The first thing I want to say is: This is an important book. It is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the changing face of evangelicalism in American politics today.
Lisa Sharon Harper is a black woman who, as she puts it, “was born again on August 21, 1983, at a rural, white evangelical Sunday evening church camp meeting, outside Cape May, New Jersey.” Despite being black, and having a family that did not look kindly upon her brand of Christianity, Harper writes that “my peers were white evangelicals and my world began to revolve around friends, not family.” From those peers she absorbed the axiom that “Christians are Republican.” It was only later, beginning with experiences in college and exposure to the ideas of people like John Perkins, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Tom Skinner that her views began to change. While still identifying herself as an evangelical, she became deeply interested in issues of race and social justice.
The book might just as well have been titled, Evangelicalism and Race in America. Harper devotes the bulk of the book to a scathing indictment of the evangelical church’s record on racial reconciliation—or the lack thereof. For example, she makes a convincing case that the Religious Right was not, in fact, jump-started by Roe v. Wade, as is commonly believed. She quotes Paul Weyrich, an early activist for the Religious Right, as saying, “what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the IRS to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.” Regarding other issues such as abortion or school prayer, Weyrich said, “I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of de facto segregation.” Bob Jones University, in the 1970’s, had explicit policies such as “Students who date outside of their own race will be expelled” and “Students who are members of or affiliated with any group or organization which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage will be expelled.”
Harper also links the decline of the Promise Keepers movement to race. In 1996, racial reconciliation was the PK theme of the year. She quotes Bill McCartney, one of the founders of the PK movement: “Of the conference participants who had a complaint, nearly 40 percent reacted negatively to the reconciliation theme. I personally believe it was a major factor in the significant falloff in PK’s 1997 attendance—it is simply a hard teaching for many.”
Harper is not, of course, the first writer to condemn evangelicals for their blindness on issues of race and social justice. Nor is she the first to dissect the relationship between the evangelical church and the Republican party, and to point out the perils of aligning one’s faith too closely with the agenda of a particular political party. What makes Harper’s book important is that in Harper, and a few others like her, a new generation of evangelicals has found its voice. Blogging sites such as GodsPolitics.com and FaithfulDemocrats.com received a massive boost from the Obama campaign, and hundreds of thousands of evangelicals who were disillusioned with the Republican Party, but felt isolated and marginalized, “found each other” and became energized. When this sort of thing happens, it can cause monumental shifts in a startlingly short period of time. Understanding how this group of evangelicals feels and thinks is therefore crucial to understanding American society today.
So far I have expressed nothing but enthusiasm for Harper’s book. I should say, however, that there are some things that I am concerned about. Mostly, they have to do with what I would call Harper’s methodology. For someone who calls herself “evangelical,” she diverges surprisingly far from the basic methodology of evangelical thought, namely the derivation of theology from the grammatico-historical exegesis of the Bible. Race relations in the U.S., all thinking people would agree, need a lot of fixing. What is the solution? From reading Harper, one gets the impression that the fundamental solution is to immerse whites in black culture, pursue Perkins’s “Three R’s” (reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution), add some tools to one’s cultural toolkit (Harper loves the toolkit metaphor; it is a constant refrain throughout the book), find some historical role models from the 19th century, and maybe do an inductive Bible study or two. These things are all well and good, but one does not get the sense that Harper’s thought is deeply grounded in Scripture, as one would expect of an evangelical thinker. Instead she seems happy to rely on secondary concepts (“cultural toolkits,” “three R’s”) invented by people whom she respects because they have the “correct” attitude towards race relations and belong to the “correct” community of faith. While I feel that Harper is currently pointed in the right direction, I have the uneasy sense of a foundation built on sand.
For example, it seems to me that Harper’s view of homosexuality is an unstable one. She does not devote a lot of attention to the issue in the book. When she does mention it, she does not seem to take issue with the standard evangelical view that homosexuality is a sin. In Chapter 8, she mentions that many evangelical leaders that she interviewed “support gay people’s right to civil unions,” but “viewed marriage as a religious sacrament and would advocate the right of religious institutions to define the institution of marriage.” And she leaves it at that. She does not seem aware that most of the strong language and rhetoric that she uses throughout the book on the race issue can easily be used, mutatis mutandis, to castigate the evangelical church’s record on the treatment of gays. What would Harper say if someone were to criticize her blindness on the gay rights issue, and insist that she immerse herself in the gay community, in order to add some tools to her cultural toolkit? What if they were to press the gay marriage issue, insisting that civil unions do not go far enough, just as racial reconciliation does not go far enough if not accompanied by Perkins’s two other R’s? I don’t know the answer, of course, but I suspect that Harper would not respond by first turning to the Bible. If I am right about this, then evangelicals should certainly be concerned—even those who are strong supporters of gay rights. What kind of “evangelicalism” are we left with, if the instinct of turning to the Bible first is lost? Doesn’t this fall into the trap of subordinating theological truth to political agenda, the very trap that Harper claims to be warning us against?
Harper’s one sustained piece of exegesis—of the first chapters of Genesis—is quite telling in this regard. I will not go through it in detail, but will pick out one important sentence of hers: “Genesis 1 is poetry, and should be read as poetry.” In fact, by almost any tenable definition of Hebrew poetry, Genesis 1 is not poetry. Harper, perhaps, simply means that Genesis 1 should be interpreted metaphorically. It might seem that I am quibbling over semantics. However, I think that calling Genesis 1 “poetry” betrays a certain underlying attitude—namely, that it doesn’t matter so much whether we get the grammatico-historical details right as long as the conclusion we wish to draw is correct. If even the intellectual leaders of this new generation of evangelicals take this attitude, it is very significant.
The above concerns notwithstanding, I will repeat my assertion that this is an important book. Evangelicals who choose to ignore Harper, instead of engaging her in sustained dialogue on the issues raised in her book, do so at their own peril.