Paul Harvey on Nancy D. Wadsworth’s Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing
Nancy Wadsworth’s stimulating new work on the politics of racial healing came to my attention just as news about national protests stemming from the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York took center stage in national news broadcasts. Social media buzzed with various reactions to the unprosecuted killings of unarmed black men, including numerous comments made by professional athletes. Just before a Monday night football game — and right after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case — a tight end for the New Orleans Saints, Benjamin Watson, weighed in on Twitter: “So many thoughts on #Ferguson. My heart is full and I don’t know where to start. Lord help us. All of us. Black & White. Anger Fear Despair.” He then immediately followed up with a multifaceted facebook post which communicated his anger and frustration over the killings, connected them to experiences of African Americans through generations of American history, condemned violent responses to the grand jury decision in Ferguson, expressed empathy for police officers making split-second decisions, and looked for hope in the gospel of Christ.
Watson’s words leapt to mind while I was reading Nancy D. Wadsworth’s Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. A key section of that post almost perfectly captures the ambivalence of the subtitle of Wadsworth’s book:
I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his [sic] son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.
Ambivalent Miracles is an extensive study of the “Evangelical Racial Change” (ERC) movement over the last generation of American evangelical history, based on years of interviews and participant-observation of efforts. About midway into the book, Wadsworth quotes a “reconciler of color,” an African-American Christian involved with white Christians in the movement. This person had once expressed skepticism about “institutional apologies” for active complicity in slavery and segregation, including the famous 1995 apology from leaders of the formerly all-white Southern Baptist Convention (formed in 1845 as a direct result of the antebellum slavery controversy). After reflecting on the meaning of apologies and “forgiveness” for the sins of America’s racial past, the reconciler of color later concluded: “A lot of times the reconciliation issue is focused on Anglos making it right, but it’s from both sides, from all sides. It’s not just white/black or white/brown; it’s sometimes black/brown and Asian/Asian, brown against brown and so forth. So it isn’t a matter of skin, it’s a matter of sin. So I get forgiveness of my sin and you get forgiveness for your sin and we forgive each other and we’re forgiven of God, then we can start on a clean slate.” In short, what Benjamin Watson said.
Wadsworth’s work of political ethnography provides a searching explanation of not only how movements for evangelical racial change can embrace the rhetoric of diversity while very often remaining politically disengaged, but also how and why American church communities often remain “divided by faith,” in the words of the well-known sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. As she shows, “most racial reconcilers in the 1990s were disinclined to frame racism as a social problem because, as they continually emphasized, programmatic or governmental responses to racism would always fail by virtue of their incapacity to address the underlying sin problem.” Importantly (and here she differs somewhat from Emerson and Smith), she finds this view to be not only prevalent among white evangelicals, but also characteristic of “reconcilers of color.” The reconcilers of color may be more sensitive to the social causation of racial inequality, but they often tend to turn to individual solutions, including moments of personal reconciliation that evangelicals experience as social miracles. Ultimately, they too see it as a sin problem.
For reasons she explores in great depth, even the most politically conscious of these newly emerging multiethnic churches remain ambivalent, at best, about addressing political rather than personal solutions. Evangelicals have a deep history, she suggests, of “working within a context of political ambivalence that is, for culturally specific reasons, more comfortable than engagements framed as explicitly political,” for they “believe they can create safer spaces for the kinds of interactions they experience as social miracles.” So, the Pentecostals had their “Memphis Miracle” in 1994 — one of those “social miracles,” as Wadsworth describes them — and their churches have tended from the beginning to be more open to multiethnic communities that embrace enthusiastic worship traditions, but Pentecostals remain, at best, ambivalent about facing up to the structural roots that frame racial encounters unequally.
At the same time, Wadsworth offers up a hopeful last section of the book that looks at concerted efforts towards building multiethnic churches (many of which post-date Emerson and Smith’s influential book), and more forthrightly addressing the institutionalized roots of racialized inequality in American societies. She ends the book with an exhortatory epilogue that is quite remarkable given that she does not identify with evangelicals personally (it’s just not her “tribe,” as she states in the introduction). But clearly she cares about them and their struggles to come to grips with America’s racial history.
Ultimately, she reminds readers, it was not any “change of the heart” that destroyed Jim Crow, but rather activists in “a community of religious and nonreligious citizens under a common, religiously neutral state” who demanded that laws be changed. White evangelicals, on the other hand, were “behind the curve if not active obstacles to racial progress in the United States.” So why do some in the ERC movement continue to “claim that religiously driven ‘heart change’ will somehow magically transform broad-scale racial injustice person by person, without Christians having to take public stances in the world consisted with their stated values”? Is “political ambivalence” a way to keep white evangelicals in the movement “comfortable,” since they see political discussions as “getting off track” from the real business of the gospel message?
Wadsworth finds hope in looking at the part of America’s “religious racial history” where Christians acted in the world to foster true social miracles — in helping to defeat slavery and empower the civil rights movement, for example. With considerable empathy, she suggests that the movement for ERC might have needed, for a time, to “keep the focus on the essentials: addressing the past, apologizing, working toward relationship building and healing, and figuring out how to relate meaningfully across cultural, ethnic, and racial difference.” But what is to be done after that? Wadsworth warns that if “heart change” is bracketed off from real world social change, then this might hinder appropriate reflection and action to pursue political and social change. She urges those in the ERC movement to foster a more “open discussion of what sort of racial politics should follow from the commitments to racial change,” and to consider the politics that “undermine” ERC goals.
I hope she is right, and I hope they do. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Wadsworth is focusing on people specifically involved in the ERC, a (relatively) smaller segment of evangelicals nationally, and people who are by definition wanting to self-consciously address and even overcome America’s religious racial history. What of the evangelical community more generally? If one examines the voting patterns of evangelicals and their penchant for gravitating towards candidates who harp on themes of social morality and explicitly ignoring structural inequalities that frame America’s racial politics, then there may be less reasons for hope than Wadsworth thinks, and than I want to think.
One (admittedly limited) test case comes to mind: Evangelically-motivated voters in my home state of Oklahoma just elected James Lankford (R) as their new Senator, replacing Tom Coburn. Lankford had a long history working for Southern Baptist agencies in Oklahoma, including a stint as director of youth programs at Fall’s Creek Assembly, the largest Christian youth camp in America (and a place where I spent a week every summer in junior high and high school, hearing impassioned sermons from preachers famous among Southern Baptists for their evangelical fire). Lankford stepped down from his Baptist work in 2009 when he won election to the House of Representatives, and now will be in the U.S. Senate.
His recent record in the House, judging from his Facebook page, seems mostly to be obsessed with eliminating Obamacare (including eliminating those provisions that provide subsidies to the most financially needy applicants for health insurance) and with opposing Obama’s executive action decisions on immigration, including those providing for the reuniting of families. I could not find a single post about #Ferguson.
Lankford is just one individual, and Oklahoma is an unusually conservative state, so this may not be an entirely fair test. But if we use Lankford to test Wadsworth’s thesis, then I can only say, God help us, because we’re not going to help ourselves.