How Conservative Christians Got Racism Wrong (And Still Do)

A teacher at heart, since graduating from Wheaton College in 1965, Jack Strating has been a perpetual student of theology, philosophy, and life in general.

As I come to terms with the fact that I really am getting old, I must also acknowledge that a majority of people have not lived long enough to remember things that I can remember. Some of the things that I can remember may be helpful in understanding why the world is the way that it is today.

Consider the issue of race and (I refuse to use the word Evangelical) theologically conservative Christians. I grew up in the theologically conservative subculture of the Midwest. That subculture was almost exclusively white. In my home and in my church, I never heard racist language or hate speech. My parents had attended integrated schools and my father had done outreach work in the Chicago housing projects for our church. But, race really wasn't talked about much.

I graduated from high school in 1965. The Civil Rights Movement had begun. I even had a classmate or two who made brief trips to the South to participate in demonstrations. I was not hostile to the movement at that point and did take some interest in it but was not really motivated or committed.

One major pivotal event in my own thought process and spiritual growth happened while I was in high school. Sometime in my senior year I discovered the Old Testament prophets. I had known that they were there but for the first time I read them and had some level of understanding that these books of the Bible spoke directly to some of the issues that we were facing in the real world. I also became vaguely aware that there were a lot of Jews and a lot of theologically liberal whites participating in the civil rights demonstrations but no theologically conservative whites.

After high school, I went on to a theologically conservative dominantly white Christian college (Wheaton). While there I had new opportunities to broaden my horizons. I was privileged to encounter two outstanding black men who had ministry that I can only describe as prophetic.

The first was Tom Skinner. He had been a street gang leader in New York who became a Christian listening to radio. To black audiences, Tom was an evangelist, but when he came to speak at Wheaton College chapel for four days he was a prophet. He confronted the reality that white theologically conservatives tended to criticize black leadership for not being theologically conservative enough. Tom pointed out that there was an obvious reason. Theologically conservative schools did not welcome black students, so they went to more theologically liberal schools where they were welcomed. Reasonably they came out more theologically liberal. That made sense. Not only were dominantly white theologically conservative schools not welcoming to blacks, Tom continued, in many cases these schools overtly pandered to racist attitudes in parts of the country.

The next prophet that I encountered was Bill Pennell. He came to campus and spoke in a smaller and less formal setting than college chapel. He had just written a book called My Friend, the Enemy. In that book he explained that he, as a theologically conservative black Christian leader, was in a real sense a man without a country. The people with whom he identified theologically had no interest in the injustice that he suffered as a black man. And, those who did care about the very real injustice that he faced had little in common with him theologically. Something was very wrong with this picture.

While I was still in college Dr. King was leading demonstrations in Chicago as well as in the South. I had a lunch conversation with a friend who was one of the few black students at the college. We discussed Dr. King and the fact that the movement was not regarded well on campus.

My friend's response was basically, "They just don't get it."

With this input, I may not be the brightest bulb on the string, but I was seeing that white theologically conservative Christians were getting it all wrong. The clear substance of Scripture and the passionate advocacy of wonderful Christian brothers forced the reality that we were on the wrong side of what was going on.

Dolphus Weary wrote of his experience as a black student at a dominantly white theologically conservative college on the west coast. He was in the dorm when the news came that Dr. King had just been assassinated in Memphis. Loud cheers and other expressions of unfettered joy spread down the halls. It left Dolphus shattered.

As school integration became the law of the land, I could see throughout the South that white flight schools showed up everywhere. Most of these schools, which clearly existed only as a means of maintaining whites only schools, were associated with churches and most of them has "Christian" in their names.

I witnessed the Nixon "Southern strategy" upend the long-standing Democratic Party dominance in the South based on a clearly racist agenda. I saw long time Democratic congressmen change parties because the Republican Party was willing to embrace them and their racist views. "State's rights" was just a code phrase for racism and everyone at the time knew it. And the theologically conservative Church was just fine with all of this.

The reality of it all is that the theologically conservative Christians of the 1960s got it almost 100% wrong when it came to race in America. And based on the conversations surrounding the most recent elections they still don't get it.

They cannot comprehend that the injustice of the past was real. The impact of that injustice is far reaching. Prejudicial thought has real power in people's lives. Black Lives Matter is important not because somehow that suggests that other lives don't, but because for far too many in this country black lives don't matter.

I find it interesting that a number of my little bit younger theologically conservative Christian friends now find it quite comfortable to speak highly of Dr. King. The truth is that they only have selective memory when it comes to what his message was and they are unaware of just how total was his reaction from their spiritual ancestors.

It is long past time for those of us who are theologically conservative Christians to accept that our spiritual ancestors were wrong and to move forward constructively to address the issues of race. I don't advocate reflection for the purpose of self-flaggelation. I do advocate real repentance that requires a rejection of and turning away from past sins.

Originally posted at

A teacher at heart, since graduating from Wheaton College in 1965, Jack Strating has been a perpetual student of theology, philosophy, and life in general.

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