In 1971, British broadcaster Michael Parkinson sat down with Muhammad Ali for an interview covering various aspects of his life, his career, and the American civil rights struggle. When asked why he became a Muslim, Ali described winning the gold medal in boxing for the United States in the 1960 Summer Olympics only to come back to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and a life of segregation. One particular anecdote crystallized the dehumanization: Fresh off his international triumph, Ali was refused service at a local restaurant because of his skin color.
During the interview, Ali recounted how the Christian church where he served and worshiped and which he undoubtedly made proud as an Olympic gold-medal boxer refused to stand up for him in the face of discrimination. He spoke frankly about how his church’s lack of action motivated his transition away from Christianity and catalyzed the pursuit of his faith elsewhere.
Watching current events in America, I can’t help but sense the parallels. Like Ali’s childhood church, white evangelical churches have failed to lead and take action for racial reconciliation in our great country. I say this not out of arrogance or judgment but with deep grief and disillusionment as a Christian myself. Yet even more troubling, the history of the white evangelical church in the United States shows it to have been a major proponent of white nationalism, white supremacy, and white superiority over the last two centuries.
Ronald J. Sider, president emeritus of Christians for Social Action, recently affirmed this by writing:
White evangelicals have too often participated in, and even led, … racism. It was white evangelical Christians in the South (helped by northerners) that passed the laws and organized the violence that effectively squelched the progress made by African-Americans in the first two decades after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It was white evangelicals who led or tolerated thousands of lynchings for about 100 years. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision ending “separate but equal” school segregation, it was white evangelicals who organized segregated private “Christian” Academies so their white children would not have to go to school with black children.
The promotion of white nationalism by white evangelicalism reaches into the present. One of the largest, most visible, and most dominant segments of the American church, it has supported white nationalist leaders and beliefs, including those tied to our current president and his administration for the last three and a half years. How can evangelical Christians ever support a leader whose words, conduct, and behavior so starkly reveal his racist character and disposition?
As a black man and a Christ follower, I grew up in a predominantly white Methodist church, and much of my Christian discipleship, from my teenage years to adulthood, was supplemented by white evangelical teaching. It wasn’t until I got to college and attended a black Baptist church that I realized there was so much more to the role of the church in American life and my experience of Christ in society that was, and still is, particularly consequential to me.
Nevertheless, with so many Christian leaders supporting Donald Trump, I tried hard to stay open to something I was perhaps missing. After all, some of the same Christian leaders who have praised, supported, advised, and stood by the president are Christian leaders I’ve admired. Some of these leaders have even put forward the idea that Donald Trump is somehow God’s modern-day Cyrus, a chosen man to restore Christian values to the United States and the federal government like Cyrus, king of Persia, restored the nation of Israel after the Babylonian exile (2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1).
This reasoning permeates many conservative evangelical circles, despite the fact that biblical leadership is not merely transactional. It is primarily a matter of character. God’s ways may not be our ways (Isa. 55:8–9), but they are never at odds with his righteousness. Furthermore, Jesus teaches believers to discern character like inspectors of agriculture, evaluating others and systems by the fruit they produce (Luke 6:44–46). The Bible also teaches us how in the last days, many false prophets and false messiahs will come forth in Jesus’ name to deceive many (Matt. 7:15, 24:11), even the church (Matt. 24:24).
Theologian Rob Schenck described the alignment of white evangelicals with President Trump as a “Faustian deal” whereby he receives unconditional allegiance and religious cover in exchange for coming through on the conservative policy wish list. Pat Robertson, a major figure among many white evangelicals, offered rare public criticism of President Trump for using the Bible as a prop in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, DC, in June. But beyond that, too many in this segment of the church remain steadfastly supportive, in anticipation, perhaps, of his appointing a third conservative Supreme Court justice now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has died. The hope is that the stacking of the court to the right will lead to a fundamental rebalancing of federal legislation and societal norms in the United States for generations to come.
The intent of a political scheme known as the Conservative Legal Movement, at least thirty years in the making, is to ensure victory in the so-called culture wars. Never mind the countless number of black and brown people harmed by a criminal justice system rigged against them, God’s demand of honest scales in our dealings (Prov. 16:11), or that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was wrongly accused, convicted, and executed by a corrupt legal system. Add to this restrictions on nonwhite European immigration and rolling back the rights of minorities, effectively tilting the nation into a decidedly backward sociopolitical footing.
As I process this movement in relationship to my Christian faith, I stand with my white evangelical brothers and sisters on certain issues, like the sanctity of life before birth, for instance. I just wonder how many of them will sincerely stand with me to affirm the same for black lives after? How many white evangelical churches, leaders, and organizations will commit to a platform and culture of meaningful and comprehensive anti-racism? How many will consistently teach their flock that racism is sin and that there will be no tolerance for it in the house of God? How many will promote qualified black and brown staff members to places of prominence and authority in their ministries? How many will publicly denounce white supremacy and police brutality and support social equity, including criminal justice reform and economic justice for people of color?
Every institution in society needs to take part in the worldwide effort to secure racial equity. My hope, while faint, is that white evangelicals will also reform their culture and join in the fight to ensure that black lives matter in America and around the world. My fear is if they don’t, other groups will arise to fill the leadership vacuum and become the spiritual and moral compass supplanting the love, transformative power, and eschatological hope for divine healing, reconciliation, and restoration only Jesus Christ can truly provide. The political pendulum will swing left again, but without the best of the Christian church, where will that swing lead?
The church must be heavily self-reflective as it seeks to reach today’s young and passionate generation, who, like Ali, hunger for justice and truth. The righteously indignant may rush to conclude that the whole American church has bankrupted itself morally in its disregard for black lives and its thirst for political power. Like Ali, they may decide a fulfillment to their faith in a God who will stand up for their dignity and humanity must be found elsewhere.
Gaius Charles is an actor, director, and producer. He holds a master’s degree in religious studies from Drew University. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @gaiuscharles.