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Black and White evangelicals once talked about ‘racial reconciliation.’ Then Trump came along.

From left, Jon Akin, director of young leader engagement with the North American Mission Board; John Onwuchekwa, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Atlanta; and Walter Strickland, associate vice president for diversity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, speak at a forum on racial reconciliation at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala. (Kathleen Murray)
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White evangelicals angered over the killing of George Floyd this summer have joined protests and declared that “Black lives matter” — and some have even championed reparations as they tried to promote racial reconciliation. But their continued support for President Trump has disgusted Black evangelical leaders, many of whom have let them know they are not interested.

John Onwuchekwa, a 36-year-old Black pastor who was a rising star in the Southern Baptist Convention, announced in July his church would leave the convention. Onwuchekwa was troubled that Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, endorsed Trump in April after fiercely opposing the president’s 2016 campaign. But what was especially shocking, Onwuchekwa said, was that other Southern Baptist leaders stayed silent.

“If another leader had come out and endorsed a Democratic candidate, there would’ve been recourse,” said Onwuchekwa, who is based in Atlanta. “It made me feel like I didn’t know if the Southern Baptist Convention is a safe place to be if people don’t feel the freedom to call out something like that.”

Trump, who has demonstrated a pattern of amplifying racism throughout his presidential term, responded to mass social-justice protests this summer by calling demonstrators “thugs” and defended the naming of U.S. military bases for Confederate generals. A survey conducted in June suggested White evangelical support for Trump has slipped slightly, but they remain the religious group most likely to support him: 82 percent plan to vote for him in November.

Onwuchekwa said that this summer — as he watched NASCAR get rid of the Confederate flag, and Mississippi remove the rebel-themed emblem from its own banner — he felt frustrated that Southern Baptists did not appear willing to make similarly major gestures, including denouncing support for Trump.

“It was like, wait a minute, I think the rest of the world is getting it,” he said. “In order to show solidarity with disenfranchised communities, you can’t have moderate steps.”

Before the Trump presidency

Racial reckonings within the evangelical community historically have focused on building awareness and relationships. In the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention famously repented for its historic role in the support of slavery, and the ministry Promise Keepers got tens of thousands of pastors to focus on “racial reconciliation.”

Still, despite shared Christian beliefs and commitment to religious observance, White evangelicals are among the most strongly Republican constituencies, while Black Protestants tend to vote Democratic. And that divide appears to have grown harder to bridge since Trump took office.

White evangelicals are more likely to see racism as an individual problem, rather than a byproduct of societal and systemic racial inequalities, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argued in their book “Divided By Faith.”

Some White evangelicals decry terms like “social justice” and “critical race theory” as incompatible with orthodox Christianity because they think those concepts could encourage believers to see the world outside biblical parameters. Many White evangelicals want their pastors to focus sermons on the Gospel and believe preaching on racism is a distraction.

Some past efforts to bridge interracial divides have foundered for lack of support. Horrified by the mass shooting of nine people at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church in 2015, Douglas Birdsall started a group where prominent Black and White leaders could connect and share resources. He had raised millions for evangelical causes, but said he struggled to raise $10,000 for this effort, because White evangelicals did not see interracial dialogue as a priority.

And Trump’s election, Birdsall said, changed everything: “Anybody who is White and evangelical who was working in that space had to re-earn his spurs.”

After three years, the group ran out of money.

“Maybe today, it could be different,” Birdsall said.

‘Evangelicals sold out’

At 90 years old, John Perkins has become one of the most beloved Black leaders in the broader evangelical community. A civil rights activist who grew up in racially segregated Mississippi, Perkins promoted the idea of “racial reconciliation.” He was arrested and beaten by White police officers after he led a boycott in 1969, and his public forgiveness of the police years later was widely praised.

This summer, Perkins has been in demand for Zoom Bible studies with White evangelicals. But he said he has stopped using the phrase “racial reconciliation,” because the phrase implies White and Black people can become equals without addressing historical inequities.

He is mystified by White evangelicals’ support of Trump, which many say is because the president has appointed conservative judges and sided with conservative religious groups in legal and political disputes.

“Evangelicals sold out” to Trump, Perkins said. “That created a split in the church.”

Other Black leaders are drawing their own lines in the sand. Charlie Dates, a prominent pastor from Chicago, said he recently felt uncomfortable when invited to speak on the same radio station with White evangelical pastors Robert Jeffress and John MacArthur, who support Trump and decry “social justice.”

Dates said many White evangelicals prefer to emphasize unity, which he said allows them to overlook systemic racial inequity. “There’s no repentance in the conversations about reconciliation,” he said.

For Black Pentecostal speaker and author Brenda Salter McNeil, the 2016 election made 30 years of talking about racial reconciliation feel like “a waste.” McNeil, who just released a book “Becoming Brave,” began to speak out more specifically on systemic issues like immigration, the lack of clean water in Flint, Mich., and police brutality.

A year ago, McNeil said, a White middle-aged man posted a message on her Facebook page that said: “We liked you better when you just quoted Bible verses.”

An education on racism

Black authors and speakers say demand for their training and consulting has skyrocketed this summer as people are hungry for information. These leaders are willing — on their own terms.

On Friday, author and speaker Lisa Sharon Harper moderated a discussion with three other Black Christian educators about the most pressing issues around faith and racial equity. More than 10,000 people watched the four discuss racism, reparations, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Right now, we have a choice to make about who we will be as the church," Harper said.

With a grant for nearly $1 million from Facebook, one of those educators, Latasha Morrison, created heavily moderated Facebook groups for thousands of people to discuss race. Participants are not allowed to say anything until they have observed the discussion for three months and completed a specially designed curriculum.

“We were saying these things about race a decade ago, but no one was listening,” said Morrison, whose 2019 book “Be the Bridge” became a bestseller this summer. “Trump did not invent racism. Has he fueled it and poured some oil on it? Yes.”

During the summer protests over racial justice, former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho launched a video series called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”; his first recording was viewed 11 million times on Instagram. The son of a Black pastor who grew up in an affluent White neighborhood and has attended predominantly White evangelical churches, Acho believes White Christians have been able to live in ignorance.

“Some Christians say, ‘It’s not about race, it’s about grace. It’s not about skin, it’s about sin,’” Acho said in an interview. “It’s hard for Black people to attend predominantly White churches, specifically when White pastors are silent on the issues that matter to Black people."

Some White evangelicals are looking to do more than push racial reconciliation or general awareness of racial discrimination. Greg Thompson, a White pastor based in Charlottesville, said that six months ago when he told people he was working on a book on reparations for a Christian publisher, he would get blank stares. Now, he said, his phone is ringing daily with people wanting to know more about the possibility of making payments to Black Americans.

“My hope is that white supremacy and reparations will roll off the tongue as easily as race and racial reconciliation once did,” said Thompson, who did his doctoral dissertation on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The book “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby, about White Christian complicity in racism, became a national bestseller in June, 18 months after it was released. There are a host of other books out this year examining Christianity and racism, including “White Too Long” by Robert P. Jones, “Jesus and John Wayne” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Reconstructing the Gospel” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and “Taking America Back for God” by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

Tisby said it now seems less risky for White pastors to speak against racial injustice since major corporations have gotten on board. But some other Black Christians remain skeptical, especially with the presidential campaign in full swing.

“We’re seeing Black Christians say to White Christians, ‘You’re welcome on this journey, but we’re not waiting,’” Tisby said.

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