ECM: What is Colorblind Christianity? Or, rather, what has it been?
JC: Around the middle of the twentieth century, black evangelicals really challenged white evangelicals over segregation and racism. They argued that God is colorblind, so Christians should not divide themselves according to race. Because we are one in Christ, they said, you must include us. It is a theological scandal that we are being discriminated against. This was clearly a mode of colorblind theology, deployed in the interest of unity and equality. By the end of the century, however, white evangelicals had completely turned the tables. They argued that God is colorblind, and so Christians should not concern themselves with racial consciousness, racial injustice, etc. If we are one in Christ, they said, why are you talking about race? If you were a mature Christian, you would recognize that race doesn’t matter. This, too, was clearly a mode of colorblind theology. The book is about the transition from the one to the other.
I frame the final product as a new theology of race. Put simply, over the course of several decades, white evangelicals went from thinking that God is a segregationist to thinking that God is colorblind. It’s not the case that white evangelicals were borrowing something from secular racial ideology or assuming the colorblindness of conservative politics. Their version came up indigenously within evangelicalism, rooted in evangelical ways of thinking, reading scripture, the words of the Apostle Paul—you know, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, we are one in the Body of Christ.” These kinds of ideas and idioms really shaped the evangelical racial imagination in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. This new theology offered a way for white evangelicals to sacralize their own uses of race. It was racial consciousness for me but not for thee. When we use race, we’re using it to promote the gospel and advance the kingdom. When black evangelicals use race, they’re distracting from the gospel and threatening the unity of the Body of Christ.
ECM: We’ll put a pin in that white evangelical “use” of race and return to it in a moment. But first, you write that, initially, white evangelicals tried to integrate the faith via their college campuses. How did they do that, and how did it turn out?
JC: In the late 60s, there was a sincere effort to make changes on evangelical campuses. College presidents, administrators, and thought leaders conceded that they had dropped the ball here. They recognized that, in their concern for maintaining academic standards and providing a full evangelical experience for students, they had not been concerned with opening these opportunities to black students. So there was a new wave of recruitment efforts in the late 60s that marked a dramatic shift, from campuses that were theoretically willing to accept black students but also likely to subject them to demeaning and discriminatory policies, to campuses that were actively pursuing black students and working to incorporate them into campus life. Messiah, Wheaton, Calvin, and other major evangelical institutions all got on board for this effort, and they began to enroll larger cohorts of black students than ever before. This is all richly ironic, of course, because it’s race conscious to go out and deliberately recruit black students. But it’s race consciousness in the service of building a colorblind Christian campus. In the new world that the Civil Rights movement had wrought, an all-white campus was an indictment of Christian credibility, so black students were needed, even though whiteness and blackness were supposed not to matter. I don’t mean to be overly cynical. There were good intentions at work here.
On a lot of these campuses, though, things kind of blew up in their faces. There was a lack of understanding about the kind of institutional and systemic changes that would have been necessary to make it work. At some colleges, you had this wave of recruitment between ’68 and ’71, and then, by the mid-70s, there were with fewer black students enrolled than ever before, because of the severity of the conflicts, controversies, and backlash from white students, parents, and donors. White administrators, in many cases, simply threw up their hands and admitted that they didn’t know how to integrate a campus properly. It became a generations-long project that, in many ways, continues right up to the present.
ECM: Segregated churches and campuses—whether de facto or de jure—received some support in these years from the Church Growth Movement. What was this movement, and why was it so influential on evangelical thinking with regard to race?
JC: The Church Growth Movement (CGM) came out of India in the 1930s. Donald McGavran was a missionary to India at that time, and he was very interested in finding approaches to spur mass movements to Christ. McGavran was looking at the mission field and concluding that the churches were foundering. Missionaries were doing good work, in his view, but the people of India were not converting in any numbers. So he was drawn to this theory that, instead of converting individuals, missionaries could move entire people groups to Christ at the level of caste. Groups could convert as groups, without crossing caste lines, without being pressured to change their culture or to become “Western.” The people of India would be permitted to live their lives as before, without undue demands on their lifestyle. They would simply come to Christ. By the 1950s, this theory—later articulated as the “Homogenous Unit Principle” (HUP)—had become very popular in evangelical missionary circles, and even among those in the more ecumenical World Council of Churches. In the 1960s, it came home to the United States.
Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and this widespread ethnic revival, McGavran hadn’t considered applying this sort of approach to the US because he thought of it as being, essentially, homogenous. Racial distinctions notwithstanding, the US wasn’t like the rest of the world with their castes and clans and tribes, at least in his view. But as the 60s wore on and different identity groups became more clearly defined and pronounced, the US started to look a lot like the rest of the world. So McGavran, working with a number of other evangelical missionaries, began to argue that, even in the United States, homogenous churches grow faster. This was not just an observation—it was a prescription. Church leaders and planters in the United States, according to this reasoning, should actively pursue homogenous congregations. These didn’t need to be racial, necessarily, but they certainly could be. Class would work, occupation, or some other unifying quality—the point was that, according to McGavran, people like worshipping with people like themselves, and churches should give them that.
Of course, the ethical implications of this idea, introduced into a racist society, are enormous. Critics pointed this out immediately. Far from colorblindness, this was explicit race consciousness, deployed toward greater division and separation. But McGavran pitched it as a sort of cultural sensitivity. Back in the 50s, writing about his experience in India, he had argued, basically, that it does no good to say that tribal peoples shouldn’t have racial prejudice. They do have it, he argued, and we ought to use it to spread the gospel. This allowed him, in the 60s and 70s, to argue the same thing about Americans—they have racial identities and allegiances, and we should use these for Christ.
At the grassroots level, this thinking ends up facilitating worship spaces in which race doesn’t seem to be in play at all. When congregations are all white, congregants don’t have to think about whiteness. White evangelical Christians think of white evangelical Christianity as nothing more or less than the norm.