Last month, the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention became national news after Ed Litton defeated Mike Stone for the convention’s presidency. For months the conservative evangelical denomination had been embroiled in both scandal and controversy after noted Black minister Dwight McKissic removed his 1,600 member congregation from the Texas state convention over the organization’s outspoken repudiation of critical race theory. But McKissic’s departure would become the first of many desertions from the SBC after noted Bible teacher Beth Moore and ethicist Russell Moore resigned from the denomination over its mishandling of sexual abuse allegations and tolerance for white supremacists.
J. Russell Hawkins
Oxford University Press
But as a new book by historian J. Russell Hawkins suggests, Litton’s election might just be a new chapter in the SBC’s long and sordid history on matters of race.
In The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, Hawkins places debates like those taking place in the SBC in a much larger frame. Focusing on the denominational workings of both the Southern Baptist Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, Hawkins unflinchingly shows how segregationist Christians drew from their faith in opposing the modern civil rights movement. But in the book’s reflection upon the relationship between race and religion in modern America, Hawkins also has a lot to teach us about our own moment as well.
At its core, Hawkins sets out to make a rather academic point. In his classic religious history of the civil rights movement, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, historian David Chappell argues that one of the reasons that the civil rights movement enjoyed success was because segregationist Christians failed to mount a prophetic defense of Jim Crow. Hawkins claims that nothing could be further from the truth. As he writes, “white southerners did not undertake their resistance to black equality in spite of their religious convictions, but their faith drove their support for Jim Crow segregation.”
The result is a book that is as damning of American Christianity as it is blunt in its witness to the damnable things that American Christians say.
The book opens with an exploration of the “segregationist theology” that many Southern, white Christians marshalled in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown ruling. At a time when federal officials and even some higher ups within the Southern Baptist Convention expressed at least tacit support for integration, many Southern white Christians turned to their faith in order to justify their support of segregation.
Of particular concern to these segregationists was interracial relationships. The integration of public spaces like schools and businesses, they believed, would inevitably lead to the integration of private places like churches and homes, which would, in turn, give rise to interracial families. As Pastor W. M. Nevins said on the floor of the 1954 SBC meeting, held only months after the Supreme Court’s ruling:
“I do not believe that the Bible teaches and I do not believe that God approves amalgamation of the races. … if we’re going to eat with them and go to school with them and go to church with them, the time is going to come … when some of you that sit in this audience today will have grand children with Negro blood.”
Such bonds, segregationists Christians claimed, were simply antithetical to the Christian religion. In the same way different species of plants and animals supposedly did not intermix—and this biological comparison was shockingly widespread—so too does God require that the human species not mix and mingle. As Dr. Mack P. Stewart, Jr. told his congregation in a sermon, “I am a segregationist because God ordained it. It is true with plant and animal life…If you leave plants and animals alone, they will stay separated.”
More than simply gild the racial animus of Southern whites with the language of religion, this argument, Hawkins shows, allowed white Citizen Councils (who threatened Black families moving into white neighborhoods) and private Christian academies (who allowed whites to flee integration) to claim they were following God’s plan for the world. Not opposing segregation.
When these efforts to defend Jim Crow ultimately crumbled beneath the weight of the courts and the sheer will of those involved in the freedom struggle, segregationist Christians softened their language. But they didn’t change their tune. “My soul and my attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did,” former SBC president Rev. W. A. Criswell would later recall. According to Hawkins, many Southern white Christians knew by the late 1960s that integration would become the law of the land. In response, they developed a “colorblind” Christianity that would allow the defense of segregation to live on.
Though shorn of segregation theology’s more repugnant features, this colorblind gospel nonetheless ensured that churches, schools, and Christian homes would remain resources in the defense of white supremacy by excising serious discussions of race from these spaces. Evangelicalism was central to this development, for evangelical theology’s emphasis on personal salvation allowed white Christians to make individual choices the answer to racism as well. In this view, efforts to address systemic or structural injustice became more than simply odious to many Southern white Christians. Like their view on integration itself, it became contrary to God’s plan as well.
Hawkins sees the “historical residue” of this segregationist theology across the Christian landscape today, from the evangelical rejection of identity politics to the racial exclusivity of many white churches. And of course we can also see it in the ongoing battles over race in today’s Southern Baptist Convention.
After June’s SBC meeting, some outlets identified Litton and his supporters as “moderates” in contrast to Stone’s “conservative” faction. The label was a misnomer, for political and theological moderates had been purged from the denomination decadesago. Both Stone and Litton identify as political conservatives and proclaim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. And while their approach to matters of race might differ in tone, they both are exemplars of the so-called colorblind Christianity that Hawkins outlines. The Pledge Group that Litton helps lead, for example, claims that racial justice will only come “through genuine relationships with Christ and one another.”
Far from a repudiation of the Trump era, Litton’s election, as Hawkins suggests, is more likely just new wine in old wine skins.