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White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement*

  • Curtis J. Evans (a1)

In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on the future struggle of African Americans after their successful Montgomery bus boycott. Among the “forces of good,” King saw the indispensable assistance of the federal government, cautioning critics and sympathizers that though government action was “not the whole answer,” it was an “important partial answer.”1 King was addressing one of the most common criticisms of black activism for civil rights. White conservative Protestants, in the South and North, insisted that race relations would worsen because agitation would only stoke the fears and hatreds of whites and that government action on behalf of blacks was only a form of coercion. King rejected this reasoning by noting that “morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.” He argued that it was true, for example, that laws could never make employers love their black employees, but they could prevent them from refusing to hire blacks because of their skin color. King conceded that society ultimately must depend on “religion and education to alter the errors of the heart and mind,” but he emphatically argued that “it is an immoral act to compel a man to accept injustice until another man's heart is straight.”2 He added that the law was a form of education in that it instructed citizens about what society regarded as right and appropriate. King asserted that in any case the “habits if not the hearts of people have been and are being altered every day by federal action” and that it would be wrong to undervalue the efficacy and force of law in altering human behavior and social patterns.

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1 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. James M. Washington; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 1991) 471, 473.

2 Ibid., 473.

3 For a sample of recent examples which do not always make clear distinctions between evangelicals and fundamentalists, see Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: Norton, 2007); Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2007); Lauren Sandler, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (New York: Viking, 2006); Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007); and Charles Marsh, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). For a recent analysis of differences among evangelicals on political issues, see David D. Kilpatrick, “The Evangelical Crackup,” The New York Times Magazine (28 October 2007).

4 For some historical perspective on how this process developed, see The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing (ed. David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge; Nashville: Abingdon, 1975); Erling Jorstad, Evangelicals in the White House: The Cultural Maturation of Born Again Christianity, 1960–1981 (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1981); Contemporary Evangelical Political Involvement: An Analysis and Assessment (ed. Corwin E. Smidt; Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989); Michael S. Hamilton and Nathan O. Hatch, “Taking the Measure of the Evangelical Resurgence, 1942–1992,” in Reckoning with the Past: Historical Essays on American Evangelicalism from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ed. D. G. Hart; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1995) 395–412; Darren Dochuk, “Evangelicalism Becomes Southern, Politics Becomes Evangelical: From FDR to Ronald Reagan,” in Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present (ed. Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow; 2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 297–326; and Michael O. Emerson and J. Russell Hawkins, “Viewed in Black and White: Conservative Protestantism, Racial Issues, and Oppositional Politics,” in Religion and American Politics, 327–44. For an indispensable account of the historical background before the emergence of “reforming fundamentalists” or neo-evangelicals, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

5 On the problem of defining evangelicalism, see The Variety of American Evangelicalism (ed. Donald D. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991); and Donald D. Dayton, “The Search for the Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden's History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholar's Review 23 (1993) 12–33. Dayton's article was followed by a number of responses from Marsden and others in the same issue of this journal.

6 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991) 5. See also idem, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1987) 1–48. On the constant attempts of evangelicals to distinguish themselves from fundamentalists and liberal Protestants, see Jon R. Stone, On the Boundaries of American Evangelicalism: The Postwar Evangelical Coalition (New York: St. Martin's, 1999). On Southern Baptist approaches to race and desegregation, see Mark Newman, Getting Right with God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945–1995 (Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 2001). For a very personal view of a Southern Baptist preacher's complete lack of concern for racial justice, see Charles Marsh, God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) ch. 3.

7 On distinctions between evangelicals and fundamentalists on political issues, see Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) 188–95. On recent evangelical voting patterns, see Lyman Kellstedt et al., “Faith Transformed: Religion and American Politics from FDR to George W. Bush,” in Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present (ed. Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow; 2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 269–95.

8 See Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) ch. 6.

9 Mark A. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) 188–89.

10 See Michael G. Long, Billy Graham and the Beloved Community (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

11 Darryl G. Hart, “The Mid-Life Crisis of American Evangelicalism,” The Christian Century (11 November 1992) 1028–31.

12 John T. McGreevy, Urban Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 5.

13 David Moberg, The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern (rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Holman, 1977) 89–92; and Dennis P. Hollinger, Individualism and Social Ethics: An Evangelical Syncretism (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983).

14 Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 74–76.

15 Ibid., 102–3.

16 For a chastened view of the dangers and pitfalls of Christian involvement and confidence in politics from the perspective of figures who were actively involved in the Moral Majority, see Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1999).

17 Arnold Hearn, “Fundamentalist Renascence,” ChrCent (30 April 1958) 528–29.

18 Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 187–210.

19 On Graham and his relationship to presidents, see Richard V. Pierard, “Billy Graham and the US Presidency,” Journal of Church and State 22 (1980) 107–27. See also Eric J. Paddon, “Modern Mordecai: Billy Graham in the Political Arena, 1948–1980” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio University, 1999).

20 Billy Graham, “Evangelism As I See It,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin (April 1953) 13–20.

21 William Martin, A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991) 167–69. See also, Jerry Berl Hopkins, “Billy Graham and the Race Problem, 1949–1969” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1986) 1–47.

22 Frank W. Boykin to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 19 March 1956, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.

23 Billy Graham to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 4 June 1956, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill. See also Hopkins, “Billy Graham,” 62–71; and Martin, Prophet with Honor, 172, 202.

24 John C. Bennett, “Graham and Segregation,” Christianity and Crisis (29 October 1956) 142–43.

25 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Literalism, Individualism, and Billy Graham,” ChrCent (23 May 1956) 640–42.

26 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Proposal to Billy Graham,” ChrCent (17 October 1956) 921.

27 Niebuhr, “Proposal to Billy Graham,” 921. See also Edward Lee Moore, “Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.: An Inquiry into White and Black Revivalistic Traditions” (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1979) 36.

28 Quotation from Mark Silk, “The Rise of the ‘New Evangelicalism’: Shock and Adjustment,” in Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment, 1900–1960 (ed. William R. Hutchison; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 278–91.

29 For more on Fuller during Carnell's tenure, see Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism. See also David Lee Russell, “Coming to Grips with the Age of Reason: An Analysis of the New Evangelical Intellectual Agenda, 1942–1970” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1993).

30 Edward J. Carnell, “A Proposal to Reinhold Niebuhr,” ChrCent (17 October 1956) 1197–98.

31 Moore, “Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 453–56. See also Martin, Prophet with Honor, 169.

32 Forsberg to Martin Luther King, Jr., February 1957, in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., (ed. Clayborne Carson; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) 4:12, 238.

33 Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) 227–28; and Paddon, “Modern Mordecai,” 142–44.

34 King to Billy Graham, 13 August, 1957, in Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., 265.

35 King to Billy Graham, 23 July,1958, in Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., 457.

36 Wilson to Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 July, 1958, in Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., 458.

37 This section of the magazine was set aside for prominent authors and theologians every year.

38 Billy Graham, “What Ten Years Have Taught Me,” ChrCent (17 February 1960) 186–89.

39 “Billy Graham Urges Restraint in Sit-Ins,” The New York Times (18 April 1963).

40 Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. James M. Washington; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 1991) 124.

41 “Graham Predicts Worse Violence,” The New York Times (16 August 1965); and “Billy Graham Links Concern with Social Issues to Religious Conversion,” The New York Times (6 December 1966).

42 “Graham and King as Ghetto-Mates,” ChrCent (10 August 1966) 976. See also, Moore, “Graham and King,” 1–3; and Paddon, “Modern Mordecai,” 146.

43 David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” in American Journalism, 1963–1973 (part 2 of Reporting Civil Rights; New York: Library of America, 2003).

44 Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1986) 144–58, 182–83. On the founding and evolution of Christianity Today, see also Popular and Religious Magazines of the United States (ed. P. Mark Fackler and Charles H. Lippy; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1995) 144–51; and Religious Periodicals of the United States: Academic and Scholarly Journals (ed. Charles H. Lippy; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986) 134–40.

45 Henry, Confessions, 182–83.

46 Although I have tried to read everything that Christianity Today published on race and race relations between 1956 and 1968, the following works support and supplement my general conclusions on the magazine's approach to race: John Oliver, “A Failure of Evangelical Conscience,” Post American (May 1975) 26–30; idem, “Evangelical Campus and Press Meet Black America's Quest for Civil Rights, 1956–1959: Malone College and Christianity Today,” Fides et Historia 8 (1975) 54–70; J. David Fairbanks, “The Politics of Christianity Today: 1956–1986,” Contemporary Evangelical Political Involvement, 25–43; and Mark G. Toulouse, “Christianity Today and American Public Life: A Case Study,” Journal of Church and State 25 (1993) 241–84.

47 Addison Leitch, “The Primary Task of the Church,” Christianity Today (15 October 1956) 11–13, 18. On the constant attempts of evangelicals to legitimize social involvement for their constituents, see Gerald Stephen Mathisen, “Evangelical Social Concern: A Case Study in the Rhetoric of Legitimization” (Ph.D. diss., Purdue University, 1982).

48 E. Earle Ellis, “Segregation and the Kingdom of God,” Christianity Today (18 March 1957) 6–9. Ellis would soon after become a professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

49 Ellis, “Segregation and the Kingdom of God,” 6–9.

50 Carl F. H. Henry, “Can We Salvage the Republic,” Christianity Today (27 May 1957) 11–14.

51 Carl F. H. Henry, “Perspective on Social Action,” Christianity Today (19 January 1959) Part 1, 3, 9–11; and idem, “Billy Graham's Impact on New York,” Christianity Today (16 September 1957) 3–5, 32–33.

52 Carl F. H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964) 16–18, 20–21, 25, 30, 76–81. See also idem, “Perspective on Social Action,” Christianity Today (2 February 1959) Part 2, 13–16; idem, “Has Anybody Seen ‘Erape’?,” pt. 1, Christianity Today (4 January 1960) 13–15, 23; and idem, Has Anybody Seen ‘Erape’?,” pt. 2, Christianity Today (18 January 1960) 12–14

53 Carl F. H. Henry, “Evangelicals and the Social Struggle,” Christianity Today (8 October 1965) 3–7.

54 Lewis B. Smedes, “The Evangelicals and the Social Question,” Reformed Journal (February 1966) 8–10. For Henry's and Smedes's continuing exchange, see Henry, “What Social Structures?,” Reformed Journal (May–June 1966) 6–7; and Smedes, “Where Do We Differ?,” Reformed Journal (May–June 1966) 8–10.

55 For the underlying philosophical social thought in Henry's social ethics, see Augustus Cerillo, Jr., “A Survey of Recent Evangelical Social Thought,” Christian Scholar's Review 5 (1976) 273–75; and Augustus Cerillo, Jr. and Murray W. Dempster, Salt and Light: Evangelical Political Thought in Modern America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1989).

56 Henry, “What Social Structures?,” 8–10.

57 Carl F. H. Henry, “Letters to the Editor,” Post American (August/September 1975) 12.

58 Toulouse, “Christianity Today and American Public Life,” 273–74.

59 E. Earl Ellis, review of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Stride Toward Freedom, Christianity Today (12 January 1959) 34–36.

60 Henry, “What Social Structures?,” 9.

61 For a comparison of The Christian Century's editorial position on civil rights and other social issues, see Mark Toulouse, “The Christian Century and American Public Life: The Crucial Years, 1956–1968,” in New Dimensions in American Religious History: Essays in Honor of Martin E. Marty (ed. Jay P. Dolan and James P. Wind; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993) 45–81.

62 Toulouse, “Christianity Today and American Public Life,” 272–73.

63 Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the US Military, 1942–1993 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996) 134–36. See also Robert James Eels, “Mark O. Hatfield and the Search for an Evangelical Politics” (Ph.D. diss., University of New Mexico, 1976).

64 See James Alden Hedstrom, “Evangelical Program in the United States, 1945–1980: The Morphology of Establishment, Progressive, and Radical Platforms” (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1982); and Jeffrey McClain Jones, “Ronald Sider and Radical Evangelical Political Theology” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1990).

65 Hedstrom, “Evangelical Program,” 409–13, 427–28; and Richard Pierard, “The New Religious Right in American Politics,” in Evangelicals and Modern America (ed. George Marsden; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984) 161–74.

66 For a sample of the literature, see Richard V. Pierard, “Let's Face Up to the Race Issue,” Eternity (August 1963) 3–5; “Wrongs Do Not Make Civil Rights,” Eternity (June 1964) 4; “Mississippi versus James Meredith?,” Reformed Journal (January 1963) 3; “The Answer is Blowing in the Wind,” Reformed Journal (September 1963) 3–4; “North and South,” Reformed Journal (October 1963) 5–6; Clarence Boomsma, “The War on Poverty Can be Won,” Reformed Journal (April 1964) 3; Harry R. Boer, “The Anatomy of a Social Revolution,” Reformed Journal (July–August 1968) 6–10.

67 See James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 130.

68 For early critiques of evangelical political conservatism, see Moberg, Great Reversal; and Richard V. Pierard, The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970).

69 Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 156–57. On Ockenga's role in the rise of neo-evangelicalism, see John Marion Adams, “The Making of a Neo-Evangelical Statesman: The Case of Harold John Ockenga” (Ph.D. diss, Baylor University, 1994).

70 See Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 154–57, 169.

71 Gerald D. McKnight, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr, the FBI, and the Poor People's Campaign (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998) 5.

72 J. Edgar Hoover, “Letters to the Editor,” Eternity (May 1954) 2, 4, 35.

73 United Evangelical Action (May 1961) 28–29; and UEA (October 1961) 28.

74 J. Edgar Hoover, “The Challenge of the Future,” Christianity Today (26 May 1958) 3–4; idem, “Communism: The Bitter Enemy of Religion,” Christianity Today (22 June 1959) 3–5; idem, “The Communist Menace: Red Goals and Christian Ideals,” Christianity Today (10 October 1960) 3–5; idem, “Communist Propaganda and the Christian Pulpit,” Christianity Today (24 October 1960) 6–7; and idem, “A Morality for Violence,” Christianity Today (28 April 1972) 8–13.

75 Paddon, “Modern Mordecai,” 216–17. In 1963, Hoover began his obsessive pursuit of gathering information on Martin Luther King's private life by means of wire tapping. See David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).

* I thank Mark A. Noll for his helpful feedback on a draft of this essay. I have also benefited from his many writings on evangelical Protestants.

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