The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era by Jesse Curtis

Myth of Colorblind Christians cover imageSummary: A history of the White Evangelical orientation toward colorblind approaches to race in the post-Civil Rights era. 

Routinely, usually on Twitter or Facebook, but sometimes in person, I will get someone who will ask me how some particular thing is about race. Often it will be self-evident to me, but it is much less clear for the person asking. Race is often something that people resist openly acknowledging because the very nature of seeing race for those who subscribe to colorblindness is a racialized act that we should avoid.

This book feels very personal to me. I will turn 49 soon, and much of the history here, I have very close connections to. I have met several people in the book. I attended Wheaton College as an undergrad, and I attended Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church (a church that started of the wreckage of Circle Church and Clarence Hilliard leaving.) I worked for a local association within SBC and interacted with the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board). I spent several years working with Mission America, the United States arm of the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelism. The Myth of Colorblind Christians gave me context, and a lot of new information, about the world that I experienced in the 1990-2000s.

The Myth of Colorblind Christians has six main chapters. The first chapter grounds the book in the Civil Rights era history and rise of modern (Billy Graham style) evangelicalism. The primary orientation of White Evangelicals toward race was either support of segregation (either overtly as God-ordained, or more subtly, as not causing offense and submitting to the cultural mores) or to oppose segregation but to do so through individual conversion and regeneration. The Evangelical orientation toward evangelism and conversion meant that Billy Graham and others did want to evangelize African Americans, and there was some effort in attracting Black Christians that would agree with them about racial problems being primarily spiritual problems. (It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem). Billy Graham went as far as to preach against the March on Washington during his Los Angeles crusade that was happening at the same time. “I am convinced that some extremists are going too far too fast,” he declared. “Forced integration will never work.” The racial crisis would “not be settled in the streets but it could be settled in the hearts of man” (p35). Despite Graham’s concerns about the March on Washington, “King articulated the ur-text of colorblind America” in his I Have a Dream speech.

Although there were Black Evangelicals, like Howard Jones, the first Black evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the relationship was more as a ‘Black sidekick’ than a full partner. Jones was asked to spend much of his time preaching in Africa, and even when he specifically asked, he was occasionally denied access to evangelistic rallies in the US. In 1965, Billy Graham had an evangelistic rally in Montogmery in direct response to the protest in Selma. Graham told Jones, “I am not sure that it would be wise for you to come to Mongomery just now” (p47). Graham was concerned about a Black evangelist on the stage raising tensions.

The second chapter discussed colorblind Christian College campuses. This is a point where I was often surprised because the history here was contrary to the presentation that I absorbed at Wheaton. Wheaton was an abolitionist college accepting Black students from the 1850s. But what I had not previously heard, but Curtis points out, that Charles Blanchard, the son of the founder, had a different perspective on racial issues. By the early 1900s, there were few Black students, and by 1909, Wheaton was explicitly denying Black students enrollment because of their new segregation policies. For more than 30 years, there were no black students on campus. Even when there was a slow integration (1940s and 50s), Black students were not allowed to live on campus or participate in most student activities.

It was because of sex, more than anything else, that many white evangelical colleges that enrolled black students here or there before the 1960s often saddled them with discriminatory policies. Besides bans or counseling against interracial dating, black students might be forced to live off campus or be encouraged to attend evening classes distinct from the daytime courses of white students living on campus. (p51)

Blacklash against Christian college integration was real. Upon hearing that Wheaton College had a memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr, Tim LaHaye, then a San Diego pastor, said he found it “incredible that a Christian college could participate in honoring an out-right theological liberal heretic whose ‘non-violent’ demonstrations resulted in the deaths of seventeen people.” He also said he would no longer recommend Wheaton to his congregation. In 1960, Wheaton College President Edman requested a committee draft a statement on race relations. The statement told how far it had strayed from its abolitionist beginnings and how it had “lost its sense of Christian responsibility on racial matters.” But what Curtis cites as the reason for the statement to be buried and one board member to suggest that those who had read it not even discuss it with family was a recommendation to remove restrictions on interracial dating. It would not be until further student protests and an additional decade before the restriction on interracial dating would be removed at Wheaton. (p 52-54)

The discussion of Christian colleges was personal, but the main point was that: “White evangelicals often insisted that unity in Christ was already a reality and that black Christians attacked such unity when they raised questions of systemic reform on the Christian campus.” My own time at Wheaton in the early 1990s was similar. During my time, there were petitions about hiring additional Black professors, multiples interracial discussions over campus incidents, and still, only 2% of Wheaton’s student population was Black during the time I was there. In the mid-1970s, President Armerding requested that professors be more multicultural in their curriculum and teaching. A professor responded privately, “contributions of the more ‘primitive’ cultures” should certainly be included, but “not to the point of over-reacting with making superficial connections.”

The third to the fifth chapters focus on the church growth movement, the Homogenous Unit Principle, Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism, and local evangelism within the US. Part of what my job was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, working with the Southern Baptists was providing demographic research reports for new church plants or churches that were trying to understand their communities. The church growth movement had vast influence by the early 1990s. Using the Homogogeous Unit Principle, the Church Growth Movement taught pastors and church planters to very narrowly target their church to a small cultural and racial subgroup.

“In a post–civil rights movement age when colorblind Christians dared not defend segregation outright and, indeed, no longer wanted to do so, the CGM enabled white evangelicals to recast their segregated churches and ongoing appeals to white identity as faithful evangelism rather than racism.” (p79)

What Curtis made clear was that not only was CGM and HUP giving evangelicals theological and pragmatic justification for continued segregation of churches but that in the 1960-70s when those models were being discussed in missiology circles, they were required for healthy churches. Evangelicals in apartheid South Africa used these models to justify their continued use of apartheid. On my Goodreads page, I have 60 quotes from the book, and many are from these sections detailing overt justification of segregation not for the basis of racism but for evangelism. Others at the time countered that segregated churches violated Christian theological ethics and orthopraxy. But by the time I was working with the local SBC association, very few were continuing to raise objections and concerns about how allowing for segregated churches was counter to the early church’s emphasis on crossing class, ethnic and geographic lines. David Swartz’s Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity is another good book on this aspect.

This post is already way too long, but I need to mention at least the final chapter on the 1990s racial reconciliation movement, highlighting Promise Keepers and the friendship-oriented racial reconciliation (which highlighted friendship, but deemphasized broader cultural change). As I mentioned above, I attended Raleigh Washington’s church before he left to go work for Promise Keepers, I attended several Christian Community Development Association national meetings in the 1990s, which were more likely to be advocating real racial change. I came to know Clarence Hillard in the early 2000s (although I had no idea of his involvement with Lausanne until I read this book). I never attended a Promise Keeper’s event, primarily because I was concerned about their sexism. But at the time, I would have favored friendship-oriented racial reconciliation as a means to get the church more interested in more significant issues of race and policy, and politics. But there were limitations to that thinking that I did not see at the time (although many others did, which is part of the value of this book.)

“Most white Americans believed a firmly colorblind approach to policy and public life—where character rather than skin color counted—would be the surest path to ending racial division.7 If there was more racial tension in the 1990s, the solution was not more racially conscious policies (to reduce inequality), but fewer (to reduce racial consciousness).” (p172)


“These phenomena—interpersonal racial reconciliation and public racial reaction—were complementary rather than contradictory. Most white evangelicals perceived no conflict between these positions. Private initiative would replace public bureaucracy and personal friendship would substitute for institutional reform. As the Dallas Morning News perceptively noted, “Much of the [racial reconciliation] action is coming from groups that support the [proposed Republican] cuts” to government programs.”(p198)

I think the best critique of the Promise Keeper Methodology is Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ I Bring the Voice of My People but Divided by Faith, mentioned at the end of The Myth of Colorblind Christians also spends a chapter on Promise Keepers.

I think one of the most important, problems of the Homogenous Unit Principle was unintentionally revealed by McGavran (the founder of the idea) when he said, “The minorities…are virtually untouched by the church today.” He urged Christians to pray for the “penetration” of all these “untouched” groups. He declared that African Americans and other people of color in the United States were “growing up unchurched” and were effectively “Christo-pagan.” McGavran assumed white normativity and that the Christian faith was best transmitted from White to non-White people. He would have resisted that characterization, but the reality is that the growth of the church is almost entirely among non-White communities in the US and around the world. Because most White Evangelicals assume a normative rightness to White Evangelical theology, the idea that the Black church has something to teach the White church was simply not something he was looking for.

This is further shown by McGavran specifically excluding Black Evangelicals from the planning and trying to exclude them from participating in the 1985 Evangelizing Ethnic America conference that was put on by Lausanne North American arm. This conference was in part a proof of concept to justify HUP through ethnic evangelism and church planting. After the fact, there was a definition of “ethnic” that required non-English speaking to justify not including Black Americans. Private communication between Wagner, McGavran, and others speaks about specific exclusion. One quote is, “experience has shown that whenever a joint project is conducted with all included, the American blacks almost inevitably take control of the project.”  This is an example of when colorblind Christians selectively do pay attention to race, but often in ways that end up being discriminatory.

The Myth of Colorblind Christians is an important thread in the current discussion about what Evangelicalism means and the recent racial history of the movement. We White Evangelicals will never move forward if we cannot see an honest and accurate history. As a former Wheaton student, I have a very different understanding of institutional racial capacity when I understand that Wheaton was a segregated school that maintained bans on interracial dating until the mid-1970s then I did when I thought that Wheaton had always been an integrated school, even if it did not reflect the diversity of the church as well as it should. These are stories that we need to be discussing. And the unintended consequences of theological decisions like the church growth movement’s embrace of segregated congregations through the homogenous unit principle should remind us that blind spots matter.

There are fewer people today that advocate colorblindness as an ideal, but those that do, are still more likely to be White Evangelicals than other religious or cultural groups. We need to see the harm that colorblindness leads to. There are so many other parts of this book that I could highlight. But one last part I think shows how little we have come. In 1985, the National Black Evangelical Association put together a pamphlet for Black students at predominately White Christian schools that thematically could have been written this year. The Witness: A Black Christian Collective’s focus on LeaveLoud has highlighted many of the same points.

“One essay discouraged black students from spending too much energy trying to educate white students. The most likely outcome was emotional exhaustion for the black student and little change on the part of white students.”

The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era by Jesse Curtis Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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