The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The L.A. uprisings sparked an evangelical racial reckoning

But it remains unfinished.

In 1992, a fire burns out of control at 67th Street and West Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
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This April marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, six days of racial upheaval that destroyed neighborhoods and left more than 50 people dead after the acquittal of the police officers caught on video savagely beating Rodney King, a Black man. In mainstream media, the event renewed conversations about violence in American cities, police brutality and the future of neighborhoods like South Los Angeles.

Few Americans know that these events ignited a movement toward racial reconciliation in White evangelical circles. While calls for Black and White Christians to forge meaningful relationships and connect across bitter racial divides were not new, they became mainstream as never before. The 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprisings offers an opportunity to reflect on what has and has not changed as a result of the evangelical racial reconciliation movement that 1992 kick-started.

Even as people like Pat Buchanan, who had served as President Ronald Reagan’s communications director, used the violence in Los Angeles to foment culture wars and deepen racial divisions, William “Bill” Pannell’s “The Coming Race Wars?: A Cry for Reconciliation” (1993) became a Christian bestseller. In it, Pannell, a Black evangelical, criticized White evangelicals for embracing white supremacy and abandoning the multiracial city for the White suburbs. He did not mince words. White Christians, he said, needed to take “courageous and extraordinary steps” to avoid more violence such as had occurred in Los Angeles.

Some White evangelicals seemed to heed his call. In 1994, White and Black Pentecostals met at a well-publicized conference in Memphis to overcome their past racial strife and discuss their future reconciliation strategy. The following year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, issued a long-awaited apology for supporting chattel slavery and passed a resolution declaring its commitment to racial reconciliation. It was a milestone for a denomination that formed in 1845 as an alternative to the American Baptists, who had barred enslavers from serving as missionaries. The SBC statement apologized to “all African-Americans” for “condoning and or perpetuating individual and systematic racism in our lifetime.” Christianity Today ranked it as one of the biggest evangelical news stories of the year.

The Promise Keepers became one of the decade’s most visible evangelical champions for the cause of racial reconciliation. A movement often remembered for its patriarchal and sexist views of men’s leadership, the Promise Keepers adopted racial reconciliation as one of its key platforms by the mid-1990s. This effort challenged those White evangelical men accustomed to homogenous faith communities that routinely sidestepped questions of race and racism in the name of spiritual unity.

At rallies, leaders called on the tens of thousands of men of diverse backgrounds in attendance to embrace and pray for a man of a different race.

It was a resurgence of an approach previously embraced by people such as White evangelist Billy Graham during the civil rights era. Under the direction of Promise Keeper (PK) leaders, White men embraced their Black brothers and tears flowed in widely circulated images of mutual repentance and racial healing. But as a member of the National Black Evangelical Association asked Bill McCartney, PK’s founder, during his visit to one of their meetings, “What is Promise Keepers going to say about the anti-affirmative action atmosphere in this country?” In much the way Graham and others like him had viewed racism as a “heart problem” that could be solved through the evangelism of souls rather than legislation, Promise Keepers embraced individualistic solutions.

Such critiques weren’t new. Black evangelicals such as John Perkins and Tom Skinner had developed a robust theology of racial reconciliation decades before, at the height of the 1960s civil rights era. Perkins preached that Christians needed to do more than make friends of a different race. They also had to resist unequal structures. Cross-racial friendships could be the vehicles of societal transformation but were not an end in themselves. Among White evangelicals, however, calls for structural and systemic change were met with awkward silence.

Black evangelical voices remained the loudest and most critical of an individual racial reconciliation, but Latino and Asian Americans began to join the conversation after 1992. For example, Andres Tapia, a Latino journalist writing for Christianity Today, argued in 1997 that the “next step for racial reconciliation” was to address the “social and political issues” that hurt communities of color. He asked whether the “white Promise Keeper wanting to hug me with reconciling fervor” had ever considered how the immigration policies they supported “terrorized Latinos in the United States,” or how welfare reform laws newly enacted by Congress had put many Latinos “on the streets.”

By the late 1990s, White conservative evangelicals were starting to lose interest. But for moderate and liberal evangelicals, an academic book published in 2000 cemented a commitment to tackling racism by buttressing critiques of White-led racial reconciliation efforts with data.

In “Divided by Faith,” sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith showed, based on a nationwide survey, that White evangelicals saw racism as the problem of individuals rather than systems or structures, and this individualistic view had “perpetuated” racial division. The book reached a wide Christian audience and, as Phillip Sinitiere notes, helped launch a racial justice genre within Christian publishing.

The book also sparked institutional change. Leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church revised their denominational goals and increased support for racial minority ministries. They also worked to nurture multiethnic churches that might address the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s critique of Sunday morning as America’s “most segregated hour.”

By the early 2010s, a renewed consensus seemed to have emerged among White evangelicals — everyone from pastors John Piper to Bill Hybels — that racial diversity was important, and racism was a problem. More and more White evangelicals seemed to agree. In 2012, the Southern Baptist Conference elected the Rev. Fred Luter as its first Black president in over 100 years.

But the rise of Black Lives Matter movements after the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 tested White evangelical commitments. In historian Jemar Tisby’s words, Martin’s death and its aftermath spelled the beginning of the end of the “mainstream white racial reconciliation movement.” The 2016 election of President Donald Trump, in which 81 percent of White evangelicals supported the candidate in opposition to most Black, Asian and Latinx Christians who did not, signaled a rapidly growing polarization among people of faith on questions of race.

Evangelical attacks on critical race theory or “CRT” further demonstrate this polarization within the movement. One critic called CRT the “opposite of the gospel,” saying it branded White people “racists beyond hope of redemption.” Last year, Cru, an evangelical parachurch organization active on U.S. college campuses, shuttered its ministry focused on race and ethnicity after a small contingent of White staff claimed it encouraged disunity and “missional drift” from the core goal of evangelism. Recent attacks on Tisby’s work follows in this vein.

What, if anything, has changed in the 30 years since the flourishing of a White evangelical movement toward racial reconciliation? For one thing, the demographic make up of “evangelicals” has grown even more diverse, even as many “exvangelicals” have left the fold. Today non-White, non-Black Christians lead storied evangelical organizations including InterVarsity and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Recently, Walter Kim, who in 2020 became the first Asian American and non-White president of the NAE, told the New York Times that his first priority as head of the organization was “grappling” with the “issue of racial justice and reconciliation.”

If American evangelicals are to engage in a meaningful movement toward racial reconciliation and justice today, it may be people of color who lead the conversation and challenge the entrenched power structures. But justice work cannot be left to people of color to take up alone. Change will also depend on White evangelicals, historically in positions of power, to be partners rather than obstructers in the creation of a more just future.