The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and anti-structuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences). (Divided by Faith, p. 76)
When I first read Smith and Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith (a must read), this section stood out above all else. I had wondered why the concept of structural, systemic, or institutional racism was so forcefully dismissed by white evangelicals in general, and opponents of racial reconciliation in particular. The concept of a “tool kit,” stocked with limited methods of interpretation (even conceptualization), populated by fundamental beliefs and assumptions found within evangelical ideology itself, seemed a welcome explanation for the obvious hostility toward structural explanations. The logic seemed simple. Evangelicalism rightly sees salvation as an individual affair (though often with illegitimate emphasis); God saves sinners from sin; sin is the ultimate problem; only individuals can sin or be saved from sin; racism is wrong because it is sin; therefore, racism is also only an individual affair. As such, evangelicals can only process racism as an individual attitude or as individual actions. Evangelicals simply have no interpretive category for institutionalized, systemic, or structural racism. It makes perfect sense.
But after months of watching this debate closely, I can no longer rest easy in this simple explanation, though there is still much truth. It has become clear to me, on the contrary, that the most ardent evangelical opponents of racial reconciliation are constantly using structural explanations for nearly every other sinful social ill.
Have we never heard of the “culture of death” that has infected our society? This has led to the devaluation of life in general, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, self-destructive behavior, inordinate risk taking, drug use, etc.
How about the “sexualization” or “pornification” of society? Beginning with the Sexual Revolution, pornography has been legalized, every billboard sells sex, the arts are filled with nudity, children are bombarded with sexual images and messaging, and women are objectified. Here we look when discussing pornography addiction, sexual assault, exploitation of children, and sex trafficking.
How about the “feminization of society”?
How about the ubiquitous “he was a man of his times” explanation? I’m reminded of popular apologist and reconciliation opponent James White’s defense of Jonathan Edwards’ slavery and George Whitefield’s advocacy for legalization:
The idea of looking at Edwards and Whitfield IN THEIR DAY is considered reprehensible, because, “Well, you’re excusing what they did.” No, I’m understanding how you can read Whitfield, what he says, the necessity of preaching to the Black man, the condemnation he makes of the mistreatment of slaves, but without the call for the freeing of slaves. Because in HIS mind, that would result in economic chaos and possibly even starvation, loss of life. And it’s so easy for us today to say, “Oh well that, that, that wouldn’t have happened” [comical voice]. How do you know that wouldn’t happen? How do you know it wouldn’t have happened? That was their concern, you can say it was wrong, but that was their concern, you can’t just ignore it. It was the reality they dealt with. And, could those things be used as excuses? Of course they could. But that’s where they functioned. (“Nearly Two Hours on Critical Race Theory, White Privilege, T4G, and More,” 1:12:15)
How about the constant blaming of economic disparities along ethnic lines on the “welfare state,” supposedly creating a culture of idleness and entitlement?
What about the assumption that systems like free markets somehow lead to overall increase of moral behavior while, e.g., socialism is understood to falter on the sinful heart?
Ever heard of “reverse racism”?
We’ve even read recently, from these very same opponents, that the ecclesial polity of the Roman Catholic Church is to blame for decades of undercover sexual abuse.
And finally, all who engage in these practices or live indifferently toward the evils they perpetuate—whether in social, political, economic, or ecclesial life—are considered complicit.
The point is, all of these are structural explanations. Sure they are not the only explanations given—individual sinfulness is certainly in view. But that is no different than the structural arguments of racial reconciliation advocates, or even secular anti-racist arguments, which include both systemic and individual factors. The examples given above, like the concept of systemic racism itself, rely on historical events, society wide changes and influences, laws and social structures, systems perpetuated through cultural paths of least resistance, together channeling sinful dispositions toward specific society-wide sins and injustices.
Apparently the “anti-structuralism” of the evangelical “tool kit” only applies to certain topics, racism chief among them. All the social sins and evils mentioned above are analyzed and addressed with systems, structures, and institutions in mind. But not racism. At this point I would be relieved to again believe that white evangelicals are just hyper-individualists, unable to see structures at work or even conceive of them. It is much more comforting to think of evangelicals having such a deep commitment to the salvation of the individual soul that they are simply blind to systemic forces about them. But this would just be self-delusion.
I am reminded again of James White, but this time of his explanation for inner-city crime and poverty, found in the very same podcast quoted above:
I have been told that, if, for example, you even dare to point to the reality of the source of so much of the problems within what’s called the “black community” in the United States today—and that is rampant immorality, sexual immorality. Women having babies by multiple fathers. Fatherless boys is THE single greatest reason why there are neighborhoods you simply don’t go into in Chicago. Why there are more people being shot in Chicago than in Afghanistan. It’s a war zone. The main reason? Sin. And that sin knows no color, it knows no boundaries, it’s a human reality. (1:20:19)
What happened to the structural explanations afforded to Edwards and Whitefield: “that’s where they functioned”? Was it not in the “tool kit” when it came to black people?
Simply put, white evangelicals are not anti-structuralists. The truth is much more sinister.
Good points, Brad. In my reading of One Nation Under God (Kevin Kruse) and American Apocalypse (Matthew Sutton), fundamentalism which became evangelicalism was very interested in changing societal structures by influencing the president on down. (Nothing new under the sun.) But they wanted change only to a point. Segregation, racism, treatment of women were off the table.
This quote is from Harold Ockenga in American Apocalypse – “Our continent was preserved to incarnate the development of the best civilization. Humanly speaking, it is almost as though God planned His last hope on America.” The question is – “best civilization” for whom? I don’t think it included everyone.
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Interesting analysis. Like you, I agree that “salvation” is an individual affair. “Call upon the Lord and you will be saved.” “Believe in your heart and confess with your mouth, and you will be saved.” All the great individual verses. I was formed in the Evangelical culture of the 70s and 80s, and did my tours of duty with Campus Crusade and YWAM. I have plenty of experience with establishing that salvation is for individuals.
Examining the underlying structures was harder, and I accept the blame for myself for not thinking more deeply. I’ve said elsewhere that it is very hard for someone to go stand outside themselves and look at themselves. I was content to think that saving people would make racism “go away,” as if racism and the effects of racism were simply random, disconnected acts of individuals only.
Structurally, there are multiple systems that interlock and that prevent movement out of racism and of racially determined social, political, economic, educational, and economic decisions. Sure, being saved as an individual is a Very Good Thing. I’m all for that. But shouldn’t salvation also be carried out in the the community where we live?
Odd that we think that there are other systems that affect us, that come down from “them,” the elites and the high-brows and the secret cabals that run the world, and that these are things to be exposed and fought against with ever-increasing enthusiams–but that racism, which has all the hallmarks of a socially created determination that affects us all, winner or loser, should be exempt from any such analysis of being forced upon us. Yet the records show that yes, whether you are racially favored or racially oppressed, you as an individual, are acting out your roles, and when you do so, you experience much less strife that when you attempt to rebel and change that oppression. I’m totally not in line with the idea that there are secret cabals and conspiracies, by the way. Social oppression doesn’t have a master behind it. It’s more akin to herd mentality that just keeps growing. To use Biblical language, “it seemed good to us,” and that becomes the basis for layers and layers of new applications and extensions until it just seems natural, not to mention being of God, to do things that are socially determined decisions and systems.
Can individual salvation affect this, break the social conditioning we are living out. W-e-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l…yeah, but qualified. Because racism is a sin, then of course being saved can rescue us from our sin. And when rescued, we might find ways to oppose that sin. But if we’re not going to become aware of, much less oppose the interlocking systems that keep us in our roles, then our individual salvation isn’t accomplishing that. It’s not breaking the larger sin.
If you don’t believe that racism is a sin that determines the functioning of society, then you’ll be happy that you have coffee with your neighor Rob, but you’re not going to examine why it is that Rob really isn’t your neighbor. He’s just someone you meet in your church because your neighborhood comprises only people who look just like you. You’ll be happy to have coffee as part of your church’s “outreach” and diversity programs. That’s a good thing, by the way. Relationships can change people. Programs that attempt to build bridges are great. But you’ll likely not examine the underlying situation of why it is that Rob isn’t really your neighbor. That segregation (a word you won’t use because it implies ugly behaviors you don’t agree with) just “happened,” of course, and you’d no more stop to examine why it is than you’d stop to examine why it is your neighborhood grocery store sells the things that you’re accustomed to buying. It’s just how we are. You’ll be able to say “I have BBIPOC friends” and you won’t stop to think why it is that your BBIPOC friends don’t live in your housing tract. You’ll have them over for coffee. But you won’t have them as neighbors.
That’s not sin. That’s just the situation. Right?
Anyway, thanks for provoking some thoughtful discussions.