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“Tearing Down the Walls of Segregation”: Race, Conservatism, and Evangelical Rap

  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.

Evangelical rap may sound like an oxymoron, but it was one of the most important trends in evangelical America as the Christian right rose to new levels of power in the 1990s. The trio DC Talk sold millions of album and dominated the Christian charts from the early 1990s and into the early 2000s. This was more than pure entertainment. Popular culture, and especially popular culture targeted at teens, is an important venue for disseminating values and sustaining religious identities. The artists promoted by the Christian music industry have to reflect the ideas and values that parents and central evangelical institutions wish to teach their children. In the 1990s, racial reconciliation was one of the most important issues to evangelical America and DC Talk were poster boys for a multiracial and multicultural America. Therefore this article takes DC Talk as a starting point to discuss evangelical engagement with race issues in the 1990s. DC Talk wrapped up evangelical individualism and color-blind conservatism in hip-hop garb, trying to reinvent a group with a checkered past when it comes to race relations as the hope of a racially harmonious America.

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1 Henry Allen, “Almost Heaven, in Virginia: The Believers, Rocking to the Lord at Fishnet Fest,” Washington Post, 14 July 1990, C1.

2 “Evangelical” is an umbrella term that covers a diverse movement and culture. However, evangelicals are often defined by four characteristics, first identified by the historian David Bebbington: (1) belief in the need for a “born-again” experience to be saved, (2) emphasis on missions and activism (3), respect for the Bible as the ultimate authority in life (4) focus on Jesus’ death on the cross as an act of atonement for the sins of mankind. In this article I use “evangelical” and “Christian” interchangeably to reflect evangelical parlance. Bebbington, David W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

3 Michele Orecklin, “Harmonic Divergence,” Time, Oct. 1998, 125.

4 See e.g. Lisa Gubernick and Robert La Franco, “Rocking with God,” Forbes, 2 Jan. 1995, 40–41; and Steve Rabey, “Contemporary Sounds Move into Mainstream,” Christianity Today, 15 May 1995, at, accessed 12 March 2015.

5 Miller, Steven, Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born Again Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

6 On the culture wars see e.g. Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Harttman, Andrew, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

7 On the political and ideological use of evangelical popular culture see e.g. Hendershot, Heather, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004); Luhr, Eileen, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Sandler, Lauren, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); and Stowe, David, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). For insight into the diversity of CCM see Howard, Jay R. and Streck, John M., Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999). For earlier use of popular culture for evangelistic and political purposes see e.g. Sutton, Matthew Avery, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Bendroth, Margaret, “Why Women Loved Billy Sunday: Urban Revivalism and Popular Entertainment in Early Twentieth-Century American Culture,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 2 (2004), 251–71; and Harding, Tona J., Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, & Popular Culture in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

8 Emerson, Michael and Smith, Christian, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

9 See e.g. Hawkins, J. Russel and Sinitiere, Phillip Luke, eds., Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1544 ; Butler, Althea, “African American Religious Conservatives in the New Millennium,” in Sutton, Matthew Avery and Dochuk, Darren, eds., Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 5973 ; Heltzel, Peter G., Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Edwards, Korie L., The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (New York: University of Oxford Press, 2008); Martin, Gerardo and Smith, Christian, A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). Race is also an underlying issue in works such as Miller, Steven, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Dochuk, Darren, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011); Williams, Daniel K., God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Dowland, Seth, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

10 Notable exceptions include Milmon F. Harrison, “ERACE-ing the Color Line: Racial Reconciliation in the Christian Music Industry,” Journal of Media and Religion, Feb. 2005, 27–44; Banjo, Omotayo O. and Williams, Kesha Morant, “A House Divided? Christian Music in Black and White,” Journal of Media and Religion, 10, 3 (2011), 115–37. Heather Hendershot's otherwise excellent Shaking the World for Jesus makes little out of race in evangelical popular culture.

11 Bergler, Thomas E., The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdman Press, 2012), 6 . Evangelical ministries have for generations made their own baptized versions of popular culture in order to win souls. For earlier use of popular culture for evangelistic and political purposes see e.g. Sutton; Bendroth; and Harding.

12 See e.g. Lusane, Clarence, “Rap, Race, and Politics,” in Forman, Murray and Neal, Mark Anthony, eds,, That's the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004); George, Nelson, Hip Hop America (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

13 Dobson, James and Bauer, Gary, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1990), 241 .

14 Brewer, Vernon, The Liberty Way, 1989–1990 (Lynchburg, VA: Office of Student Development at Liberty University, 1989), 44 ; Brewer, The Liberty Way, 1991–1993 (Lynchburg, VA: Office of Student Development Liberty University, 1991), 20 . From Record Group 11: Liberty University Policies and Official Documents; LU 11:2 Box 1; Liberty University Archives and Special Collections.

15 Amy Gamerman. “Born-Again Rap: A New Medium for the Message,” Wall Street Journal, 9 April 1991, A20.

16 Karen Haywood/The Associated Press, “Christians Using Rap to Praise the Lord,” Lawrence Journal-World, 24 March 1990, 9A.

17 Gamerman.

18 Haywood/The Associated Press; Powell, Mark Alan, “Stephen Wiley,” The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Peabody, MA: Hendricksons Publishers, 2002), 1037 ; David Mills, “Oh, My Lord! More and More Christian Groups Are Rappin’ for Jesus,” Milwaukee Journal/Washington Post Service, 6 April 1990, G, 4G.

19 Karen Haywood/The Associated Press.

20 “Rhyme & Reason,” Campus Life, July–Aug. 1990, 35.

21 Gamerman.

22 Jamie Lee Rake, “Putting DC (Talk) into Action,” Today's Christian Music, n.d.

23 Anjetta McQueen, “Devoted to Rap: Religiously a Dozen or So Groups and Artists Are Using the Secular Style to Make a Joyful Noise for the Lord,” The Inquirer, 23 Feb. 1991, C01.

24 “DC Talk: Rap, Rock, and Soul,” YouTube video, 32:46, posted by Jocke Persson, 21 July 2013, at

25 Rake.

26 Harvey, Paul, Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 229–45.

27 Harding, Susan Friend, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 286 n. 24.

28 Dailey, Jane, “Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown,” Journal of American History, 91, 1 (2006), 119–44.

29 Miles S. Mullin II, “Neoevangelicalism and the Problem of Race in Postwar America,” in Hawkins and Sinitiere, Christians and the Color Line, 15–44.

30 Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, 13–38. See also Heltzel, Jesus and Justice, 82.

31 Miller, Albert G., “The Rise of African American Evangelicalism in American Culture,” in Williams, Peter W., ed., Perspectives on American Religion and Culture (Oxford and Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 259–69.

32 For hostility to the civil rights movement among white evangelicals see e.g. Crespino, Joseph, “Civil Rights and the Christian Right,” in Schulman, Bruce and Zelizer, Julan E., eds., Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 90105 ; Evans, Curtis J., “White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement,” Harvard Theological Review, 102, 2 (2009), 245–73; Stephens, Randall J., “‘It Has to Come from the Hearts of the People’: Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Race, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Journal of American Studies, 50, 3 (2016), 127 .

33 Swartz, David, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), esp. 189–95. See also Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 52; Brantley W. Gasaway, “‘Glimmers of Hope’: Progressive Evangelicals and Racism, 1965–2000,” in Hawkins and Sinitiere, 72–99.

34 The historian Randall Balmer has suggested that this was the issue that inspired evangelical leaders to political action. See e.g. Balmer, Randall H., Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America; An Evangelical's Lament (New York: Perseus Book, 2007), 1516 ; Balmer, , “Fundamentalism, the First Amendment, and the Rise of the Religious Right,” William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 18, 4 (2010), 889900 .

35 Emerson and Smith, esp. 63–66; Bartkowksi, John P., The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Stephens, Randall J., The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), esp. 231–33; Hankins, Barry, Uneasy in Zion: Southern Baptists and American Culture (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2003), esp. 240–71; and Hawkins and Sinitiere. Michael Tait recalled an evening with Graham in Dan Wooding, “Michael Tait Talks about the Historic Night in Cleveland, June 1994,” Christian Telegraph, 11 Sept. 2012, at, accessed 27 March 2015.

36 DC Talk, “Walls,” Nu Thang, Forefront, 1991.

37 DC Talk, “Walls,” YouTube video, 4:11, posted by NRT Rocks, 29 July 2008, at

38 Fuller, Jennifer, “Debating the Present through the Past: Representations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1990s,” in Romano, Renee C. and Raiford, Leigh, eds., The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2006), 167–96.

39 See e.g. Bostdorff, Denise M. and Goldswig, Steven R., “History, Collective Memory, and the Appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr: Reagan's Rhetorical Legacy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 4 (2005), 611–50.

40 See e.g. Wadsworth, Nancy D., “Reconciliation Politics: Conservative Evangelicals and the New Race Discourse,” Politics & Society, 3 (1997), 341–76; David John Marley, “Riding in the Back of the Bus: The Christian Right's Adoption of Civil Rights Movement Rhetoric,” in Romano and Raiford, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, 346–62.

41 Fiona Soltes, “Rap Tribute to King to open in Giles,” The Tennessean. 19 Jan. 1992, from the DC Talk Subject Folder, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University; Steve Hochman, “Pop Eye,” Los Angeles Times, 26 Jan. 1992, 61; “Pulaski Police Ready for Klan March Today,” Times Daily, 9 Jan. 1993, 3B; Dan George “Klan Leader Claims March, Rally Successful,” Times Daily, 20 Jan. 1986, 6A; Elizabeth Pagano, “DC Talk Plans to Rap in Pulaski ‘Love Rally’,” Nashville Banner, 22 Jan. 1992, from the DC Talk Subject Folder, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University; and “Pulaski Marches Forward,” The Tennessean, 21 Jan. 1992, from the DC Talk Subject Folder, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University; Mark Alan Powell, “DC Talk,” in The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, 242; and Edward Walsh, “Birthplace of the Klan Turns Its Back on March: Reversed Plaque Marks the Historic Spot,” Washington Post, 26 Jan. 1993, A4.

42 Hochman.

43 Dan Chu, “Arizona's Outspoken New Governor, Evan Mecham, Seems to Enjoy Diving Straight into Political Hot Water,” People, 27 Aug. 1987, at, accessed 30 May 2017; Jane Gross, “Arizona Hopes Holiday for King Will Mend Its Image,” New York Times, 17 Jan. 1993, 16.

44 Public Enemy. “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” YouTube video, 5:46, posted by PublicEnemyVevo, 27 Aug. 2010, at

45 Soltes.

46 Martin Luther King, letter to Billy Graham, 31 Aug. 1957, the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, at

47 Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, 33.

48 Ibid., 94–96.

49 As quoted in Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, 26–27; and in Williams, God's Own Party, 86.

50 Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” no publication date, at, accessed 10 Feb. 2016. See e.g. Carson, Clayborne, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the African-American Social Gospel,” in West, Cornel and Glaude, Eddie S. Jr., eds., African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 696714 . “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influence of Social Gospel Mov't,” YouTube video, 00:37, posted by mrholthisoty, 20 April 2008, at

51 Martin Luther King, “Speech at the Great March on Detroit 23 June 1963,” Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, at

52 Martin Luther King, “Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Honorary Degree Speech Text,” 13 Nov. 1967, Newcastle University Library Special Collections, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, at

53 Pagano, “DC Talk Plans to Rap in Pulaski.”

54 Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith. See also Steven Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South; Peter G. Heltzel, Jesus and Justice.

55 DC Talk, “Free at Last,” Free at Last, Forefront, 1992.

56 Free at Last: The Movie, 2002.

57 For an insider's perspective see e.g. Colson, Charles W., Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man (Old Tappan, NJ: Chosen Books, 1976).

58 DeYmaz, Mark, Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments, and Practices of a Diverse Congregation (San Fransisco: John Wiley & Son, Inc., 2007), xxii .

59 “Sorry.” The Economist, 25 Sept. 1997, at, accessed 5 Feb. 2016.

60 Russell N. Dilday, “Little Rock 40th Anniversary Puts Focus on Reconciliation,” Baptist Press, 26 Sept. 1997, at, accessed 30 May 2017.

61 Bostdorff and Goldswig, “History, Collective Memory, and the Appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr”; Ronald Reagan, “Radio Address to the Nation on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black Americans,” the American Presidency Project, 18 Jan. 1986, at, accessed 20 Oct. 2015; and “Reagan Quotes King Speech in Opposing Minority Quotas,” New York Times, 19 Jan. 1988, at, accessed 20 Oct. 2015. On the rise of the term “color blind” see e.g. Lassiter, Matthew J., The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).

62 DC Talk, “Colored People,” Jesus Freak, Forefront Records, 1995.

63 Verla Wallace, “We All Want Unity,” Christianity Today, 1 Nov. 1999, at, accessed 30 May 2017.

64 “DC Talk - Colored People,” YouTube video, 4:05, posted by emimusic, 27 Feb. 2009, at

65 McKeehan, Toby, Smith, Kevin, and Tait, Michael, Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks (Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishers, 1999).

66 Alan Noble, “The Evangelical Persecution Complex,” The Atlantic, 4 Aug 2014, at On how embattlement mentality has shaped evangelicalism see e.g. Smith, Christian, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998); and McAlister, Melani, “The Politics of Persecution,” Middle East Report, 249 (Winter 2008), at

67 See e.g. King, David, “The New Internationalists: World Vision and the Revival of American Evangelical Humanitarianism, 1950–2010,” Religions, 3 (2012), 922–49; Swartz, David R., “Global Reflex: International Evangelicals, Human Rights, and the New Shape of American Social Engagement,” in Steensland, Brian and Goff, Philip, The New Evangelical Social Engagement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 221–41.

68 Wallbuilders, Randall J. Stephens and Karl Giberson explain, takes an account from the book of Nehemiah about how the Israelites “reconstructed walls of Jerusalem and returned to the faith of their fathers.” In a similar vein, Americans today “could rebuild on the foundation of America's Christian past.” Randall J. Stephens and Karl Giberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 84.

69 TobyMac and Michael Tait with Wallbuilders, Under God (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 370 . TobyMac and Michael Tait with Wallbuilders, Living under God (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 2004).

70 Rodgers, Daniel T., Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 223 .

71 TobyMac and Tait, Under God, 365.

72 Phil Anderson, “Singer to Share His Dream on Stage,” Topeka Capital Journal, 1 Nov. 2003, at, accessed 30 May 2017; Jim Abbott, “Franklin, Tobymac Aim High,” Orlando Sentinel, 24 Oct. 2003, at, accessed 30 May 2017.

73 Harrison, “ERACE-ing the Color Line,” 34–42. See also Beaujon, Andrew, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), 162–64.

74 Banjo and Williams, “A House Divided?”.

75 Christine A. Scheller, “Michael Tait: ‘Living Integration,’” Urban Faith, 28 June 2011, at, accessed 30 May 2017.

76 Bob Smietana, “Americans Agree U.S. Has Come Far in Race Relations, but Has Long Way to Go,” LifeWay Research, 16 Dec. 2014, at, accessed 14 Aug. 2015.

77 Gilbreath, Edward, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006); and Gilbreath, Exit Interviews: Why Blacks Are Leaving Evangelical Ministries,” Christianity Today, 51, 2 (Feb. 2007), at, accessed 30 May 2017. Similar observations have been made in studies of evangelical ministries such as Focus on the Family and the Promise Keepers. There are exceptions, however, such as the highly diverse the student ministry InterVarsity. Heltzel, Peter G., Jesus and Justice Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) 123 ; Bartkowksi, John P., The Promise Keepers, Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 121126 ; and Mark Oppenheimer, “Some Evangelicals Struggle With Black Lives Matter Movement,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2016, accessed 16 Feb. 2016,

78 Edwards, Korie L., The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (New York: University of Oxford Press, 2008). See also Ryon J. Cobb, “Still Divided by Faith? Evangelical Religion and the Race Problem in America,” in Hawkins and Sinitiere, Christians and the Color Line, 128–40; and Martin and Smith, A Mosaic of Believers.

79 Rodgers, 130.

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