The Christian Evangelical Movement's Ugly Racist Streak
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.”