Christians using our religion to shield ourselves from the consequences of our social prejudice isn’t new. It’s also not a personal attack, though that’s little assurance for Muslims, LGBTQ people, single parents, or anyone else marginalized in mainstream evangelical culture. It’s part of the community’s history, and it goes back more than fifty years.
As Randall Balmer explains, the 1969-1970 case Green v. Kennedy inspired White Evangelicals to abandon rapidly desegregating public schools for schools and colleges where they could be sure their children would only learn with and date other White children. When President Nixon’s administration argued that the Civil Rights Act required non-profit organizations not to discriminate or risk their federal tax exemption, evangelical people mobilized to protect their “right to discriminate.”
Clear into the year 2000, Bob Jones University discouraged students from multi-racial dating. Its policy, like its restrictions on the enrollment of Black students through the 1970s, rested on the “sincere moral convictions” of the university’s board and constituencies. Today, the university website includes statements that repudiate that era. “Scripture is our final authority for faith and practice,” the university wrote in 2008, “and it is our intent to have it govern all of our policies.”
For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures.” —Bob Jones University, Statement about Race at BJU
Today it seems obvious that Christianity should be incompatible with racism and prejudice, but it wasn’t always obvious, and the evangelical community hasn’t always argued that it should be. Some members of the community still don’t.
David W. Congdon tracks these patterns not just fifty years back but four centuries back. Congdon is a systematic theologian and staff member at the InterVarsity Press, and developed two Twitter threads that outline historical and philosophical influences on evangelical culture’s custom of pulling up the drawbridge behind it and leaving the riffraff outside the walls.
Allowing theological differences, esp. on touchy issues, threatens the unity and financial future of an organization. Whether it’s a ban, physical wall, firing, church split, or statement of faith, it’s all the same fear of the other [and] pursuit of purity.” —David W. Congdon, February 9, 2017
Congdon may be alluding to a 2016 controversy about InterVarsity enforcing constraints on what its staff members can believe about marriage, all in the name of faithfulness to Biblical convictions. Staff members who wouldn’t or couldn’t sign an IVP statement of belief faced job losses.
Given this context, when PRRI finds that 42% of White evangelical Protestants oppose refusing Others service on the basis of religion, it’s not surprising that there are so few. It’s surprising that there are so many! The Church needs to generate more.
As new policies about denials of service emerge over the next several months, one of the biblical parables that you can expect to hear a lot about is the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story, the outsider is the most moral character in a narrative usually set up to praise ordinary Israelites not from the families of Aaron (priests) or Levi (Levites or temple staff). Christian communities are beginning to use this story to challenge the poor habit of using our beliefs to raise walls between “us” and those “not like us.” It’s tempting, for non-evangelicals too, to leave someone out, to deny, repel, and reject, and to credit (or blame) God or other authorities for our choices to do so.
As Jesus tells this parable, his audience asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The more I hear about religious freedom, especially from the constituencies that elected the current federal administration, the more I sense that Jesus’ original audience didn’t like his answer any more than we do. But that doesn’t make it wrong.