to change people’s attitudes on race: Many of these churches have a long history of resistance to racial equality, and many religious conservatives are wary of the self-described social-justice movements associated with the left.

The past month has brought important signs that the evangelical world is shifting in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Self-described “apolitical” pastors are in the streets marching alongside protesters. White megachurch leaders have accepted rebuke from their Black peers. Prominent conservative pastors and seminary leaders in Mississippi called for the removal of Confederate battle imagery from their state’s flag. And the head of the Southern Baptist Convention has declared that “Black lives matter.” The way Christian leaders grapple with white supremacy in the weeks to come will be a sign of where white America is heading, and will ultimately decide whom churches can reach with their message. The Black church leaders and other Christians of color who have chosen to remain in white spaces are leading the way.

Many conservative white pastors, including some of President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisers, have for years been freely willing to condemn the “sin of racism” and overt discrimination along the lines of Jim Crow. Conservative pastors have even united around legislation on criminal-justice issues; white evangelicals led the way on last year’s prison-reform bill. But subtle cultural norms—and big political issues—put hard limits on the way many pastors are ready to think about racism.

“If you go into a church and say, ‘Hey, man. The white Jesus that we’ve got on the wall is a lie. There’s no way that a Middle Eastern Jew would have looked like that,’ now you’re attacking the Bible,” Pinckney said. “These hills upon which we are prepared to die—that’s where we meet in the conversation about race.”

As the writer Jemar Tisby recently detailed in his book The Color of Compromise, white Christian leaders have promoted and excused racial bigotry throughout American history. Theologians made biblical arguments to justify slavery. Prominent southern pastors urged “moderation” in debates about segregation during the civil-rights era. For several decades, conservative Christian leaders have been wrestling with this legacy: As early as 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning the denomination’s role in promoting racial bigotry and apologizing to “all African Americans” for condoning “individual and systemic racism in our lifetime,” whether “consciously or unconsciously.” Southern Baptist leaders have continued to push conversations on what they call racial reconciliation in recent years, and other denominations have made similar efforts.

Yet conversations about race among evangelicals are often clouded by disagreements over where the line between racial reconciliation and political activism actually lies. Just four years ago, a Black woman, Michelle Higgins, met tremendous backlash after she delivered a speech at Urbana, a popular youth-ministry conference, arguing that her Christian brothers and sisters should support Black Lives Matter. The summer after Trump was elected, the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention devolved into chaos after a resolution condemning the alt-right got stalled for using allegedly politicized language. When J. D. Greear, the North Carolina pastor who currently serves as president of the denomination, recently recorded a video calling on Christians to say “Black lives matter,” he was careful to clarify that he and his church do not endorse any Black Lives Matter organizations. “The movement, and the website, has been hijacked by some political operatives whose worldview and policy prescriptions would be deeply at odds with my own,” he said. Other white evangelical pastors would not go even as far as Greear. They perceive the slogan as “pulling the tiny thread … that unravels the whole sweater,” Nicole Martin, the director of U.S. ministry at the American Bible Society, told me. White pastors wonder whether saying Black lives matter will mean they have to cede ground on other issues, such as ordaining women or affirming LGBTQ rights, she said. “And my answer to that is: maybe.”

Certain kinds of political activism are widely accepted in the evangelical world. “We’ll have sanctity-of-life Sunday, speaking about the great evil of abortion—which I’m on board with, amen,” Pinckney said. But “that same clarity seems very complicated when it comes to issues of race.” When he was at a lunch with a black friend and a white pastor, says Maina Mwaura, a Southern Baptist–trained minister who has consulted for Christian organizations such as Promise Keepers and Barna, the white pastor refused to listen to the friend’s views on what he saw as the president’s racist comments. The white pastor said he will vote for Trump because he opposes abortion rights, which effectively ended the conversation. “The pro-life agenda is used as a weapon to shut down everything else, including race,” Mwaura told me.

Even the language of what constitutes “justice” is controversial among evangelicals. In 2018, a group of pastors led by John MacArthur, an influential white megachurch pastor in California, signed a statement decrying “social justice” and arguing against “postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory.” It condemned “political or social activism” as not being “integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.” This kind of sentiment is common among white evangelical leaders, several Black leaders who work in these spaces told me: White pastors aggressively enforce the boundaries of acceptable conversations on racism, weaponizing any position that bears even a whiff of progressive politics and slapping labels such as “social justice” and “cultural Marxism” on arguments about systemic injustice. Black leaders at predominately white organizations are careful to emphasize that caring about racism is a gospel issue.

“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.

For all the energy being devoted to addressing racism in the white evangelical world, the aftermath of George Floyd’s death is not necessarily a turning point in how white evangelicals think about race, several Black leaders I spoke with argued. “About every four to five years, there’s a larger national-level racial conversation, and many churches will make some gesture at that,” Jao told me. “Then they don’t speak on it again, don’t notice the things that are happening locally or nationally, until the next major explosion.” One test of the effects of this summer’s protests is whether they will shift conversations about race and policing in conservative political circles. Nearly one-third of white people in the United States identify as evangelicals, and a strong majority of this group is Republican. White Christians are distinctively positioned to push politicians to take this issue seriously.

Ultimately, though, the Black leaders I spoke with do their work for the sake of the church, not for political gain. “It’s not the responsibility of the ordinary Black person to educate white people. That, in itself, is oppressive,” says Latasha Morrison, the founder and president of Be the Bridge, an organization that trains staff at predominantly conservative, white churches and organizations on how to have conversations about race.

In Charleston, Pinckney has spent the past month toggling between competing reactions to Floyd’s death: the desire to shield his two young sons from violence, to lead his church with wisdom, to punch a wall. A few years ago, Pinckney and other local pastors formed a collective, 1Charleston, to encourage churches in the city to take on conversations about racism and the gospel. His city knows all too well the devastating effects of racist violence on the church. “I long for the day that I don’t get these messages, and I don’t have to talk about these things,” Pinckney told me. But “the same God who called me to disciple also called me to speak out against injustice.”

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