Evangelicalism, Race, and the Call of the Gospel

16th November 2017
Jessamin Birdsall

Just over one year ago, 81% of white Evangelical voters in the United States cast their vote for Donald Trump.

This high level of support for Trump from so-called ‘values voters’ has exposed deep divisions within the Evangelical church and caused damage to the witness of the gospel.  

If you’re a non-American reading this, you might be thinking, ‘That’s too bad for the American church! Thank God we’re more enlightened than them over here in Britain!’

But the reality is that Evangelicalism is a global movement, and when one part of the body is damaged, the whole suffers. For better or for worse, what happens to the nature and reputation of Evangelicalism in the US impacts us here in Britain too. And, if we’re honest, we might see that some of the problems within the American Evangelical church are not entirely absent from our own context.

One of the deepest divisions exposed by Trump’s election is that of race in the church. While 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, nearly 90% of black Protestants (the vast majority of whom are Evangelical in their theology) voted for Clinton.

How can it be that Christians who read the same Bible, share very similar theological beliefs, and both claim to promote ‘biblical values’ through civic engagement are so starkly racially divided in their political choices?

There are many historical reasons for this, but one of the enduring factors is that the social networks of American Evangelicals are, generally speaking, racially homogenous. Even in diverse metropolitan areas, white Evangelicals worship and socialise almost exclusively with fellow white people.

Because of this de facto social segregation, a significant proportion of white American Evangelicals have very little understanding of the ongoing realities of educational inequality, employment discrimination, and police brutality experienced by their brothers and sisters of colour.

When it comes to voting, then, many white Evangelicals in America limit their conception of ‘biblical values’ to being anti-abortion and pro-marriage, while neglecting the biblical values of justice and restoration and care for the poor, which have disproportionate impact on minority communities.

Racial segregation in the church has implications beyond voting. A more serious consequence is the inability of many white churches to see how their conception of ‘Evangelicalism’ is in fact ‘white Evangelicalism.’ This blindness can result in the dismissal of the rich traditions and perspectives of people of colour, the imposition of white (middle class) subcultural norms onto others, and the failure to acknowledge collective sins of injustice against minorities.

Ultimately, these are failures to obey Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’.

Again, you may be thinking, ‘This is too bad for the American church! I hope they can sort themselves out!’

But as I mentioned before, the church is a global body, and when one part is diseased, the whole suffers. We also have to ask ourselves: is the Evangelical church in Britain totally free from the problems of social division and inequality?

To be sure, Britain has a very different history with matters of race and culture than America, and so I don’t want to lump them into the same category.

But pause for a moment to consider (and here I am specifically writing to those of us who are white Evangelicals):

  • When was the last time you listened to a sermon or read a book by a British Evangelical of colour?
  • At the last Evangelical conference you attended, were the speakers representative of the church’s (and Britain’s) demographic diversity, or exclusively white middle class?
  • When was the last time you asked an Evangelical of colour to advise you on a theological or social matter?
  • Are you aware of the distinctive issues faced by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) brothers and sisters in the UK, or do you assume they are the same as your issues?
  • If the answers to the above are not positive, then what does this say about a white Evangelical subculture in the UK where racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity is ignored?

I am asking myself these same questions, as I too am a product of the white Evangelical church and have my own blind spots and default biases.

It is not enough for those of us who are white Evangelicals to simply quote the verse, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ (Gal 3:28 NIV) and hope for an immediate spirit of unity. Nor is it enough to invite a few ‘token’ BME individuals to church and encourage them to assimilate into our white middle class cultural norms.

At Inspire our vision is to be a ‘united and diverse community inspiring London with the good news of Jesus Christ’. It is a beautiful, powerful, counter-cultural vision. It is a foretaste of heaven, in which people ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ are worshipping God together.  

As we continue working towards that vision, we must demonstrate sustained commitment to listening to those who are different from us, repenting of the ways we have imposed our own culture-specific expression of Christianity on others, sharing power and influence, and fixing our eyes on Jesus, who ‘reconcile[s] to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Col 1:20 NIV).

 

Jessamin Birdsall