Why Black Christians are bracing for a 'whitelash'
Updated 7:35 AM ET, Tue July 21, 2020
(CNN)Trillia Newbell, a Christian author, had just delivered a talk in Jackson, Tennessee, when a White man approached her.
Newbell, who is Black, had spoken about imago Dei -- the idea that all humans, of all races, are made in the image and likeness of God. The man disagreed.
"He explained that I was subhuman, that I was a different species," recalled Newbell. "And he was trying to use Scripture as proof."
Newbell, 41, chooses her words carefully. But the Knoxville native is candid about the racism she's faced during her ministry, including the past seven years as a community outreach director for an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Too many times to name, I have gone after a speaking event and wept in my hotel room," Newbell recalled in a recent interview, "just realizing how deeply deceived some people are."
Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in May, conservative White Christians have condemned racial injustice in unprecedented ways, with many acknowledging and pledging to fight the persistent scourge of systemic racism.
White Christian leaders have prayed at vigils and marched in protests, damned the officers accused of killing Floyd and recited the slogan Black Lives Matter, often while distancing themselves from the organization of the same name. One evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, called for a church-led reparations project.
But even as they appreciate the scales falling from some White Christians' eyes, some Black Christians remain wary.
That's especially true of those like Newbell who have spent significant time in predominantly White spaces. Many said they are bracing for a "whitelash" -- the moment White Christians tire of talking about race and bristle when Black pastors or congregants want to continue the conversation.
Newbell said she is optimistic about the possibility of change, but is carefully guarding her heart. In the past, she's been told her interracial marriage is an affront to God, witnessed frustrated Black friends leave predominantly White churches, and -- too many times to count -- been expected to prove that anti-Black racism persists in America.
"It is so detrimental to someone's faith when your experience, your reality, is squashed because it's not the other person's reality," Newbell said. "I have experienced that time and time again."
The sermon problem
Sunday morning has long been known as the "segregated hour" in American religious life, when many Black and White Christians worship the same God in separate sanctuaries.
Some of the division may derive from the pastor's pulpit, according to recent public opinion surveys.
More than 6 in 10 Black Christians say it's important for sermons to address topics like racial relations and immigration, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. (Nearly a quarter called it "essential.")
White Americans did not agree: More than 6 in 10 said those topics are not essential for pastor to examine, with 40% insisting that race and immigration should not be mentioned at all at church.
Pew's survey was conducted before Floyd's killing made international news and sparked nationwide protests. But Black Christians have been raising alarms about police brutality and systemic racism for decades.
As recently as last summer, only 35% of White Christians said they were motivated to address racial injustice; and less than 2 in 5 believed the United States has a race problem, according to a 2019 poll by the Barna Research Group, a Christian public opinion firm based in California.
Michael Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helped conduct that survey and is co-author of "Divided by Faith," one of the most comprehensive surveys on race and religion in America.
"The racial gaps are huge on diagnosing the problem (of racism) and determining what we should do," he told CNN. "There are even huge gaps on understanding what racism is and whether it's individual or systemic."
Some of those gaps might have narrowed since Floyd's death. But, as some evangelicals acknowledge, that is not the only problem.
The theology problem
Last month, the National Association of Evangelicals put together resources for churches and pastors to respond to racial injustice and encouraged its members to "combat attitudes and systems that perpetuate racism."
It wasn't the first time the NAE, which represents some 45,000 local churches, has addressed systemic racism, said the Rev. Walter Kim, the association's president.
Appointed last October, Kim is a Korean American and the first person of color to lead the NAE. He said he sees a broader, more active swath of evangelicals engaged on race in recent weeks.
But he also acknowledges that evangelicals haven't always been willing to address their racial history or see the wider repercussions of contemporary racism.
"There are streams of evangelicalism in which the issue of race has been woefully and inadequately addressed," Kim said.
Evangelicalism itself began as a spiritual renewal movement, with a primary focus on saving souls and fostering deeply personal encounters with Christ. Often, larger societal problems are seen as spiritual issues that can only be solved by salvation.
"The outworking of evangelicalism's public theology needs to catch up to its understanding of personal transformation," Kim said.
But like other evangelicals, Kim believes the wind has shifted since Floyd's killing.
"When America saw the death of George Floyd with their own eyes on a video played millions of times, it changed something," said Ronnie Floyd, a former Arkansas pastor who now heads the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee.
"I really believe it will be a watershed moment for this country."
Floyd, a longtime advocate of racial reconciliation, noted Southern Baptists' public apology in 1995 for its history of slaveowning and said there are a wide variety of views on race among Baptists. He also pointed out that 4,000 of the Southern Baptist Convention 47,000 churches are predominantly African American.