Brief Thoughts on Pastor Platt’s Public Prayer for President Trump

This past Sunday, President Trump unexpectedly showed up at David Platt’s church, McLean Bible Church, and asked for prayer.

Platt prayed. Trump stood silently. The crowd applauded. Trump left. And social media erupted.

I wish to share some of my thoughts as well as some of the critiques that are important to consider. To start, here is a transcription of the prayer.

The Prayer Itself

I think the prayer was fantastic:

  • Acknowledging God as ruler of all
  • Praising God for salvation
  • Praying that Trump will look to Jesus in faith
  • Praying that Trump will lead with wisdom in the cause of righteousness and justice and equity
  • Praying for Trump’s family
  • Praying for all of our governing officials
  • And back to praising God as ruler of all.

This prayer is very biblical and very non-partisan. It clearly spoke the gospel over our president and called him to rule with wisdom and righteousness.

Other Considerations

Many opinions have been offered and many critiques have been made. Some of the ideas I find ridiculous. Others make sense to me and are worth our consideration; there are three in particular that I want share.

First, some have pointed out that we should not give extra honor to the wealthy or the powerful when they come to our services. That we ought to pray for our leaders, but that to do so from the pulpit may or may not be appropriate.

Second, it’s plausible to assume that that Trump was using Platt and Platt’s church for optics sake, and they, therefore, should have refused to what could be viewed as complicity in using the church to prop up Trump’s reputation.

And third, there are people of color and victims of sexual assault who would have (and did!) find seeing Trump on stage extremely distressing. People such as these need to be taken into account when situations of this nature arise. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I can see how empathy and sensitivity is needed. (See Kyle James Howard’s comments on Twitter to learn more about this perspective.)

Note: Pastor Platt wrote an explanation of what happened and his thought processes throughout, as well as expressing genuine empathy for those who were hurt by his choice. (Some have mischaracterized this as an apology, but it does not read that way to me.) You can read it here.

Concluding Thoughts

Pastor David Platt was put in a difficult situation for which he had little time to prepare. I think that he made a reasonable, good faith choice. The prayer itself was awesome! I also think the conversations surrounding the intersection of faith and political leaders, the powerful and the marginalized are vital and profitable.

Check out some of my other articles:

Matthew 21:1-17 // How Jesus Makes Things Right

Palm Sunday

Text: Matthew 21:1-17

PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION

Almighty and Everlasting God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [1]

INTRODUCTION

This is Palm Sunday, and typically we read this story at this time of the year because, it marks, for us, the beginning of Holy Week. But, I wonder if it’s too familiar to us because we’ve spent so long reading the Bible with modern eyes that we are completely inoculated to the significance of what’s going on here.

Let’s say for example that you keep a journal of your life, and all throughout your journal are reference to places and political figures of the world in which you live, (you live in the United States and Donald Trump is your president) and somehow your journal is preserved for the next couple thousand years.

Well, in 2000 years the landscape of world can change a lot, and let’s say it changes so much that the USA is no longer in existence and the government is completely different from what it is now, and if someone found your journal and read it and didn’t know the culture in which you lived it would affect the way they read it. They don’t know who Donald Trump is. They don’t know what a President is or does. They don’t know about the USA. It’s the same way with the Bible.

Unless we at least have a general understanding of the culture in which the Bible was written, it’s hard for us to really wrap our minds around the significance of what really went on in Jerusalem on this day.

And what happens on this day is that Jesus declares that he a subversive king of a subversive kingdom.

  • He is not coming to be a political entity. He will not allow the people to use Him as a political pundit for their cause. We see this all the time now. Every time an election comes along someone always claims Jesus for their side and we get duped into voting for them every four years because we fear the people on the other side of aisle MORE than the consequences of supporting a candidate who uses Jesus as a pawn for their cause.

    • “Well, we have to choose the lesser of two evils!” Spurgeon said that if you have to choose between two evils, you should choose neither one of them.  Imagine if Christians chose sin like that, “Well, I could either pickpocket someone or play with Ouija board and talk to demons. Which one is it going to be?” How about you do neither one? …But, I digress…

Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the people greet Him waving their palms at Him and crying, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” In their language this means, “Save us!”

When people cry out, “Save us!” They’re communicating two things:

  1. They’re either being oppressed or in danger of being oppressed.
  2. They can’t save themselves.

And what Jesus comes to save them from is not necessarily what they think they need saving from.

In Mark Dever’s book on Substitutionary Atonement, he notes one of the stark contrast between Christianity and Islam like this:

“Perhaps the contrast is best symbolized by the way Mohammad entered Mecca and Jesus entered Jerusalem. Mohammad rode into Mecca on a warhorse, surrounded by 400 mounted men and 10,000 foot soldiers. Those who greeted him were absorbed into his movement; those who resisted him were vanquished, killed, or enslaved. Mohammad conquered Mecca, and took control as its new religious, political, and military leader. Today, in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, Mohommad’s purported sword is proudly on display ….Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, accompanied by his 12 disciples. He was welcomed and greeted by people waving palm fronds—a traditional sign of peace. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the Jews mistook him for an earthly, secular king who was to free them from the yoke of Rome, whereas, Jesus came to establish a much different, heavenly kingdom. Jesus came by invitation and not by force.” [2]

They believe that Jesus as the Messiah is going to save them politically. They’re looking for someone like Mohammed. They believe that he’s going to overthrow the Roman government, and put the Jewish people back into power. And that’s we want too.

  • Every four years we want Jesus to put “those people” out and put “our people” in, and we’re just as misguided as they are because we are wanting power over a temporary piece of dirt, and when Jesus physically returns, it’s going to be His anyway. Jesus isn’t going to be powerless mascot monarch like they have in the UK where He’ll sit on a throne and do nothing while we vote in some real rulers.

  • Jesus is a REAL king with REAL authority, and His message is simple, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is so close you can touch it!”

    • Do you want power that matters? Then be a king and priest in God’s kingdom!

What Jesus primarily comes to save them from is the sin that separates them from God because even though they want a kingdom, there is no kingdom without a relationship with the King.

  • And once they realize that their sin is the problem, then they’ll realize that the kingdom that they should be looking for is not an earthly kingdom that can be established with their political agendas.

  • So before He saves them from their sin, He has to save them from their expectations of Him, and of His kingdom.

Peter even misses the point. In Acts 1, when Jesus is getting ready to ascend to the Father, Peter asks, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Peter wants to talk about power over a temporal piece of dirt, and Jesus wants to empower him to do things that actually matter!

So, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem, he declares His kingship, not by going to the Roman senate and assuming power, but by going straight to the temple.

The title of the message this morning is “How Jesus Makes Things Right.”

  • But before we can see how Jesus makes things right, we have to see what’s wrong, and in order to do that we have to take in everything that’s going on.

So, there’s three phases to what’s going on here and we’re going to break it down piece by piece:

  • Phase 1: Jesus Enters Jerusalem
  • Phase 2: Jesus Cleanses the Temple
  • Phase 3: Jesus Heals the Blind and Receives Children in the Temple

Phase 1: Jesus Enters Jerusalem

Before Jesus comes into Jerusalem, he tells the disciples to go into the next village get a donkey, and if they are asked why they’re taking the donkey they are to say, “The Lord needs it.”

Kings sometimes come in and requisition things when they’re in the process of conquering, and so by requisitioning some person’s donkey Jesus is clearly stating that He is the only king that the owner of his donkey needs to be concerned with.

  • But why is he getting a donkey? If He has the authority to requisition animals, then why not a warhorse? That’s more befitting of a king, right?

  • I remember watching some action movies where a cop would be chasing a criminal on foot, and the criminal would get away in a car, and the cop would have to requisition a vehicle, and how odd would it be if you had a cop that had to chase a criminal, and he’s got his choice of any vehicle to use, and he chooses an old, beat up, Ford Pinto.

  • That’s the equivalent of what’s going on here. He should be coming in in the driver seat of a Cadillac Escalade, and instead he’s rolling up in a Taurus. Why? What’s the point? What is Jesus communicating?

He’s communicating that real power isn’t pompous. Real power doesn’t need to demand respect because it’s already respected by those who recognize real power.

“Victors in battle do not ride into their capital cities riding on asses, but rather they ride on fearsome horses. But this king does not and will not triumph through force of arms… this king triumphs not through violent revolt, but by being for Israel the one able to show it that its worship of God is its freedom. He is Israel’s long-expected priestly king whom the prophets said would come. His entry into Jerusalem is, therefore, rightly celebrated by those who are not in power.” [3] – Stanley Hauerwas

Jesus comes into Jerusalem and he is met with a large crowd of people, and it’s important to note that not everyone in Jerusalem is here. The only ones here are people who are on the bottom in society.

The people on top are the ones looking to kill Jesus and get Him out of the way because Jesus is disrupting people’s plans. That’s what John’s account of this event tells us in John 12:17-19.

“Meanwhile, the crowd, which had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead, continued to testify. 18 This is also why the crowd met him, because they heard he had done this sign. 19 Then the Pharisees said to one another, “You see? You’ve accomplished nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” – John 12:17-19, CSB

We know from what happened at the end of John 11, that the Pharisees are plotting to kill Jesus, and now he’s coming into Jerusalem and people are cheering for him.

  • In the Pharisee’s minds, he’s supposed to be dead. He’s not supposed to be walking around. We’re going to see that next week too.

  • Jesus has risen. In their minds, He’s supposed to be dead, but no, He’s still walking around throwing a wrench in the plans of those hate Him. Psalm 2, “Why do the heathen rage? Why do the people imagine a vain thing?”

“The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.” – Psalm 2:4, CSB

The laughter of God against His enemies is heard in every testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And surely, God laughed as His Son rode into Jerusalem at the chagrin of the Pharisees, and the celebration of the people whom the Pharisees had oppressed.

 

Phase 2: Jesus Cleanses the Temple

“Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!” – Matthew 21:12-13, CSB

In a single statement in verse 13, we hear Jesus make a two-part declaration.

  • What God’s house is supposed to be
  • What the people have turned it into

From the beginning of the year where we walked through the Seven Churches, then walked through 2nd John and then over the last two weeks we read part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus condemns hypocrisy.

These are the passages that make us uncomfortable in the best way possible, or at least they should. The question for us is, “Is the church a house of prayer?” And when I talk about ‘the church’ I’m not talking about a physical building, I’m talking Christ’s building, Christ’s bride, Christ’s body.

  • Are we a people of prayer?

Because if we’re not a people of prayer, then we can easily turn into a den of thieves – people who are consumers.

  • That’s essentially what these money-changers are. They’re consumers. They’re using God’s house of prayer as a place to profit from God’s people.

Micah Fries preached an excellent sermon a couple of weeks ago where he talked about lots people look for a church with a consumer mindset the same way that someone might shop for a pair of jeans.

  • They want the best fit for them from a store that looks cool, and doesn’t demand too much of a price.

That’s how some people look for a church. They’re consumers that want something that looks, it’s a great fit for them, and demand too much. That’s fine when you’re looking for jeans, but that doesn’t fly when you’re looking for a place to worship God.

  • If we approach church that way, then we’re not better than the money-changers that use God’s house for filthy lucre.

So, the first step that Jesus takes in making things right is that He cleans house.

Do you know why some people don’t stick around in a church that proclaims the whole counsel of God’s word? It’s because God cleans house. That’s what John says in 1 John 2:19 when he says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (1 John 2:19, KJV)

But look at what happens after Jesus cleans house.

Phase 3: Jesus Heals the Blind and Receives Children

“The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonders that he did and the children shouting in the temple,”Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus replied, “Yes, have you never read:
You have prepared praise
from the mouths of infants and nursing babies?”

17 Then he left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.” – Matthew 21:14-17, CSB

One of the things that I think is most interesting about this passage is that after Jesus cleans house he starts healing people and blessing children. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Here. Let me show what God’s house is really for” and then He proceeds to go and do what they should have been doing the whole time.

Another thing I find really remarkable is that if you go back to the Old Testament and read Leviticus 21, where God is giving instructions regarding the holiness of the priests, God specifically said in Leviticus 21:17-18 that no one blind or lame, or anyone with a physical birth defect may come to the temple and offer sacrifices and David reiterates that law in 2 Samuel 5:8.

Now, if Jesus were just letting people in and letting them have their run of the place, then we could see why the Pharisees would be upset, but He’s healing them. He’s making it so that nothing can stop them from participating in the worship of God.

  • Notice the stark contrast between the money-changers and Jesus. While the money-changers are taking advantage of people, Jesus is healing people of the things that cause them to be disadvantaged.

This message is for us. We need to be doing God’s work in God’s world and people after they encounter us need to be better than when we first meet them.

Notice also, that the children are praising Jesus. They recognize who He is by how they’re addressing Him – the son of David. That’s Jesus’ messianic title.

Matthew Henry notes, “This they learned from those that were grown up. Little children say and do as they hear others say, and see others do; so easily do they imitate; and therefore great care must be taken to set them good examples.”

Because we are Presbyterian, there are two things that happen in this church that do not happen in other churches – infants and children are baptized and infants and children partake of the Lord’s Supper.

  • In other churches, there’s this unbiblical idea that you won’t find anywhere else in Scripture called “the age of accountability” and you have to wait until the church believes that you are accountable for your actions before you can receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In our church, we believe that Jesus is present and at work in these practices so we offer them to children because Jesus loves children. Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me” so we’re not going to stop infants and children from meeting Jesus in waters of baptism and in the Lord’s Supper.

  • I know of a man right now pastoring a Cumberland Presbyterian church who refuses to practice infant baptism because he’s into that “age of accountability” stuff.

  • Listen, I’m glad Jesus didn’t wait until I came to my senses to offer me salvation.

  • Jesus’ offer of salvation was on the table for us long before we were born. When Jesus died on the cross and rose again that was us dying with Him and rising with Him.

So, we offer baptism and the Lord’s Supper to everyone including children because that’s who Jesus offers Himself to.

  • Some of you who let your children or grandchildren partake of the cup and bread may do so because you think that to them this is just a snack and they might feel left out if they didn’t get a little cup and a cracker too, but this is too important for us to leave our children’s understanding at that level.

  • We need to communicate to them that Jesus offers us life in the partaking of the bread and the wine, and when they, as children take the bread and the cup in faith, then that’s one of the ways that they are participating the perfect praise that Jesus talks about at the end of our passage.

Jesus makes things right by throwing out the people that He knows will not want anything to do with the life that He offers. He throws out the ones that don’t want to give up what they have, and instead invites people who don’t have anything to hold on to.

Do you want to come to Jesus? Then, come empty-handed.

Is there something in your life that you can’t let go of? Do you feel like you can’t come to Jesus empty handed? Then, come with what you have and lay it at His feet. He’s waiting to heal you just like he’s healed others.

Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Almighty and Everlasting God, You meet us where we are. Sometimes we are the Pharisees who have plans of our own and we want anything other that for You to come along and ruin our plans. Sometimes we’re the money changers that use people and love things when we should be using things and loving people. But today, we want be children for You said, “to such belong the kingdom of heaven.” We don’t want to Pharisees or money changers anymore, we want to be children who approach you in faith believing that You are all we need. Please grant us this kind of faith. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

_______________________________

  1. Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, pg. 219
  2. Dever, Mark, and Michael Lawrence. It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement. Crossway, 2010.

  3. Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Press, 2015.

Morality Doesn’t Matter Anymore

MDM

I spent a good deal of time yesterday watching the Cohen testimony. At this point I’m just convinced that anything that happens in DC is just a circus. Between the GOP fits or the Democratic bias it was insanity. But if you go back and watch, there’s this little subtle nod. It’s not always what’s said; but sometimes it’s what isn’t said.

Here’s what we know. The President has an extramarital affair with a porn star. That lady decided to come forward. The President bribed that lady to not tell the truth. He then, while president, paid his attorney back the money that was used to bribe said porn star. He then lied to us about it.

You can say that he didn’t cheat, but he made her sign a do not disclose. You can say he didn’t cheat, but we know of this President’s sexual promiscuity long before. You can say he didn’t bribe, but she got money, we have records to prove it.

So now we know.

The President is an adulterer.

The President is a briber

The Prident is a liar

The President hasn’t lost support from those in the Church at large.

And it’s the last point that amazes me. I’m fairly young but I’m old enough to remember the Lewinsky affair. I’m old enough to remember “character matters” and the “moral majority”. What I’ve come to see is that that too, was not true. Morality doesn’t matter. At least not anymore. It doesn’t matter that the President is an adulterer, so many still give him undying support. It doesn’t matter that he’s a briber, it certainly doesn’t matter that he’s a liar.

But it does matter. Because so many have functionally baptized the President in order to make him more palatable. They speak of how great his faith is and while may not be perfect, they swear to us he’s a believer.

But that too is a lie.

Believers repent.

Believers at least have the indwelling of the Spirit whereby they are convicted of their sins and are called to continuously look to Christ by faith and repentance for His righteousness alone as it’s offered to us in the Gospel. And for someone that’s surrounded themselves by more pastors than many others surely somebody has the scope of decency to say “Mr. President, you need to to repent”

But they won’t. And we won’t care. It didn’t happen. If it did, It happened so long ago.

Shame on us. That we would trade the red stew of political power for the Gospel. Shame on all of us. That we sacrifice our souls to not call him to repent and believe the Gospel we say he does. And shame on us for excusing it. Shame on us.

Making Word Vomiting Great Again

MWVGA

As a Christian, I’m tired. I’m not tired of being a Christian. I’m not tired of looking to Christ. I’m not tired of trying to help others look to Christ. But I am tired. I think I’m disappointed and frustrated so much with the current state of affairs that it’s actually manifesting itself in tiredness.

So, for the sake of my own sanity, I think I’ll voice my frustrations. I know some aren’t going to agree with me on a lot of these issues, but I don’t particularly care. I just have to get some things off my chest, and just for clarification, some of these issues are not related to one another, they are just things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Jesus Doesn’t Care About Making America Great

It’s really hard to get people to look to Christ when people who are Christians are looking to politicians to “make America great again.” Yep, you know who you are. With our mouths we tell people to look to Jesus and seek His kingdom, but with our Facebook posts we give the middle finger to everyone who doesn’t vote like we do. As a pastor, that’s something really hard to watch, but I see it all the time, and it kills me. I’m proud to be a Libertarian, but at the end of the day, I don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat, or a part of the Green Party. If you love and serve Jesus, then we can hold hands and fight the same battles side by side. The more Christians make political affiliation a matter of importance the more people will believe that Jesus is a flag waving, Republican or a Democratic Socialist, or a member of whatever party you affiliate with. You can either choose to make America great or you can choose to display the greatness of God’s kingdom. You can’t do both because the USA is not the kingdom of Jesus came to establish.

 

Christianity is a Religion, Get Over It

Secondly, can we stop pretending like “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship” is not the dumbest thing to ever come out of someone’s mouth? Oxford (the only English dictionary that matters) defines ‘religion’ as such: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Do you believe that God is personal? Do you worship Him? If your answer is “yes” to both of those questions then your relationship with God is your religion. Grow up and stop pretending like religion is a dirty word. If you think religion is a bad thing, then try to argue with God when He inspired James to write James 1:27.

Don’t know what James 1:27 says? Good, then I can move on to my next point.

READ YOUR BIBLE!

One of the biggest problems with the American Church is that Christians are biblically illiterate. It seems like no one in the south who claims they are a Christian reads their Bible, and if they do, then they tend to read it with preconceived ideas about what it means. According to Lifeway Research, 34% rarely or never read the Bible. That’s 1/3. That’s a lot of people!

If God has given you a book, and directly spoken in said book, and you rarely or never read it, then either a) you don’t care about what God has to say or b) you don’t really believe that God has spoken in said book. That’s a problem! The reason why there are pastors who continue to preach trash in the pulpit is because of biblically illiterate churches who let them.

Saved by Grace? Yes? No? Pick a Side and Stay Over There

I’m tired of hearing Christians say things like, “Well, we’re saved by grace, but…” and then they’ll follow it some with some qualifier that completely goes against the first part of their sentence. They put qualifiers on grace. If grace has qualifiers then it’s not grace that’s all there is to it. They might as well be saying, “Jesus loves you, but don’t let that go to your head.”

Sunday Morning Worship Isn’t About You, and America Isn’t a Christian Nation

“Well, I just didn’t care for the music.” How many times have you heard this to describe a church service? Or, “It’s just not my style.”

When people use words like, “I,” “My,” or “Me” to describe a worship service, then they are making themselves the center of worship. A Sunday morning service becomes a time where they can have their preferred music, their preferred hymns, their preferred elements in worship instead of what is pleasing to God.

On the Sunday before the 4th July, many churches sang patriotic songs including “America the Beautiful” and our own national anthem as part of their worship service that morning. Why? Because we either believe a) America is God’s country and therefore, America should be worshipped along with God or b) we just don’t give a damn about Sunday morning worship and we should be able to sing about whatever we want depending on whatever godless holiday the world is celebrating.

I can hear patriotic Christians now pecking away at their keyboard, “But ‘Murica is a Christian nation.” First of all, only people can be Christian not nations. The only way a nation can be Christian is if every individual who is considered to be a father of our nation is in fact a Christian, and if you believe Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin are Christians (as admirable as they both are), then you have terrible theology.

Before you recommend David Bartlett and Wallbuilders to me in an effort to change my mind, just know that it’s not going to work that easily, and I know I’m probably not going to change your mind either which is why this post isn’t longer than what it is.

I will finish this section of this post with this thought, when God gave Moses the law, the first command was first the Israelites to worship no other god before Him. They didn’t have freedom of religion. God told them Who they were to worship and the book of Leviticus told them how they were to worship. They didn’t have freedom of religion. So, it is with our nation. We cannot say that America was established as Christian nation while the first amendment people to worship whatever and however they choose. I have no problem with the Constitution, I think it’s a fine document, but I’m not going to pretend that it is a Christian document nor will I pretend that America is or was a Christian nation.

It up to the Christians of this nation, not to establish a nation or kingdom of our own, but to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” God establishes His kingdom. He doesn’t need our help. Our job is to live as citizens of His kingdom first, and in so doing we provoke others to inquire about the hope that is within us. (1 Peter 3:15) Our hope is not that any politician will make things better, but that Jesus will make all things new.

Conclusion

Alright, I think I’m done for now.

Go ahead, type up an angry email. 

A White Evangelical Responds to “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”

a WHITE EVANGELICAL RESPONDS TO

(Editor’s Note: This article contains references to race-based slavery and racism, which could be distressing to some readers.)

Living in Mississippi has provided a unique opportunity for me to dive into the issue of race in America, because you really can’t live in Mississippi and not face the reality of a racialized society! Though much of my learning occurred through following a diverse group of people on social media, I kept hearing people reference a non-social-media medium (a book!) for learning about this topic—and specifically a book called Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. And so this month, I finally decided to give it a read. Spoiler alert: I loved it, I was challenged by it, and I quickly knew I wanted to share my findings with whomever would care to read them. And thus this article came to be. In it, I attempt to summarize the book, share some personal reflections, suggest ways for white evangelicals to respond, and pass along some additional resources.

Historical Overview

Emerson and Smith begin with a brief definition of terms such as “evangelical” and “racialization” and then make a case—using a myriad of statistics—that race is the defining societal divide in America. “Evangelicals” are defined as those who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, urge personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and self-identify as evangelicals. They define a racialized society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” (page 7) And more specifically, “[i]n the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness” and in which we are always aware of the race of people with whom we interact. (page 7) They then spend several chapters recounting the story of race and Evangelicalism throughout American history, starting with the 1700s and going through the present day (or rather the 90s, since the book was published in 2000). I’ll share some of the highlights.

In the 1700s as Europeans colonized what would later become the United States, people from West Africa were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought over to work the land. At first, there was no particular concern for the religious beliefs of the slaves. But partway through the 1700’s, attempts to “Christianize” enslaved people began. At first there was some confusion about whether converting to Christianity necessitated temporal freedom from slavery, but religious leaders quickly allayed those fears. For example:

Cotton Mather forcefully argued that the Bible did not give Christian slaves the right to liberty. Just as forcefully, he argued that neither the canons of the church nor the English Constitution made a connection between christianization and temporal freedom. (page 23)

In fact, Evangelical leaders argued that enslavement was good for Africans because it gave them the opportunity to convert to Christianity. (Some Christians hold this view to this day, and it is repugnant!) The social stratification of masters and slaves was understood to be God’s design for a peaceful society. These ideas were diligently catechized to the enslaved Africans, with Frederick Douglass later explaining, “I have met many religious colored people … who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery and to wear chains with meekness and humility.”

The American Revolution brought a fresh look at race-based slavery. People wondered if the principles behind the fight for freedom from England applied also to enslaved peoples. Thus began the rise of the anti-slavery movement among evangelicals. They were largely moderates and “gradualists,” believing that slavery would slowly be put to rest overtime as both masters and slaves were converted to Christianity. As Emerson and Smith point out, “Evangelicals of this time … held that by changing individuals, social problems would eventually dissipate.” (page 29) This movement had minimal results and petered out in the early 1800s.

The 1830s saw a rise in Evangelical “immediatists,” who demanded direct and immediate action to end what they saw as the great injustice of slavery. One such evangelical was Pastor Charles Finney. He connected his faith with abolitionism, going so far as to deny communion to parishioners who were slaveholders, believing that it was impossible simultaneously to own slaves and to be a Christian. (Personally, I think what he did was awesome!) However, as the movement gathered steam and begin to emphasize amalgamation of the races, Finney distanced himself. He saw slavery as a separate issue from race, and did not support amalgamation or integration. (This line of thinking paved the way for Jim Crow laws.) Emerson and Smith see Finney as representative of the views of many Evangelical abolitionists of the time.

If the well-educated and progressive Finney willingly spoke out against slavery, but not racial prejudice and segregation, it is reasonable to suppose the grassroots evangelicals, though perhaps viewing slavery as wrong, were often prejudiced, continued to view African Americans as inferior, and were generally opposed to the integration of the races. Although calling for people to be freed, they did not call for an end to racialization. (page 33)

Not all evangelicals took exception to slavery. In the mid-1800s, a robust defense of slavery was developed using so-called biblical, evangelistic, social, and political support. Enslaved Africans were also frequently reminded of the supposed rightness of slavery. For example, when slaves attended church with their masters, preachers would share an additional sermon reminding them of their “Christian duty” to submit to their masters.

After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, with slavery officially outlawed, white northern evangelicals sent money, teachers, and missionaries to the South to “raise up the Negro.” Condescending? Yes. But still a generally positive endeavor. Overall, Reconstruction was a time of social and political success for freed slaves. However, Southerners soon began to fear for their way of life, wanting to get back to what they saw as “Christian America,” and therefore imposed laws to restrict and oppress black people. This was the start of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation. Northern evangelical interest declined, and most of them left Southerners to deal with “race problems” on their own.

In response to legislated segregation, African American people started their own churches while white Christians largely denied that there even was a race problem. In other words, even while Jim Crow laws actively worked against equality for African Americans, white Americans believed that equality already existed!

In the twenties and thirties, evangelicals were generally critical of violence between the races, though not of segregation. In 1919, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation began.

The goal during this period was to provide a better racial environment. … It advocated an end to lynching, portraying African Americans in a more positive light, and better facilities, such as school buildings for African Americans, though still within the context of segregation. Indeed, the commission never attacked segregation itself, but simply strove to improve race relations and the lives of black Americans within the institutional context of segregation. (page 42-43)

The Civil Rights Movement highlighted the extent of differences between black Christians and white evangelicals. Most evangelicals were critical of the Civil Rights Movement while most black Christians supported it. Those white Christians who did support it tended to be non-evangelicals such as mainstream Protestants.

Billy Graham is an interesting case study of the Evangelical mindset of the time. He was for improved race relations, but believed that organized efforts were harmful, especially because he perceived them as being connected to Communism. (Sound familiar? I guess this argument has been around for decades.) On the one hand, Graham removed the segregating rope between blacks and whites at one of his southern Evangelistic Crusades. But in another instance, he stated that he tried to work within the social framework of each city he visited. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at one of his Crusades, yet declined to join King’s March on Washington, believing King’s methods to be flawed. In response to the “I Have a Dream” speech, Graham remarked that black children and white children would hold hands in harmony only when Jesus returned.

To understand this, we must account for the premillennial view that had come to dominate the American evangelical worldview and played a role in limiting evangelical action on race issues. According to this view, the present world is evil and will inevitably suffer moral decline until Christ comes again. Thus, to devote oneself to social reform is futile. (page 47)

Graham, like most white evangelicals of the time, opposed racism generally, but viewed organized social reform as fruitless, unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous.

The 80s and 90s brought a new wave of racial reconciliation efforts by evangelicals through organizations like Promise Keepers and people like Curtiss DeYoung and Tony Evans. Most whites who spoke against prejudice, urged personal repentance and reconciled relationships between individuals, while African American Christians generally focused on changing what they saw as oppressive structures, and unjust laws. The difference in approach is highlighted in the words of Pastor Cecil “Chip” Murray:

White evangelicals need an at-risk gospel. … Calling sinners to repentance means also calling societies and structures to repentance—economic, social, educational, corporate, political, religious structures…. The gospel at once works with individual and the individual’s society: to change one, we of necessity must change the other.

I’ll close this historical overview with a quote, which, though challenging, highlights Emerson’s and Smith’s overall analysis of evangelicalism and race relations throughout American history.

Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not countercultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alteration at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time. Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity. (pages 21-22)

Evangelicals’ Thoughts on Race Today

Emerson and Smith conducted an extensive telephone survey of 2,000 people to determine present-day thoughts of evangelicals on racial issues. They then conducted 200 in-person interviews. The results were enlightning. Smith and Emerson asked people to describe the race problem in America. Many people admitted there was a race problem, describing it as a problem of discrimination or violence between individuals. Other evangelicals denied the race problem altogether, instead suggesting that those who talk about race are the problem. Very few referenced structures, laws, or societal values that contribute to racialization.

When asked about the reasons behind economic inequality between blacks and whites, the two most common explanations given were 1) lack of motivation and 2) flawed cultural values among blacks. Fewer evangelicals ascribed economic disparity to 3) lack of access to quality education and/or 4) discrimination. In other words, evangelicals tended to blame economic hardship on African Americans themselves as opposed to historical, structural, or systemic problems. Most black Christians, on the other hand, pointed to structural issues or discrimination as the main problem.

As sociologists, Emerson and Smith explain that the cultural tools a person or group has affects the way they identify problems and solutions. They point out three cultural tools evangelicals use that heavily influence their views of race, which are: 1) accountable freewill individualism—“individual initiative conquers all;” 2) relationalism—“attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships;” and 3) antistructuralism—“inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences.” Applied to racial issues, this cultural framework necessitates holding African Americans accountable for their struggles (accountable freewill individualism) and focusing almost exclusively on personal reconciliation (relationalism and antistructuralism). To begin to explore societal and structural components of a racialized society, white evangelicals would have to reexamine these core beliefs.

Emerson and Smith end the book by discussing various sociological principles that describe ingroup dynamics and contribute to de facto segregation today. They close by calling for an honest look at comprehensive solutions to the issue of racialization.

My Reflections

I think that Divided by Faith is remarkably well-written and well-organized. I found it easy to follow, and I appreciated the variety of information—historical, sociological, personal interviews, etc. In other words, I was never bored. I appreciated that this work was neither a puff piece nor a hit piece, instead seeking balance and honesty, focusing on facts over value judgments.

I learned a lot about various historical movements and historical figures. I was particularly interested in learning about the great Evangelist Billy Graham as I’ve seen a lot of diverse perspectives on his relationship with Civil Rights; this book seems to carefully lay out both the positives and negatives. I was also fascinated by Emerson’s and Smith’s exploration of how the white evangelical worldview affects the way evangelicals understand and address racial issues. Their sociological insights into group dynamics that prop up prejudice and racialization were also helpful.

In general, this book helped me honestly examine the past—my past, if you will, since I am both an American and a white evangelical. I’ve always known some of the positive ways that evangelicals have fought for human rights and civil rights for African Americans, but this book helped me honestly face the negative actions evangelicals have taken as well as the discriminatory societal structures that evangelicals have helped to maintain. And so I feel both thankful and grieved. I now acknowledge that taken as a whole, white evangelicalism has done more to hurt race relations than help. This is a sobering realization to come to. But sometimes truth leads to lament, and sometimes lament is the first step to change. (Side note: this increases my empathy for those individuals, particularly African Americans, who have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Evangelical,” even while maintaining theologically-conservative Protestant beliefs.)

On a personal level, as I read some of the quotes by modern-day evangelicals, I was humbled to realize that just a few years ago I might have said some of the same things—things like “the breakdown of family structures is the main cause of problems in African American communities” or “playing the race card is as big a problem as racism.” I’m embarrassed even to type those sentences, and my heart is rightly grieved. And I am truly sorry. For me it’s been a process, starting 3 years ago, of seeking to comprehensively understand racial issues in America.

I am profoundly thankful to have read this book! I highly recommend it to any American—especially to white evangelicals—or to anyone who wants to understand why race continues to be a defining aspect of the American story.

What is a White Evangelical to Do?

Maybe this information is new, and you’re feeling like a deer in headlights. Or maybe you’re familiar with these perspectives, but you’re not sure what practical actions to take. Either way, here are a few suggestions. First, accept uncomfortable emotions; don’t reject new ideas just because they feel scary. Second, know that lament and anger are appropriate responses to sin and injustice, and can be impetus for change. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Third, get educated; read a book like Divided by Faith (purchase on Amazon or read the first 30 pages for free on Google Books here). Fourth, sit under the teaching of minority voices: on social media, by listening to sermons, and by engaging in conversations (with a focus on listening to learn). And fifth, financially support minority-led organizations.

Resources

Here some of the people and organizations that have been particularly helpful for me as I’ve learned about racial issues in recent years.

Two of my favorite African American pastors are:

  • Elbert McGowan at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS. Listen to his sermons here.
  • Dr. Mika Edmondson at New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, MI. Listen to his sermons here.

The following are some theologically-conservative people and organizations I recommend financially supporting as a practical way to support African Americans and racial reconciliation.

  • The Witness: A Black Christian Collective is an organization that puts out articles and podcasts on all things related to race and faith. Donate here.
  • Reformed Theological Seminary offers the African American Leadership Scholarship, a 50% tuition break for qualifying African American students who are training to be pastors, professional counselors, and leaders. Donate here with a note that your donation is for the AALS fund.
  • Kyle J. Howard is a Christian Counselor who works with and creates resources for those affected by racial trauma. Donate here.
  • Peace Preparatory Academy serves children and families in the heart of urban Atlanta. Donate here.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Hannah

Check out some of of my other articles:

Christocrat

Christocrat

“How can you vote for a Democrat?”

I’ve heard it for years now.  It’s this mixture of shock and disgust. As if personhood rises and falls on who I put down on my ballot. As if one party has a direct line to God’s throne room and is covered in the Shakinah Glory. But God doesn’t save people and then call them to a particular political party. Unless “final salivation is faith, works, and being Republican” By no means are my issues with ALL the people of the GOP. Some are Common sense and we just have different ideas of how to help people. I want to be clear I’m not blasting one side. I’m explaining where I’m at and how I got there. So today, let me tell you the scariest story of them all: Why a Conservative Christian is a Political Democrat (most of the time).

Over the last 9 years, I have seen a well sized chunk of Conservatives use fear, lies, photoshop, selective use of data to ensure the charecter assasination of President Obama. My Great Aunt Betty shared a notorious photoshopped picture of President Obama’s kissing a “LGBT leader” (who wound up being UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is happily married to a beautiful woman). But she and all of those in her age bracket were convinced it was real.

Durng the 08 election, I heard horror story after horror story about how Obama was going to close our churches (he didn’t) and take away our guns (he didn’t). And I heard it for the next 8 years. Once the 2016 elections were up and rolling, it was the same song and dance. Fear. Not leadership, hope, the call to work hard and work together. Straight fear. I can’t do that anymore. I’m not a kid anymore, I’m not going to be afraid of the Democrat boogeyman that gets dreamed up all the time.

Also, the Evangelical Right probably drove me away faster than anything. Especially, during last years elections, the use of the Church for political ends was enough to make me sick. The Church accepting a man who’s made his money through deception, prostitution, and greed  God’s “Cyrus” candidate. I don’t by the idea that Christians has no other option or that Trump was the lesser of two evils. I’m not buying that. Let’s be honest: it was the red stew for the birthright. Power for the proclamation. Justices for Jesus. They traded the White House for witness. I can’t jump on board there. I’m not scared anymore. I grew up.

By now you’re wondering how I can vote like I do when the clear teachings of Scripture call abortion and homosexuality a sin. I agree. Both are sinful and the Church should call people to repentance. But I don’t see anything coming out of the GOP either.

Heres what I mean. From 2000-2006 Republicans had all three branches of government. There were 0 attempts to rid the country of abortion. 0. None. Here we are again in the same situation. One year later, still abortions. So when are they going to do something about it? When will it become more than a talking point?

But I believe it’s equally sinful to not care for one’s neighbor. In fact half of the Law is summed up for loving one’s neighbor. These include refugees, kneeling athletes, immigrants, and unarmed black men. But my friends on the other side seem to put all of these on blast. I want us to responsibly fund education, infrastructure, healthcare, and faithfully steward God’s creation. I think government is a better tool than a taskmaster. I don’t believe we make things better by financial bloodletting. That’s just common sense.

So why do I vote for Democrats? Because right now, the alternative leads from fear. Because helping one’s neighbor is just as important and fighting for the unborn. Because Christ saves those from both sides of the aisle. Because the cross is big enough for the both of us.