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What Is ‘White Christianity’ Anyway?

World's most famous "White Christian". What does he have to do with race politics of American Evangelicals? Nothing (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

While MAGA/QAnon ideology is ravaging the Evangelical churches from one side, Critical Race Theory is ravaging it from the other. In First Things, Carl Trueman writes a calm evisceration of CRT and its march through Evangelical institutions. Excerpts:

Trueman — whose new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is magisterial on these matters — explains that CRT depends on the premise, common in modern thinking, that all problems can be solved with the right application of intelligence and willpower. If a problem persists, then it must be because somebody doesn’t want it to be solved, or are preventing it from being solved by holding to old ways of thinking. This, says Trueman, is a very modern way of approaching the problem of evil. Racism is an evil. If you oppose CRT’s plan for eradicating racism, then you are on the side of the racists, plainly. Trueman:

Trueman quotes a New York Times review of the book White Too Long, about the white church and racism. The reviewer is the black Evangelical pastor Jemar Tisby , in which Tisby says:

White Christians have to face the possibility that everything they have learned about how to practice their faith has been designed to explicitly or implicitly reinforce a racist structure. In the end, “White Too Long” seems to present a stark choice: Hold onto white Christianity or hold onto Jesus. It cannot be both.

I would add this from Tisby’s review:

“White Too Long” is part of a dynamic and growing field of contemporary nonfiction that calls the white church to task for its failings when it comes to racism. Recent works that pair well with this one include “Jesus and John Wayne,” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Taking America Back for God,” by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, and “Reconstructing the Gospel,” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. These books reflect what may be a critical pivot point in the direction of white Christianity in the United States.

You know what those three books have in common? They are all about white Protestantism, especially white Evangelicalism. They equate “white Christianity” with Protestantism and its subcategory Evangelicalism. As if there weren’t a lot of Catholics in this country! There is a complex history of how the Catholic Church in America handled race — a lot of it ugly, at least here in the South. Orthodox Christianity is tiny on the American scene, and populated almost 100 percent by people who would be classified as white. Is Orthodox Christianity — as distinct from Orthodox Christians — also so guilty as to present Tisby’s “stark choice”: to abandon our traditions, or abandon Christ?

The question is ridiculous, but shows how parochial this discussion is among Evangelicals like Tisby. Side note: when I was Catholic, I once went to speak at an Evangelical institution. Knowing nothing about Evangelicalism, I found myself in conversation with a small group of Evangelical college students. I said something about Pope John Paul II. One of the student said, “Wait, isn’t he a communist? Doesn’t he come from a communist country?” She honestly had no idea. Granted, she was only about 18 or 19, but the truth is, I didn’t know a lot more about the important figures in her world than she knew about the important figures in mine. I don’t say this to make fun of her, but simply to say that we really do live within our own silos.

Carl Trueman, who, along with his wife, is an immigrant to the US from the UK, speaks to that point in his piece. Excerpt:

See how that works? It’s an astonishingly hostile and offensive claim to make. Trueman goes on to cite this article at The Gospel Coalition by a black pastor named K. Edward Copeland, about last summer’s Kenosha, Wisconsin shooting of the black man Jacob Blake, who was resisting arrest. Copeland writes:

If your default impulse is to try to justify the seven or eight bullet holes in Jacob Blake’s body—He’s no angel; What was in his system? He was probably reaching for a weapon; He should have complied; We don’t have all the facts—just consider the facts we actually do know about Kyle. He took lives in front of physical and digital witnesses. He’s alive. No bullet holes in his body. He will be charged and tried in court, not on the streets, as it should be in a just society.

The inconsistency between how these two bodies were treated in Kenosha reinforces my childhood suspicions. Those who claim my same convictions about Christ will be the first and loudest to castigate me for these observations. They’ll be the most proficient at finding some excuse for Rittenhouse, the most cavalier in discounting my trauma, the most eager to somehow find a “Marxist” or “Critical Race Theory” connection in my reflections. And that hurts my heart, literally and profoundly.

Well, guess what? Jacob Blake this week admitted that he was in fact carrying a knife when police shot him as he was resisting arrest. His father and his lawyers had previously claimed Blake was unarmed. He had three felony warrants out for his arrest at the time police tried to apprehend him. The unanswered questions in this shooting did not stop Pastor Copeland from applying his racialist theories to explain the differences between the Kyle Rittenhouse situation and the Jacob Blake one. In fact, the two had very little in common. But why let a thing like facts get in the way of Narrative?

Trueman goes on to talk about how sympathetic white Evangelical leaders are using Critical Race Theory as a stick with which to beat their conservative white Evangelical opponents — as usual, with progressives, the call for “dialogue” really means “you stand there, conservative, and listen quietly while we berate you” — and in turn making gross generalizations about “white Christianity” that could not possibly apply to, say, Russian Orthodox Christians in Moscow, or Finnish Lutherans in Helsinki, all of whom are white, and all of whom are Christian. Plus, Trueman says, the prestige organs of Evangelical opinion are not opening themselves up to actual dialogue among Evangelicals about CRT; they are only publishing the progressive side of the argument.

If they normalize CRT, warns Trueman, then they open the door to LGBTs using critical theory to tear down the church’s teachings on sexuality.

Read it all. It’s such an important piece. Seems to me that this battle royal has actually little to do with “black Christianity” or “white Christianity” (where are Asian and Latino Christians in it, by the way?), and everything to do with power struggles within American Evangelicalism.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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