Last year, upon the unveiling of our archives (we are in the process of making every issue digital going back to our beginning), I rehearsed some high and low points in our editorial history. Regarding the latter, I noted that we had, at best, a mixed record during the civil rights era. At a recent conference, I bumped into Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, who was quick to disagree with my assessment. It’s not often I welcome someone telling me I was wrong, but when he explained himself, I was glad he did. I asked him to write a piece for us. No, this doesn’t mean we got everything right and we have nothing to apologize for, but it does show that God has been able to use even a flawed vessel like CT. –Mark Galli, editor in chief.
Far too frequently the evangelical community is criticized for having “missed” the civil rights movement. Too often I read of people bemoaning how their church denomination or publication “failed” its members or readers on racial justice. These depressing statements are stated as matters of fact, while listeners and readers simply assume the expertise of the writer or speaker.
But what if we asked people of that era, especially those directly involved in the civil rights movement at the time?
The comments of Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today (CT), particularly caught my attention. In an editorial on November 27, 2018, Galli commented that “CT’s greatest essays of old still speak today.” On this he is correct. However, Galli then added, “But on civil rights we failed our readers.” At the time, I sent him a letter contradicting this claim of failing readers. Galli has since asked me to expand further on my observations.
Discipled by CT
My first exposure to CT was as a teenager in the spring of 1965. In March of that year, the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights and racial justice were in the newspapers, radio, and TV coverage. Everyone had an opinion. The pastor of the megachurch we attended had nothing good to say either about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement. I had a different opinion.
My experience of spending six years in the integrated, inner-city Central High School in Grand Rapids, for grades 7–12, had taught me a great deal about racial relationships. I had many white friends, especially among my fellow “brainiacs.” I proved my status and was rewarded as “best science student,” “best math student,” and salutatorian of our graduating class. But I also had many black friends, especially in the high school band. I was first flutist and chief piccolo player for five of those school years. I hung out with a few of the black band members before and after daily practice, as well as at athletic games and concerts where we performed. We talked about everything!
By eighth grade I was already struck by the gross unfairness of excluding black students from college-bound courses. It was obvious to me that at least some of my black colleagues in band were as smart as any student in the college-bound math track. These were bright, energetic, and articulate young people who could do our complex pre-Algebra problems accurately in their heads, and they were bored to death with general math.
So I appealed to my high school guidance counselor to allow some of my black friends to take a test that could qualify them to escape general math and launch them on their college-bound path. My guidance counselor was not impressed by my plea: She told me to shut up! To get out! And to never again attempt to teach her anything about academic guidance!
I made similar appeals on several other occasions to other guidance counselors, and each time with disappointing results. Those “guidance counselors” seemed to be the sworn enemies of fairness and opportunity for my black fellow students. It was a rude awakening.
Navigating real racial issues like these, I needed help and encouragement. I needed light to connect biblical teaching with racial justice. I needed a compass to navigate the biblical map in my current and emerging life.
In March 1965, with the Selma Marches in my heart and mind, I spotted, for the first time, a copy of CT in the possession of the youth pastor of our megachurch. One cover line read “Selma: Parable of the Old South.” My interest was aroused. My youth pastor did not think he could even question the opinions of our pastor, but he was willing to lend me that issue of CT. I hurriedly turned to the article on Selma.
After charitably suggesting that “the well-meaning white people of Selma have loved the Negroes”—caring for them in illness and natural disasters like floods—the author quoted Selma blacks:
We don’t want their love; we want our rights!
We would rather be paid enough so that we can do those things for ourselves, so that we could have a little dignity and be regarded as human beings.
The news analysis noted the many Christians, white and black, who were agitating for racial justice, as well as the push back they were encountering. You can imagine how liberating and empowering that was for me.
Soon I was borrowing other CT issues from my youth pastor, and then soon paid for my own subscription. I look back with gratefulness at the godly wisdom I gleaned from the many articles on racial justice. Here are a few more examples:
March 26, 1965, editorial: “Flood Tide in Selma”
All citizens of good will must feel a sense of outrage at the brutality of the Alabama State Police at Selma. … The issue at Selma goes to the root of democracy. … Every tide must turn. It may be that Selma, Alabama, will stand in history as one of the places where the tide turned for justice for Negro citizens. Paradoxically, the blows they received may prove a crucial strike for freedom.
April 9, 1965, editorial: “The Awakening of National Conscience”
The widespread determination that voting rights must not be denied to eligible citizens of any race shows that a sense of justice is deeply imbedded in the American character. … For the Church this should be a time of healing ministry when love is preached, when the Gospel that changes hearts is heard. … America needs a new dedication to godliness and government, and under these to liberty and law.
April 9, 1965, article: “The March to Montgomery,” a glowing eye-witness account of the marches from Selma to Montgomery.
The nun who turned a smiling face to the cursing, jeering crowd on the sidewalk and who raised her fingers in the old Churchill ‘V’ signal is a surer sign of the future than Sheriff Clark and his badge that reads “Never.” [There is] an inescapable responsibility for consistent application to Negros of liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Great problems remain, but a new page of history has been turned.
April 23, 1965, article: “Church and Government”
Let the Church speak out with authority about the Gospel committed to it. Let it denounce evils that the light of revealed truth exposes. Let it cry out for economic justice, racial good will, social order and decency.
May 21, 1965, news article: “Billy Graham in Alabama,” which reported on Graham’s meetings with black and white leaders, especially laying the groundwork for an integrated evangelistic crusade in Montgomery, epicenter of such momentous racial confrontations just two months earlier.
The open wounds of Alabama’s continuing social conflict received the healing balm of the Gospel during recent appearances in the state by evangelist Billy Graham.
July 2, 1965, news article: “Billy Graham in Montgomery: A Stride Toward Reconciliation”
In Montgomery, Alabama, eight days of evangelistic meetings with Billy Graham in mid-June produced a new potential for personal and social reconciliation in the estranged South.
The article included inspiring details about the integrated choir, the integrated seating in the stadium, and the integrated spiritual counseling of those who came forward during the invitation times.
How refreshing it has been to re-read those 54-year-old pieces. I want to bear testimony that the lessons I learned through the timely, transformative, bold, biblical journalism of CT in 1965 significantly elevated and empowered a civil rights—and broader human rights—vision and calling God had already started to develop inside of me.
Five Key Moments
Articles such as these emboldened me in my ministry many times in the years to come, but five moments in particular come to mind.
First, as a 19-year-old, I was elected to be the chair of the outreach committee of our megachurch in Grand Rapids. I was honored and excited. I led the committee to design and implement a program to more actively engage our church’s changing neighborhood. We introduced the gospel to unbelievers and ourselves to all our neighbors, and more of them started coming to the church. But I noticed that new black families who had received the gospel suddenly stopped coming. Disappointed, I visited those families to encourage them in their new faith and in the church. They told me that they loved our church and its many ministries, but our pastor had told them that they would be “more comfortable” in an all-black church down the street.
I confronted the pastor about this, but he was unwilling to welcome these new godly brothers and sisters into the church. But I knew better. Those CT articles helped give me the courage to tell my dear pastor, “You are wrong about that, Pastor.” I resigned, sadly and in protest, from our church’s outreach committee.
Second, when I attended the Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary there were black and white students, but they were treated differently. And in class discussions, when I cast a biblical vision of people of different races doing church together (as in Antioch, Acts 11:19–21), my professors demeaned the idea as impossible and inappropriate in our time.
But I knew better. Those CT articles about Billy Graham’s fully integrated crusade in Montgomery, Alabama, had deepened my hermeneutic and strengthened my vision.
Third, I accepted my first appointment as a senior pastor. It was for a church of 300 white brothers and sisters in Scottsville, Virginia, early in 1971. It was in an intensely racially charged geographic area that was half black and half white. The KKK headquarters for three counties was less than 3,000 feet from the parsonage. Within the first month, I invited all of the pastors, black and white, to come together to meet at our parsonage, share a meal, and pray together. This kind of meeting had never been done before. Most of the white pastors refused to come after the first meeting, and two of them started preaching against me from their pulpits. Nevertheless, the remaining black pastors and white pastors helped to transform that community by setting examples and linking our churches year after year in collaborative summer Bible school, Friday night coffeehouse for youth, and joint Thanksgiving and Maundy Thursday services. These programs thrived.
The KKK and other haters tried to stop us. But I knew better; those CT articles had strengthened my resolve.
Fourth, after completing my PhD in philosophy at the University of Virginia, I taught for a year at a college in North Carolina. During that year, I accepted a tenure-track position at Wheaton College. Wheaton was founded in 1860 by abolitionists, but when I began teaching in 1979, the student body was 98 percent white, recruitment for minority students was grossly underfunded, and there were absurdly few minority members on the faculty, with none on the governing board. I launched a successful campaign to add an outstanding African American leader-scholar, who had received her BA and MA from Wheaton, to the board. When I founded and directed Wheaton’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics, 1982–1989, half of the seminars and conferences we created focused on racial reconciliation.
To be sure, I met frequent resistance from multiple sides. But I knew better. Those CT articles had enriched my vision and determination.
Fifth, I was honored to serve as an at-large member of the governing board of the National Association of Evangelicals, actively representing about 40-million evangelical Americans from 2004 to 2015. Early on, I helped craft the NAE Principles of Civic Engagement in its guide for public policy, For the Health of the Nation, published in 2004 and unanimously reaffirmed by the board in 2007. In spite of my efforts, racial reconciliation did not make it to the list of seven principles. However, I am grateful that an eighth principle of racial reconciliation was added in 2018.
There had been resistance to that during my board service. But I knew better. Those CT articles had enhanced my understanding and resolve.
It is impossible to measure the full effect of well-crafted journalism on an attentive teenaged mind, but I would hate to think how my life and ministry would have been different without the clear civil rights perspective of CT in 1965 and after. Those CT articles profoundly strengthened my vision and resolve, and have continued to serve as a source of godly wisdom and inspiration. Doubtless, they have helped countless other CT readers as well.
Thank you, CT, for not failing your readers on civil rights. And thank you, Lord God!
Paul H. de Vries, pauldevries.com, is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, author, and speaker. He is a specialist in biblical hermeneutics and applied ethics.