When we left off last time, the conversation was around the evangelical church’s indifference toward pressing issues and real life suffering. At this point it’s worth examining why that is. Why are they so silent on anything that matters? Why do their preachers offer their flock a theology that allows them to avoid the critical matters of life, ignoring the problems afflicting the population on a day to day basis? Well, if you’re curious about how a tree came to exist, it’s worth studying the roots.
Earlier I highlighted Robert Jeffress, the megachurch pastor in Dallas who is now supporting Romney. The church Jeffress pastors is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America. The SBC actually grew out of a division between the southern faction of Baptists and the northern. Slavery, of course, was at the heart of the matter. While evangelical Baptists and Methodists in the south initially denounced slavery and affirmed the ideal of equality, as they sought to broaden their appeal, they acquiesced. As slavery divided the north and south, so was the Baptist faith divided.
As the division slowly began to simmer, rather than confront it head on, the Baptists chose to sidestep it. In the 1840’s, various Baptist missionary societies adopted neutral positions on slavery. In other words, they were silent on the issue, just as evangelicals today are silent. The matter climaxed in 1845 when, in Augusta, Georgia, the southern faction of the denomination split from the northerners. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the refusal of northern Baptists to allow slaveholders to serve as missionaries. Certainly, much like the Civil War, those who were involved in the conflict wouldn’t necessarily say slavery in and of it itself was the issue they were ultimately fighting over. Then again, that’s precisely the point I wish to emphasize: human suffering was secondary and not part of the major concern of the church, north or south.
I’d hate to give the impression that this is simply about the Baptists. I was actually raised in the Pentecostal Church and the same themes exist in that history. A good example is the Church of God in Christ, a black denomination and the Assemblies of God, a white one. They believe the same things, yet they exist separately. Why? Initially Pentecostals were somewhat united simply because other denominations did not accept them. Charles Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ, actually commissioned many of the early Assemblies of God preachers. Yet once again, the evangelicals sidestepped the issue. The Assemblies of God was formed in 1914 when they convened a meeting of Pentecostal preachers in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Rather than standing for equality, the leadership of the council conceded to Jim Crow customs and did not invite any black clergy- even Charles Mason, the man who licensed 350 of the white ministers who were invited.
What am I saying in all this? If you have a segment of the church rooted in racism, maturing in such a way so as to always sidestep issues and keep silent, that tradition continues to grow and evolve. The outcome is precisely what we see today: a church that can conveniently ignore human suffering, especially when it is associated with persons of a darker hue. You have a church born in a context in which they formed a theology that either ignored or sidestepped the hard issues and so it is today.