Neither Slave Nor Free: Jemar Tisby and the Moral Limits of American Protestantism

Neither Slave Nor Free: Jemar Tisby and the Moral Limits of American Protestantism

“But is it supported by Scripture?” he asked me as we stood in the taco truck line after the church service. The “he” we’ll call Just-Asking-Questions. The “it” was the idea that the history of racial injustice in America, enabled by Protestant churches, required some sort of response in the present. We heard the argument in favor of the idea in a sermon we had just heard at a multicultural church in Palo Alto, California. The sermon was delivered by Jemar Tisby, a Christian theologian currently pursuing his PhD in history at the University of Mississippi. It was a compressed version of his recent book The Color of Compromise, on the American Protestant church’s (occasional) resistance to and (frequent) support of white supremacy.

I grew up in Evangelical Christian churches in Kansas, but it had been years since I attended an American evangelical church service. The church service in Palo Alto was different though. The congregation was more diverse. I didn’t recognize the worship songs (though the plaintively earnest chord progressions were just as I remembered them). The sermon content, white American Protestantism’s complicity in racism, was also different. The evangelical churches that I went to growing up didn’t talk about the legacy of racism. They didn’t even talk about Martin Luther King Jr. For all I know they’re not talking about him still.

Just-Asking-Questions seemed like he came from a background similar to my own, given his need for Biblical justification for any deviation from his view of the world. It was a worldview that included, he informed me over tacos, the desire to get black voters “off the Democratic Party plantation” because the founders of the KKK, he informed me as if imparting secret knowledge, were Democrats. 

The conversation with Just-Asking-Questions was surreal. It wasn’t just the discovery of a member of the D’Souzan school of American historiography in the wild. It was also because we had just heard a sermon full of historical examples challenging the American Evangelical belief that “just following Scripture” is all we need to behave morally. 

Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise can be seen as doing for white American Protestantism what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is doing for the criminal justice system, or Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is doing for housing policy. Like Alexander and Rothstein, Tisby draws attention to both the stubbornly persistent legacy of white supremacy in American culture and our desire to obscure that fact. 

Also like Alexander and Rothstein, Tisby takes the long view of history with an eye for the inconsistent use of supposedly neutral principles to racist ends. In the case of  white American Protestants, the neutral principle was a doctrine sometimes called “the spirituality of the church,” which sought to separate the church from the realm of politics. When white supremacy was the status quo, some white Protestants used the doctrine to discourage political engagement for social change. When white supremacy was threatened, they used the doctrine to keep the state out of the internal affairs of the church. When white supremacy needed other methods, they abandoned the doctrine entirely. Ultimately, whiteness was the rock on which they built their church, and the threat of black equality would not prevail against it.

Hornwell’s “spirituality of the church”

One of the major advocates for the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” was the Southern theologian James Hanley Thornwell. In the 1850s, as abolitionists and slavery advocates rhetorically shot at each other over the status of slavery in the U.S. Constitution, Thornwell attempted to pull the church from the cross-fire. The church, according to Thornwell, “had no commission to construct society afresh… to re-arrange the distribution of its classes, or to change the forms of its political constitutions.” As Thornwell saw it the Bible was the only “constitution” the church bound itself to, and its authority was only binding within the confines of the church itself.

This theological position wasn’t new, however. It existed in practice since America was a collection of colonies bunched along the Atlantic coast. As slaves became a more central part of the colonial economic order of the colony of Virginia, the colony’s General Assembly attempted to police the “spirituality of the church” via statute. In the colonial era, some of the people enslaved, as well as some of those claiming to be their masters, were under the impression that Christian baptism freed a person from the status of slavery, as was the longstanding custom in England. 

Wanting to make sure that those enslaved had the blessings of Christian salvation without losing their lucrative forced labor system, the all-white Virginia General Assembly intervened in September 1667. The Assembly passed a law informing the white colonists that “It is enacted and declared by this General Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage and freedom”.

Christian ministers reinforced this point by creating a separate liturgy for the baptisms of black individuals who were legally classified as slaves. Anglican minister Francis Le Jau, who did missionary work in the colony of South Carolina, had all enslaved individuals make a unique affirmation before receiving Christian Baptism: 

You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Tisby summarizes this theological point succinctly, “Christianity could save one’s soul but not break one’s chains.”

Civil War and the fracturing of American Protestantism

Such was America’s moderate to conservative white Protestant theological consensus up to the time of Thornwell. As the Civil War approached, however, the theological consensus started cracking. Protestant denominations, controlled predominantly by Northern leadership, began demanding that ministers in leadership positions not be owners of human beings. Southern ministers balked. 

The Baptist General Convention of Alabama demanded that their Northern co-congregationalists recognize “the distinct, explicit avowal that slaveholders are eligible and entitled equally with non-slaveholders, to all the privileges and immunities of their several unions.” The Baptist Conventions of the Northern states refused to give equal rights to such “privileges and immunities.” The Baptists of the South seceded from their Northern co-religionists in 1845 to become the Southern Baptist Convention, sixteen years before their governments did. They did not apologize for fracturing the Baptists over their right to own humans until the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995.

The Baptists were not the only major Protestant denomination that split along regional lines over the question of slavery (the Methodists divided in 1844). Despite Thornwell’s wishes to keep the political and spiritual separate, the spiritual divide of the denominations became the precursor for the eventual political fracture of the nation in 1861.

Reconstruction and white redemption

The end of the Civil War led to Reconstruction, resulting in a temporary change in the status of black Americans. They were freed from slavery (the 13th Amendment), given rights previously only held by white citizens (the 14th Amendment), and black men were given the right to vote (the 15th Amendment). These changes were exclusively changes in the political sphere. If the South had been consistent with its prior embrace of Thornwell’s “spirituality of the church” it would have taken this change in stride. As Thornwell had observed before the War the church “had no commission… to change the forms of [the country’s] political constitutions.”

The South took a different theological tack. As Tisby observes, the term used by white Southerners to describe their reign of terror against the newly freed blacks, Redemption, was a term that drawn from their Christian religious context. “In biblical terms,” Tisby notes “redemption refers to God’s plan to save people from their sins and make them into a holy nation. Christ achieved the redemption of his followers through his sacrificial death on the cross.”

The white Southern “redeemers,” as they called themselves, indeed instituted many sacrificial deaths on their path to save themselves from the perceived sin of black equality. Those deaths were not theirs, but almost entirely those of the newly freed blacks. The lynching tree served as a cross, providing a sign to the reinstitution of white power. Some white American Protestants, it seems, were against theological interevention when it was contrary to their interests (ending slavery), but had no problem acting on theological grounds when it served their interests (maintaining white supremacy). 

Jim Crow, fundamentalism, and the return of the spiritual church

Over the next few decades after the Civil War, the former Confederate soldiers made themselves white as snow, washed pure by the blood of emancipated blacks. The white South enshrined their new spiritual covenant through various forms of legal apartheid called Jim Crow. They also enshrined it in myth through stories of heroic cavaliers fighting for the Lost Cause, a story in which white Southern defeat was in fact not defeat, but God calling them to a higher holiness.

The white North, while marginally less explicit in its racism, created its own racial boundaries through restrictive covenants on houses prohibiting the sale of property to non-white home buyers. The theological controversies of Northern whites also had an indirect racial component – specifically Modernist-Fundamentalist split in white American Protestantism in the early 20th century. 

In the typical telling of this controversy, the central dispute was over whether the Bible was a series of books written by people inspired by their belief in God (the Modernist position), or an inerrant single text divinely inspired by God (the Fundamentalist position). Tisby highlights another divide: whether the Bible was concerned with redeeming society (Modernists of the Social Gospel school), or with redeeming individual souls through conversion (Fundamentalists generally). 

As Tisby notes, the black Protestant church of the early 20th century found itself homeless in this debate. On one hand, the black church’s view of Scriptural inerrancy was in line with the position staked out in The Fundamentals, a foundational collection of essays for Fundamentalist American Protestantism. But black Protestant members did not learn about this common theological ground with the white Fundamentalists from The Fundamentals. When the twelve volume set was mailed out to Protestant ministers across the U.S., black ministers were excluded from the mailing list.

But black Protestants also found themselves in common cause with the world-transforming spirituality of the Modernists. Since black Protestants were barred from purchasing homes in middle class (white) neighborhoods in the North, and excluded from any Jim Crowed white space in the South, they longed for social transformation like the Social Gospel Modernists. Here the Fundamentalists disagreed, “To those who are crying for equality and opportunity and improved material conditions” intoned an essay in The Fundamentals, “the Church repeats the divine message ‘Ye must be born again.’” 

Civil rights and civil whites

This focus on saving individual souls served the white racialized status quo of the Jim Crow South and its more indirect equivalents in the North just fine. But as in the 1860s, the theological consensus was deemed insufficient in the face of a mounting threat—this time,  the new black activism. White, conservative Protestants did not take this threat in a spirit of Christian quietism. 

As the Civil Rights movement was at its high watermark in 1965, a young fundamentalist minister in Lynchburg, Virginia by the name of Jerry Falwell delivered a sermon called “Ministers and Marches.” The sermon questioned the sincerity of Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violent protest. Echoing the 1914 essay in The Fundamentals, Falwell intoned, “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.”

But it wasn’t just small town fundamentalists like Falwell taking this line. Two years prior, more moderate ministers of non-fundamentalist churches in the city of Birmingham, Alabama wrote an open letter to Martin Luther King, then languishing in a Birmingham jail for civil disobedience. While acknowledging the “natural impatience” of American blacks for justice, they insisted the courts, not the streets were the proper venue for seeking justice. Without questioning King’s commitment to non-violence, they feared the violent response to street protests of Civil Rights activists undermined the democratic process and led to bloodshed.

While this ministerial letter was long on sympathy, it was short on historical context. It ignored centuries of enslavement and the violent, white-led reversal of black rights after Reconstruction ended in the 1870s. It also ignored that litigation proved to be an imperfect instrument of social justice: almost a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, almost no Southern states were in compliance with the court’s holding on school integration.

While the moderate ministers were more sympathetic to King’s movement than the fundamentalist Falwell, they shared Falwell’s opposition to direct political engagement on issues of race. If King had followed the advice of the moderate ministers of Birmingham, it would have had the same practical effect that Falwell’s advice would have had: no change to the racial status quo in South, or the nation. King famously sent a reply letter declining to follow their advice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were the result. 

Falwell apparently took note of King’s successes. In 1976 he did a ministry tour across the United States called “I Love America” in which he stated, “This idea of ‘religion and politics don’t mix’ was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” In 1979 Jerry Falwell, former preacher of this satanic doctrine, formed the Moral Majority, Inc. No longer satisfied with merely saving souls, his new motto was “get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptized, and get ‘em registered.” 

Falwell’s description of the Moral Majority fits with what we now normally think of as the white Evangelical political view: “pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-America.” It was the Christianity I was taught in church growing up. 

The Devil and Bob Jones

Surprisingly, given the current state of the national debate, it wasn’t abortion that roused white Evangelicals to battle, but limits on religious exemption from taxation. After the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, W.A. Criswell of the Southern Baptist Convention stated “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother… that it became an individual person.” 

Criswell’s statements seems to have reflected a general trend towards liberalization in his denomination. In 1970 a poll of Southern Baptist pastors revealed that 70% of the ministers supported abortion to protect the physical or mental health of the mother, 64% supported abortion when there was fetal deformity, and 71% supported abortions when woman got pregnant as the result of a man raping her.

But it was not the death of the unborn that riled the godly. It was taxes. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government began taking a more aggressive stance on integrating public schools. As a result, white Southern parents began retreating from public schools in the 1970s, forming private, “charitable” schools for white children. 

One public school district in Mississippi was particularly egregious. White attendance collapsed from 771 white students to 28 white students in 1969. By 1970 the white student attendance in the district public school was zero. The white children were now attending the whites only private schools. In response, three black families brought a suit against the U.S. Treasury Department seeking an injunction prohibiting the Department from designating these segregated private schools as “charitable” and, therefore, tax exempt. The district court issued the injunction and eventually the Supreme Court upheld the trial court in the 1971 decision Green v. Connally

But like Brown v. Board of Education before it, the opinion was only as good as the federal agencies willing to enforce it. The IRS didn’t start seriously attacking segregated schools until 1976, when Democrat and born-again-Christian Jimmy Carter became president. One of the IRS’ targets was Bob Jones University, which faced losing its tax-exempt status not because it refused to integrate (it already had in 1971), but its refusal to permit interractial dating. As then-president Bob Jones III stated, “There are three basic races – Oriental, Caucasian, and Negroid. At BJU, everyone dates within those three basic races.” At a another time, he clarified “Even if this were discrimination, which it is not [….] it is a sincere religious belief founded on what we think the Bible teaches, no matter whether anyone believes it or not.” 

The backlash against the new regulations was swift. Both Congress and Department of Treasury officials received thousands of letters in protest. Not getting what they wanted from the born-again Carter, evangelicals backed a divorced movie star who told them, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” In January 1980, shortly after becoming president, Ronald Reagan reversed the IRS’ determination that Bob Jones did not get tax exempt status. It was only after public backlash that Reagan reversed course once again, submitting a bill to Congress to reinstate the IRS’ policy for all racially discriminatory private schools.

BJU, in contrast, did not reverse its prohibition of interacial dating until 2000, after then-presidential candidate George W. Bush received significant blow back for campaigning at the University. In 2008, Stephen Jones made a formal apology which stated that “in its early stages [Bob Jones University] was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture.” This was eight years after Bob Jones University stopped prohibiting interractial dating, and forty years after the Supreme Court barred states from prohibiting interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia

Who cares if it’s scriptural?

Just over a decade after the president of BJU apologized for racist policies it enforced until the cusp of the millennium, Just-Asking-Questions turns to me in the taco line. He’s thinking about the history of race and the American Protestant church we had just been hearing about, and the argument that it creates moral demands in the present. Thinking in particular about the possible moral obligations, he asks me “But is it supported by Scripture?”

Given my years of disengagement from Evangelical Christianity, I was out of practice couching whatever view I wanted to support in Scriptural terms. After several bobs and weaves while I thought of an answer, I hit on one. The Bible is very comfortable with the idea of the sins of prior generations being visited on future generations. (See Exodus 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 5:8-9.) Why shouldn’t that apply to the legacy of racism? Even assuming we are not guilty of the racist actions of white Americans in the past, we are responsible for the consequences of past racist choices on the present. 

Just-Asking-Questions didn’t seem persuaded. In part because I did not express the point as clearly as I just did and in part because Just-Asking-Questions was, per his fake name, just asking questions. He wasn’t interested in the answers. What I really wanted to ask him, but did not, was “Who cares if it’s supported by Scripture?”

This question is especially pressing after reviewing the history Tisby lays out in  Color of Compromise. It is not as if Scripture provided any meaningful moral check on the desires of many white American Protestants to profit from slavery, enforce white supremacy via lynching and Jim Crow, and put barrier after barrier in the way of fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and related cases like Loving v. Virginia.

This line of thinking gets to the main weakness of The Color of Compromise. While Tisby implicitly indicates that there is no value-neutral reading of the Bible and that we are morally responsible for how we read and use the text, he never explicitly states it. In fact, sometimes he attempts to absolve the Bible of obvious complicity in the sad history of American racism.

The most egregious attempt occurs in Tisby’s coverage of the debates over Sciptural support for slavery. Early in the book Tisby chastises theologians for defending slavery based on the “apparently tacit acceptance of the Bible” observing that “many other Christians did not see anything in the Bible that forbade slavery.” The implication is that their view was incorrect.

But the Bible’s acceptance of slavery is far more than tacit, it’s active and explicit. The Christian New Testament instructs slaves to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” The passage goes on to instruct slaves who have Christian masters that the slave “must not be disrespectful to [their Christian masters] on the ground[s] that they are members of the church” and must “serve them all the more.” (1 Timothy 6:1-2; see also Ephesians 6:5-9.)

Tisby doesn’t engage with passages like this and it isn’t hard to see why. How is this inconsistent with the Virginia General Assembly declaration in 1667 that “the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage and freedom”? If anything, the General Assembly’s position is less demanding than the Bible’s view. The Bible not only states that Christianity will not free a person from slavery, but converting imposes a moral obligation to be a better, more submissive, slave.

It’s not that there aren’t ways to deal with this problem, it’s just that the solutions require promoting certain Biblical values (mercy, justice, and equality of believers) above others (judgment, punishment, and submission to authority). This makes it necessary to state plainly that some parts of Scripture are wrong, and by extension demote the status of Scripture as the ultimate arbiter of Christian life. This is a conclusion that many of the white evangelical readers that Tisby is trying to reach would almost certainly reject. 

In a way, Tisby’s refusal to take questions of Scriptural authority head on comes from the same place as Just-Asking-Questions desire to not engage with “unscriptural” critical race theory. Both of them want a Bible that supports their view of the world. 

But of course, the Biblical texts weren’t written to conform with either of their preferences. The texts of the Christian New Testament were written to deal with the social and spiritual problems of people in the Ancient Mediterranean world, not early 21st century America, or even mid-17th century Colonial Virginia for that matter. While my political sympathies are with Tisby, I don’t think a better informed view of the Bible by itself will save us. Ultimately, we’ll have to save ourselves.

Featured image is stain glass image of Confederate generals in the National Cathedral, by Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press