Black American History Should Give Evangelicals a Sense of Perspective — and Hope

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in New York City in 1967 (Library of Congress)
The promise of liberty upon which black Americans called is still true for contemporary Christians in far less trying times.

One of the most striking aspects of modern Evangelical political thinking is its projection of inevitable decline, as if the present trends of secularization and increasing religious intolerance represent the first stages of an irreversible slide. The result is a fearful defensive crouch in the face of challenges to religious liberty that are serious but not grave and workplace discrimination that is troublesome but not crippling.

Another way to frame the challenge is that in parts of American society — especially in higher education and Silicon Valley — it’s not easy to be a traditional, orthodox Christian any longer. You’ll face threats to your liberty, to your career, and to your social standing. There’s a real (and often justified) concern that publicly stating the most basic tenets of your faith could result in suffering very real personal and professional costs.

Let’s put aside the question of support for Donald Trump for a moment. He’s not going to dominate American politics forever. He may not even dominate it two years from now. American Evangelicals — especially the conservative Evangelicals who feel most culturally embattled — face questions that will define their public posture potentially for generations.

They would do well to learn some valuable lessons from black Americans, especially the black church — a community that faced infinitely greater odds, confronted a far more hopeless future, and yet ultimately made extraordinary strides towards securing the blessings of American liberty.

This history is of course extraordinarily complex, but it’s worth focusing briefly on one key aspect of the black American argument to the rest of the nation. Black Americans consistently — even from the very beginning of the republic — appealed to the core principles of the American founding. Black Americans understood that oppression was incompatible with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and slavery (and later Jim Crow) were in irreconcilable conflict with the core values of the Constitution.

Let’s take, for example, black “writer, scientist, and farmer” Benjamin Banneker. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson all the way back in 1791 to explain the contradiction inherent in his own values. “In detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression,” Banneker wrote, “you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

Fast-forward to December 10, 1860. In his “Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” Frederick Douglass issued one of the most stirring arguments for the protection of free speech in American history. “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” Douglass was writing at a time when the slave powers of the South actively suppressed free speech. Free speech, he said, “is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.”

And here’s Martin Luther King Jr., speaking more than 100 years later:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

I’ve written about this before, but several years ago I had a fascinating conversation with the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, an early member of the Congressional Black Caucus. I asked him why the civil-rights movement — after so many years of subjugation and segregation — had made such rapid legal gains in the early 1960s. His response was immediate. “Almighty God and the First Amendment.” The First Amendment gave them a voice, and God softened Americans’ hearts, enabling them to finally hear the message.

It is truly odd that, in the face of far lesser challenges to liberty and equality, there are conservative Christians who not only despair of the future — they despair of liberalism itself. They despair of decency and the power of persuasion to alter human minds, and they act often as if God simply doesn’t soften human hearts any longer.

This profound pessimism is, quite frankly, mystifying. I’ve lived and worked in the deepest of deep-blue secular progressive America, and I’ve worshipped and spoken freely. No, this speech hasn’t been unopposed, and there have been challenging times, but Evangelical Christians can and do thrive in every part of American society in a way that black Americans in years past would see as success beyond anything they could reasonably hope to attain.

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s“1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

It should provide them with a sense of gratitude to black Americans from generations past. The civil-rights movement birthed First Amendment precedents that Christians rely on today, and it created civil rights laws that Christians can wield against those who would deny them employment or economic opportunity.

American Evangelicals approach our nation’s cultural conflicts from a position of far superior cultural, economic, political, and legal power than any marginalized community in American history. In that circumstance, to discard classical liberalism is to discard the very instruments and ideals that are most effective at guaranteeing your continued freedom and blocking the designs of those enemies who most fervently seek your demise.

But the fundamental lesson is even more profound. If men and women have the opportunity to speak and possess the courage to tell the truth, they have hope that they can transform a nation. What was true for black Americans (including the black American church) in the most dire of circumstances is still true for contemporary Christians in far less trying times.

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