Two Books on Racism in American Christianity

Thus summer, after the killing of George Floyd, there was a movement in Catholic circles on Instagram calling Catholics to #RendYourHearts, praying 18 days for racial justice. There was also an emphasis put on the stories of Black Catholics about their experiences and how the Church can repair from a history of racism and injustice. It gave me a lot to think about. During this time, I saw two books on race in the American church that caught my eye, The Color of Compromise and White Too Long. Because both books look at American Christianity, they deal largely with Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but also include information on the Catholic experience in the United States. Because I have a small child at home, it took me several months to get through them both.

(A quick note: I did not realize until I was partway through White Too Long, which I read second, that one of these books is by a Black author, the other by a White author. Although each author’s race is important to their experiences and perspective, I am not doing a comparison of the books on that basis.)

In The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby does a deep historical look at the relationship between racism and Christianity in American history, going back to the Colonial Era. He frames his analysis by looking at the theological compromises that Christians in the United States made in order to excuse or uphold racism. For example, during the slave trade, baptism did not make slaves free, but slave owners were encouraged to evangelize their slaves. Yet, Christian tradition had previously held that Christians should not enslave each other.

Tisby’s analysis follows this thread up through Black Lives Matter and to the present urgency. He explains that facing the complicity Christian churches have had in the racist history of the United States is essential for healing:

“History and scripture teach us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”

In the 20th Century, Tisby examines the rise of the KKK, the complicity of American Christians in Jim Crow and segregation, and the failure of many white churches to speak up during the Civil Rights Movement. Into the 21st Century, he examines the complicity with racism, often via silence, of American Christianity during the Black Lives Matter movement: “Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks at conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions.”

Tisby’s writing is clear, concise, and moving. He makes apparent how American Christian churches have repeatedly turned away from opportunities to be more just, more inclusive, and more equitable and therefore have been complicit, often through inaction as much as through overt racism, in the continued systemic racism in the United States. It’s a hard read emotionally, but an easy read intellectually because of the clarity of the writing. He also includes stirring calls to be better such as: “Complicit Christianity forfeits its moral authority by devaluing the image of God in people of color. Like a ship that has a cracked hull and is taking on water, Christianity has run aground on the rocks of racism and threatens to capsize—it has lost its integrity. By contrast, courageous Christianity embraces racial and ethnic diversity. It stands against any person, policy, or practice that would dim the glory of God reflected in the life of human beings from every tribe and tongue.”

In White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones uses sociological studies to create a data-driven analysis of these same issues. He writes:

“This book puts forward a simple proposition: it is time–indeed well beyond time–for white Christians in the United States to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present. Underneath the glossy, self-congratulatory histories that white Christian churches have written about themselves is a thinly veiled, deeply troubling reality. White churches have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story.”

Jones comes to the conversation through his background as a Southern Baptist who was struck by the racist history of his own church—the split in the Baptist church came over slaveholding, with the Southern Baptists branching off during the disagreement. In fact, Jones explains how virtually all of the major mainline Protestant denominations split over slavery. Not letting Catholics off the hook, he also examines the history of colonialism and how that introduced racism into the American Catholic church, even as race works differently in that history. For a long period of American Catholicism, a large portion of the church has been comprised of people who were not viewed as white by a majority of American culture—Irish people, Italians, Mexicans, for example. Catholics were also targeted as unAmerican by the KKK, but that does not mean that Catholics have not also been complicit with racism within American culture. It’s a complicated history and Jones unpacks it adeptly. 

He also looks at how white supremacy has become synonymous with organizations like the KKK and that has become soothing to many because it has concealed the less blatant ways in which white supremacy works in our culture. The most upsetting aspect of the book, for me, was when Jones gets into studies that examined the correlation between Christian belief, church attendance, and racist beliefs. The studies found that, more than any other factor, knowing a person’s affiliation with a Christian church was the easiest single factor for guessing that they would also hold racist ideas. Jones writes: “To put it even more bluntly, if you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church–evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic–than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.”

Jones’s book was slightly less readable than Tisby’s, but the data that he includes is incredibly valuable at making the picture of American Christians’ complicity in racism clear. I think these books work beautifully in tandem for those who are looking to do a deep gut-check on the state of race in the church and how much room there is to do better. 

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