Nearly one week ago, the pastoral staff of First Baptist Church Naples released a statement announcing that pastor Marcus Hayes had failed to reach the threshold of 85% in the congregation’s vote for senior pastor, retaining only 81% of the total vote. On its own, this is not entirely remarkable as many churches have an even higher vote threshold required for installation. But what set the internet ablaze was the staff’s statement that, “through social media, texting, phone calls, and emails, racial prejudice was introduced into our voting process.” The usual suspects aligned on each side of the ensuing debate, some seeking immediate disciplinary action, some seeking more information, and others assuming it was a lie, given that over 360 members—those who voted “no” and/or actively campaigned against him—would have to have been white supremacists; a near impossibility, in their minds, in modern America.
Within a couple days, emails began to be released which, to many, painted a very different picture. None of the emails produced mentioned anything about Hayes’ race nor included any specific racialized language. Reformation Charlotte, the blog which has been publishing the emails, summarized the nature of the “group of concerned FBCN members’” critical campaign against Hayes:
- A tweet in positive support of pro-late term abortion, pro-LGBTQ Democrat, Kamala Harris,
- His endorsement of Eric Mason’s “Woke Church” and concerns about his support of intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and worldly vain philosophies,
- His support for race-driven slave reparations,
- Concerns about his plan for discipleship,
- Concerns over his position and who he will be accountable to,
- How he planned to bring reconciliation to the church body.
Specifically, the leaked email raised the following concerns and questions:
In short, Hayes had (supposedly) tweeted positively about an African American Democratic candidate for president, tweeted positively about a theologically conservative book on racism and the Church (which included forewords by Civil Rights veteran John Perkins and president of Reformed Theological Seminary, Ligon Duncan, and had nothing to do with CRT), tweeted positively about restorative justice, and apparently critiqued the church’s current discipleship program, needed to answer some questions about the role of Senior Pastor, and was required to offer a plan to reconcile 700 people who had already left the church (why did they leave, I wonder?).
In response to these specific revelations, many sighed in relief, having believed all along the impossibility that “real” racism was involved. Others argued it was still racism, i.e., personal prejudice, yet simply masked by other concerns. Still others, though usually very concerned about racism in American society, argued it was not now necessarily racism at all, but social and political concerns. The first group is a known quantity and has not captured my attention here. But the latter two have quite a bit surprised me. Does the second group truly believe that racial exclusion requires hatred or bias against color in the hearts of those who enforce it? Does the last group truly believe that a manifestation of racism requires specifically racialized language and that supposedly political and social concerns cannot themselves operate to disproportionately disenfranchise along racial lines?
I’d argue that the test for “qualification” crafted by these “concerned” members is itself racist, and I think we have plenty of historical precedent for drawing this conclusion. I do not know these people’s hearts, nor am I judging the genuineness of their faith. But having studied how racial exclusion and racist policy has operated throughout American history, I can’t help but see this as a manifestation of the same.
In the following, I’ve selected two among very many possible examples to help put events like these in historical and ideological context: the 1964 segregation debate played out in the pages of the conservative Presbyterian Guardian, and the controversy and subsequent protests that erupted during the 1980’s at the liberal Harvard Law School.
Note: Since I do not know the people involved, nor has all the information been made available (there may be examples of “overt racism” involved after all), I’m assuming what we do have is true and am treating the event more as a potentially enlightening case study, rather than a set of specific accusations. I pray that an important and informed discussion of this issue can benefit the Church at large, without imputing heart motives we simply cannot know, nor need to know.
Example 1: Conservative Presbyterianism and Segregation, 1964
In the fall of 1964, the conservative Presbyterian Guardian asked the African American and Orthodox Presbyterian Church minister, Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, to write a piece on segregation. The article, “The Church and Social Change” (outlined HERE with links), sought to answer, “what is the role of the church in social change?” It is a fantastic critique of segregation, argued from the Scripture and history, and has thankfully won the day in succeeding years.
But what is most instructive for our purposes were the many responses to Oliver’s article. Morton Smith, founding member of the PCA, took the lead with his article, “The Racial Problem Facing America,” a hearty defense of southern segregation. His article was then followed by many response letters from theologians, pastors, and laymen. I’ve collated some examples of these responses below (please keep an eye out for “overtly racist” statements):
The reason that so many see a Communist influence in the present movement is that the goal seems to be the same as that of the Marxist philosophy, namely, the levelling of all to a common uniformity. Even if the American Negro movement has not been started or backed by the Communist Party at first, it certainly plays into the hands of the Communists, especially when civil disobedience can be encouraged, and the law and order of a city, state, or nation threatened. Enough of this disorder, and the Communists or some other tyrants may be able to step into the situation and seize control of our nation.
We might add that the principles of Thomas Jefferson as set forth in the Declaration of Independence were far from Christian. From the Christian viewpoint, one can seriously question the legitimacy of the American Revolution. Mr. Oliver cites the American Revolution as the same spirit that now motivates the modern Negro. He may be perfectly right in this, but one may still raise the question as to whether it is a proper Christian motivation. (Dr. Morton H. Smith)
1) To attribute injustice toward Negroes to “white man” without making any distinctions is unwarranted overgeneralization and therefore illogical (p. 90, col. 2; p. 92, col. 1).
2) To mention the names and programs of a communist such as W. E. Dubois or a theological liberal such as Martin Luther King with approval, and to fail to point out their true identity is unwise (p. 91, col. 1; p. 93, col. 1).
3) To say that the situation and activities of John Calvin are truly analogous to the present social conflict in the U.S. is historically inaccurate (p. 90, col. 1).
4) To say that civil disobedience of laws which are unjust to or discriminate against certain segments of the population is morally right in the sight of God, and is either commanded or permitted by Him, is unscriptural (p. 90, col. 1). (The session of Grace Church, Vienna, VA)
In our desire to make all men welcome in the church there is one fact that must not be overlooked. Men are not equal. There is danger of embracing the modern political doctrine of egalitarianism, a doctrine which is thoroughly unscriptural.
… I am troubled by the great amount of space devoted to the question of civil rights and race relations in the latest issue of the Guardian. These are not the paramount issues before the church today. In the dense fog of obfuscation which the liberal press has succeeded in raising even true Christians may lose sight of the church’s central purpose. (Reformed Old Testament scholar and noted Westminster Theological Seminary professor E. J. Young)
The Presbyterian Guardian this year shows signs of outdoing the UPUSA Presbyterian Life in its social gospel preaching. The racist articles of C. Herbert Oliver are examples of this.
… Oliver reads the Scriptures and the Reformation in terms of “an insistence on the value of the individual,” “the doctrine of the intrinsic worth of the individual,” and similar statements, and regards the French Revolution with approval. This is rather the Enlightenment faith and 19th Century religious liberalism, not the Reformation faith in the sovereignty of God and justification by faith.
The test of the Reformed faith is theocentric, in terms of the sovereignty of God and the infallible Word. The test of modernistic faith is always drawn from humanitarian ethics, and the current test is race, not Jesus Christ. (Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, founder of the Christian Reconstruction movement)
… The evolutionary humanists devoted to the worship of man and knowing only the social gospel are not the ones to do our thinking for us! They try to be the guiding force locally and it was through their intense activity on the level of the American Congress that the Civil Rights bill was passed. The Lord’s people should be more securely and surely led of His Spirit than to meddle in even an apparently, on the surface, righteous cause which does carry dynamite for the future.
… Apparently many present day Christians have been overwhelmed by the flood of humanistic socialistic propaganda of this man-worshipping day. (I. J. HOUSE, Bible Presbyterian Church [E. P.], Lemmon, South Dakota)
“Some persons seem not to know what is going on in our country, while others are fearful that Communists are the cause of the present social revolution” (p. 91 of Guardian).
“The Communist Party must consider itself not only the Party of the working class generally, but also the champion of the Negroes as an oppressed race and especially the organizer of the Negro working class elements.” “It is the basic duty of the Communist Party to develop all revolutionary possibilities of the Negro race, to transform the ‘solid south’ and the ‘black belt’ from reserves of forces for the bourgeoisie into reserves of forces for the proletariat” (Stalin). .’The Communists must participate in all national liberation movements of the Negro which have a real mass character.”-from “American Negro Problems” by John Pappes: Workers Library NO.9, Publishers, 35 E. 125th St., New York.
Indeed, some people do not seem to know what is going on. (RICHARD G. DEEMER, Springfield, Va.)
I would like to be very clear on this point. I am not making any criticism of the Guardian out of a dislike for the colored community but from a desire to be of service to the Kingdom of God.
… It is difficult to see what justice there is in equating the American Revolution with the infamous and ungodly French Revolution.
… As I see it, the question of integration/segregation is a political, not a moral question; if I am correct, the church as church dare not side with either side lest it exceed its proper function as a spiritual power.
… May I point out some defects in Mr. Oliver’s presentation that a periodical of your reputation should have deleted: 1) an oath; “I say before God and the holy angels” (p. 89); 2) the equation of publicity-seeking trouble makers with the cause of Christ: “In a very real sense, Jesus has been put in jail” (p. 89); 3) advocacy of civil disobedience where disobedience to God is not involved (p. 90); 4) reference to a communist as a champion of freedom: W. E. DuBois (p. 91); 5) attacks upon the forces of law and order: “vicious dogs, fire hoses, billy sticks and cattle prods, lawless policemen” (p. 92). (DAVID W. MOORE, Brandon Presbyterian Church, Brandon, Miss.)
During the history of Christianity in our country there have been three forms of the social gospel which Satan has effectively used to create apostasy and schism. A hundred years ago the country was plagued with the social gospel of abolitionism; fifty years ago it was the social gospel of prohibitionism; today it is the social gospel of integrationism that is rending asunder the Protestant churches. (JOHN H. KNIGHT, Opelika, Alabama)
What is strikingly absent from all of these responses to Oliver (including what I did not include above) is any statement to the effect, “I hate Black people,” “Whites are the superior race,” “Blacks are inferior,” or the like. Should we therefore conclude that the opposition to Oliver, and the defenses of segregation, cited above was not racist, nor even racial? Morton Smith, for example, was quite careful to display his Christian love for all, while simultaneously defending racist segregation:
It is and has always been my personal hope that I have treated and shall treat any man as a Christian should, whether it be in a segregated or an integrated society. It is the duty of every Christian to seek to be a good neighbor to all, and to love his neighbor as himself. As I see it, this may be done in either type of society that we have in America. … No court or church can legislate our feelings toward our fellow man. Only as we receive the gift of love planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will we be able to love our neighbor as we ought, whatever the cultural pattern.
I hope that now, over 50 years later, we are able to see this clearly for what it is. In the words of Frederick Douglass, spoken long prior to 1964:
[P]eople in general will say they like colored men as well as any other, but in their proper place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. (“The Church and Prejudice,” 1841, p. 4)
And it is easy to show that such race-neutral language, couched in love for neighbor, was not just a feature of Presbyterianism in 1964, but was the norm throughout the latter part of American church history.
One might argue, I suppose, that what makes the “race-neutral” statements above properly racist is not the arguments themselves, but rather that they were advanced in the service of segregation, a clearly racist policy. I suggest we dig a little deeper, by means of yet another historical example.
Example 2: Harvard Law, 1980’s
In the 1980’s, protests erupted at Harvard Law School—hardly a bastion of conservatism, theological or otherwise. Following the resignation of the school’s then only tenured Black professor, Dr. Derrick Bell, students demanded greater African American representation among the Law School’s faculty. Professor Bell reported,
According to Harvard’s Affirmative Action Plan, during the 1988-89 school year only 15 of the 957 tenured faculty (1.6 percent) were black. And there were only 26 blacks (1.1 percent) among the 2,265 tenure-line faculty positions. (Faces at the Bottom of the Well, p. 129)
(And, of course, 0 tenured African American law professors.)
Students rightly argued that, following Bell’s departure, there were no longer any courses like his available, dealing with discrimination law and critical interpretation of legal precedents relating to race. Further, students argued that voices from marginalized communities were a necessary component of guiding and educating those who had come with the intention of pursuing Civil Rights advocacy and social justice. Last, they complained that, though the school had somewhat diversified its student body, it had failed to bring about similar changes in its own power structure, decision making, and educational commitments. In short, the disproportionate dearth of Black professors suggested that Harvard may have had a commitment to diversification of customers, but had little commitment to diversification of faculty, leadership, or content—arguably the most important measure of an institution’s Civil Rights commitments.
The dean of the school at the time, Dr. James Vorenberg, argued in response that the pool of qualified Black professors was simply too small to fill the void at Harvard, that it was racist to suggest that a White professor could not teach the desired courses, that the students should logically prefer an excellent White professor to a “mediocre Black professor,” and that the qualifications were entirely race-neutral and appropriately “colorblind.”
What was revealed through this struggle, many would later argue, is that it was considered perfectly just, according to America’s most common post-Civil Rights social theory, to have entirely unequal representation within the halls of academic leadership, so long as the “standards” were considered race-neutral, colorblind, and accorded with the traditional liberal conception of “merit.” In fact, an institution serving a diverse set of educational “customers” could justly retain an entirely White faculty and still claim to have honored the goals of the Civil Rights Movement just 25 years prior. If the pool was too small, this reasoning inexorably implied, it was a problem falling entirely in the lap of African Americans themselves; bootstrapping was in order. The dean, and even many traditional Civil Rights lawyers, appeared to fully adopt a systems whose terms of entry were considered entirely objective and could operate fairly and effectively, despite hinging candidate preference on entrenched, historically created, and complex social networks, including attendance and professorships at like prestigious universities, acceptable number of publications, law clerk experience, aligned educational interests, etc., all of which were themselves sites of justifiable racial critique.
The only way to maintain these claims of objectivity and race neutrality was to assume that racism, or even racialized differential access, was an occasional event, was only perpetrated by ill-willed individuals, was an irrational aberration from the social norm, and, finally, that people of color who had not met Harvard’s “standards” had only themselves to blame, unless specific discriminatory events could be cited and proven causal. In short, one must assume that the playing field was already neutral, that every player began with zero points, and that cheaters would be addressed if caught explicitly breaking the rules. The hierarchical creation of race in America, its holistic affects on law, common ideas, common consciousness, and even the very exemplars of universal fairness—merit, neutrality, and objectivity—was either ignored or treated as unimportant to the calculus.
The cause of the controversy, therefore, was the collision of two competing social theories, not a collision between one God-given, universal, natural, and commonsense set of norms on the one side and a group of rebels seeking to subvert them on the other.
I would argue that much the same is at play in the American Church today. It has become nearly a truism that the most segregated hour of America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. And this becomes even more stark when we consider leadership in conservative Christian denominations, seminaries, organizations, and individual churches. Much like the Harvard example above, the standards of exclusion are premised on the typical post-Civil Rights social theory of colorblindness, neutrality, individual objectivity, and “merit.” “It’s not racism, he’s just not qualified.”
And again, the basis of racial exclusion within the Church, similar to society at large, is not a clash between Biblical truth and worldly social philosophies, but rather a clash between two extra-Biblical social theories: (1) a social theory which assumes racism in America is an occasional event, is perpetrated only by ill-willed individuals, is an irrational aberration from the normal state of American society, and that people of color in 2019 have only themselves to blame for underrepresentation, and (2) a social theory which is grounded in the historical reality of deeply rooted American racialization; viz., that 350 years of differential access and privilege, accorded by virtue of where one falls along the manufactured color-line, has set the score of the current game, structured the rules of play, and exposed the venue as non-neutral.
“Race-Neutral” Standards, “Qualification,” and the “Concerned Members of FBCN”
Returning to the campaign against Pastor Marcus Hayes, I hope we can see how these historical examples are relevant. First, the historical method of racial exclusion was often (most often?) couched in race-neutral language; but I truly hope that we are not still unsure whether the attacks on C. Herbert Oliver, or the race-neutral language used in defense of segregation, were properly racist. Second, we see in the Harvard Law case that justification, on supposedly race-neutral grounds, of vast underrepresentation in leadership revealed commitment to a specific social theory. I, at least, fully reject, as a matter Biblical doctrine, that any “race”—itself a socially constructed category for hierarchy—can be understood as physically, mentally, morally, or culturally inferior to any other, as a group. Any social theory which terminates with such an explanation for underrepresentation is unacceptable; this path is blocked by Christian anthropology, hamartiology, Christology, and eschatology. As such, when vast disparities are present within church or society, the supposed colorblind, race-neutral, objective, liberal theory of “merit,” which continues to produce such disparity, is subject to great scrutiny.
In the case of Marcus Hayes, the claim of the “concerned FBCN members” that Hayes was not “qualified for ministry” is therefore likewise subject to the same scrutiny. Though couched in “race-neutral” terms, much as racism has always been, this minority group of activists has clearly created an extra-Biblical set of standards to determine a candidate’s “merit.”
Pastor Hayes has demonstrated his theologically conservative bona fides, his theological soundness, his ability to teach, and every other actual Biblical requirement, so far as I know—including conformity to the SBC’s own BFM 2000. But he has apparently failed the “concerned” minority’s “race-neutral” test, thereby demonstrating lack of “qualification,” by being an African American who tweeted positively about another African American who has risen through the ranks, an African American speaking positively about a book attempting to confront racism through the Scripture, an African American supporting restorative justice after 350 years of racial abuse, and an African American concerned about the disproportionate shooting of African Americans in the United States.
If students thought Harvard’s “tests” created an all too small pool of African American candidates, the “group of concerned FBCN members” has created the equivalent of a sign on the church door reading, “The great majority of African Americans need not apply.” (And the Chicken Little demagoguery over “Critical Race Theory” is itself, in my opinion, little different than all the ignorant claims of Communism Rev. Oliver endured in 1964.)
It is an historical canard to claim that we need to know the heart of each of these men and women campaigning against Marcus Hayes, something only God can know for sure, in order to call it what it is. We have plenty of historical precedent for racial exclusion cast in race-neutral language as well as the society-wide fruit of a specific social theory’s race-neutral tests of “qualification.” As our Lord tells us, you will know them by their fruits. (Or as others say, the proof is in the pudding.) I hope and pray that these “concerned members” do not in fact hold personal hatred or bias toward brothers and sisters of color. But, regardless, what I do know is that a faithful believer has successfully navigated an historically created, complex, social system with 100’s of sites of legitimate racial critique, only to founder on an extra-Biblical standard of inclusion that itself would bar, with no Biblical basis, a great majority of African Americans. And it’s a silly test on its face, loaded with innuendo and supposed guilt by political and social association.
The test itself, I would argue, manifestly excludes in accordance with a social theory, not Biblical doctrine, which continues to mask and reinforce dramatic racial underrepresentation in church leadership throughout modern America. As a result, the group most likely (for obvious brass-tacks reasons) to buck against this White American post-Civil Rights social theory continues to be disproportionately excluded from leadership in American churches; all while we still ponder whether it is properly “racist.”
In conclusion, C. Herbert Oliver was interviewed by Westminster Seminary students in 2011, nearly 50 years after his contribution to the Presbyterian Guardian discussed in Example 1. His words are quite applicable following this discussion:
I’ve…not seen any basic racial changes for the better in the church. I’m sorry to say that, but I ran into the same racism in the PCUSA church as I found in the OPC. When I graduated from seminary, there was no place for me to serve. There were plenty of churches that were vacant, but none of them would call me. It was understood by the higher-ups in the church that there was no future for me being called to a white church. That’s when the call came to me to serve in Maine, and I accepted that and went there and served. But the racial divide in America is still as strong as it was in the 40’s and 50’s. Just more polite, but it is no less real, no less firm, and no less impregnable.