Conversion Alone Won’t End Racism
Conversion Alone Won’t End Racism
It’s now been three weeks since George Floyd was brutally and heartlessly murdered by a now-former Minneapolis police officer. In the weeks since, there have been massive protests in all fifty states and around the world. All four of the now-former officers involved have been arrested and the now-former officer who most directly murdered George Floyd has had his charges increased to second-degree murder from third-degree. The Minneapolis city council has declared its intention to disband the Minneapolis police department and create something new. And there have been wide-spread demonstrations of support for the movement for Black freedom in America from even some unlikely places—like when NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag and raced a car with a Black Lives Matter design. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way communities are showing solidarity and demanding change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But, as if right on cue, many conservative white Evangelicals are sounding a different note. They claim they cannot in good conscience support this movement because of its ‘political associations.’ This is partly in reference to the official Black Lives Matter organization and its platform, but it’s also in reference to what they perceive to be the connection between the Black Lives Matter protesters and the “riots” and “looting” that grabbed headlines and dominated segments on Fox News. These conservative white Evangelicals have a different message, a different solution for eradicating racism: Salvation. The proposed solution from the whitest corners of the Evangelical world, to the epidemic of police brutality and structural racism that has once again been exposed for all to see, is for people en masse to be converted to Christianity. This approach is not only historically and sociologically ignorant, it’s also theologically unsound.

Individualistic Salvation Won’t End Racism

The first theological problem with what I’ll call ‘the myth of salvational determinism’ is that it doesn’t take into consideration the entirely individualistic way that “salvation” has been reimagined in the modern, Western world since the Reformation. Today, in American churches “salvation” is largely conceptualized as a “personal relationship with Jesus” and a ticket to heaven when a person dies. At best, “salvation” also includes a set of moral standards that accompany one’s affiliation with Jesus and a form of personal piety. The “saved” person in America shouldn’t lie, shouldn’t cheat on their taxes or on their spouse, etc. This kind of moralism varies from region to region, but always ends up undergirding the status quo. The ethical demands of salvation never extend much beyond an individual or that individual’s own nuclear family. Individualism has so permeated American Christianity that it is taken for granted that being a “Christian” has no implications whatsoever for how one should think about systemic racism or the laws and policy that keep it in place. This is not a new phenomenon at all. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encountered this exact same way of thinking nearly 60 years ago. And he addressed it directly:
There is another myth that has circulated a great deal. I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism. I am sure you have heard this: ‘Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.’ Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it. Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem. Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition. But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless, and this is what we often so and we have to do in society through legislation. We must depend on religion and education to change bad internal attitudes, but we need legislation to control the external effects of those bad internal attitudes. And so there is a need for meaningful civil right legislation. [1]
The reason why white Evangelicals then and now say things like “you can’t legislate love or morality,” is because they have made love and morality into personal, private affairs. For white Evangelicals love is a sentiment one “feels,” not an action one performs. But as Dr. Cornel West so succinctly put it, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” It’s this social, public dimension of love that has been so thoroughly extracted from white Evangelical faith by Individualism. As long as society functions relatively well for white Evangelicals, they see no reason to go messing around with laws and policies. But, let society infringe upon one of their deeply-held beliefs and suddenly white Evangelicals become activists. Anti-abortion protests and organizing are common-place for white Evangelicals. They will tell you, “That’s different! Abortion is a matter of life and death!” That tells you all you need to know about the value white Evangelicals place on Black lives that are needlessly, heartlessly, routinely taken by police. For them, protests and organizing aren’t necessary—because they aren’t moved.

Trickle-down Christianity Won’t End Racism

The second theological problem with the myth of salvational determinism is that it presumes that conversion itself will have a social effect without any effort made to change policy or laws. It assumes that Christian people will automatically be uneasy with racist laws and racist cultural norms. It assumes that personal “justification” will automatically result in social “sanctification” without any effort. This is a form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘Cheap Grace.’ In his day, Christian people who were personally justified by grace through faith also saw no problem with the rampant anti-Semitism present in German society nor even, eventually, with the systematic extermination of Jewish people. Have we learned nothing? History clearly shows us that conversion to Christianity, being personally justified by grace through faith, didn’t stop white Christians from participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in the owning of human beings as if they were property, in acts of racist terrorism, in the laws and policies of Jim Crow, and in the laws and policies of mass incarceration. All of these were attended to, if not created by, and tolerated by Christians. Dr. Christena Cleveland calls this belief—that conversion or salvation will somehow magically produce social change—“Trickle-down Christianity” after the now-famous “Trickle-down economics” of the Reagan era. She says,
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea. I’m starting to call it ‘Trickle-down Christianity’ because it kind of reminds me Reaganomics, where they thought, ‘Oh, if we just make sure the rich keep getting richer, then it’ll trickle down to all of the poor people. And their big blind spot was greed. They didn’t take into account that people are greedy. They just assumed that people would not be greedy. And I feel like it’s the same way with the church. We introduce people to Jesus and we just assume that this is going to transform their social relationships, but we’re not taking into account greed, basically, or selfishness. Like, ‘I want to make sure my home is a place of peace, but I’m not caring at all about the kid down the street who’s being abused.’ [2]
The Gospel that many American are exposed to has no social dimension at all. If it does have a social dimension, again, it’s limited to a few hobby horse political issues like fighting against rights for the LGBT community or fighting against abortion. The Gospel for many white Evangelicals has nothing to say about the historical roots of racism in America, and that’s not accidental. White Christianity (and later white Evangelicalism) has shared a symbiotic relationship with racism in America since its founding. What has been called “Christianity” in America has been so thoroughly saturated in White Supremacy that the two can hardly be separated. Consider, for example, the existence of the Black Church. Some white Evangelicals are so historically ignorant and steeped in the White Supremacy that’s ingrained in their theology that they think the existence of the Black Church is some form of “reverse racism.” They don’t realize that the reason the Black Church exists is because Black Christians were treated like second-class citizens in the white-dominated church. Black Christians weren’t regularly given roles of authority in the church, and in the rare instances when they were, they were mistrusted and disrespected. Black Christians were also segregated from white Christians. Hence what happened to Richard Allen and Absalom Jones:
While Allen, Jones and a number of other African Americans kneel in the gallery of St. George's for prayer one Sunday in 1787, church leaders attempt to pull them off their knees and move them to another part of the church. Offended by the racism of church leaders, Allen and Jones lead the African American membership out of St. George's Methodist Church, never to return. [3]
If Black Christians had been treated equally in the church, there would have been no need for a Black church.

Indemnity and Institutionalization

The reality is that conversion alone won’t end racism because racism isn’t reducible to interpersonal racial prejudice. Racism is structural, systemic. It is racial prejudice plus power. That power resides in institutions, laws, and cultural norms. This kind of power is largely invisible to "white" people, because it unjustly privileges us. So, it's like water to a fish. In fact, the process of institutionalization helps us to ignore our power. When a group of people share a set of values and cultural norms, they may externalize those values and norms into systems like corporations, institutions, or policies. Then, that externalized entity takes on a life of its own. There’s a legal term for when a corporation is responsible for harm, but none of the individuals who make up that corporation’s staff or board can be personally held liable. That term is “indemnity.” This is what white people feel in America—indemnity. We often say, “I’m not racist.” That’s a personal statement. But it says nothing about the externalized systems, corporations, institutions, and policies which we may have contributed to and continue to benefit from. A white person may not personally feel racial prejudice toward others, but they may also not oppose or seek to dismantle the systems which unjustly advantage them and disadvantage others. That’s complicity in racism. What’s worse is, once racism has been externalized into systems, and white people feel indemnity from the racism of those systems, those systems turn right back around and internalize those same racist values back into those who are formed by those systems. Often this process of internalization is so subtle that it’s nearly imperceptible. So that white Christians can find themselves denying they are personally racist, while defending the values of the racist systems that have formed them.

Love and Legislation

Dr. King was right. We not only need to “educate” people out of racist attitudes and ideas, or introduce them to a Gospel that addresses racist attitudes and ideas, we also need to dismantle the racist systems that have been formed and continue to form people. Otherwise, this is like giving a pig a bath and then sending them back to the same filthy pigsty that made them dirty in the first place. For far too long, white Evangelicals have ignored the systemic reality of racism and invested all their energies into personal conversion. This has created the widespread belief that personal feelings of love toward others will overcome racism in America. That experiment has failed. There is now no more grace for such ignorance. Either you are committed to dismantling the systems that continue to perpetuate racism and destroy Black lives, or you are complicit in racism.
  1. An Address by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa on October 15, 1962 []
  2. “The Gospel of Individualism” []
  3. “Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, by the Rev. George F. Bragg, in Honor of the Centennial of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Which Occurs in the Year 1916” []