How could it be possible for a group of Christians to think twice about collectively condemning white supremacy? Many were asking this question last month as we watched the drama of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention unfold in Phoenix, AZ. A number of interesting things occurred at the meeting, including the reaffirmation of the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement, the ejection of conference attendees there to engage in dialogue regarding LGBTQ inclusion in the denomination, and a little too much back-and-forth about whether white supremacy should be disavowed. For anyone who missed it, here is the essential narrative around the race debate:

  • Prior to the meeting, prominent African American pastor Dwight McKissic of Texas submitted a draft resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right movement in America to the committee that approves the agenda for the convention
  • This committee decided not to bring the resolution to the floor, leaving denouncing white supremacy off of the convention’s agenda
  • Not wanting the issue to go un-discussed, during the convention McKissic put forward a motion to have his resolution be considered
  • Initially the convention did not move to consider the motion and adjourned for the night
  • However, the following day, another motion brought a revised version of the resolution forward for discussion
  • Eventually, an amended version of McKissic’s motion passed (almost unanimously)

The incident garnered quite a lot of attention on Twitter, as well as in some major news outlets such as The Guardian and The Atlantic.

There are a number of things that made this incident frustrating but not surprising. Historically speaking this incident has roots that go as far back as the 1840s when the Baptists, like so many other American denominations of the day, split and formed a separate convention in the South. The SBC supported the right of Christians and missionaries to own slaves and moved to gain denominational independence from abolitionists. It is not surprising that a denomination – which is still the largest Protestant denomination in the USA – founded on the principle that race-based slavery should remain under religious and legal sanction would find a resolution condemning white supremacy a divisive one.

Of course, white supremacy and structural racism are not limited to the SBC alone. It shows itself in congregations and seminaries everywhere. In a poignant Twitter thread from black seminarian Kyle J. Howard readers can see the stress and trauma that racism within Christian circles can create.

Along with an individual denomination’s or institution’s history, there are also theological influences and sociological forces within evangelical subculture that work to maintain racial disparity. In Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael O. Emmerson and Christian Smith argue that evangelicals are theologically and socially ill-equipped to correct racial injustice.


Adapting Ann Swidler’s sociological concept of the “cultural toolkit” – a metaphor for understanding the ways that (sub)cultures allow us “to organize experiences and evaluate reality,”[1] –  to analyze the white American evangelical worldview, Emmerson and Smith point out three elements that impede evangelicals’ ability to tackle racism.

The first is what they call accountable freewill individualism. Evangelical theology, drawing on centuries-long Christian tradition, emphasizes individual persons and their choices. In fact, Emmerson and Smith point out that while “individualism is very American… the type of individualism and the ferocity with which it is held distinguishes white evangelicals from others.”[2]

The second is relationalism, or the notion that interpersonal relationships are of central importance. This element of the cultural toolkit pushes evangelicals to “often view social problems as rooted in poor relationships or the negative influence of significant others.”[3]

Thirdly, they point to anti-structuralism, or the rejection of the influence of social structures within the evangelical worldview. They argue:

Although much in Christian scripture and tradition points to the influence of social structures on individuals, the stress of individualism has been so complete for such a long time in white American evangelical culture that such tools are nearly unavailable…Even when we explicitly asked [in subject interviews] about the possibility of systemic, institutionalized aspects of race problems, respondents had difficulty seeing anything other than an individual problem.[4]

construction-2238779_1920These three theologically-linked elements of the evangelical cultural toolkit combine to push white evangelicals to deny race problems, reproduce racial inequality, and to (directly and indirectly) support white supremacy. Emmerson and Smith conclude that:

assessing the overall effect of religion on racialization is a complex task, as religion’s influence operates on multiple and often contradictory levels. We can find numerous positive examples of religious people and groups working to overcome racial division and inequality, but structural forces within the organization of religion undercut these positive actions. In fact, these structural forces often regenerate the very conditions the positive actions work to eliminate.[5]

In other words, the dominant theology in their religious sphere helps keep white American evangelicals racist. Theological ideas breed a certain outlook on the world —and in this case theology helps maintain and re-create structural racism.

But before any non-Southerners, non-evangelicals, or non-Americans get all smug and assume that these socio-theological issues are solely an American evangelical problem, I think it would be important to consider the cultural toolkits our own traditions have given us. There are theological principles at work in other streams of the Christian tradition that lead to similar ends. Some progressive or mainline church bodies may have less theological emphasis on the individual or lend themselves more easily to structuralism, but they are even more likely to be caught up in the legacy of the doctrine of discovery or problematic theological notions of “helping” and “progress” with close ties to white settler middle-class imperialism. Likely there is no white-dominated theological tradition that can claim innocence in this case.

As theologians, church historians, and members of the Christian tradition it is important for us to reflect on the ways that our theology (and the social systems it spawns) works to maintain the racialized status quo. What elements of our theology keep us (where us is white Christians) racist? For evangelicals this will likely mean re-visiting their tradition’s ferocious individualism and developing a theological anthropology that addresses humans as an inter-connected collective. For others the task may take a different shape. Consider the toolkit you’ve been given. How does the dominant theology in whichever tradition you are a part of influence your approach to questions of race and racism in the church and in the world? Where does your tradition fail at undermining white supremacy and/or reinforce racial inequality?

[1] Michael O. Emmerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 76.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Ibid., 78.

[4] Ibid., 79.

[5] Ibid., 168.


11 thoughts

  1. Great points! Interestingly enough, some evangelicals also argue against Western individualism, saying (for instance) that gender equality is a doctrine of Western individualism and should be rejected. In other words, they turn the argument you make above on its head. Here’s a rebuttal I made against one such argument, which could easily be used in the same manner it is used against women’s equality, to argue against civil rights.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I also do work with complementarian perspectives so I enjoyed your post. Individualism in evangelical thought and theology really does play a few different roles, as your post highlights. Maybe it would help to make a distinction between individualism and individuality? Individuality, expressed through rights-based language for example, is something often sneered at. But so much of the teachings, the notions of conversion, piety, etc., are very individual-centric. Individuals are the centre of the socio-theological outlook, but if individualism isn’t expressed “properly” (via submission to evangelical cultural standards) then it is seen as worldly instead.

  2. Thank you so much for this. The vast majority of my friends are white Southern evangelicals, and while I wouldn’t say they were racist, an alarming number of them habitually belittle those who are fighting back against racism. This post helped me understand them more, and helped me recognize where I’ve gone wrong in how I relate to modern racism.

  3. You would think that relationalism would balance out accountable freewill individualism instead of reinforcing it. But what do I know? I did not come from a church background which emphasized freewill. My training in philosophy made it hard for me to swallow freewill as naturally as many of my church going friends have. But I has slowly come around to it – but more as a mystery to be accepted rather than something so obvious as to drive my attitudes toward people. And this article has me thinking about whether I need to revisit that commitment. Thanks for a thought provoking piece!

  4. Although I was raised and ordained to the Gospel ministry(1978) in a mainline Southern Baptist church, the departure of the convention from the principle of individualism, along with the institutionalized oppression of women as portrayed in The Baptist Faith & Message statement, made it impossible for reasonable Christians to continue in fellowship with the denomination after 1980. Since the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC and its seminaries, there has been a lack of integrity inherent in the requirement for SBC leaders and teachers to sign that statement of faith in which women are kept subservient and homosexuals are condemned as anti-social. Thirty-seven years later, the issues of racism and the convention’s reluctance to condemn the alt-right are not surprising at all.

  5. Ran across your post. Thanks for sharing. Here’s my reaction.
    As a young boy, living under colonization in the Caribbean, I was faithful in the Anglican church. As an adolescent, after learning about the origins of the church’s role in racial opression, I simply stopped going. Many years later, after a series of personal crises, I returned.
    The church helped me through those issues, but it’s the same church I left as a youth. True, there is some talk about social justice, but most of that is a “day late and a dollar short.” And if I still had those youthful ideals of justice, and no concern for personal stability, I would leave again.
    We teach individual repentance, but the corporate church should repent for its historical role in racial exploitation – for its violation of the Great Commandments

  6. Thanks for your essay. It reminds me of Wolterstorff and his emphasis on Shalom – for all. That God’s mission is a mission of Shalom for all, ant that we are called to join God’s people in community to work on this task, not just glory in our “personal salvation.”

    Here is a helpful essay, “Why Build a Justice Interpretation [of the Gospel] Around “Shalom”? with lots of Biblical citations, that support your paper. emphasize God’s call to the mission of Shalom, not just personal/ individualistic “salvation” and offer tools for new thought and directions toward community and social systems.

    Click to access RCL_Cycles_ABC_Chapter_4.pdf

    After reading this and thinking more about your essay, I am prompted to think that Emerson and Smith really describe only one problem for evangelicals – ferocious indiidualism. To focus on personal relations and refuse to see the part social structures play in all our lives means that we are dealing with ferocious individualism – in many different forms and domains of life. Which of course, does not mean that all of us are called to individual responsibility, but rather this is not the only domain of our lives. Thanks again for your essay.

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