Review: The Myth of Colorblind Christians by Jesse Curtis

There has been a lot of discussion recently on the topic of American evangelical deconstruction (see also here and here). Such deconstruction generally involves subjecting the evangelical church to historical and sociological analysis, in order to demonstrate that evangelicalism is actually rooted in efforts to uphold—and to provide religious justification for—the social dominance of privileged groups. To put it more bluntly, it is claimed that American evangelical theology is really just a prop for keeping straight white men in power. Examples of recent authors who have undertaken the task of evangelical deconstruction (even if they do not identify their task as such) include Jemar Tisby, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Beth Allison Barr. For the most part, these authors’ descriptions of the historical facts are accurate—and sobering. What is more contestable, however, is the sociological framework that they adopt to evaluate and interpret these historical facts.

This same problem besets one of the most recent publications in the evangelical deconstruction movement, The Myth of Colorblind Christians by Jesse Curtis, assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University (NYU Press, 2021). This book surveys the history of the white evangelical church in America from the 1960s to the 1990s, analyzing the ways that white evangelicals tried to come to terms with the Civil Rights Movement. This resulted in the rise of a “colorblind” theology—one which emphasizes believers’ unity and equality in Christ, and the irrelevance of racial differences. Colorblind theology was a development upon the overtly white supremacist and segregationist theology of previous generations, but it stopped short of meeting the demands of the radical wing of the Civil Rights Movement for more systemic and economic reforms. Such demands (such as affirmative action, reparations, etc.) were explicitly race-conscious, running directly counter to the colorblind vision of a society that transcended race.

Curtis argues that white evangelicals used colorblind theology “to protect and shape new investments in whiteness as they attempted to grow the evangelical movement” (2). His repeated use of the term “whiteness” reveals his operating framework: “Throughout this book, I use phrases such as ‘investment in whiteness’ to deliberately echo foundational works in whiteness studies and critical race theory while also suggesting the limits of that scholarship” (4). Curtis seeks to go beyond these limits of CRT scholarship by applying its core teachings to the realm of ecclesiology—a step that its original proponents, whose focus was initially restricted to the realm of law and education, had not taken.

Summary

As a work of historiography, this book is very well researched; it contains about 40 pages of endnotes and 15 pages of bibliographic references. Each chapter thoroughly examines a different aspect of the evangelical church in roughly chronological order. I will try to summarize the main points of each chapter here.

Chapter one examines the rise of evangelical colorblind theology in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s-1960s. In a relatively short amount of time, colorblind theology largely succeeded in supplanting the overtly white supremacist theology that Curtis calls “sacred whiteness.” However, colorblindness proved to be a rather malleable concept. Some, such as Howard Jones of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, used it to advocate for racial integration and social equality. Others used it to affirm Christians’ “spiritual” equality while maintaining the socio-political status quo.

Chapter two focuses on evangelical colleges’ attempts to reconcile the demands of racial integration with the demands of colorblind theology. While these colleges generally abandoned overtly discriminatory practices, they remained resistant to calls for more radical, race-conscious institutional reforms. Such reforms included “the hiring of black faculty, the establishment of black studies programs, curriculum redevelopment, opportunities for cultural activities, and black worship expressions in chapel services” (61-62). In this climate, black students were welcomed on white evangelical campuses only to the extent that they assimilated to “white normativity,” which meant forgoing the expectation of special treatment on account of minority racial status (64).

Chapter three addresses the rise of the “Church Growth Movement” (CGM) as promoted by Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. What made these men’s approach to church growth unique was their embrace of the controversial “homogeneous unit principle,” which encouraged church growth along racial lines rather than across such lines. These theorists argued that the natural human tendency toward cultural self-segregation could actually be justified in the name of “pluralism” and “diversity” (a disturbing echo of the “separate-but-equal” logic of Jim Crow). In effect, this enabled whites and their churches to remain comfortably enclosed in their own affluent suburbs.

Whereas chapter three examines white evangelicals’ departure from the cities, chapter four examines their unsuccessful attempts to return to the cities. Curtis highlights the example of the Philadelphia campus of Messiah College. This campus, advertised as offering an urban experience to the college’s (mostly white) student body, attempted to develop an aggressively antiracist curriculum. However, this approach proved too offensive to many of the white students, in a pattern that often repeated itself nationwide and reinforced white evangelical retreat to the suburbs. Curtis writes concerning these students:

Though most of them came from backgrounds of racial exclusion and white domination, their personal experience in those environments was one of innocence, not animus. They had barely had any contact with black people their whole lives and now strangers were suddenly telling them to repent of their racism. Instead of reckoning with how race had formed their identities and practices, some students came to believe that their own lack of racial awareness attested to their strong Christian faith. Here was whiteness in evangelical form.

Curtis, 120

Chapter five explores two contrasting approaches to global evangelization that emerged in the period between the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 and the Houston Convocation on Evangelizing Ethnic America in 1985. One side was represented by progressive pastors and theologians such as Samuel Escobar, C. René Padilla, and Clarence Hilliard, who understood social justice to be central to the church’s mission. Hilliard reflected black liberation theology’s treatment of race in normative categories: “Theological blackness was a choice, not a birthright. One became black by following Jesus. One became white by pursuing success and turning away from the poor.” (153) On the other side were church growth activists like McGavran and Wagner, who prioritized evangelism over social justice, and who advised against multi-racial churches. Although many colorblind evangelicals repudiated the homogeneous unit principle of these church growth activists, there was broad agreement among white evangelicals on the prioritization of evangelism, and white churches for the most part remained racially homogenous during this time.

Chapter six examines the rise and fall of the Promise Keepers organization and the “racial reconciliation” movement in the 1990s. To be sure, the leadership of Promise Keepers went further than many colorblind evangelicals had previously in calling whites to repentance; the organization filled stadiums with men of different colors sharing hugs and tearfully confessing to each other the prejudices in their hearts. However, such calls to repentance were still couched in exclusively individualist and relational terms, rather than in structural or economic terms.

Analysis

Curtis portrays the development of 20th-century white evangelicalism as driven almost entirely by self-interest: when white evangelicals were willing to modify their theology, it was really in order to maintain their credibility in the midst of a changing culture, and when they were not willing to do so, it was really in order to maintain their power and privilege. This cynical reading of history is consistent with the framework of CRT.

To be sure, Curtis gives plenty of evidence demonstrating that white evangelicals often did act out of self-interest. One particularly revealing example was the initial draft of a declaration of repentance intended to be adopted as part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Resolution on Racial Reconciliation in 1995. Jere Allen, executive director of the Washington, DC, Baptist Association, penned the draft, which clearly prioritized perception and credibility over an honest admission of historical wrongdoing:

Regardless of how much progress we think we have made in Race Relations, we are nevertheless perceived by many Blacks and non-Blacks as a racist denomination. This negative perception is an obstacle toward our efforts to evangelize, plant churches, and minister among Black people, especially for those called to minister in the metropolitan cities.

Curtis, 185-186

Although this statement was ultimately removed from the SBC’s final declaration of repentance, it revealed an attitude that was (and is) surely present among many white evangelicals. Curtis is not wrong to point out the role of self-interest in the rise of colorblind theology.

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, it is doubtful whether this cynical framework is a sufficient or comprehensive explanation for evangelical colorblind theology. To begin with, claiming that any change in evangelical theology is motivated by a concern for credibility, while any lack of change is motivated by a concern to maintain privilege, amounts to an unfalsifiable, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose kind of logic. On this reasoning, how could one possibly determine whether any theological development wasn’t motivated by self-interest?

This leads to a related point: the charge of self-interest cuts both ways. One could conceivably argue that progressive antiracists are driven by self-interest as well—minorities get special treatment and material benefits from race-conscious policies, while white antiracists gain credibility with elite secular institutions that are overwhelmingly progressive. Now I am not saying that this is actually the case; I am simply pointing out that identifying motives (rightly or wrongly) does nothing to adjudicate the truth of competing theological claims.

I would also raise concerns about this book’s use of the terms “blackness” and “whiteness” as normative and anti-normative categories. Is it really constructive to make privilege, oppression, and indifference inherent in the definition of “whiteness”? As an analogy, suppose someone were to make the claim: “By ‘brunetteness’ I’m not referring to people who happen to have brown hair; I’m actually referring to child abusers.” In such a case, people with brown hair might be forgiven for taking offense at such an assault on the English language.

Or we can consider this problem from another angle: let’s start with the end in mind. If we are hoping to achieve a racially just society, what would that society look like? And in particular, what would our language about race look like in such a society? Now perhaps we might follow the path of the late historian Noel Ignatiev, who called for “abolishing whiteness.” In such a society, one might wonder how light-skinned descendants of Europeans will have to refer to themselves. On the other hand, if we are aiming for a society in which racial categories like “black” and “white” are morally neutral, then perhaps that goal ought to inform how we use race language in the present.

To summarize, although The Myth of Colorblind Christians presents an important stage of history that evangelicals need to honestly grapple with, it fails to justify its underlying interpretive framework. Now in fairness, historians cannot be expected to fully justify their interpretive framework in every writing that they produce; that would require writing a very different kind of book. Nevertheless, readers need to be aware that, while this book succeeds in showing how often white evangelicals acted out of self-interest, it does not thereby prove colorblind theology false and antiracism true. For achieving that goal, more work would need to be done.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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