A Stone of Hope

Article by   March 2015
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David L. Chappell. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of Chapel Hill Press, 2004. 344 pages. $27.95.

David L. Chappell's A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow challenges standard accounts of the civil rights movement and the reasons for its success, identifying religion as the key factor that enabled change. It was the prophetic vitality of the religion of black churches, leaders, and civil rights activists, he argues, that enabled them to overcome the much more economically and politically powerful forces of segregation. On the other hand, it was the lack of religious support that undermined the cause of the segregationists. While "black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, ... white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion" (p. 8).

Chappell begins by diagnosing the inadequacy of post-World War II liberalism. Liberals believed in human nature, convinced that reason could and would overcome prejudice and superstition. But this very optimism rendered them passive in response to stubborn southern opposition. If human progress was inevitable, better to allow time to do its work than to provoke a southern backlash that might only delay such progress. Some liberals realized that the problem was liberalism's lack of spiritual energy and authority. Post-war liberals supported civil rights, but "They were not the ones who made it move"  (p.43).

It was  the prophetic religion of activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chappell argues, that "made civil rights move" (p.44).  King was influenced by the liberal theology of the social gospel, being convinced that "Whenever Christianity has remained true to its prophetic mission, it has taken a deep interest in social justice" (p.51).  But, shaped by the fundamentalism of his upbringing in the black Baptist church, with its bitter experience of years of disappointment, King rejected liberalism's optimism about human nature. He synthesized Reinhold Niebuhr's realism about human nature and institutions with black Christianity's prophetic indictment of American society, forging a model of public Christian engagement that was realistic even as it was rooted in the gospel. He could seek the greater realization of liberty and equality for African Americans even as he recognized that such values would never be fully realized this side of Jesus' return. He sought social redemption for his followers even as he realized that such redemption might necessarily take the form of suffering and self-sacrifice.

King realized that force, not simply moral suasion, was necessary for change. The tool of choice was nonviolent civil disobedience. The same prophetic Christian realism inspired other black civil rights leaders such as James Lawson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis, and it was this prophetic Christianity that enabled civil rights activists to confront the segregationist powers head-on and win. Indeed, Chappell suggests that the civil rights movement should be understood as part of the revival tradition of American Christianity. Only religion explains how, "after a period of widespread apathy in the 1950s, a whole new generation suddenly got the idea into its collective head that wildly idealistic visions of social justice were realistic - and worth the trouble to pursue" (p.101).  After all, "It is hard to imagine masses of people lining up for years of excruciating risk against southern sheriffs, fire hoses, and attack dogs without some transcendent or millennial faith to sustain them" (p.102). 

If the vitality of prophetic religion explains the power of the civil rights movement, it is a lack of religious vitality that explains the relatively rapid collapse of segregation. Historians, Chappell charges, have asked the wrong questions. "The historically significant thing about white religion in the 1950s-60s is not its failure to join the civil rights movement. The significant thing, given that the church was probably as racist as the rest of the white South, is that it failed in any meaningful way to join the anti-civil rights movement" (p.107).  Nearly all white Christians loved segregation, but they were not willing to compromise their theology, their churches, or the peace and stability of their society to preserve it. Some religious leaders worked hard against segregation, but many more urged moderation and submission to the Supreme Court. Both the southern Presbyterian and Southern Baptist denominations endorsed Brown v. Board of Education, and both integrated their seminaries voluntarily before it took place in public schools. 

The segregationists lost, Chappell argues, because they needed much more than the tepid, passive support of the churches to overcome the "apathy, complacency, and overconfidence of white southerners" (p.109). As a case in point, he observes that even Presbyterian pastor G. T. Gillespie's famous defense of segregation refused to claim that the Bible categorically mandated it. As Gillespie put it, "While the Bible contains no clear mandate for or against segregation as between the white and negro races, it does furnish considerable data from which valid inferences may be drawn in support of the general principle of segregation as an important feature of the Divine purpose and Providence throughout the ages"   (p.110).

Most southern pastors and theologians would not even go that far. Their strongest argument was that the Bible did not condemn segregation, and that it was therefore a matter best left to reason and experience. Given such a weak position, many prominent southern religious leaders accepted integration in a remarkably short period of time. Billy Graham refused to allow segregated seating in his crusades after 1954, and declared that segregation could not be justified from Scripture. The popular Dallas pastor W. A. Criswell defended segregation for a time, but he repudiated it when he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1968. Perhaps the best bellwether of southern religion was L. Nelson Bell, editor of the conservative Southern Presbyterian Journal. Bell supported segregation but only on a voluntary basis. For him segregation was far less important than a host of other moral and theological issues facing the church. Bell wanted to foster the spread of the gospel, accommodating evangelicalism to as broad a range of peoples as possible, a stance that, it increasingly became obvious, would require the abandonment of segregation. 

Chappell admits that there was somewhat of a divide between the pulpit and the pew when it came to these matters. Pastors throughout the South were deposed or forced to resign when their congregations disagreed with integration-friendly preaching. In a few locations, such as Mississippi, certain bodies of churches even managed to take a unified stance in opposition to segregation, against their own denominations. But such was the exception rather than the norm. Ardent segregationists came to view churches and pastors as more of a threat to segregation than an ally. "The segregationists had popular opinion behind them, but not popular conviction.... [King] was far more confident in his bid to increase his support among white southern Christians than the segregationists ever were in their bids to increase theirs"   (p.151).

In the final analysis, then, segregation collapsed because it was much weaker culturally than it at first appeared. Without the vigorous support of the church, segregationists could not defend the status quo except at the cost of order and respectability. Chappell surveys the ways in which various journalists, lawyers, and politicians sought to preserve respectability for segregation, but ultimately failed. The ultimate lesson is that southern racism was insufficient to unify a winning political movement. Like northern liberals, southern segregationists lacked the cultural resources of religion. The irony, however, is that southern conservatives would later draw lessons from black southerners on how to use religion for political purposes. The leaders of the Christian Right would claim to carry the mantle of King when they entered the political arena during the 1980s and 1990s.

Chappell's analysis of the role of religion in the civil rights movement demonstrates the vital importance of religion in American culture and politics. Its demonstration of the good that has been accomplished through the impulse of prophetic Christianity will challenge those who assume religion and politics should be kept separate. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, its argument that southern churches' refusal to tie themselves to the sinking ship of segregation - despite their support for it - suggests that sometimes churches accomplish the most good when they seek to be a-political. Similarly, in contrast to the work of Carolyn Renée Dupont, Chappell takes into account the broad picture of southern evangelicalism, evaluating attitudes toward segregation in the context of more basic evangelical commitments and goals. This helps him to identify ways in which southern Christians' commitment to biblical orthodoxy functioned as a threat to segregation rather than an ally, allowing for a more nuanced perspective of evangelicalism than Dupont permits. The interplay between religion, culture, and politics is far more complex than we often like to think. Anyone interested in such questions will be thoroughly rewarded by taking the time to read this book.

Matthew J. Tuininga holds a PhD in Religion, Ethics and Society from Emory University and currently teaches at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at matthewtuininga.wordpress.com

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