Americans are in the midst of a reckoning about systemic racism and its history in the United States. “Critical race theory” and “anti-racism” have become a hotly debated topics in the media, in politics, in churches, and in schools. Protesters are fighting against new voting restrictions that some liken to old Jim Crow laws. Black men and women continue to face police violence; just last week, former police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd.
White evangelicals certainly have not been exempted from this conversation. Many members of the Southern Baptist Convention, which just held its annual meeting, have come out strongly against critical race theory. Several recent books have also examined white evangelicals’ history of actively maintaining the United States’ racial hierarchy. In one of them, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, author J. Russell (Rusty) Hawkins focuses on how white evangelicals in South Carolina resisted racial integration.
Hawkins is professor of history and associate dean at Indiana Wesleyan University. He previously published an edited volume, Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith, with Phillip Luke Sinitiere. Kenneth E. Frantz interviewed Hawkins via Zoom. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Religion & Politics: Your book focuses on a case study in South Carolina and the efforts to maintain segregation there by white evangelicals. Why did you consider that important to write about and what were you hoping to reveal about evangelicalism as a whole?
J. Russell Hawkins: One of the reasons that I ended up writing about South Carolina was when I first started conceiving this project, this was going to be a project looking at Southern white evangelicals as a whole. So, the story I’d be telling would just be about all Southern white evangelicals. I made my first trip to the archives and very quickly was disabused of the notion that was a viable project that could be done in a lifetime. There’s just so much stuff in South Carolina, where I started researching this project, that I decided to use South Carolina as the lens through which I’m making these claims about broader issues within Southern white evangelicalism.
South Carolina became important to this because other historians who have been writing on this topic have been focusing their work on places that are conceived usually as more of the hot spots in the civil rights movement. There’s not a lot of scholarship on this, but the studies that have been done are primarily in Mississippi. And so South Carolina usually has this reputation. It’s not among scholars, but among Americans, South Carolina doesn’t usually come to mind as a place where you have some of those crisis moments of the civil rights movement, like you have in Alabama, in Mississippi, even places like Georgia. South Carolinians even like to boast sometimes that they’re the Southern state that got civil rights right.
There were no massive riots that happened when their universities desegregated, for instance. And so, it’s part of the civil rights story that is under-told. But I think that’s all the more reason why it was helpful to use that as ground zero for my case study, to show that the ubiquity of this religious massive resistance to civil rights wasn’t just a factor of intense backlash in places like Mississippi and Alabama, but even in places where supposedly they did civil rights correctly.
R&P: And in your book, the two groups you focused on were Baptist and Methodist. Would you mind talking about why those two groups in particular?
JRH: There are a couple of reasons for that. Just pragmatically speaking, if you’re going to try to do a manageable research project, or if you want to talk about an appropriate sample size, you couldn’t do better than talking about Southern Baptist and Southern Methodists. Because you’re talking about the majority of white Christians in the state at that point. So, one, you’re looking at the critical mass of people and the right numbers. You’re looking at people who have ample documents and archival material to look through to investigate this question.
Most importantly, the reason I think that these two groups are really important to look at side by side, is that the way their ecclesiology functions, their church polity functions, is really distinct. The Baptists are a congregational model, which says every congregation does whatever they want. There’s no kind of accountability to the Southern Baptist Convention. There’s no bishop in play. If they don’t like their pastor, at some point, the congregation can just get rid of their pastor and call another pastor. The Methodists, however, are a completely different story. The Methodists are accountable and answerable to a council of bishops. There is a general conference. It has authority over different annual conferences. And then within those annual conferences, there’s accountability with superintendents. Pastors within the Methodist denomination are assigned. The congregation doesn’t get to pick and choose and say when it’s time to go and when it’s time to come. And so, for that reason, the church polity question is really significant because it demonstrates that this segregation in Christianity that I’m talking about in this book was strong enough that it overrode some of those distinctives in terms of church polity. For those reasons, I went with the Baptists and Methodists, and why I think it’s important to tell both of those stories.
R&P: What specific ways did the laity to exercise power? You mentioned depriving donations and voting to remove pastors, and even in the Methodist church where people were assigned a pastor, they would still manage to get the pastor removed. Would you mind like expanding on that?
JRH: The power that the laity had come from the fact that one, they just rejected these pronouncements. The high-minded, more progressive or liberal pronouncements about integration, they’re just rejected. And then sent right back to the denomination to say, “Please stop sending us the stuff. We don’t agree with this, this isn’t biblical, you’ve lost your way. If you’re going to give us stuff that we don’t want to hear, we’re going to stop receiving it. And we’re even going to talk about leaving the denomination as a whole. If you give us a pastor that we don’t like, or that is taking a stand that we don’t agree with, even if we are Methodists, we’re going to pressure the church to have those pastors removed.”
Which they did in the Baptist church. If they had a pastor preaching something that goes against the beliefs of the congregation, well, then they can just have those pastors dismissed as well. “When it comes time to vote on whether or not we’re going to integrate our Baptist colleges or Methodist colleges, we’re going to block it. And we’re going to say we’re not going to do that. And when the denominations work around that, well, then we’re going to stop giving donations to those places.” When it came time to integrate schools, the public schools and their communities, these white Christians exercise their power by pulling their kids out of those schools that were being desegregated and established church-related schools in the fellowship halls and basements of Baptist churches and Methodist churches. So, in all these ways, there is this exercising power of the laity over and against the high-minded pronouncements of the denominations themselves.
R&P: And in your book, these segregationist Christians believed that what they were doing was God-ordained, that it was biblical. You stress that point, as opposed to them thinking they were going against what the Bible said or that they were ignoring what the Bible said. Why is that an important distinction to make?
JRH: What goes on so often today in white evangelical circles is a misunderstanding. There’s a belief that when it came to the civil rights movement, those white Christians just kind of missed it and unfortunately, this wasn’t a time where we applied biblical ethics to a social situation that was occurring around us, so as to be a positive contributor to this really important social movement.
What I would want to argue is that wasn’t the story. Really, the story wasn’t that you missed it. The story was that these white evangelicals had a different hermeneutical lens that they were using to read Scripture. And, they were crafting this theology that said, “God wanted you to resist each other,” and you have to recognize that. Otherwise, you don’t see the ways in which that theology persists and has morphed and has changed over time to have all these sorts of ramifications on the way that white evangelicalism continues to interact with issues of race.
If you understand that these people simply weren’t looking at the Bible, and if they just only looked at the Bible, the story would have been different, you’re missing ways in which perhaps even today, your theology is deeply shaped by the way that you read Scripture, perhaps even unbeknownst to you today.
R&P: Your book is based primarily after Brown v. the Board of Education. And then they have to grapple with the Civil Rights Act as well. How did these segregationist Christians interact with Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act?
JRH: The Civil Rights Act passes in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act passes in 1965. I use these as pivotal points because these two laws are really significant in changing American culture. The question then becomes, what happens to that religious justification? By 1964 and 1965, when the tide seems to be changing and Americans are more and more uncomfortable with this overtly bigoted language that had existed quite comfortably in Southern society before 1964 and 1965. And I don’t mean to say that 1964 and 1965 comes along and suddenly, overnight, everything changes, but I mean society is changing. And these white Christians who for a decade now, since the Brown decision in 1954, have been fighting tooth and nail to resist integration, now find themselves in a situation where their society is integrated.
The federal government is coming in and they’re changing things. What I’m trying to argue in the second half of the book is what these Southern white Christians do is they double down on the parts of Southern society they can still control, and increasingly, it becomes more and more narrow. They start with their colleges and universities. The Baptists have Furman in South Carolina and the Methodists have Wofford, and they fight to keep those two institutions segregated. These are private Christian schools, so they didn’t have to abide by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And yet, the administration of those schools saw this as the writing on the wall and were seeking to integrate their schools. So, the laity, once again, rise up. They vote to maintain segregation in schools, but in both those cases, the administration overrules them when it came time for the Methodist denomination to integrate.
And again, when the public schools started to desegregate, they create this whole category of private schools. They continued to try to control the areas that they still have influence and power and authority over to maintain segregation, but they increasingly lose the rhetorical battle. They’re no longer able to openly say, “Listen, God’s a segregationist,” as comfortably as they were a generation before. And this is what I argue in the book is really important because they don’t stop believing. I’m arguing they continue to believe that segregation is right. They don’t stop believing that integration is wrong, but the way they talk about it changes.
They began to talk about it in terms of colorblindness and individualism, and the problem is we have this overbearing government that’s coming in and forcing these changes, and really what we should be doing is treating people not as members of a race, but just treating people as individuals, and we should just be blind to the racial differences between us. This is really significant because if you understand the genesis of this colorblind argument as being in this moment of warding off integration, colorblindness was not a good faith argument. It was a defensive posturing that said, “We don’t want you to force integration on us. Instead, we’re just going to be colorblind and pretend as if race doesn’t matter.” This was a move that segregationists were deploying to maintain segregation in their society.
The reason I think it’s so significant is because it’s the rhetoric. And quite frankly, the thing that drives the theology of a lot of evangelical Christians today is this colorblind, individualistic theology. If you understand where this language comes from, you can begin to understand that we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re incredibly racially divided in the American church, in large part because these colorblind, individualistic tools that white evangelical Christians cling deeply to came from a period of segregation. We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s continuing to reap this divisive harvest.
R&P: Speaking of rhetoric, you also talk about how they used the rhetoric of the family and things concerning the families. Could you like expand on that?
JRH: In the same way that these white Christians became uncomfortable talking about God as a segregationist, they are then in search of this new rhetorical tool. So, colorblindness becomes one. The other one, I argue, is this idea that you have to do what’s best for your family, and that God has made you the head of your family. God has given you children that it’s your Christian duty as a parent to do what’s in their best interest. This becomes the rhetoric to defend the move from integrated public schools to private Christian schools.
R&P: You mentioned the colorblind rhetoric, and also like some of the theology that the segregationists used, has influenced modern evangelical discourse about race. Would you mind expanding on that?
JRH: There’s this weird tension. For the last 20 years, according to sociologists, there’s been this really significant move among white evangelical Christians to embrace racial reconciliation. This has become a big part of white evangelical Christianity, this move to become diverse and have diverse churches as a way to achieve this reconciliation. So, there’s an attentiveness over the last two decades to becoming more racially diverse within American churches, particularly among white evangelical Christians. The problem here is that the tools that get used to bring about this racial reconciliation are very much centered on ideas about just interpersonal relationships and ideas about colorblindness. White evangelical Christians say, “We recognize that there has been a problem in the past. The way we’re going to move forward is becoming friends. Ultimately, we’re trying to get to the point where race doesn’t matter at all. So, we’re getting to the point where we’re colorblind.”
While that might have some particular outcomes at the individual level and the interpersonal level, what that leaves in place are all sorts of structural disparities that continue to persist within American society along racial lines. And so, you get black Christians who enter into these churches, into these relationships, and say, “Well, okay, so there’s an interpersonal thing going on here too, but there’s also a larger reality about the experiences of people of color in this country that we need to address at the structural level or at the level of systems that operate in this country.” And when those conversations start to happen, suddenly these white evangelical Christians pull way back and say, “No! That’s not what we’re talking about here. That stuff doesn’t exist. Or if it exists, it doesn’t exist to the extent that you are claiming exists.” And the problem here is that you can’t just get over these past things and just enter into these relationships.
In other words, these white evangelical Christians have been influenced by decades’ worth of this teaching that tells them don’t talk about race, try not to see race, be colorblind. And when someone tells you that structural racism or systemic racism exists, you can ignore them. In fact, it’s to the point now that any discussion of race at the level outside the individual is increasingly seen as heretical in these white evangelical circles. This is a sign of cultural Marxism. This is critical race theory, the boogeyman of the moment.
What I’m trying to show is that it’s in large part due to the history that has been going on since the civil rights movement. If you want to see that going back all the way to the nineteenth century, we’re all influenced by our histories. Until white evangelical Christians begin to grapple with the historical development of colorblindness and individualistic theology, you’re not going to make much progress in actually bringing about this reconciliation that so many of them profess to have when it comes to the issue of race.