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The deafening silence among conservative White Christians
I’d planned to write this week on the complex history of abortion, and of the rising “abolitionism” within conservative evangelical circles. But a busy week of travel and spotty WiFi meant that I didn’t post on Friday, and by Saturday afternoon, I was struggling to absorb the news of the horrific white supremacist shooting at the Buffalo grocery store.
Right now, it doesn’t feel appropriate to write on any other topic. I find myself perusing the names of the victims, reflecting on vibrant lives snuffed out, lives insufficiently encapuslated in a paragraph or two in the New York Times: Ruth, a devoted member of her A.M.E. Zion church, a woman who sang in her church and gared for her husband. Roberta Drury, who was running to the store to get groceries to make dinner: “She was always the center of attention and made the whole room smile and laugh.” Aaron Salter, the retired police officer working as a security guard who shot the suspect, but to no avail since he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Celestine Chaney, who was picking up strawberries for strawberry shortcakes.
More details will continue to come out about the events surrounding the shooting, but the gunman’s manifesto has already made his motivation abundantly clear: he believed in “replacement theory,” the racist notion that there is an intentional plan to replace native-born white Americans with nonwhite immigrants.
Not long ago, replacement theory could be found only in far-right white nationalist fringe groups, but with the help Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, the theory has gone mainstream. Last December, a national poll found “that nearly half of Republicans agree to at least some extent with the idea that there’s a deliberate intent to ‘replace’ native-born Americans with immigrants.”
Reflecting on all of this as a historian, I find myself drawn to context. The gunman drove 200 miles to a historically Black neighborhood that, according to data from the 2010 census, is the nation’s sixth most segregated community. Segregated by design, the neighborhood is a case study in systemic racism.
As a historian of white evangelicalism, I also find myself thinking of the context of the recently manufactured anti-CRT campaign. As a close observer of white evangelical communities, I’ve seen this reactionary movement take hold in real time. I’ve watched friends get pilloried for calling on fellow Christians to pursue racial justice. (I’m old enough to remember when this was still an acceptable thing to do in most evangelical spaces.) I’ve had my own speaking event cancelled because of wholly fabricated allegations that I’m a CRT activist. (Maybe I would be if I had the expertise, but I don’t, and I’m not.) I’ve watched evangelical leaders push the anti-CRT agenda knowing full well that not a single member of their churches is likely to have had any substantive exposure to actual Critical Race Theory. Yet I’ve watched them remain absolutely silent as “replacement theory” has started to infiltrate their communities. Silent in the face of the racist histories that have shaped the towns in which they live and the churches they lead. I’ve watched evangelical leaders condemn a Black brother in Christ for preaching biblical justice—deeply rooted in Gospel teachings—while defending White “brothers in Christ” who promote explicit racism but purportedly “get the Gospel right.”
Enough is enough.
If your pastor cannot find a voice to condemn racism not just in the abstract, but also in tangible forms such as the pernicious spread of “replacement theory” through Fox News, other conservative media, and members of the Republican party, call them out. If they can raise the alarm over a half-baked notion of “CRT” but end up being (by design) utterly unable or unwilling to address racism, white supremacy, racial violence, and systemic inequality, call them out on this.
It is no longer tenable to pretend that “good Christians” do not hold to pernicious beliefs about race. (Fact check: It never was.)
If there is any doubt about this, just look at the price evangelicals who do speak out against racism have paid. Or read some of the comments on this thread:
How should Christians respond? There is no quick fix. As Willie Jennings makes clear, we will fail “to come to grips with the racial and violent reality of America” until we “comprehend fully how deeply and thickly race and Christian faith are entangled in the Western world.” Until we do, “we repeat the mistake continuously in this country of trying to address our racial animus and the violence it fosters as though it were a virus that occasionally attacks our social body, rather than seeing the truth: that racial animus is a constituting reality of our social body. Our racial struggles are intractable because we refuse to see how deeply their roots are embedded in the ways we think, live, and imagine the world socially. Race in America is a form of religious faith, and we will never be able to understand or address it with the necessary knowledge, energy, or commitment until we comprehend its true architecture.” To do so requires unfliching truth-telling.
Truth-telling requires education. It requires knowing the realities of this world, learning of its structural inequalities, being attuned to individual stories and to one’s deeply embedded blind spots. And it requires speaking truth to power.
As a first step, I suggest looking for tangible ways to support those who are on the front lines, speaking for truth and justice. Here are a few simple but collectively powerful ways to do so, but please feel free to add your own in the newsletter comments:
1. Support Jemar Tisby’s work by becoming a paid subscriber to his substack newsletter.
2. Purchase Christina Edmondson, Michelle Higgins, and Ekemini Uwan’s new book Truth’s Table.
3. Purchase Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination.
4. Become a monthly supporter of The Witness.
5. Subscribe to Robert P. Jones’ substack for essential up-to-the-moment data on issues relating to race and white Christian nationalism.
And remember Willie Jennings’s words: Until we “comprehend fully how deeply and thickly race and Christian faith are entangled in the Western world,” we will inevitably fail “to come to grips with the racial and violent reality of America.”