The American Church and Segregation Part 1: An American Problem

I grew up in a large (at least by the standards of the day) independent Baptist church in the Detroit area. Like many men of my age, I grew up after the civil rights era, and many of the attitudes and problems earlier generations wrestled with in the past were foreign to me, at least in my youth. My second direct exposure to segregation[1] was when the Temple Baptist Church, my home church, voted (with little dissention[2]), to end segregation in the Church constitution in 1986 – I had not been aware the church was segregated, in part because no one I knew treated the African Americans who attended our church or the attached Christian school any differently from Caucasian Americans.[3] I was shocked it was even in the church constitution.

Oftentimes atheists and others who oppose Christianity will cite Evangelical support of segregation (and sadly worse than segregation in a few cases[4]). This is a difficult point to defend or even discuss by Evangelicals of my generation—the whole concept of a Christian racist to us seem wholly untenable and self-contradictory to the gospel itself. What is more difficult, for many of us, Christians who were segregationists were great servants of the Lord in other respects, many led numerous persons to Christ – and this contradiction makes no sense to those of us who are interested in apologetics or in theology.

And yet, in part, this era of American history is an equal opportunity problem for everyone; not just the Evangelical. As just a few examples:

  • Many modern liberals emulate the progressives, ignoring the fact that during the fifties and sixties it was the remnants of the Roosevelt/Wilson left that opposed desegregation. Most of the segregationists in congress were liberal democrats who remained, throughout their lives, racist, liberal democrats.
  • In fact, many modern progressives, approvingly align themselves with known racists and ardent social Darwinists such as Margret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) or President Woodrow Wilson, without realizing the innately racist history of the term.
  • While Bill Clinton is often hailed as an example of liberal tolerance on issues of race, he also lauded his mentor, liberal segregationist senator J William Fullbright.
  • Al Gore, during his failed presidential run, lied about his father to cover up for the disgrace of Al Gore Senior’s voting against the various civil rights acts during his time in the senate.
  • Nor is racism a peculiarly Southern institution; while it is certainly true that Southern states were overtly racist in their segregation laws; in the North, during the Second World War, there were numerous race riots in Northern factories, in many cases, because an African American man was promoted to a position of equality with a Caucasian. There was, sadly, a great deal of racism in the early union movement, ostensibly because African Americans in the South were willing to work for less pay than White workers in the North.
  • One of the most powerful groups within the Klu Klux Klan was the Indiana state organization in the 1920’s, where, until the Klan’s state leader, D C Stephenson, was convicted for his involvement in the rape and death of a young woman in 1925, the Klan had serious control of Indiana’s political process. The enfolding drama would lead to the conviction of numerous state officials (including the governor) for taking bribes from the Klan.
  • One of the first American propaganda films, Birth of a Nation, was associated with the Klan and was shown, approvingly, by Woodrow Wilson in the White House.

The problem with racism is an American problem, and in another sense, a Human one, since there has been racial and ethnic strife by societies outside of America and the West. In part, this human problem is also why so many people who decry racism have ties with those who were in fact racists – we rightly differentiate between our personal life and our political ones; we recognize that those in our lives have flaws, but we love and respect them despite human failings, racism included. As much as racism has become a political liability, Bill Clinton’s support for Fullbright, or Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond’s failed presidential run differ primarily in the consequences to their political careers, not in their substance. In both cases what we have is not an advocacy of racism, but a personal connection, a cordial and collegial working relationship, with someone who stood on the wrong side of that issue. Evangelicals have similar ties to Evangelical and Fundamentalist leaders in the past.

My answer to the atheist and modernist then, is that this is a case of the culture affecting the Church, not the Church influencing the culture. But I will make the rest of this case next time.

[1] I had previously encountered views about interracial marriage, but these were different than the usual arguments one heard from the hard segregationists of the day. There were a few arguments made on the basis of poor Biblical literacy (these include discussions that intermarriage is a step towards the building of the kingdom of the antichrist, along with misapplied passages concerning Israel’s marriage to idolaters that would take their heart away from the Lord).

The primary argument I heard was one of harm to the children of interracial couples – the claim was that the children of an interracial couple were neither accepted by the white community nor by the African American community, and was based in the observations of the claimants. While those making this argument were usually not racists, there is an implicit acceptance of the status quo in the argument, which was and is harmful to the body of Christ. While the intention was to prevent unearned harm to children, the unintended consequence was to leave biracial children even more marginalized. A better solution would have been a greater affirmation that all people are created in the image of God.

 

[2] The vote was taken by raise of hands while everyone was supposed to have their eyes closed; being the young precocious child I was, sitting a third of the way back, I “peeked;” I saw only a few hands raised to maintain the segregation in membership in the constitution, though I was shocked at the time that anyone voted against the measure.

 

[3] I have heard others claim there were such problems at Temple Baptist at the time (my time at Temple was from my birth in 1974 until approximately 1987 when we moved to Romeo Mi.), I cannot either verify or deny these claims, I was young and can only directly comment on what happened within my own experience. When a church has more than five thousand members, and an average attendance of more than three thousand, it is difficult to argue no one ever made a truly racist comment or, as happens so frequently in our racially sensitive society, to argue no one was misunderstood to be making one. I can only report what was my experience.

Several websites have in my opinion rightly noted the segregation of Temple Baptist in earlier eras, but they have magnified this as the center of Temple’s church life; partially, I suspect, due to two later pastors’ misrepresenting the past for their own political purposes.

While many have suggested Temple Baptist Church moved to the suburbs because of racism; this is at best only indirectly true. The church itself moved to Redford township because a significant portion of the membership had previously moved into this general area. “White flight” is more complicated than many propagandists like to think (as it is always easy to engage in glittering ad hominem generalities tarring everyone with the same brush), at least in the case of Detroit. While I am sure some did move from Detroit to the suburbs because of their own racial animosity, others moved to the suburbs because of Detroit’s growing crime problems in the sixties; this was exacerbated by fears raised after the Detroit riots in 1967. Men with families will try to remove their wives and children from the vicinity of danger, whatever they might think of the phrase “all men are equal;” when I was little Detroit was renowned as “the murder capital of the world.”

 

[4] Many Evangelical Segregationists of the era seem to have truly believed in the equality element of “separate but equal” (or at least claimed to believe in it), and failed to understand the key element of Brown versus board of education – equality was impossible within the enforced separation of segregation. This opinion is different in its intention than those preaching racial superiority, but tragically is not different in its effect, and damaged the unity of the Body of Christ.

Some revisionists have sought to mitigate this by arguing that the church had the responsibility of obeying segregation laws on the books in the South (and in some cases elsewhere) and this made segregation necessary for churches in many places. Even if this were true (and the evidence I have seen does not commend this interpretation) this fails to remember that as Christians, we believe that Christ, not the government is the Lord of the Church.

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