Theologian and priest Kelly Brown Douglas begins her book, What’s Faith Got To Do With It, with this question: if Christianity has been used for centuries to oppress black people, “Was there not something wrong with Christianity itself?” In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many Christian leaders took to the streets in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist groups. Other, mostly conservative and evangelical, Christian groups immediately criticized the protests. Recently, several think pieces have implicated white evangelicalism in the historical support of white supremacy: from its justifications for slavery to Jim Crow to the present moment.
Pieces like this one from NPR unveil important truths; yet, by focusing on evangelicalism, they miss the role of progressive, even well-meaning white Christians in the development of white supremacy. Evangelicalism might be the most obvious religious culprit, but the explicit racism of conservative Christianity is propped up by a deeper, sinister, and veiled form of white supremacy within progressive, liberal Christianity: the implicit, silent, even unintentional support and silence of white progressives who fail to see the ways that all whites are implicated in white supremacy. That is, in Douglas’s words, there is something wrong with all of white Christianity, not just its evangelical believers.
By concentrating blame on conservative, evangelical Christians, and by identifying individual actors or groups as “racist” or “white supremacist,” well-meaning, progressive Christians are able to distance ourselves from material damages caused by racism, to escape blame—and the responsibility to do something about it. Yet, the theological tendencies of white supremacy are present in the work of some of our most celebrated theologians, like Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr.
The case of these two scholars illuminates the power of white supremacy to corrupt theological personalities and systems that perceive themselves to be contributors to racial equality and justice—and provide an important lesson for religious progressives today. Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr were the key figures of two of America’s most important theological movements since the Civil War: the Social Gospel and Christian Realism. Both were aware of racial injustice, and unlike many theologians and pastors of their days, they determined to use their theological perspectives to address the issue.
The Social Gospel emerged at the turn of the century, proposing to “Christianize the social order” in the face of growing economic and social crises. Yet, it was only in his last years that Rauschenbusch addressed racism; he considered it a problem limited to the American south that would gradually be resolved through economic reform. The Social Gospel’s optimistic view of human moral agency generated a confidence in gradual social change. God’s kingdom advances slowly; Christians “can afford to wait” while working for moderate social changes. This resulted in calls for patience in the struggle against racism. His insistence that we “Give it time!” only served to “Christianize” the status quo.
Further, his belief that the only hope for the “belated races” was in the work of white Christians teaching them “steady and intelligent labor, of property rights, of family fidelity,” reveals a paternalistic embrace of Social Darwinism. These “belated races” needed the assistance of more advanced races for social progress. The Social Gospel, in its eagerness to distance itself from the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalist Christianity, uncritically accepted the cultural assumptions of the racial pseudo-science of its day.
As the optimism of the Social Gospel waned in world war and depression, Reinhold Niebuhr became the key figure of Christian Realism, a theological movement sober to the sinful self-interest of society and concerned with proximate forms of order and justice. While this realism allowed him to perceive racial injustice in ways obscured for Rauschenbusch, it is also to blame for his failures. His ethical pragmatism led him to promote a “gradual and evolutionary process” of social change. He considered patience and compromise “the course of wisdom in overcoming historic injustices.” These concerns are revealed by his worry that his church would integrate too quickly, or his claim that the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling mandating the separate-but-equal policy was “a very good doctrine for its day”—because anything more radical would prompt revolt.
Displaying the tendency of white Christians to universalize and project, Niebuhr criticized “racial pride” but identified it as “a general human shortcoming.” Racism was not a product of white supremacy, but a “universal characteristic of Homo sapiens.” Niebuhr flattened the prejudice of all racial groups into a false equivalence—striking an alarming similarity to the equivocal “both sides” claims from the president regarding racism. As Traci West notes, Niebuhr’s ignorance of Harlem Renaissance artists and activists right outside his Union Theological Seminary office certainly blinded him to the particular concerns of African Americans.
The case of these two revered theologians resonates with Christianity’s historical hesitancy to lend full support to radical calls for justice—especially when those calls emerge from secular sources. Like so many progressive white scholars today, they failed to attend to the Black scholars and activists of their day and allow them to shape their concerns. They foreshadow progressive tendencies to exhaustively weigh ostensibly competing moral goods at the expense of taking concrete action, or to allow too much moral optimism or pessimism to reinforce the status quo. They portend liberals’ eagerness to distance ourselves as far as possible from our conservative counterparts in ways that allow us to smugly shield ourselves from implication in their sins.
White progressive Christianity cannot overcome these tendencies until we recognize that whiteness permeates all of our tradition; it stewed in our sanctuaries, spread with our slave ships, and was proclaimed from our pulpits and our pens. It shapes the work of some of our most revered and progressive theologians. This legacy continues to hold captive the modern, white Christian imagination. Our captivity will never be over until progressive white Christians recognize that there is something wrong with our Christianity itself—all of it—and commit to confronting our own white supremacy.