Last month, the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention became national news after Ed Litton defeated Mike Stone for the convention’s presidency. For months the conservative evangelical denomination had been embroiled in both scandal and controversy after noted Black minister Dwight McKissic removed his 1,600 member congregation from the Texas state convention over the organization’s outspoken repudiation of critical race theory. But McKissic’s departure would become the first of many desertions from the SBC after noted Bible teacher Beth Moore and ethicist Russell Moore resigned from the denomination over its mishandling of sexual abuse allegations and tolerance for white supremacists.
In The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, Hawkins places debates like those taking place in the SBC in a much larger frame. Focusing on the denominational workings of both the Southern Baptist Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, Hawkins unflinchingly shows how segregationist Christians drew from their faith in opposing the modern civil rights movement. But in the book’s reflection upon the relationship between race and religion in modern America, Hawkins also has a lot to teach us about our own moment as well.
At its core, Hawkins sets out to make a rather academic point. In his classic religious history of the civil rights movement, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, historian David Chappell argues that one of the reasons that the civil rights movement enjoyed success was because segregationist Christians failed to mount a prophetic defense of Jim Crow. Hawkins claims that nothing could be further from the truth. As he writes, “white southerners did not undertake their resistance to black equality in spite of their religious convictions, but their faith drove their support for Jim Crow segregation.”
The result is a book that is as damning of American Christianity as it is blunt in its witness to the damnable things that American Christians say.
The book opens with an exploration of the “segregationist theology” that many Southern, white Christians marshalled in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown ruling. At a time when federal officials and even some higher ups within the Southern Baptist Convention expressed at least tacit support for integration, many Southern white Christians turned to their faith in order to justify their support of segregation.
More than simply gild the racial animus of Southern whites with the language of religion, this argument, Hawkins shows, allowed white Citizen Councils (who threatened Black families moving into white neighborhoods) and private Christian academies (who allowed whites to flee integration) to claim they were following God’s plan for the world. Not opposing segregation.
Though shorn of segregation theology’s more repugnant features, this colorblind gospel nonetheless ensured that churches, schools, and Christian homes would remain resources in the defense of white supremacy by excising serious discussions of race from these spaces. Evangelicalism was central to this development, for evangelical theology’s emphasis on personal salvation allowed white Christians to make individual choices the answer to racism as well. In this view, efforts to address systemic or structural injustice became more than simply odious to many Southern white Christians. Like their view on integration itself, it became contrary to God’s plan as well.
Hawkins sees the “historical residue” of this segregationist theology across the Christian landscape today, from the evangelical rejection of identity politics to the racial exclusivity of many white churches. And of course we can also see it in the ongoing battles over race in today’s Southern Baptist Convention.
How central is the role of theology and the employment of Christianity in promoting racism and conservative rejection of identity politics?