The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Black Americans Were Victims of the Evangelical Culture-War

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive he was widely despised by evangelicals and attacked. Prominent Baptist preacher Tim LaHaye King an “out-right theological liberal heretic.” (They hadn’t yet invented the “woke” insult.)

It was common for evangelical churches to teach God demanded segregation and mandated the separation of the races. They argued marriage was between one man and one woman of the same race for life.

When the courts supported desegregation John R. Rice, editor of The Sword of the Lord called it a view “influenced by the New Deal and left-wing thought.” He was outraged this would “compel white people and colored people to send their children to the same schools” and would result in “the mongrelization of the race and the breakdown of all the southern standards of culture.”

Evangelicals were already in their “culture war” crusade long ago — then it was directed at Black Americans and civil rights, before that they went after Jews, Catholics, immigrants, Free Masons and a host of other hyped up scapegoats.

According to Rice desegregation was all about socialism. “Of course the socialists, generally, the New Deal element in our government, the so-called ultra-liberal element, are among the loudest in crying for an immediate integration of the races.” As Rice saw it, the only opponents of coercive segregation were “socialists, the communists, the professional and paid Negro leaders, and politicians who hope to gain votes, raise enmities, hurl epithets, threaten force, and incite hate.”

Jerry Falwell built his “ministry” on racial segregation. He once preached a sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?” in which he attacked the Supreme Court over Brown v. Board of Education and told the congregation, “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Falwell was outraged about interracial relationships then as much as he was about same-sex ones later. He said such things would destroy “our race eventually” and horrified his good born-again followers by telling them, “A pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”

In another sermon he claimed King was a communist and working to destroy America. In his sermon, “Ministers and Marchers” Falwell told his lily white audience, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

When he started his private evangelical school the local paper reported on it as “a private school for white students.”

To a large extent the rise of the Religious Right was inspired by race hatred on their part. All that has changed in recent years is which hatreds they feel safe to enunciate in public.

My evangelical school didn’t admit black students and neither did their Bible College. Bob Jones University, one of the largest of the evangelical schools, was founded by a racist who preached about the evils of desegregation as well. The university refused allowing Blacks to enroll until 1971 and then imposed all sorts of rules to make sure they didn’t date white students. Interracial dating remained forbidden for BJU students until 2000.

Founder Bob Jones went so far as to use an Easter sermon on the university radio station to answer the question, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Of course, he said it was. The Sermon was sold in Christian bookstores and evangelical churches across the United States.

In his sermon Jones used the same old tired, hateful rhetoric of his faith, ending Jim Crow was “a sublet, Satanic effort” and people were putting “their own opinion above the word of God.” He argued, “The Bible is perfectly clear on races — just as clear as it can be;” that meant segregation. He referred to the dissatisfaction of Blacks having inferior rights as “a little trouble” but assured his congregation, “then we adjust everything sensibly and get back to the established order.”

He described forcing people into slavery as “God Almighty… permitted the slaves to come over to America so that the colored people could be the great missionaries to the Africans.” And ideally “white people in America” would then “pay their way over there” so Blacks go back to Africa.

Sounding like con artist Harold Hill in The Music Man, Jones warned: “Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble. They have trouble in New York. They have trouble in San Francisco. They have had trouble all over California.” Trouble I say, right here in River City.

According to the Gospel of Bob Jones, “God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations” and he assured them race mixing “makes me sick.” To be clear he said, “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty.”

When they eventually admitted Black students they went on to blame their racism on the wider American culture. “For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture.” What really changed for them was they lost tax-exempt status for the school and were desperate to get it back. Only then did they have a revelation to admit Black students with provisos.

The reality is evangelicals have always claimed their culture-war politics is Biblical — whether they were supporting slavery, wanting to make Catholicism a criminal offense, hating Jews, opposing rights for women, incarcerating gays, or harassing transgender school kids. Every time they claim God “is perfectly clear” and supports their agenda and only their agenda—the rights of others are of no concern to them.


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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.