The Evangelical Church has a racism problem. And it is incumbent on us in this Christmas season to tell the truth about that. Recently A&E suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of its hit show, "Duck Dynasty," for making incredibly homophobic statements in a GQ magazine interview. In typical fashion, he affirmed his evangelical belief that homosexuality is a sin, but went even further, comparing gay people’s sexual behavior to bestiality, and declaring emphatically that they would not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Liberal-minded folk, some Christians included, have been outraged at his homophobia, while conservative Christians of all races jumped to defend his right to free speech. Many of these Christians feel particularly threatened by what they call “censorship” of Robertson, because the belief that homosexuality is a sin, and the right to declare that belief freely without recourse, has become for many of these people a defining marker of their identity as Christians.
A reluctant evangelical, I reject conservative theological teachings on homosexuality; the violence that the Church does to gay people in the name of God is indeed one of the primary reasons for my reluctance. But I am also ambivalent about the Church because of its continued subjugation of women and its failure to be forthright about its continuing racism problem.
I grew up in a black baptist church, in a small town in North Central Louisiana, about 30 miles west of where "Duck Dynasty" is filmed. I made my first “profession of faith” in Jesus Christ while at a white baptist church I had visited with my childhood best friend, Amanda, when I was about 7 years old. I was baptized at the age of 13.
At 33 years of age, my disillusionment with the church — which has come to full bloom in the last five years or so — is the thing that perhaps most solidly marks me as a member of the Millennial generation. Though I am often ambivalent about that label, too, I still get why Millennials, fed up with the vile homophobia of the church — as particularly evidenced by the "Duck Dynasty" episode — are leaving the institution in droves. But in the fervor and closing of ranks over Robertson’s homophobia, many Christians, white and Black, old and young alike, have missed the racist remarks he made in that same interview. Millennials, it turns out, haven’t proven themselves to be fundamentally better on race, despite post-racial proclamations to the contrary.
Apparently, according to Robertson, 1950s and 60s Louisiana — the Louisiana of his childhood — was a happy heavenly place where Black people hoed cotton and eschewed the blues:
"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! ... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
I have several aunts and uncles and a grandparent who would beg to differ with Robertson’s account of events. In 1956, several hundred African Americans were purged from the voter registration rolls in Monroe, and spent years struggling to be re-enfranchised.
I’m reminded of these words from James Baldwin’s essay “A Fly in Buttermilk”:
“Segregation has worked brilliantly in the South, and in fact, in the nation to this extent: It has allowed white people with scarcely any pangs of conscience whatever, to create, in every generation only the Negro they wished to see.”
But racism and colonization have also allowed white people, like Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, to create the Jesus they wish to see, too: a blonde, blue-eyed white man with long hair. Now my Bible says that Jesus was a Jew with Egyptian (Read: African) ancestry (Matthew 1). But many white people are decidedly uncomfortable worshipping a God that doesn’t look like them.
As Evangelicalism goes, racism, homophobia, and sexism go hand in hand. Black evangelicals like to tell themselves that they can reject Christianity’s racist past, while embracing homophobic and sexist ideas about the position of gay people and women, in the world and the church. I have come to say: It just isn’t so.
God is not a racist. I know that despite a Bible that sanctions enslavement and implores slaves to obey and be kind to their masters.
God is not a sexist. I know that despite a Bible that tells me that women are to be quiet in church, that women are not to teach men, that women are to submit.
God is not a homophobe. I know that despite a Bible that declares sex between men to be an abomination.
God is love. That is a truth I learned first and foremost from the Bible. And it holds moral and political weight for me because of the life that Jesus Christ lived, from birth to death and back again.
I love the Church, despite myself. But I won’t love it uncritically. This is what hermeneutic consistency requires. And worshipping alongside white folks who are more moved to stand with a homophobe than to stand against racism gives me great pause.
The Church can no longer afford to be disingenuous about its racism problem. Easy unity is not what we need. Time has run out for an African American Church that continues to tack hard to the right — uncritically imbibing the agenda of the (white) Evangelical Right, without acknowledging that this position, predicated as it is on the belief that Christian = Republican, is fundamentally averse to, and in some ways responsible for, the declining social and political condition of African Americans, gay and straight alike.
Ironically enough, the progressive Christians who inspire me the most these days are white. Rachel Held Evans, Jay Bakker, Brian McLaren and theologian Peter Enns are fighting the good fight of faith. But I won’t let any of them off the hook for their failure to be more forthright in addressing racism. Evans, Bakker and McLaren are great on questions of homophobia, poverty and sexism; but racism, when it is addressed at all, is largely addressed as a problem of individual attitudes rather than systemic disfranchisement. What Robertson’s statements point to, however, is that individual prejudices, and the amelioration of them, are bound up with the structures that support them. After all, it wasn't his racist statements that got him suspended.
This is the season of hope. And I am hopeful. Because even though Phil Robertson said gay people would not inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus did say that the Kingdom of God is within us. Phil Robertson and his ilk don’t possess the keys to the kingdom. We do.