Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era
- ISBN: 9781479803279
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: May 2021
Historians such as Anthea Butler have recently argued that we cannot understand modern evangelicalism and its fundamentalist predecessor without understanding that racism is a feature of the movement and not a bug. Historian Daniel Bare disagrees. Focusing on the heyday of American fundamentalism between the world wars, he identifies a handful of African American religious leaders, writers, and institutions that identified with fundamentalism. He then shows how they sometimes applied their faith in ways that differed from whites who claimed the same religious identification. He aims to integrate Black self-identified fundamentalists into the historiography on white fundamentalism and to take on those historians who have argued that “fundamentalism” is a racialized term that we should not apply to Black Christians.
To do this, Bare identifies a few central assumptions that are necessary to make his arguments work. He sees fundamentalism as a movement defined by theology—by adherents’ affirmation of a set of general beliefs and doctrines (which were mostly uncontroversial among wide swaths of Christians in this era). The fundamentalist movement is not, in his telling, defined by practices, networks, or cultural affinities. In attempting to broaden the number of African Americans he positions within the fundamentalist tent, Bare argues that the affirmation of certain doctrines by some Black Christians by itself makes them fundamentalists, whether or not they identified as such. If a Black Christian, he explains, affirmed a doctrine that appeared somewhere within the ninety articles contained in the twelve-volume Fundamentals, a series of booklets written entirely by white men that appeared between 1910-1915, then they are probably a fundamentalist.
However, there are multiple problems with this argument. Bare conflates the publication of the Fundamentals with the subsequent rise of the fundamentalist movement. Many of the authors who contributed to (or whose work was reprinted in) the Fundamentals were not even fundamentalists themselves. They were traditional conservatives, and they vehemently disagreed with fundamentalists on numerous issues. Additionally, despite fifteen years of scholarship by D. G. Hart and others explaining the differences between fundamentalists and conservatives, Bare treats the two groups as the same. Bare even notes that modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick in the early 1920s made a distinction between fundamentalists and conservatives and yet he fails to interrogate the differences and how recent historians have explained them. Furthermore, in crafting this argument about the Fundamentals, not only did Bare overlook the rich archival materials at Biola University on the Fundamentals, but also he ignored the work of those like Timothy Gloege who have carefully documented their history. Gloege analyzes the construction of the Fundamentals and demonstrates that what it represented was far more complex than Bare notes.
More problematic, Bare mischaracterizes the state of the field on fundamentalism in multiple ways. First, he repeatedly claims that historians of fundamentalism who problematize the racial constructs embedded in the label “fundamentalist” discounted those African Americans who self-identified as fundamentalists, that they determine “that African Americans can be safely ignored” (8). But they have not ignored African Americans at all. Instead, historians have focused on the relationship between Black Christianities and interwar fundamentalism to problematize categories like “fundamentalism” that previous generations of historians have used uncritically. Unlike Bare, they do not believe that theological ideas exist independent of cultures and contexts. They see race as a construct and analyze how fundamentalism and race function together and reinforced power hierarchies.
Second, Bare mischaracterizes the arguments of those historians working on fundamentalism for whom race is a central category of analysis. He claims that Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, in her excellent Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars (University of Alabama Press, 2017), dismissed the subjects of her book as “inauthentic” or “non-existent” (6). She does no such thing. Rather than acknowledge Mathews’ important contributions, he distorts her arguments in order to elevate his own.
In not taking race as a historical and cultural construct into account, Bare ends up treating some of his sources superficially. For example, he explains that some Black ministers cited or quoted famous fundamentalists like Billy Sunday and A. C. Dixon (99). Both of these men where extraordinarily racist—Bare might have acknowledged this fact and offered some critical analysis as to why some Black ministers might have made this move. But he does not. And in the rare instances that white fundamentalists and Black Christians did collaborate in religious spaces, Bare ignores the power dynamics at work. That white congregations welcomed Black choirs to their services, for example, did not make them egalitarian or integrationist.
Black Fundamentalists uncovers some important and powerful new sources and shows us how some African American Christians wrestled with some of the great theological issues of the era. Bare could have acknowledged the excellent work upon which we all build and then proceeded to carve out a new lane for thinking about the role of race in the interwar era based on his research and subjects. But instead, he mischaracterizes the recent historiography in order to tear it down and ignores other relevant scholarship to overstate the originality of his own. In the end, this approach undermines his goal of getting historians to think more deeply about Black Christian contributions to American religion in the interwar era.
Matthew Avery Sutton is the Berry Family Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and the chair of the Department of History at Washington State University.Matthew Avery SuttonDate Of Review:July 30, 2022