This is first in a series of portraits of American evangelical Christians in the age of Donald Trump, examining the changes, tensions and challenges in this group through individual stories.
HELENA, Ark. — I can remember moments of spiritual euphoria from my youthful days in church when I raised my hands toward the ceiling, closed my eyes, and received a vision from the Holy Spirit, one of blacks and whites equal and united.
It was a recurring image in my mind in those days of heightened religious zeal, and adulthood never stole the dream from me. I remained convinced that the teachings of the Christian faith held the greatest promise for overcoming racism.
This is a common desire among Christians of all political stripes. I grew up in a conservative evangelical culture, and many right-wing Republicans I knew believed that Christianity had the potential to tear down the walls of racial division, and they hoped it would happen.
But like many whites, I thought of racism and reconciliation in terms of individual relationships rather than in terms of laws, systems and institutions. The true scope of what justice might mean had not occurred to me.
And then in the age of Trump, things fell apart. They had been unraveling for years, ever since America elected its first black president, setting off a slow motion backlash among some whites. In President Obama’s second term there came a staggering rush of video footage filmed on cellphones showing an established pattern of police brutality against African-Americans.
And there was a growing popular awareness that America’s history had been literally whitewashed in the popular imagination, glossing over the dark decades of Jim Crow. For me it took the form of movies like “13th,” which traces the roots of mass incarceration, and from hearing, for the first time, about the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and the destruction of the business district once known as the “Black Wall Street.” As I read more about this episode and others like it, I asked friends and acquaintances if they too knew about these things. They did not.
But new calls for racial justice and talk of systemic white supremacy — a system set up during Jim Crow with continuing consequences today — mostly fell on deaf ears. Many white conservatives were sick of hearing about racism, believing that Democrats had cynically played the race card for black votes for decades.
It hasn’t just been some whites who have been on a journey of discovery regarding the ways in which white supremacy was institutionalized, with effects that continue today.
Jemar Tisby, a 36-year old PhD student at the University of Mississippi, was just a few years ago a rising star in the majority-white branch of American evangelical Christianity known as the Reformed movement.
He wanted to bring blacks and whites together — starting inside the church — and had devoted much of his life to that cause. But at the time, when discussing the black community’s struggles with poverty and crime, he emphasized individual moral failings and theological shortcomings in the black church more than historic, systemic causes.
Over the last few years, however, his focus has shifted. His study of the history of race and religion in America had turned his focus toward systemic causes of racial inequality, and the ways in which American history has ignored them.
“When it comes to knowledge of our racial history, black history, we don’t know our own stories,” he told me one night recently in his hometown of Helena, a once-thriving Mississippi River port town.
Tisby’s writings and his podcast, “Pass the Mic,” had helped me process my own evolving attitudes about race. In many ways, though he was black and I was white, Tisby and I came from similar backgrounds and had similar ways of thinking. The racial venom in our streets and our discourse grieved both of us.
We both still shared a hope in the power and the teachings of the Christian faith to overcome racism, but reality looked grim. The day after the election last fall, Tisby had been frank on his podcast, processing things in real time. “It feels like the work of developing racial unity among believers took a monumental step backwards, or it didn’t move at all and I just thought it was in a different place than it really was,” he said then.
And so in August I traveled to the Delta to find out what Tisby wanted to do, now that his dream — one I shared — had been so badly deflated. We sat on a porch in the dark, drinking wine, swatting mosquitoes, searching for answers.
The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Tisby’s wife, Janee, learned the election result from him. They consoled one another with a hug. “Sometimes words fail you,” he said. He told his professors at the University of Mississippi, where he’s a PhD student studying the history of American race and religion, that he needed to skip class that day. “I’m literally not feeling well,” he told them.
“There’s this sense that the nation wasn’t what we thought it was. It’s not what we hoped it was, at the very least,” Tisby said on his podcast that day. “Something about this really felt like a gut punch that really pushed back everything we’ve been doing by several steps.”
“So many of my bothers and sisters in the faith still don’t understand where I’m coming from as a racial minority,” he said. “It was devastating.”
Tisby had been an influential voice for racial reconciliation, a process that he thought could and should begin with the church. With that in mind he had built an influential organization, the Reformed African-American Network, or RAAN, which hosted the “Pass the Mic” podcast and published articles on faith, race and politics. The podcasts have been ranked in the top 20 in the “Religion & Spirituality” category on iTunes, and RAAN’s website has hosted more than 2 million visitors.
But in recent years he had become discouraged, a process that accelerated after Trump’s election, and paralleled a growing sense of futility among other black evangelicals who had been working toward the same goal. They were asking themselves a simple question: If blacks and whites who are brothers and sisters in Christ cannot reach across the racial divide, what hope is there for the nation as a whole?
The shift in Tisby’s thinking began in 2014, with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of a white police officer, a tragedy that elicited widely different reactions among whites and blacks. Tisby noticed and became increasingly bothered by what he regarded as the indifference among whites to a pattern of police brutality against blacks.
As he gradually become more outspoken about racial justice, he saw white Christians responding negatively, often insisting that he should talk about “the gospel” rather than race. “It’s the idea that if you start talking about so-called social issues, which — how do you define that? — then you automatically have stopped talking about spiritual or ‘gospel issues,’ salvation and things like that,” he said. “And we get a lot of that. I get a lot of that.”
Conservative evangelicals also had an enormous blind spot concerning politics, literally an inability to conceive that sincere Christians could be Democrats. “In my conservative theological circles, you could be a publicly declared Republican, but if you were a publicly declared Democrat you might get somebody who grabs you by the elbow and takes you off and whispers in your ear, ‘Hey brother, I’d love to share the gospel with you,’” Tisby said.
So he has decided that he does not want to spend as much time and energy as he has in the past trying to reach and convince a white audience that they should care about systemic racial inequality.
“I think a lot of us are realizing that without losing any love for our white brothers and sisters, it is taking our limited time and energy and resources to constantly address and educate them,” he said.
Tisby was raised outside Chicago in a middle-class home and after college at Notre Dame moved to Helena in 2003 as an idealistic Teach for America recruit. He took up the cause of charter schools, starting as a sixth-grade teacher and then moving on to be the middle school principal at a KIPP charter school.
In 2011, he went to Jackson, Miss., to study at one of the preeminent evangelical seminaries in the country, Reformed Theological Seminary. There, he became assistant to and friends with the school’s chancellor, Ligon Duncan, one of the most prominent figures in the Reformed wing of American evangelicalism. This movement aimed to correct what it saw as a drift in American evangelicalism away from theological precision and toward a faith more oriented around man than it was around God. It was a return to Calvinism, and this movement has been a robust component of evangelical Christianity for almost two decades now.
Tisby started RAAN at that time. He was becoming a key figure connecting African-American Christians and the overwhelmingly white evangelical church.
Tisby had been deeply influenced during his undergrad days at Notre Dame by the book “Desiring God,” by a Baptist preacher from Minnesota, John Piper. Piper was another prominent thinker in the Calvinist tradition. Tisby himself articulated some of this view in a 2012 blog post, where he lauded the “big God” approach of Reformed theology. But in retrospect, the post is evidence of how much he has changed in five years.
Although he stipulated that white Reformed churches had “much to learn from the Black church tradition,” Tisby’s overall critique of the African-American church was harsh. He wrote that there had been an “infiltration of man-centered ideas like legalism and prosperity theology into the pulpits and pews of Black churches.”
“The damage is evident as individuals in African American communities stumble and sometimes run toward sin and folly,” Tisby wrote. “I lived and worked as an educator in the Mississippi Delta for seven years. The Black community there is bruised by generational poverty, lack of education, poor health care, single parent homes, apathetic men, and nearly every other social ill that exists. Yet the norm for my students and their families was to attend church. As I daily encountered the fruits of these dysfunctions I asked myself, ‘Where is the Gospel transformation?’”
This rhetoric from an African-American was palatable to many white Christians. But they are much less inclined to agree with what he’s been saying since 2014, that the black community has been and continues to be systematically disadvantaged by a culture in which whites dominate the power structure and whiteness is considered more valuable than dark skin in the collective consciousness.
When I asked Tisby recently about his 2012 blog post, he completely rejected what he had written. “This represents an immature understanding of both Reformed theology and the black church tradition on my part. The condescending tone toward the black church is reprehensible and inexcusable,” he wrote.
“I was searching for a way to communicate biblical truth to my students and their families in the Delta. I erred first by thinking they weren’t getting this truth in the first place and second by thinking that Reformed theology as formulated by white men was the solution. I would never write such a piece now. I need to take it down,” he said.
Now, Tisby and others at RAAN are in the process of changing the name of their organization. The word “Reformed” will no longer be part of the name. He told me this was a “pivot to emphasize African American concerns and highlight the black church tradition … while retaining a Reformed theological foundation.”
Trump’s election had capped his conviction that had been growing for years, that white Christians did not really care that much about what he had to say, even if they were willing to politely listen.
“It was almost a slap in the face to me,” Tisby told me.
“We said, like, ‘This man is dangerous to us.’ And I was like, ‘I go to the same churches with you. You’ve held my child in your arms. And none of that has impacted you to the point where you would change anything really. What has it really cost you, white evangelical, to have me in your presence? Versus, what does it cost me to be in your presence?” he said.
“Because you certainly aren’t going to black churches. We’re coming to you. And as we come to you, we’re saying, ‘Hey, our presence needs to actually make a difference here. It needs to actually change the way you do things. Otherwise, you’re just asking for uniformity, not unity.’”
In June, Tisby quietly resigned his position as director of the African-American Leadership Institute at Duncan’s Reformed Theological Seminary. He has stopped submitting articles to websites like the Gospel Coalition or Desiring God, which cater to a predominantly conservative evangelical audience.
Tisby had once been in the forefront of a small but growing number of black ministers and leaders who had found common cause with the white-dominated Christian Reformed movement. Some still remain in that movement, but the support for Trump by an overwhelming majority of white evangelical Christians has deeply troubled many African-American church leaders and thinkers.
“The Trump election did it for me. For the first time I said, ‘Wow, I don’t think this is really going to get better,’” said Eric Redmond, a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago who helped edit a 2009 book called “Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity.”
“We’re in 2017, and a lot of my brothers still don’t get it and I don’t know if they’re going to get it,” Redmond said. “There’s huge repercussions, but for people of color it just means we’re going to figure this out on our own.”
When I visited Tisby in his hometown in August, we spent the better part of a day exploring Helena, talking about the events of the last few years. He said that his focus was moving toward speaking and writing for a black audience primarily, rather than for whites.
“We have a lot of white evangelicals coming to us through RAAN. And that demonstrates a willingness to learn and a level of humility. And I’ll ride with you. I mean I’m not turning anybody away. But I’m not chasing you. I think that’s one way to characterize the difference,” he said.
Tisby’s path shares similarities with that of other prominent black Christian leaders who have spent significant time in Reformed Christian circles, such as Thabiti Anyabwile, a Washington, D.C., pastor.
Anyabwile has been a speaker at a prominent biannual conference for Reformed evangelicals, “Together for the Gospel,” in the past and has also faulted the black church for its lack of theological rigor. But he was one of the few religious conservatives, along with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, to forcefully criticize Trump. Anyabwile also publicly rebuked Christians who supported him, and argued that evangelicals should support Hillary Clinton despite disagreements over issues like abortion.
The backlash from white conservative Christians to Anyabwile’s comments during the election was intense. But in March of this year, Anyabwile and others organized a conference attended mostly by black Christians, pushing back against pressure from within white Christianity to stop talking about racial justice and inequality. The Gospel Coalition helped sponsor the event.
Part of Tisby’s tour through Helena took us through Magnolia Cemetery, a place of burial for Helena’s African-American population that had only recently begun to be reclaimed by members of the local community from decades of neglect.
We walked down a gravel road past crumbling headstones, surrounded by deep forest on both sides and by the deafening chirping of summer insects in the trees.
“I am sobered, chastened a bit in my hopefulness,” Tisby said. He added that he was “not hopeless.”
“I think I have a more realistic picture of what we’re facing when it comes to race and the church, and America more broadly. This is a long slog, and sometimes the best we can do in terms of success is to say we were faithful. We may not ever see the progress we desire. But I’m not despondent or cynical. I think I’m bolder now,” he said.
Tisby admitted he had been “naïve about some things, simply because I was young.” Namely, he overestimated how easy it would be to bring about racial reconciliation.
He said in subsequent conversations that he has not given up on the idea of reconciliation and still sees it as foundational to racial justice. But there are many Christians who are moving away from talk of racial reconciliation because they believe it “confuses white emotional catharsis with racial justice,” as Erna Kim Hackett, with the Christian organization InterVarsity, put it.
“[Black Lives Matter] insists on addressing systemic issues, and white Christianity is pathologically individualistic,” she wrote. This “explains why people love a photo of a cop hugging a black person, but dismiss claims of systemic racism in policing. It pretends that injustice is resolved when individuals hug.”
But Tisby hasn’t given up on relationships with white evangelicals. He still sees it as vital. During our conversation on the porch of the Edwardian Inn, a bed and breakfast in Helena, Tisby explored the paradox that while black progress requires overcoming systemic injustice and inequality, white Christians are resistant to that message, so progress will depend on personal interactions among individuals.
He concluded with an audible sigh that he and others will have to keep explaining themselves to whites, often having the same exhausting conversation over and over, one person at a time, because this is a primary way that African-Americans will make progress.
Tisby affirmed that his identity as a Christian supercedes his racial identity. And it’s this very belief that holds so much promise to many for racial reconciliation. It’s why black and white Christians have long held out hope of showing the way forward on race. Their faith teaches, in passages like the third chapter of Galatians, that all people are guilty of sin, but are adopted into one family through Christ’s salvific life, death and resurrection.
But after emphasizing this spiritual side of the coin for many years, Tisby does not want to allow Christian doctrine to be used as an excuse to gloss over the hard conversations around race that need to be had. “My tone has shifted, not to be disrespectful, but not to let people off the hook,” he said.
“We know these things. This knowledge is available. It’s always been there,” Tisby said. “And it’s willful ignorance, if not culpable ignorance, for us — particularly as Christians — not to know our history as a nation and a church when it comes to race, and not to respond appropriately.”
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