The Vortex of White Evangelicalism

“Every single Christian of color who is proximate to evangelical spaces gets called everything but a child of God. And that’s just part of the work.”

Esau McCaulley smiles in his collar and suit jacket on a yellow background with graphic images.
Courtesy of Esau McCaulley / The Atlantic

Esau McCaulley has been caught between multiple identities his whole life. Family legend has it that his grandfather couldn’t read, and when it came time to pick a baby name for McCaulley’s father, that grandfather opened the Bible and pointed to a word, not realizing it was Esau. It’s no accident that there aren’t that many baby Esaus crawling around: In the Bible, the “red” and “hairy” Esau is most notable for selling his birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentil stew. The name was passed down from father to son. To balance out this weighty association, McCaulley’s mother chose the middle name Daniel, after the biblical hero who escapes from a lion’s den. Perhaps this inheritance destined McCaulley for a career as a New Testament scholar, bound from birth to puzzle out biblical mysteries. But his name also fits the larger spiritual path he’s traveled: as a son of the Black church ordained in a predominantly white Christian tradition, and as a professor at a mostly white evangelical college who found himself searching for Black theological spaces.

McCaulley’s most recent book, Reading While Black, grapples with the question of how a just and salvific God views racism and police violence, and how Christians can find hope in moments of profound grief about how Black people are treated in America. But at its margins, the book is also about in-betweenness. “There are people who look at me suspiciously because I’m too proximate to evangelicalism, or they look at me suspiciously because I’m too proximate to Black spaces and I speak too plainly about racial injustice,” McCaulley told me. “It’s not an easy place to inhabit, but it’s the place that I believe God has placed me.”

McCaulley yearned to set the terms of the conversation about the Bible and racial injustice so that people like him would recognize themselves in his words—he wanted to remind “others of home.” One day, perhaps, McCaulley will write the story of his name. For now, he has written a book in which he sees himself, fully Black and fully Christian, without having to justify the legitimacy of his project to anyone. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Emma Green: You’re a Black Bible professor at Wheaton, a predominantly white evangelical college. In your book, you express frustration that Black Christians always have to answer to the expectations of white theologians or white denominations. How did that go over with your employer?

Esau McCaulley: When I was in seminary, I was rarely the subject of the writing that I read. I wanted an African American who read the book to know from the beginning that it was written to them. I felt like there were African-American Christians who, in the struggle for justice, felt like their voices weren’t being heard or their concerns weren’t being addressed. I wrote to encourage them: The tradition that formed you is still relevant.

There’s this turning point in the book where I’m talking about policing. In a footnote, I was going to show some of the statistics about the disparities in policing and put in all of this data. And then I said, “You know what? Black people know. We don’t need these footnotes.”

That was a moment where I gave myself permission not to try and convince anybody of anything. It is for people who lived it, who say, “How can I live as a person of faith in this world that we all know is broken?” But the reception of the book is complicated.

Green: What’s been complicated about it?

McCaulley: Many Black pastors have said, “Thank you so much for writing this book.” Or young Black people who find themselves in evangelical spaces coming out of the Black church said, “There’s finally a book that helps me explain where I come from.”

But it’s different among white people. This is an oversimplification, but the theologically progressive strand of white Christianity is more justice-oriented. As you move toward being more traditional, people tend to link justice with issues of “You don’t care about the Bible.” None of that’s true, but that’s just how white Christians argue. So when I start saying, “I think the Bible speaks to those things,” then certain segments of conservative Christianity get up in arms, and they start calling you a Marxist. Every single Christian of color who is proximate to evangelical spaces gets called everything but a child of God. And that’s just part of the work.

Green: Do you think that’s because white Christians perceive you as a threat from within? Do you think the conservatives who come after you feel like they need to guard their territory against what they see as theological corruption?

McCaulley: America has always struggled to understand Black Christianity.

You go back to look at the abolitionist movement and they say, “This is not about abolition and slavery and freedom. They’re atheists.” If you go to the civil-rights movement, you see the exact same things.

To understand why Black Christianity exists in a totally different key than the debates that happen in white Christian spaces, you have to imagine this: It’s 1790; it’s 1800. An enslaved Black person hears about the person of Christ. He has to decide from the very moment that he says “Amen,” does this God want me enslaved? In other words, the moment he has to ask the religious question, he has to ask the political question, because slavery was not just a moral issue. It was a legal issue—a systemic injustice. And the Black Christian has to decide, “What does God think about this?”

So Black Christianity was always inescapably political, while at the same time being deeply spiritual. It is not our fault that other traditions pooled these things into different categories. The difficulty is that people always want to hear about just one or the other of those. We are only seen as pawns in someone else’s fight.

Green: You were ordained and spent years pursuing advanced theological degrees within the Anglican Communion, which is historically rooted in England—it’s basically as far as you can go into high-church Protestantism before you become a Catholic. Why did you gravitate toward this kind of space?

McCaulley: Life is long and complicated. I was an 18-year-old going to an all-Black high school. This guy recruited me to come to Sewanee and play sports. And so I went there, and then the next thing you know, I find myself in an all-white context and I’m doing the best that I can to make sense of what it means to be an adult. While I was there, I encountered the Episcopal liturgy, and I found it compelling. But I didn’t realize at 22 that there was any conflict between saying “The Church calendar and the Book of Common Prayer are beautiful” and “I also like Kirk Franklin and gospel music.” I just thought that you can do them both. It was a naïveté. I thought, Well, maybe they just don’t know about Kirk Franklin.

And higher education is white. That’s part of it. There are no historically black seminaries granting Ph.D.s in New Testament. There can’t be more than a couple of handfuls of Black professors supervising doctoral work in New Testament. So the odds are, if you get a Ph.D., it’s going to be at a majority-white institution.

Black scholars feel a sense of alienation, no matter where we go. There is no utopia.

Green: As you recently shifted to serving a Black Baptist church rather than an Anglican one, what motivated you—a search for refuge, or a call to a different kind of ministry?

McCaulley: When I was finishing my Ph.D. in New Testament, that was when the first wave of protests against unjust killings of Black people were going on. My scholarship didn’t touch those concerns. What I began to realize was: Black persons are worthy of my time and energy and focus, even though that isn’t valued as much by the academy.

And so the last three to four years was writing my way back into that community. But I wanted to do that without throwing away everything I picked up along the way. I’ve met white friends and Asian friends and Latino friends who are important and precious to me, and I don’t want to cast them aside. How do I carry all of these things in me when sometimes it does feel like I’m being torn apart?

There are people who look at me suspiciously because I’m too proximate to evangelicalism, or they look at me suspiciously because I’m too proximate to Black spaces and I speak too plainly about racial injustice. It’s not an easy place to inhabit, but it’s the place that I believe God has placed me.

Green: As a reporter, I feel all the time like white evangelicalism kind of sucks up all the oxygen in conversations about American religion. People are still like, “So what’s up with white evangelicals and Donald Trump?” That question has come to dominate the American conversation about politics and religion.

What I’ve noticed in your book and in our conversation is that even as you try to carve out this distinct space for a Black Christian tradition, you still get sucked into talking about white Christians. Do you feel trapped in that cycle?

McCaulley: Yes, that happens all the time. I have friends who will sometimes say to me, “Esau, you’re losing focus.” It’s so easy to make this the only story, or just spend all of your energy battling these people.

African Americans don’t want white evangelicals to talk about them in a certain way. What they want is justice. Does that make sense?

Green: I think so, but you’re going to have to unpack it a little more.

McCaulley: Let me give you an example. There is a big debate going on right now around whether or not systemic racism exists. That’s not a Black debate. There are Black Christians who disagree with me, but there has to be something called a consensus that arises out of the Black Christian community. And that consensus says that systemic racism exists in the world.

I’ve noticed that on social media I can say, “Christianity provides me meaning and direction, and it’s the basis by which I order my life and my family and how I try to raise my children,” and two people will like that comment. And then if I go, “Here’s something an evangelical did to me,” it just blows up the internet, you know? People often say, “Well, why do Black people only talk about these issues?” Well, that’s not true. You just don’t listen.

Green: So what is going on with that? Why is there seemingly this hunger for Black voices in the battle over white evangelicalism—for people who know their stuff to say things that could be labeled with the fire emoji on Twitter?

McCaulley: I wish I knew.

I think there are people who are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their parents or grandparents who didn’t listen to Black voices. But both white progressives and white conservatives weaponize Black voices for their own ends. I am not a missile that people can hurl at Black people. I’m not anybody’s weapon. I’m speaking to my community as best as I can. Sometimes people are using me for their own ends instead of listening to Black voices. I just don’t like how difficult it is for us to have our own conversations.

No Black person said they wanted the national debate to be about critical race theory. The debate was police reform. This is George Floyd having his neck stepped on for nine and a half minutes. That was the precipitating cause. But we as a country are not debating the nuances of police reform. You can’t find a pastor in the country with a hot take on police reform. No one asks me that. They ask me whether I am a critical race theorist.

I don’t have the power of naming. So I have to take these agendas that are set for me and, as best as I can, bend that toward the community. The last thing that I have as a writer and as a Christian is my pen. When I write, I get to say, “For these 1,000 words, you’re in my space.”

Green: You’ve described how Black voices get co-opted on the conservative side. In what ways does this happen among white progressives?

McCaulley: There are certain deconstructive depictions of Christianity—white progressive deconstructions of Christianity—that find Black critiques useful. Sometimes our critique is used to justify white progressive exits from evangelicalism, but it doesn’t actually engage what we have to say about the life before God. How many evangelicals leave Christianity using Black voices but never attend Black churches?

If you listen to Black pain but you don’t listen to Black hope, I struggle with it. If you stopped being a Christian because of the evils done to Black people during slavery, then you need to spend more time in Black Christian spaces and figure out how we dealt with that issue. The Black church always had to figure out, “How do I be a Christian without power?” We became Christians and we were slaves, and the people who enslaved us were also Christians. Now you have segments of evangelicalism that are struggling with this—they are coming to grips with the ways in which their tradition has failed.

Green: One of the things that has really struck me in recent national conversations about race is that a lot of people—especially secular white people—seem to be struggling with something that I can’t help but identify as sin: this recognition that we live in a broken world, and that all of us, by nature, hurt others and do things that are wrong. This seems to be what all of the people who joined anti-racism book clubs are struggling with—the realization of their own sinfulness when it comes to race.

I bring this up because it sounds like what you’re saying is that Black Christian traditions already have a lot of infrastructure for dealing with that brokenness, and finding a way through it.

McCaulley: There’s an entire history of Black people wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus given the evil that has been done to us. It’s ultimately this hopeful thing that says we exist because we think you can be a Christian on the other side of it.

We already know the world is sinful. How can we not know this? We’re Black in America. But that doesn’t mean that the only story to tell is about setting the house on fire. We’re the fools who believe that a thing that has been built can be torn down, and in its place can be something more beautiful and more God-honoring.

African American biblical interpretation is an exercise in hope. What I’m trying to do is instill that practice into the bloodstream of Black people, even when everything around them feels hopeless.