In the past decade, “race reconciliation” has been a growing trend in Christian Right circles. A profusion of books has been published on the topic, and an increasing number of articles in conservative Christian periodicals have focused on racism and the role of people of color in conservative Christian communities. Most prominent white evangelical organizations have issued statements advocating race reconciliation. Its purpose, as one of its spokesmen, Tony Evans, puts it, is to “establish a church where everyone of any race or status who walks through the door is loved and respected as part of God’s creation and family.” But the rhetoric of race reconciliation requires scrutiny. Most analysis thus far has been simplistic, failing to shed light both on the threats and the opportunities race reconciliation poses for communities of color.
Hearing the Call of Race
“Christian evangelicalism” and “racial justice” seldom appear harmoniously in the same sentence. Jerry Falwell has even admitted that contemporary Christian Right organizing was primarily motivated by a reaction against racial justice struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, groups such as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition have mobilized members to oppose civil rights legislation and to support the apartheid government of South Africa. Meanwhile, evangelical institutions remained staunchly segregated. In 1990, Christianity Today found only 8 percent of the employees at 25 of the largest evangelical organizations are people of color, a figure that is less than half of that found in secular workplaces. Only four of the mission agencies, media organizations, or schools surveyed had any formal plans for recruiting minorities. We can say in retrospect that–given the religious right’s shameful record on race issues, and the fact that racism in its crudest and most obvious forms is becoming less socially acceptable–”race reconciliation” was a movement waiting to happen.
In 1992, the Promise Keepers emerged, coinciding with the Los Angeles riots. An evangelical men’s organization, it was the among the first to publicly put race reconciliation on its agenda. When Bill McCartney organized the first Promise Keepers rally in 1991, he was troubled by the fact that the attendees were all white: “The Spirit of God clearly said to my spirit, `You can fill that stadium, but if men of other races aren’t here, I won’t be there, either.” Since then, McCartney has made race reconciliation one of the top priorities of the Promise Keepers, and his efforts seem to be meeting with some success. While in general about 84 percent of the attendees at PK rallies are white, one-third to one-half of the attendees at a 1996 rally in New York City were men of color. Typically, about one-third to one-half of speakers at PK rallies are men of color, and racial themes sound throughout most if not all speeches. About 40 percent of PK executive staff are men of color. The journal, New Man, which started as a PK periodical, also focuses on race reconciliation and prominently features articles by and about men of color–more so than left-leaning journals like The Nation and The Progressive.
Now evangelical Christian organizations everywhere are jumping onto the race reconciliation bandwagon. Six years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention issued an apology for slavery and racism. Emmanuel McCall, an African American in the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, recently declared “the Southern Baptist Convention the most racially inclusive religious body in America.” Christianity Today even went so far as to run a cover story supportive of evangelical black nationalism.
What Would Jesus Do?
While progressives generally understand that racism is a set of institutional practices that reinforce racial prejudices and maintain white supremacy, evangelicals generally understand racism as individual prejudices–which can be transformed through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is presented as the solution to racism. To quote the Christian Coalition, “We don’t have a skin problem in this country, we have a sin problem.” Ironically, this failure to acknowledge any sweeping material or ideological basis for racism enables periodicals to print articles on the evils of racial prejudice and then follow them up with calls to repeal affirmative action, support immigration moratoriums, and oppose multicultural curriculums in schools.
Virtually no Christian Right organizations call for structural changes to address racism. But overtly political groups like the Christian Coalition take a completely different approach when it comes to their core issues. For example, with abortion, the Coalition does not argue, “We don’t have a problem with abortion; we have a problem with sin. Passing laws against abortion won’t work. We must change the hearts of men and women in this society.” For these issues, the Coalition has developed an extensive array of citizen training manuals and videos offering detailed “how-to” information on influencing the legislative process at the local, state, and federal levels. Apparently, the Coalition does not trust the suasive power of the Bible to win over the hearts and minds of America on the issues it really considers important.
Critics generally argue that race reconciliation is a right-wing conspiracy to convince people of color to vote Republican–an analysis that misses the greater threat race reconciliation presents to communities of color. In fact, several studies indicate that African Americans, for instance, are less likely to vote Republican the more religious they are. However, the Christian Right does not need to convince people of color to vote Republican to be successful, they just need to convince people of color that issues of racial justice cannot be solved politically. While right-wing Christians like Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye urge their flocks to join the political process, African Americans of the Christian Right tell their constituents to step away from politics. To quote race reconciliation leader Buster Soaries, “Civil rights issues like affirmative action, busing, quotas, and voting rights are all moot issues to a generation that can dance better than it can read, and can cuss but can’t pray.”
While ostensibly the Christian Right has disavowed its racism, race tacitly continues to be the basis for its organizing. The Christian Coalition, for example, now packages its racial politics as an appeal to middle-class solidarity. Former executive director of the Christian Coalition Ralph Reed unequivocally describes the Coalition as a “middle-class, highly educated suburban phenomenon,” and appeals to the African American middle class to side with him against the inner-city poor, whom he describes as devoid of spiritual and moral values. “What distinguishes the underclass from those who rise out of the ghettos,” he opines, “is not their poverty alone but their behavior–crime, lawlessness, illegitimacy, and delinquency.”
This tactic seems intent upon dividing communities of color along class lines. Black conservatives are promoted by the Christian Right to articulate the kind of venomous anti-poor and anti-people of color sentiments that whites would be immediately attacked for saying.
Gender politics are also used to reinforce racist ideologies. Many black male conservatives blame the “welfare queen” for the demise of the black family and hold black female-led households, not a racist criminal injustice system, responsible for the large numbers of black men in prison. Rodney Cooper, another race reconciliation spokesman, argues that feminism is “the greatest enemy of black progress in America” because it encourages black women to rob black men of their jobs and their manhood.
Conservative religious organizations also rely on gender hierarchies to win over men of color. The Promise Keepers tells its recruits that the black church has become “feminized,” and that men of all colors need to assert their dominance at home and in church. The Nation of Islam, PK argues, appeals to black male youth because it is more masculine than the “too female,” too “male unfriendly” Christian church. Women are asked not to participate in Promise Keeper events except as volunteer labor. Latinos, too, apparently suffer from a “feminized” church–the Catholic Church, which “worships Mary as a holy mother.” Female hegemony in Latin America is thought to have “turned men into groveling worms who believe they are weak, incompetent, and loaded down with sin.”
One almost never encounters literature on race reconciliation written by women, or even literature by men linking issues of race and gender. Perhaps one reason for this reluctance is the belief among evangelicals that “most commitments to Christ are made before the age of 18.” Since women play such a formative role in children’s lives, it is important that they thoroughly internalize the hierarchy of gender roles in order to pass it down to their children.
The basis of race reconciliation is, of course, Christianity. White evangelicals embrace race reconciliation only with those groups they see as sufficiently Christian. American Indians, who are generally viewed as irrevocably pagan, (even in Native communities that are predominately Christian), or Palestinean Christians (who are viewed as Muslims in disguise) are seldom included in race reconciliation efforts. In addition, by emphasizing Christianity as the primary basis of identity for people of color, the rhetoric of race reconciliation undermines solidarity between communities of color, particularly between African Americans and those communities that are viewed as less Christian. It is interesting that this rhetoric came to the fore around the same time Newsweek and other mainstream journals began sending the alarm that people of color would soon be the majority of the U.S. population by the year 2000.
In order to enlist the loyalty of people of color, the Christian right transfers the label of “oppressed” from people of color to the Christian Right itself. Ralph Reed is particularly adept at appropriating oppression language, with such chapter titles as “To the Back of the Bus: The Marginalization of Religion” in his After the Revolution. He argues, “Evangelical whites are the new marginalized community, those most likely to be reviled for our political activism.”
This appropriation neutralizes the definition of “oppression” to mean being forced to live in a society where not everyone agrees with you. The Christian Right cannot make any convincing argument that evangelicals are victimized by hate crimes, are forced to live near toxic waste dumps and uranium mines, or are systematically denied occupational and educational opportunities. Nevertheless, the Christian Right argues that Christians of color are oppressed, not because they are people of color, but because they are Christian.
After the black church burnings in the mid-1990s, the Christian Coalition and many other Christian Right organizations raised money for burned churches in a much-publicized demonstration of their commitment to race reconciliation. At the same time, they denied that racism had anything to do with these burnings. Rather, the Coalition argued, these churches were burned because of anti-Christian sentiment. The Institute of Religion and Democracy and World Magazine further argued that the National Council of Churches manufactured this crisis in an effort to raise funds for their “radical leftist” programs. Of course, if race had nothing to do with the burnings, then why were all the programs to raise money for these burned churches located in the Christian Right’s race reconciliation programs? The Christian Coalition seemed to want to play the issue both ways–deny racism was a factor in the burnings, but at the same time get credit for tackling racism.
Creating an Opening
Despite the problems of race reconciliation, it is important to look at some of the opportunities it might present for proponents of racial justice. The fact is that groups like the Promise Keepers reach those hard-core racists that progressives never do. I have talked to several people who tell me that PK was the first time they ever heard about racial justice issues, and in fact, this exposure would influence their voting patterns. I talked to one man who was probably throwing rocks at me several years back in a protest against Chippewa spearfishers who were exercising their treaty-protected rights to spearfish. He was now convinced by PK that throwing rocks at Indians was a bad thing. So, if there’s going to be one less white person throwing rocks at me because of PK, I think it has some value. And in fact, many of the people of color I talked to in PK saw their involvement as strategic; they were prepared to mute their politics in order to reach audiences they otherwise would not.
Sociologist Christian Smith’s recent study on race reconciliation indicates that so far it has not had a major impact on evangelicalism–white evangelicals haven’t become more racially tolerant and their organizations aren’t significantly less segregated. He condemns race reconciliation as a failure. But though it’s easyto fault evangelical race reconciliation, white progressives have not made such great gains either despite years of working on racial justice issues. In the 10 years that it has been popular, race reconciliation has yet to transform race relations in evangelical circles. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t having an impact. Given the increasing overt racism faced by communities of color since 9/11, we may want to consider how to use the space created by race reconciliation to have our voices heard by those who would otherwise never listen.