Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race: [Part 1] - Cultural Captivity?

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race: [Part 1] - Cultural Captivity?

At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5 President Obama called Christians to exercise humility in their responses to Muslim acts of terror, referencing some of the great sins of the Christian tradition. His comments provoked a sharp backlash, much of it focused on whether or not the Crusades were a cause of Islamic terrorism. But Christians were more muted in their response to the president's allusion to slavery and the oppression of Jim Crow segregation. As Anthony Bradley recently warned in a Facebook post, "Don't let your evangelical friends only talk about the Crusades... [W]ill someone clarify the Trail of Tears, slavery, and Jim Crow, and so on for us?" 

Thankfully, Sean Lucas has helped readers of Reformation 21 do that in his series of five posts on race and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in early February. Otis Pickett's current series on Race and the American Church has likewise been very helpful. I do not intend to add to the excellent work of either on the historical front. My interest is to engage the issue from the angle of Reformed political theology.

Many evangelicals have comforted themselves about slavery and segregation with the assumption that Christian support for such systemic injustice was the result of the church's past "cultural captivity." The church failed to speak out against these heinous crimes, the argument runs, because it had become too much a part of the culture that fostered them. Influenced by the social and scientific assumptions of their day, and afraid to challenge the powerful political, economic, and social forces that shaped the status quo, Christian pastors curbed their morally prophetic role in order to keep their parishioners in the pews. It was a small price to pay, especially if the teachings of Christianity prevented the system's worst abuses. In any case, the time-tested doctrine of the "spirituality of the church," a southern version of the two kingdoms doctrine, called the church to abstain from political involvement. 

In recent years historians have abandoned the "cultural captivity" thesis. Yet the idea remains influential in evangelical circles because of its powerful explanatory power. It seems to make sense of the way in which prominent southern Presbyterian theologians like James Henley Thornwell, synthesizing broadly accepted ideas about race with biblical ideas about slavery, defended slavery on the basis of Africans' alleged racial inferiority. It provides a context from which to explain Robert Lewis Dabney's bitter opposition to the opening up of ecclesiastical offices to black Presbyterians. Eliminate these men's cultural assumptions about race, it would seem, and these errors can be avoided. After all, if in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, as the popular evangelist Billy Graham recognized (even before the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision), then segregated worship is unChristian on its face, a clear denial of the gospel. 

Graham was a pioneer when it came to the integration of worship, but most southern pastors followed similar logic at least as far as to vehemently reject racial violence and vigilante justice. Christian pastors may have argued for the inherent racial inferiority of blacks earlier in the twentieth century, even going so far as to lend their pastoral sanction to lynchings and other brutal tactics associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but by the 1950s only the most extreme, socially marginal preachers entertained such views. Indeed, during the 1950s both the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) decisively endorsed cooperation with the Supreme Court's call for racial integration. Pastors throughout the South, especially those who served more prominent, upscale churches in urban areas, favored moderation in the gradual implementation of the Court's decisions, even if they personally disagreed with them. They certainly opposed the "massive resistance" of political grandstanders like Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, whose resistance to the integration of nine black students to a Little Rock high school forced President Eisenhower to send elements of the 101st Airborne Division to protect them.

In his Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet, Michael B. Friedland has chronicled the widespread effort of southern pastors in towns and cities across the South to prevent such fiascos. It is a story not often told. Most of the attention is paid to the actively integrationist efforts of the black church or to the waves of white clergy who began to descend on the South from outside the region in 1963. Hundreds of southern pastors did what they could, both publicly and behind the scenes, and thoughtful activists recognized that for such pastors even modest action came at a much higher price than it did for clergy from the North. Dozens of southern pastors were run out of their churches and towns by hostile congregations, especially in the Deep South. When twenty-eight Methodist ministers in Mississippi published a document entitled "Born of Conviction," declaring their support for freedom of the pulpit and observing that the teachings of Jesus forbid discrimination on the basis of race, on January 2, 1963, segregationists succeeded in using threats and intimidation to drive most of them out of the state. Even where pastors recognized the duty of the church to support integration, quite often the lay church leaders on whom they depended for financial and social support did not. Given such circumstances, most southern pastors neither defended nor opposed the civil rights movement. They simply remained silent.

In some cases, however, most prominently conservative Mississippi, the churches were unified in their opposition to denominational statements or materials that supported integration. Mississippi Presbyterians could take their cue from men like Dr. G. T. Gillespie, retired president of Belhaven College. In 1954 Gillespie issued a report to the Synod of Mississippi declaring that as a social issue segregation lay outside the proper concerns of the church, and that therefore the PCUS was wrong to declare that churches should "admit persons to membership and fellowship without reference to race." In his address to the synod, Gillespie defended segregation on the basis of both natural law and Scripture. Invoking the curse of Canaan, the division of the nations at Babel, and the law of Moses, Gillespie went so far as to suggest, in sharp contrast to Thornwell a century before, that even in the future celestial city each race would retain "its own distinctive genius and virtues." The Mississippi Synod adopted the report, and Gillespie's address was printed and widely publicized by Mississippi's citizens' councils under the title, "A Christian View on Segregation." It was also published by L. Nelson Bell's evangelical Southern Presbyterian Journal.[1]  

Such sentiments clearly contributed to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973. Morton H. Smith, the first stated clerk of the PCA and later a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina, explained the causes for the formation of the PCA in his book How Is the Gold Become Dim! The book referenced the PCUS's support for integration among other examples of the denomination's theological decline (an interpretation quietly accepted by Paul Settle's 25th anniversary history of the PCA, To God All Praise and Glory, although Settle's book otherwise entirely ignores the significance of race in the PCA's founding). John Richards, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, placed even more emphasis on the importance of the issue in his book The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America, in which he included his own sermon against racial integration.[2]

Such views did not prevail in the PCA or the SBC, of course, and both denominations have since repented of their earlier racial sins. Like Lucas, however, I do not believe most southern evangelicals have fully come to grips with the extent to which Presbyterian theology was actively used by defenders of segregation. The key question is, were theological defenses of segregation simply examples of conservative evangelical theology in cultural captivity, or do they point to a more basic flaw, as suggested recently by Matthew J. Hall, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 
These evangelicals had a very clear understanding of the personal realities of behavior contrary to revealed biblical norms, or at least a somewhat selective list of them. But where they fell short was in articulating a fully-orbed doctrine of sin, one that has deep roots in the Christian tradition and is far more pessimistic about the extent and effects of sin. A classic Protestant understanding of sin might have helped them recognize the ways in which sin infects not only personal individual choices, but also social structures, economic systems, legal codes, etc. But by relegating sin only to the realm of individual choice, it allowed white evangelicals to denounce anything broader as political entanglement that had no connection to Christian ethics or witness. 
Hall's critique certainly reflects that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who synthesized a social gospel orientation, the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the traditional piety of the black church to advocate a meaningful realization of the "beloved community" in southern society. King's turn to political means to achieve a sanctification of southern racial attitudes stood in sharp contrast to traditional evangelical convictions about the spirituality of the church, attitudes expressed in the insistence that hearts could only be changed by the faithful preaching of the gospel. The degree to which conservative southern Presbyterians have changed in their views of race testifies to the possibility of dramatic social change, but it also raises a penetrating question. Did the change in racial attitudes take place because Presbyterians suddenly started preaching faithfully, or was it the result of the cultural, economic, political, and legal shifts brought about by the civil rights movement? To put an ironic twist on the question, does the racial repentance of the PCA, the SBC, and other southern churches testify to an escape from cultural captivity, or to its ongoing power? After all, these acts of repentance simply followed the broader political repentance of the culture in which they took place.

In fact, I do not believe that Hall's suggestion fully captures the ways in which traditional evangelical theology was complicit in the racist ideologies of slavery and segregation. Hall's critique, like that of many historians, is that evangelicalism has been too individualistic. This is true in the sense that evangelicals failed to grasp the ways in which segregation systemically fostered racial oppression. But southern evangelicalism has never been as individualistic as scholars sometimes claim. In fact, traditional arguments in defense of slavery and segregation generally made use of communitarian arguments, while it was their abolitionist and integrationist critics who appealed to the individualistic ethics of liberty and equality. Indeed, southern evangelicals often implied that because sin takes social and communal form - even to the extent of becoming embedded in whole groups or races of people - major institutional and cultural systems are necessary to maintain social order. Both slavery and segregation were defended on the paternalistic premise that these institutions helped the white race to guide the black race, to which it was superior in religion, morality, intellect, and culture. 

The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sorrt of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life. Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as a source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race. 

I will defend this interpretation in parts 2 and 3 of this series.

NB. This essay is the first of a series of three. The second explores the problematic ways in which segregationist theologians used the Old Testament, and the third explores lessons evangelicals can draw 

Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at


[1] Dupont, Carolyn Renee. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil ---Rights Movement, 1945-1975. New York: New York University Press, 2013, pp. 75-76

[2] Dupont, Mississippi Praying, pp. 217-18