The LA uprisings triggered an evangelical race inventory

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This April marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, six days of racial upheaval that devastated neighborhoods and left more than 50 people dead after the acquittal of police officers caught on video brutally beating Rodney King, a black man. In mainstream media, the event renewed conversations about violence in American cities, police brutality and the future of neighborhoods like South Los Angeles.

Few Americans know that these events ignited a movement toward racial reconciliation in white evangelical circles. While calls for black and white Christians to create meaningful relationships and connect across bitter racial divisions were not new, they became mainstream like never before. The 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles Uprising provides an opportunity to reflect on what has changed and has not changed as a result of the evangelical racial reconciliation movement that began in 1992.

Even while people like Pat Buchanan, who had served as President Ronald Reagan’s communications director, used the violence in Los Angeles to incite cultural wars and deepen racial divisions, William “Bill” Pannell’s “The Coming Race Wars ?: A Cry for Reconciliation” (1993) became a Christian bestseller. In it, Pannell, a black evangelical, criticized white evangelicals for embracing white supremacy and leaving the multiracial city for the white suburbs. He did not cut the words. White Christians, he said, had to take “courageous and extraordinary steps” to avoid more violence, as had happened in Los Angeles.

Some white evangelicals seemed to listen to his call. In 1994, white and black Pentecostals met for a well-publicized conference in Memphis to overcome their past racial strife and discuss their future reconciliation strategy. The following year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, issued a long-awaited apology in support of movable property slavery and adopted a resolution declaring its commitment to racial reconciliation. It was a milestone for a denomination formed in 1845 as an alternative to the American Baptists, who had excluded slaves from serving as missionaries. The SBC statement apologized to “all African Americans” for “tolerating and / or perpetuating individual and systematic racism in our lifetime.” Christianity today ranked it as one of the biggest evangelical news stories of the year.

The Promise Keepers became one of the decade’s most visible evangelical advocates for racial reconciliation. A movement often remembered for its patriarchal and sexist views on male leadership, Promise Keeper adopted racial reconciliation as one of its key platforms in the mid-1990s. This effort challenged the white evangelical men accustomed to homogeneous denominations that routinely circumvented issues of race and racism in the name of spiritual unity.

At rallies, leaders encouraged the tens of thousands of men of different backgrounds to embrace and pray for a man of a different race.

It was a resurgence of an approach previously embraced by people like the white evangelist Billy Graham during the civil rights era. Under the leadership of Promise Keeper (PK) leaders, white men embraced their black brothers, and tears flowed in widely circulating images of mutual repentance and racial healing. But as a member of the National Black Evangelical Association, Bill McCartney, the PK’s founder, asked during his visit to one of their meetings, “What will the Promise Keepers say about the anti-affirmative action atmosphere in this country?” In the same way that Graham and others like him had viewed racism as a “heart problem” that could be solved through evangelism of souls rather than legislation, Promise Keeper embraced the individualistic solutions.

That kind of criticism was not new. Black evangelicals like John Perkins and Tom Skinner had developed a robust theology of racial reconciliation decades before, at the height of the 1960s civil rights era. Perkins preached that Christians should do more than become friends of another race. They also had to resist unequal structures. Friendships across races could be the means of societal transformation, but were not an end in themselves. Among white evangelicals, however, calls for structural and systemic change were met with awkward silence.

Black evangelical voices remained the highest and most critical of an individual racial reconciliation, but Latino and Asian Americans began participating in the conversation after 1992. For example, Andres Tapia, a Latino journalist who wrote for Christianity Today, in 1997, argued that “the next step for racial reconciliation” was to address the “social and political issues” that harmed colored communities. He asked if the “white Promise Keeper who wants to embrace me with conciliatory fervor” had ever considered how the immigration policy they supported “terrorized Latinos in the United States” or how welfare reform laws recently passed by Congress had set many Latinos “on the streets.”

In the late 1990s, white conservative evangelicals began to lose interest. But for moderate and liberal evangelicals, an academic book published in 2000 cemented a commitment to tackle racism by supporting criticism of racial reconciliation efforts led by whites with data.

I “Divided by Faith” sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith showed, based on a nationwide study, that white evangelicals saw racism as the problem of individuals rather than systems or structures, and this individualistic view had “perpetuated” racial segregation. The book reached a wide Christian audience and helped, as Phillip Sinitiere notes, launch a genre of racial justice in the field of Christian publishing.

The book also triggered institutional changes. Leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church revised their denominational goals and increased support for racial minority ministries. They also worked to nurture multiethnic churches that could address Pastor Martin Luther King Jr.’s critique of Sunday morning as America’s “most separated hour.”

In the early 2010s, there seemed to be a renewed consensus among white evangelicals – everyone from pastors John Piper to Bill Hybels – that racial diversity was important and racism was an issue. More and more white evangelicals seemed to agree. In 2012, Southern Baptist Conference elected Pastor Fred Luter as its first black president in over 100 years.

But the emergence of Black Lives Matter movements after the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 tested White’s evangelical commitments. In the words of historian Jemar Tisby, Martin’s death and its aftermath marked the beginning of the end of the “ordinary white racial reconciliation movement.” The election of President Donald Trump in 2016, in which 81 percent of white evangelicals supported the candidate in opposition to most black, Asian, and Latin Christians who did not, signaled a rapidly growing polarization among believers in matters of race.

Evangelical attacks on critical race theory or “CRT” further demonstrate this polarization in the movement. One critic called the CRT “the opposite of the gospel” and said it labeled white people “racists outside the hope of redemption.” Last year, Cru, an evangelical parachurch organization active on U.S. university campuses, closed its ministry focusing on race and ethnicity after a small contingent of white staff claimed it encouraged disagreement and “missionary drive” from the core goals of evangelism. Recent attacks on Tisby’s work follow in this direction.

What, if anything, has changed in the 30 years that have passed since the flowering of a white evangelical movement toward racial reconciliation? First, the demographic composition of “evangelicals” has become even more diverse, even though many “evangelicals” have left the fold. Today, non-white, non-black Christians lead large evangelical organizations, including InterVarsity and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Recently, Walter Kim, who by 2020 became the first Asian American and non-white president of the NAE, told the New York Times that his first priority as leader of the organization was to “fight” the “issue of racial justice and reconciliation.”

If American evangelicals are to engage in a meaningful movement toward racial reconciliation and justice today, it may be colored people who are leading the conversation and challenging the entrenched power structures. But justice work can not be left to colored people to take up alone. Change will also depend on white evangelicals, historically in positions of power, being partners rather than hindering the creation of a more just future.

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