Genealogy of a White American Jesus: From Slave Master to Billy Graham

Through five years of immersion in what is arguably the “holy land” of white evangelicalism in Midwest, USA (i.e. Wheaton has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”), I have come to the conclusion that white evangelicalism has a “White American Jesus” problem. While some white evangelical institutions are engaged in what some scholars call “race-bridging,” they are few and far between (less than 7%), and are unconsciously “Christ-centered” on a “white American Jesus.” As such, racial reconciliation efforts by white evangelicals have had little to no impact on the segregated nature of their white evangelical institutions (Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005; Emerson and Woo 2006; Lichterman, Carter, and Lamont 2009). Below is an excerpt from a larger work of mine, entitled: The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism:

white jesus

SLAVE MASTER’S JESUS VS SLAVE’S JESUS

In my opinion, the root of white evangelical color-blind racism is insidiously hidden in the history of pro-slavery “Christianity.” An analysis of pro-slavery “Christianity” will elucidate the Christological differences between Black and White Church traditions today. W.E.B. Du Bois described how Christianity in the Colonies functioned to justify slavery (2000). White Christians claimed that “slaves were to be brought from heathenism to Christianity, and through slavery the benighted Indian and African were to find their passport into the kingdom of God” (Du Bois 2000:70). Eventually, whites were confronted with “the insistent and perplexing question as to what the status of the heathen slave was to be after he was Christianized and baptized?” (Du Bois 2000:70). Many slave owners questioned whether to expose their slaves to Christianity due to “the implications of equality in the Bible and…the fear that education might cause the slave to fight for his freedom” (Cone 1997:75).

The measure taken by white Christians to appease this contradiction is still with us today—that is, the “White” Jesus of the slave master was completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). As such, “It was expressly declared in colony after colony that baptism did not free the slaves” (Du Bois 2000:71). The crux of pro-slavery “Christianity” was to ensure peace, by creating “good slaves” that would emulate “White” Jesus’ “meek-and-turn-the-other-cheek” side. While many abolitionists were eventually motivated (in part) by their Christian faith, the majority of the White Church then, as the White Church today, was silent about the oppressive and racist structures of America (Cone 1997; Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999). Like the slave masters’ “White” Jesus, the “White” Jesus of evangelicals today is not concerned with ameliorating the plight of the oppressed on Earth as much as he is concerned with “order” and “saving individual souls” (Cone 1997).

Conversely, black slave ministers emphasized the God of the Exodus who freed the slaves from Egypt. Many who led slave rebellions were black slave ministers who identified with the suffering of Jesus and saw his resurrection as the triumph over the oppressive forces of his day (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). In addition to eternal salvation, the Jesus of the Black Church has historically identified with the poor and oppressed of the land, unlike the Jesus of the White Church today (Cone 1997). In this way, “Black Christianity” has operated as “the expression of…and also the protest against real distress…the sigh of the oppressed creature;” White evangelicalism, on the other hand, even if unintentionally today, has operated as “the opium of the [oppressed] people” (Marx 1975:175). Today, white evangelicals usually claim “objectivity” in their Christology, but have forgotten the racist roots of their “White-American Jesus” who is not concerned with social justice. This is why both White and Black Church traditions can be “Christocentric” while having incredibly different interpretations of what it means to emulate Christ—i.e., to be concerned with saving individual souls or concerned with justice on Earth as well as saving souls.

ANTI-STRUCTURALISM AND THE BILLY GRAHAM GOSPEL

Following the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Americans questioned the modernist claims of “progress” and the “inherent goodness of the human being.” America was ripe for the fundamentalist message to “return to Christian values,” to be “saved from the evils of men.” Even President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of returning to the “Judeo-Christian” roots of the U.S. (Belton 2010). However, it was the Cold War hysteria that prompted the masses to seek a blatantly “Americanized” version of the Gospel as salvation from the “evils of this world” (Belton 2010). Much like the “Terror Alerts” of our Post-9/11 World, after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, it was perceived that the “world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust” (Belton 2010). In this ethos of fear, no single individual did more to marry an individualistic and anti-activist Gospel with right-wing ideals than Billy Graham.

Graham came to be “the primary engine of America’s cold war religious revival” (Belton 2010). Preaching to thousands, Graham presented the Gospel as the only means of salvation from not only eternal hell, but from the “evil forces of Communism” as well:

The battle is between communism and Christianity! …When communism conquers a nation, it makes every man a slave! When Christianity conquers…it makes every man a king! (Belton 2010)

The preaching of Graham was noticed by “media baron William Randolph Hearst, a staunch anti-communist,” who instructed his newspapers to “Puff Graham” (Belton 2010). Hearst’s mass media support provided the medium that “rocketed Graham,” and evangelicals, “onto the national stage” (Belton 2010). Graham’s anti-communist Gospel contributed to the marriage between conservative evangelicalism and right wing politics and economics, which oppose macro social programs aimed at racial equality today (Belton 2010; Brint and Schroedel 2009).

It is true that Graham occasionally spoke about “racial tolerance,” but according to Graham, “racism [and all social injustice] is not a social/structural issue; it is merely a symptom of sin;” Therefore, all we need to do to save the country is to convert individuals to Christianity (Belton 2010). Graham’s simplistic—“All you need is Jesus”—Gospel, required very little more than an outward expression of personal piety and church attendance, systemic efforts toward social justice be damned. Similarly, most white evangelicals today are focused on a Jesus who has little concern for macro social justice reforms that appear to be part of the “liberal-agenda.”

BILLY GRAHAM’S JESUS VS MARTIN LUTHER KING’S JESUS

It is noted that “one of the feats of Billy Graham…was to refocus the evangelical movement around the figure of Jesus in a way that cut across denominational lines,” thereby creating stronger ties among evangelicals (Wuthnow 2009:29). However, since white evangelicals have failed to take seriously the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, they have failed to deconstruct the figure of Jesus that was promulgated by slave masters in the U.S. That is, the Jesus that Billy Graham made popular among evangelicals was eerily similar to the Jesus who was preached to the slaves—One who was concerned with obedience and an outward expression of personal piety, divorced from notions of social justice such as achieving racial equality in the U.S. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Graham was trying to create “good” slaves, however, he did very little to oppose other white evangelical “leaders and congregations [that] frequently condoned and sometimes actively supported segregation and subordination of African Americans up through…the 50s and 60s” (Lichterman et al. 2009:192; Vesely-Flad 2011). While Billy may have sincerely wanted to save souls from hell, his obsession with the afterlife and conservative political leanings were more important to him, and most other white evangelicals, than the racial oppression that was happening right before their eyes.

Graham went so far, in April of 1963, along with other white preachers, as to call on Martin Luther King, Jr. to “put the brakes on a little bit” regarding direct action to end segregation (Anon 1963; Belton 2010). While Graham preached a few “integrated” crusades, all he really did was remove a rope that divided white and black people at his crusades. His “efforts” paled in comparison to those of the children who were hosed down, bitten by dogs, and arrested for protesting segregation in the South. The complicity of white preachers, including Graham, in maintaining segregation prompted Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he chastised the “white moderate [and preacher], who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (Belton 2010; King, Jr. 1963). Herein lies the theological distinction between white evangelicals and the Black Church today. The Jesus who identified with the oppressed is the same Jesus that motivated Dr. King and many other champions of the Civil Rights era—unlike the Jesus that motivated Graham’s individualistic, anti-structuralist, pro-conservative-politics gospel, which influences evangelical thinking on race relations today.

ANTI-LIBERAL RISE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

            The end of the 1970s gave birth to a plethora of politically conservative organizations such as The Christian Right, the Christian Voice, and the Moral Majority (Brint and Schroedel 2009:5). Since the 1980s, evangelicals have pledged uncanny allegiance to right-wing politics. I would argue that a theological orientation that required nothing more than a personal relationship with Jesus and a life of individualistic repentance from sin, with no call to social justice, and selectively “literalist” interpretations of the Bible on issues of gender roles, homosexuality, and abortion are the primary orientations that influence evangelicals to detest progressive reforms that they believe are violating “biblical values.” The propensity for “order” over justice seems related to religious roots in the slave master’s Christology that elevates personal piety over notions of justice and freedom related to civic matters. This anti-liberal ethos against Civil Rights reforms continues to cloud white evangelicals’ views on racial inequalities today.

In the decades following the desegregation of public schools (Brown v. Board of Ed.), and the Civil Rights years of the 60s and 70s, thousands of white families, including white evangelicals, moved to “more desirable locations,” and even opened privately-owned all-white “Christian” academies (Emerson and Smith 2000; Massey and Denton 1993; Vesely-Flad 2011). Today, many of these schools and neighborhoods remain just as segregated as they were forty years ago.

In my paper, The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism, I outline several seemingly “race-neutral” cultural and theological orientations of white evangelicals today that guide their actions toward color-blind racism. The color-blind racism of white evangelicals includes the denial of systemic racism, which results in dampened support for programs that would mitigate racial inequalities on a systemic level. The most damning evidence for white evangelical color-blind racism can be found in the fact that “for every 1-unit increase in number of white evangelical congregations per 1,000 non-Hispanic whites in every county in every region across the country, there were significant increases in all measures of segregation” (Blanchard 2007).

In this excerpt I presented the genealogy of a “White American Jesus,” who influences white evangelicals to perpetuate inequality by subordinating social justice to personal piety and church attendance. I would hope that if they want to be true to the message of Jesus Christ, that they would take some time to learn from traditions that have championed causes for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus Christ.

WORKS CITED

Anon. 1963. “Billy Graham Urges Restrain in Sit-Ins.” New York Times, April 18, Archives. Retrieved (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0B15F9385D117B93CAA8178FD85F478685F9).

Belton, David. 2010. “The Soul of a Nation.” God in America. Retrieved (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html).

Blanchard, Troy C. 2007. “Conservative Protestant Congregations and Racial Residential Segregation: Evaluating the Closed Community Thesis in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Counties.” American Sociological Review 72(3):416–33.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 2000. “Religion in the South.” Pp. 69–89 in Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Brint, Steven G., and Jean Reith Schroedel, eds. 2009. Evangelicals and Democracy in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against All Odds : The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations. New York: New York University Press.

Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith : Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Michael O., Christian Smith, and David Sikkink. 1999. “Equal in Christ, but Not in the World: White Conservative Protestants and Explanations of Black-White Inequality.” Social Problems 46(3):398–417.

Emerson, Michael O., and Rodney M. Woo. 2006. People of the Dream : Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).

Lichterman, Paul, Prudence L. Carter, and Michèle Lamont. 2009. “Race-Bridging for Christ? Conservative Christians and Black-White Relations in Community Life.” Pp. 187–220 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, edited by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. New York: International Publishers. Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio6961573.008).

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid : Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Vesely-Flad, Rima. 2011. “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” Anglican Theological Review 93(4):541–62.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2009. “The Cultural Capital of American Evangelicalism.” Pp. 27–43 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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5 thoughts on “Genealogy of a White American Jesus: From Slave Master to Billy Graham

  1. Pingback: A Personal Prayer of Repentance | The Tattered Rose

    1. Daniel Ismael Aguilar (@TatteredRose1) Post author

      Hi Kendall! Thanks for reading the article! I’ve come to the understanding that even Democrats have been conservative when it comes to racial justice. Malcolm X is a good person to read/listen to for a critique of the pernicious racism of the northern white “liberal” (Democrat) See: http://youtu.be/Uj3P56tWLUo

      Additionally, while Billy Graham was a registered Democrat, his political trajectory was eerily similar to the pattern of “many white Southern Democrats [who] stopped supporting the party following the civil rights plank of the Democratic campaign in 1948 (triggering the Dixiecrats), the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and desegregation” (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy) “The strategy was first adopted under future Republican President Richard Nixon and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater[6][7] in the late 1960s.”

      AND…

      “Graham leaned toward the Republicans during the presidency of Richard Nixon whom he had met and befriended as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.[54] He did not completely ally himself with the later religious right, saying that Jesus did not have a political party.[10] He has given his support to various political candidates over the years.[54]
      ….
      In 2012, Graham publicly endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.[56]” (SEE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Graham#Politics)

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      Reply
  2. Pingback: Intelligent People Blogging Intelligently | Political Jesus

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