Colorblind Christianity – A Conversation with Jesse Curtis

Jesse Curtis is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. His book, The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era parses the theories and practices animating white evangelical thinking on race since 1960. He shows that, over three decades, “Colorblind Christianity” went from a Civil Rights call-to-arms to a rearguard action in defense of whiteness.

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.

ECM: That claim—people like worshipping with people like themselves—is pretty straightforward, and it’s easy to see why segregationists would embrace it. But as an empirical matter, is it true?

JC: I think the question speaks to the ambiguity of much of this. It was not my intent to paint McGavran and his allies as closet segregationists, trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes with this sort of anthropological argument. There’s complexity here. The claim that homogeneity would cause churches to grow faster and make people more comfortable within those churches is entirely reasonable. But that’s where the critiques from black evangelicals and Latin American evangelicals become so important. They asked, for example, whether pragmatism should be the motive force within the church, whether growth, driven by this business model approach, was the primary end of church work, or whether other values should be taken into consideration.

Now, part of what made this thinking attractive to a broad swath of church leaders—including some who probably should have known better—was that it could be described, from another perspective, as protecting cultural and racial minorities from incorporation and assimilation into larger, white bodies. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, became very successful at planting and supporting ethnic churches. This was just wonderfully ambiguous. Was this an update on segregation, from this historically segregationist denomination? Was it healthy pluralism? The Church Growth Movement succeeded, in large part, because it could make these counterarguments persuasively.

The problem is that there was no sense of hierarchy within CGM thought. There was no sense that an affluent, all-white congregation might be ethically different from a congregation of Korean immigrants speaking Korean and recognizing Korean cultural practices. There is such an obvious need and justification for the second kind of homogeneity that is entirely absent for the first. But the CGM could only conceive of them on equal terms with equal claims to validity.     

ECM: This all speaks to the question raised in your chapter on the two gospels. If the purpose of church is to make people comfortable and to grow and to save souls, then maybe homogeneity makes a lot of sense as an organizing principle. But if the goal is broader than that, about alleviating suffering and fighting oppression, then homogeneity can be pretty destructive. Can you speak to that tension?

JC: There is a narrative at work in evangelicalism, even today, claiming that any discussion of race is a distraction from the gospel. But at least since Civil Rights, and probably long before, evangelicals have never been able to talk about the gospel without talking about race. This cuts directly to the meaning of the gospel itself. On the one hand, we have a CGM-inspired gospel of salvation, directing us to get people in the door and save their souls and worry about ethics later. On the other hand, we have people like Clarence Hillard, John Perkins, and René Pedilla prioritizing the ethics of the kingdom, arguing that the true gospel is an inherently ethical message. It does not allow you to be saved and go about your way as you were before—especially if your previous ways were defined by racism, sexism, greed, militarism, or colonialism. Pedilla was especially strong on this point. Without an ethical component to the message, he argued, there is no real repentance—it’s just a therapeutic transaction. He made this argument in powerful fashion at the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization in 1974.

I contrast Pedilla’s gospel of social concern in ’74 with the messages resonant at a later Lausanne conference, held in Houston in 1985 and themed “Evangelizing Ethnic America,” at which Church Growth Movement figures reasserted the gospel of personal salvation in concerted and aggressive fashion. Here again, they argued that ethnic loyalties and race should be used tactically to win conversions. But this time, behind the scenes, black evangelicals had been explicitly excluded from the conference because the organizers did not want their view of the gospel to get in the way. It’s one of the most striking stories I have to tell in the whole book.

ECM: In the 1990s, white evangelicals began to pursue “racial reconciliation” through Promise Keepers rallies and similar events. How was this idea different from their prior adoption of colorblindness?

JC: It wasn’t. A lot of commentators at the time—and some historians since—have sought to cast this moment as a turning point in evangelical history, or at least a moment when white evangelicals began to get serious about racial injustice in the United States. I try to reframe it as a culmination, or as the perfection of Christian Colorblindness. Very little had changed. Promise Keepers did tout racial reconciliation is a key value—at least early on in the movement—but always while emphasizing that Christians are united in Christ, that change is created at the level of individual friendships, that no systemic critique is required. And yet, even that milquetoast, familiar approach proved too much for the white evangelical grassroots. Because it was dealing with race, there was a white backlash. Promise Keepers died out by the end of the decade, and evangelical churches were left with more of the same.  

ECM: A 2016 Barna Group survey found that only 13 percent of white evangelicals said they approved of Black Lives Matter, while 94 percent said that Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation. What are we to make of this?

JC: I think we have to insist that there’s no contradiction or hypocrisy in those numbers. It is an expression of this theology of race. It reflects a belief that the church is the vehicle for racial progress through unity in Christ, through recognizing common identity as Christians and putting that first. It reflects a belief that, when Black Lives Matter activists call for systemic reforms, or protest in the streets, they enact a theologically incorrect—to say nothing of liberal and misguided—approach that claims ground reserved for the church. It reflects a belief that only Christ can solve racial problems, and activist approaches are doomed to fail.

ECM: When you look back on this trajectory, from 1960 to 2020 and beyond, do you see it headed somewhere in particular? For better or worse? Is it too difficult to say?

JC: This is not original at all, but I’ll join the crowd and say that evangelicalism is splintering. Christian Colorblindness promises to hold a fractious evangelical coalition together, and it helped to do that for a long time. But now it’s falling apart. I think that there are some white evangelicals who are becoming more reactionary, more race conscious, and more militant than Christian Colorblindness allows. They want to be proudly white and Christian.Alternatively, there are other white evangelicals who are reading Jemar Tisby and becoming aware of the historical and theological problems with their education growing up. Their perspectives are shifting in the other direction.

I think this core of Christian Colorblindness is going to remain at work in evangelicalism going forward, but I think it is going to be far less successful at uniting the evangelical mainstream than it was during the decades after the Civil Rights movement. In many ways, it has run its course.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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