The Myth of Colorblind Christians
Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era
- ISBN: 9781479809387
- Published By: NYU Press
- Published: November 2021
In May 2023, Christianity Today reported on data showing that the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), had experienced a substantial decline in membership over the previous year. “It hasn’t seen an annual decrease this big in more than a century,” David Roach reported, “when an exodus of Black churches followed the Civil War.”
However, as the connection between the SBC’s current decline and its racist roots as a slavery-defending organization and contributor to American segregation does not require looking as far back as the Civil War. In The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era, Jesse Curtis argues that colorblind rhetoric has allowed evangelicals to reinforce White supremacy into the present, even after overt segregation became unpalatable.
Curtis contends that evangelicals “invested in whiteness” because doing so returned dividends to bigger churches and increased political influence. In colleges, conferences, and congregations, White evangelicals marginalized their Black counterparts who sought systemic reform, hijacking their arguments about spiritual colorblindness to advocate for the political and religious status quo.
In six tightly paced chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, Curtis details the origins of evangelical colorblindness and how it manifested itself in the movement’s core institutions. He shows how colorblindness allowed White evangelicals ultimately to embrace a superficial diversity while sustaining fundamentally racist religious and political systems in the United States, not to mention denominations like the SBC.
As Curtis shows in chapter 1, the notion of colorblindness rooted in spiritual equality initially challenged racist systems, especially as used by civil rights activists in the mid-20th century. Black evangelicals like Howard Jones “became early vocal exponents of a kind of colorblind Christianity” (24). Yet as civil rights became more controversial in the 1960s, Billy Graham—who had hired Jones and initially allied himself with Martin Luther King Jr.—retreated into a “politics of church primacy” (27) that adopted the anti-segregationist sentiment of Black colorblindness but stripped it of any social implications. By 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington, Graham advocated against “forced integration.” As Curtis puts it, Graham “borrowed language from segregationists and framed the gospel as an alternative to black aspirations for freedom” (35).
Curtis then shows how this rhetorical move—colorblindness as undermining social action rather than inspiring it—worked practically in evangelical institutions. In chapter 2, Curtis focuses on evangelical colleges, which belatedly embraced efforts to diversify their campuses then pulled back after Black students demanded reforms beyond what schools had envisioned. as Administrators felt their “unity in Christ” was threatened by a focus on racial inequity. Further, Black activism proved “theologically disturbing,” especially at evangelical colleges. “Thinking about whiteness . . . raised the possibility that their faith was not unmediated divine truth but was instead a culturally and racially conditioned religiosity” (73). This theme continues in chapter 4, focusing on evangelical colleges’ efforts to open urban campuses even as the institutions themselves fled inner cities. Racialized fears of violence doomed urban campuses to low enrollments, reflecting and reinforcing the idea that true evangelicalism was White and suburban, not Black and urban.
Chapters 3 and 5, however, are the highlight of the book, focusing on how evangelical leaders adapted caste-based church growth strategies from India to expand congregations in the US. Embracing “homogenous” growth, evangelicals “baptized” rather than challenged their segregation and turned it into a strategy for increasing church membership among White Protestants uncomfortable with challenges to the racial status quo. As Curtis powerfully summarizes, the Church Growth Movement (CGM) “enabled white evangelicals to recast their segregated churches and ongoing appeals to white identity as faithful evangelism rather than racism” (79). CGM leaders from Fuller Theological Seminary then sidelined Black and Latino critics from international conferences dedicated to growing evangelical Christianity.
Curtis’s impressively thorough research into at least eleven archives pays off with remarkable quotes from CGM leaders, as when they argued in 1977, “Men like to become Christians within their own homogenous units, without crossing linguistic, class, or race barriers,” claiming that this segregation is “normal, biblical, and should be allowed and encouraged” (156). Or when CGM founder Donald McGavran in 1981 justified excluding Black activists from evangelical conferences by describing them as “Christo-pagan” (162).
Although Curtis intentionally sidesteps thorny definitional questions, he has written a powerful and provocative book that raises deep questions about the very nature of American evangelicalism. The Myth of Colorblind Christians shows a movement that embraced Black members only when they accepted its implicit White supremacy. Indeed, notwithstanding Curtis’ care to include Black evangelicals critical of the turn away from their initial vision of colorblindness, his work makes clear that at every moment, when White leaders faced a choice between a progressive vision of true racial equality and the status quo of their fundamentalist forebears, they chose the latter—changing only the vocabulary as social norms required. In other words, after finishing this book, readers may wonder whether “White evangelicalism” isn’t a redundant phrase.
The book’s chronological organization does some disservice to the continuity of the parallel campus- and congregation-based stories Curtis tells, splitting them into alternating chapters, but more substantive is one missing piece of historical context: Curtis implies rather than describes how his work debunks the myth that evangelical congregations grew while mainline churches shrank in the late 20th century because of the former’s greater adherence to orthodox Christianity. Thus, The Myth of Colorblind Christians is an even more important historiographical intervention into debates over conservative Protestantism and its political influence than its author gives it credit for.
Paul A. Anthony is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.Paul AnthonyDate Of Review:July 31, 2023