Ever since the Promise Keepers movement in the late 1990s (remember the giant rally on the National Mall?), one of the most interesting stories in American religion has been efforts at racial reconciliation in some (repeat some) evangelical and Pentecostal churches and denominations.
Pentecostalism, of course, began as a racial integrated movement and, ever since, that movement has been more multicultural and interracial than any other form of church life. Evangelicals? Not as much. However, it has been hard to miss the Southern Baptist Convention wrestling with its demons in the past decade, in particular.
This brings me to a must-read piece that ran the other day in The New York Times: "A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches."
You will be shocked, I am sure, to know that the answer to that "why?" question is (wait for it) -- Donald Trump.
You'll also be shocked to know that, at the heart of this story, is the white evangelical monolith theory stressing that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump and were very happy to do so (yes, ignore the coverage in Christianity Today). It ignores that Trump's take on immigration and his tone-deaf (at best) language on race infuriated many evangelical leaders.
All that said, I think this Times story gets the political half of this painful equation just about right. However, the editors aren't very interested in what is going on in terms of religion. I know -- it's shocking. Plus, where’s the hard reporting? Can you base a long feature like this on anecdotes, alone?
The story is unfolds through the eyes of Charmaine Pruitt of Fort Worth, explaining why (sort of) she began attending the giant predominately white Gateway Church, led by the Rev. Robert Morris. Then it explains why she left. Here is a key piece of framing material:
In the last couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America. “Racial reconciliation” was the talk of conferences and the subject of formal resolutions. Large Christian ministries were dedicated to the aim of integration, and many black Christians decided to join white-majority congregations. Some went as missionaries, called by God to integrate. Others were simply drawn to a different worship style -- short, conveniently timed services that emphasized a personal connection to God.
The fruits could be seen if you looked in the right places, particularly within the kind of nondenominational megachurches that gleam from the roadsides here in the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshiping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.
Then came the 2016 election.
So far so good. A few lines later there is this crucial statement:
Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.
Note: All white evangelicals cheered. But that's not the most important statement in that passage.
This is the key: The church's stands on abortion, marriage, etc., are essentially "policy preferences," not issues of Christian doctrine that go back 2,000 years or so? They are mere political stances?
Also note that, for a brief moment, readers had a chance to glimpse a larger story. I am referring to the fact that many Christians of all colors see racial reconciliation as a doctrinal issue that is linked to the dignity of all human beings -- from conception to natural death.
In other words, there were Christians of color who, for valid reasons, wanted to know why Trump's alleged stands on some moral, cultural and religious issues canceled out the importance of others. They felt terribly conflicted -- rather like the half of white evangelicals who bit their lips and reluctantly voted for Trump, fearing Hillary Clinton.
There's an interesting story in there and it is larger than politics. This also points to another unasked question in this important piece: If black Christians are, as a whole, walking away from mostly white evangelical churches because they are not "liberal" enough (I know, the label doesn't fit), why aren't they joining the overwhelmingly white churches of liberal old-line Protestantism? Why not, for example, join Obama in the United Church of Christ?
Well, this appears to be linked to matters of worship style and something, something, something about the content of the preaching. Alas, but that is all religion stuff. Moving on.
Now, what this story gets right is it's handling of the tensions INSIDE Gateway Church, in terms of trying to move forward on race, while also, well, cheering for Trump as a protector of religious freedom on America (in other word, it's all about the Supreme Court).
The following facts matter:
The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color. The goal, says Pastor Morris, who is white and has a black son-in-law, is to have a church that looks like heaven as described in the book of Revelation: “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”
How is that working out in the era of Trump? To be blunt, Morris is continuing to try to address racial reconciliation. He knows the pain is there and that racism is sin. Period. See the video at the top of this post.
The bottom line: The Times team presents painful evidence -- seen through Pruitt's eyes -- that some people at Gateway are rather oblivious to the Trump factor in all of this. But not all of them are out of touch and, in particular, readers can see the conflict inside the views of this megachurch pastor.
In short, this piece raises many of the concerns voiced by #NeverTrump #NeverHillary evangelicals who opposed Trump all through the GOP primaries. It might have helped to have talk to some of them, as well.
Read this story. It's well worth the time. But in the end, it's another example of trying to view a religious landscape through a strictly political lens.
Where will Pruitt (and other Christians of color) end up going to church, after this painful episode? I don't know. But I would imagine her choice will have something to do with the content of her faith. There is, you know, more to life than politics.