The PCA has its roots in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), essentially the southern branch of the American Presbyterian movement. There were plenty of examples of racism in the PCUS in theology (attempts to use Scripture to excuse segregation) and in practice (such as not allowing blacks to worship in a white church). Yet a number of the founders of the PCA were very explicit in their opposition to racism and determined to ensure not only that the PCA was not a haven for racism but was also a denomination that would help eliminate racism.
Boston University theater professor Kyna Hamill recently published a paper claiming racist roots for the song, Jingle Bells. “The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is one where its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history,” Hamill wrote.
Better known is the Colin Kaepernick-led protest by many NFL football players against what they claim to be a racist America. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick.
These claims stem from the increasingly popular premise that America is racist because whites—every one of them—are intrinsically racist. Emory University Professor George Yancy articulated this view in his “Dear White America” letter in the The New York Times: “If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable.”
Today’s white racism, we are told, stems from yesterday’s white racism. “Whites start out with an advantage: They tend to get more and larger inheritances. Also, generations of discrimination—including redlining, mass incarceration and predatory finance—have prevented blacks from building up wealth,” wrote Mark Whitehouse for Bloomberg.
So, the world, or at least many of its citizens, believes that white America is racist. But what about the church?
The mainline churches in America seem to have fully adopted the concept of intrinsic white racism. For instance, a United Methodist Church resolution (2000, 2008, and 2016) on White Privilege in the United States read, in part:
European Americans enjoy a broad range of privileges denied to persons of color in our society, privileges that often permit them to dominate others who do not enjoy such privileges. While there are many issues that reflect the racism in US society, there are some cases where racism is the issue, such as affirmative action, housing, job discrimination, hate crimes, and criminal justice. In addition, there are many broader social issues where racism is one factor in the equation, albeit often the major one.
This view is not as pervasive in the evangelical denominations, but a brief survey of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) shows that it has taken more than just a foothold.
The PCA has its roots in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), essentially the southern branch of the American Presbyterian movement. There were plenty of examples of racism in the PCUS in theology (attempts to use Scripture to excuse segregation) and in practice (such as not allowing blacks to worship in a white church).
Yet a number of the founders of the PCA were very explicit in their opposition to racism and determined to ensure not only that the PCA was not a haven for racism but was also a denomination that would help eliminate racism.
In For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Sean Michael Lucas wrote, “Importantly, the [PCA] steering committee reiterated its determination to be more racially inclusive than conservatives had ever been before. Ben Wilkinson stressed, ‘We are not a racist group seeking to build a racial church.’ While recognizing differences of opinion, Wilkinson wanted to know of ‘black pastors and elders who might be interested in the Continuing Church.’”
D. James Kennedy delayed his church’s move to the PCA to ensure that it was not racist. “I want to be sure that you are not creating a racist or sectional church. If you are, count me out, but if you are not, and if you do not name it ‘the Southern Presbyterian Church,’ then I will be with you. Not immediately, but you have my word, Coral Ridge will come.”
Today, the PCA is viewed quite differently by many.
Tobin Grant wrote in the Religious News Service, “The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was more than merely complicit in racism. The PCA exists only because of its founders’ defense of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. … The narrative most commonly heard in PCA churches is that it formed to protect and keep the faith and avoid the slide into liberalism. But this is akin to the belief that the south seceded because of states’ rights.”
A similar view of the PCA and whites is held by many inside the denomination. Heal Us, Emmanuel is a book of collected writings by PCA elders who seem to have accepted the notion of whites as intrinsic racists.
“White people can easily not see how our backgrounds, cultural circumstances, and the issues of the day shape how we read, interpret, and apply Scripture,” wrote Rev. Dennis Hermerding in his contribution to the book. Likewise, Rev. Timothy LeCroy explored his racist heritage, “You see, I didn’t hate Black people, but I was still a racist. I was a racist because I looked down on African Americans. I stereotyped them. I didn’t seek to know them or understand them. I may have never called them names or raised a Confederate flag or done anything overtly racist, but I was racist nonetheless—racist in ways that I am only now coming to understand.”
Where did the concept of intrinsic white racism come from? It seems to have developed out of white guilt. Many theological and political liberals look at the economic and social conditions of minorities today—particularly blacks—and attribute them to American slavery and white racism of the past. For instance, after the Methodists announce their discovery of white privilege, they move directly into the causes of white privilege, those economic and social conditions “where racism is one factor in the equation, albeit often the major one:”
Poverty is a serious problem in the US, but a far greater percentage of people of color are poorer than white persons. Police brutality is also more prevalent in communities of color. Schools in predominantly white communities receive a far higher proportion of education dollars than those in predominantly non-white communities, leading to larger class size, fewer resources, and inferior facilities.
This myopic view of the conditions faced by many minorities in America today lacks a proper historical perspective on cultural conflict and an understanding of the harmful effects of theological and political liberalism on minorities today—especially through the welfare state.
This series on Race in America and the American Church will examine the misunderstandings about the economic and social conditions of American minorities that have propagated the concepts of intrinsic white racism, white guilt, and white privilege. It will also examine how worldly concepts about race are influencing the church and distorting its understanding of biblical teachings on these issues. Finally, it will suggest how we can move past these misunderstandings and distortions to carry out Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and provide better opportunities for minorities—and all poor Americans—to rise out of poverty.
Bill Peacock is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Austin, Texas. His writings on religion, culture, and politics can be found at www.excellentthought.net.