As a child, I attended Pensacola Christian Academy, the flagship school of the notorious A Beka Book curriculum. A Beka Book is widely used by fundamentalist homeschoolers and Christian schools around the world, and is infamous primarily because its science textbooks reject evolution and its civics textbooks embrace America. On the treatment of America, I don’t have a strong recollection of many of the details, but broadly speaking I can recall that the curriculum more or less promoted the typical post-war evangelical history of America: America is an exceptional country with a providential founding, and Christians in America have certain political responsibilities that arise from this fact. Recognizing and discerning a Christian’s political responsibility depends on getting the history right, so the history must be massaged a little. For instance, I can’t recall if the textbooks ever explicitly claimed men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were orthodox Christians, but they did make sure that the more pious statements from those men were highlighted and memorized. (David Barton’s books were always on hand in the library and bookstore to help you fill in the rest.)
The fascinating thing, however, is that even though the A Beka Book approach to history is widely derided and panned by more mainstream evangelicals and progressive Christians, the fundamentals of that approach are still used by almost everyone. A prime and perhaps surprising example of this is Jemar Tisby’s best-selling book The Color of Compromise.
The Color of Compromise ostensibly promotes a radical new way of approaching politics that rethinks everything about evangelicals and political engagement. But if you can look past Tisby’s critique of conservatism, all of the fundamentals of popular evangelical political thinking in the post-war era are still at work. Tisby argues America is an exceptional country, that Christians have a duty to believe in American exceptionalism, and that this belief—this interpretation of our history—should inform how Christians promote justice in our society. It even goes so far as to suggest that unity among Christians and the preservation of our country will be impossible unless Christians get the history of our country and their politics right.
The only real difference, of course, is that Tisby reads a different history—one in which America was and is exceptionally racist, leading Christians (whose libertarian and conservative politics have aided racism) to recognize the responsibility of embracing a new political vision.
Tisby’s first nine chapters are each devoted to different eras or incidents in American history, ranging from Columbus’s discovery to the 2016 election, with each setting out to tell the hard, untold truth of Christianity’s complicity with racism in America. His final two chapters are a call for white Christians to take political action. The format is simple: reflect on these events, in this light, and you will see the reasonableness of this conclusion. Readers are told the process will be difficult, that much of what they will read will contradict what they have been taught since childhood about history and politics, but that this is the way to “healing and health.”
Unfortunately for Tisby’s conclusions, his historical analysis is often incredibly thin. One example of this is found in Tisby’s treatment of the American founding. He reminds us that the anti-slavery Jefferson owned slaves and that the Constitution includes the Three-Fifths Compromise. Tisby’s ultimate charge against the American founders seems to be that they did not end slavery immediately: “The United States could have become a worldwide beacon of diversity and equality. Fresh from the Revolutionary War, it could have adopted the noble ideals written in the Declaration of Independence. It could have crafted a truly inclusive Constitution.” So Tisby imagines. But imagination is all it is. It is rather like stating that the Russians didn’t have to burn Moscow in 1812 or that the Crusaders did not have to sack Constantinople 1204. In the abstract these statements are true and unassailable, but they are also quite useless. They tell us nothing about what happened and why it happened, and thus it becomes difficult to discern what obligations (if any) these facts might impose on us today.
The whole truth, of course, is that Jefferson was one of principal advocates of the conclusion Tisby faults him for not achieving. His original draft of the Declaration was more radical on slavery. And even the final draft has an incredible intellectual legacy. “All honor to Jefferson,” said Lincoln, because it was Jefferson who “had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” This context isn’t needed for anything so trite as “judging men by the standards of their time.” It’s needed because it is the truth.
A second example of Tisby’s use of historical abstractions is his pervasive discussion of an institution that does not exist: the “American Church.” For Tisby, this church includes Anglican missionaries to the Carolinas, Baptists in Virginia, Finneyite revivalists, Nathan Bedford Forrest, James Henley Thornwell, Billy Graham, and, all too predictably, the Christians who formed the Religious Right after Roe v. Wade and have voted for Republican presidents ever since. In an all too unfortunate passage, Tisby even places a Jewish rabbi in the ranks of the “white moderates.” The illusion that such a disparate group of people and institutions spread out across such a long period of time can act as a rational whole with clearly defined interests is only made possible by Tisby’s academic definitions of “whiteness” and “racism,” which are not a skin color and way of treating others but instead are an outlook and a society built upon that outlook. This is of course convenient, as anything can be “white,” anything can be “racism,” and the “American Church” (which can be anyone or anything) can always be complicit.
At times, Tisby’s own telling almost pierces the veil of these constructs. When discussing Thornwell and his doctrine of the “spirituality of the church,” he laments the double standard that Thornwell’s “injunction against church involvement in policy issues” was upheld only for racial issues, but not for “the temperance movement, debates on evolution, attempts to keep prayer in schools, or discussions of how to overturn Roe. v. Wade.” A reasonable observer might point out that it’s infinitely more likely that Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, and Pentacostals spread out over a 100-year period cannot be bound by the “injunctions” of a forgettable nineteenth-century Presbyterian, and that no construct called the “American Church” really exists. But for Tisby, these abstractions and constructs are necessary for the story he is telling.
This is where Tisby’s defenders will undoubtedly say that only so much can be expected from a survey, or that minor faults aside, he provides an important corrective to the whitewashed history most Americans consume. But this defense has little traction. Readers who are surprised enough to change their politics upon discovering that Jefferson owned slaves or that Jonathan Edwards was a racist are not the sort of people who have received a whitewashed history. They are the sort of the people who have received no history. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga warns that “there is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests.” But Tisby’s project (and, for the record, its right-wing A Beka Books variations) depends on constructing imagined forces that act rationally according to certain interests. Just as A Beka Book textbooks didn’t highlight the more heretical statements of Jefferson, so too does Tisby neglect to mention all the things Billy Graham did to promote racial reconciliation, preferring to leave us with a distorted picture of a reactionary making a few token gestures.
Evangelicals and Politics
While the bulk of the book is a historical survey, politics is the conclusion Tisby is driving at. Healing, health, and reconciliation for America and American Christians all depends on getting the politics right. His specific recommendations for activism and policy, such as seeking common ground with Black Lives Matter and embracing reparations, are not terribly interesting on their own. Of more interest is the discussion that proposals like Tisby’s have sparked and what they reveal about the state of modern evangelicalism.
Tisby is defensive in his book against the less sophisticated attacks leveled against him. And Tisby’s defenders on the internet similarly make much of vague fear mongering against “critical race theory” or “cultural marxism.” Regardless of what Tisby and others want to call their project, it is still subject to the same standard criticism of identity politics, which is that by reducing everything to a few simple constructs it makes reasoning together impossible. The danger of this is apparent throughout Tisby’s book. To give just two examples, there is first his treatment of the baptism of Metoaka (better known as Pocahontas). At her baptism into the Church of England, Metoaka was given her Christian name, Rebecca, and her children were expected to be baptized into the Anglican Church as well. For Tisby this symbolizes the suppression of indigenous customs and religion for the sake of English (white) respectability and is just another example of how whiteness exercised its perceived superiority. But the assignment of a Christian name at baptism is a centuries old practice that long predates any modern racial categories. And the majority of Christians worldwide believe the baptism of their children is a fundamental obligation. Adopting a method of criticism that calls into question these practices, observed by Christians from Ethiopia to Canada, should surely give us pause. But under the simple rubric of oppressor/oppressed, we are supposedly told all we need to know.
A second example of how Tisby’s approach forecloses further discussion is his treatment of the Religious Right. After building a somewhat flimsy case for accusing Ronald Reagan of racism (he opposed affirmative action and funded the war on drugs), Tisby states matter-of-factly that “whatever their intentions, when the Religious Right signed up to support Reagan and his views, they were also tacitly endorsing an administration that refused to take strong stances toward dismantling racism.” This is simply not how voting works in a federal republic where power is spread over many different layers and branches and is motivated by differing factions. And in general, it is no more true that Christians who vote Republican are responsible for their party’s missteps than Christians who vote Democratic are responsible for that party’s aggressive stances on abortion and religious liberty. Pretending that they are will only encourage an unhealthy absolutism and puritanism in politics.
But as I noted at the beginning, the really revealing thing about Tisby is his similarity to his right-wing counterparts. In a book review in the journal Modern Age, historian Miles Smith IV outlines how Protestantism lost its intellectual foundations in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, only to emerge in the post-war era as a “deintellectualized” movement with no coherent political theology, and in its place only a “noncreedal and nonsacramental ecumenism” that “was based on a powerful folk culture deeply invested in a Christian-inflected version of American nationalism.” Readers of Smith’s description will no doubt think of right-wing “God and Country” evangelicals. But the description also fits Tisby, who rarely attempts to apply theology to social problems. He instead prefers narratives and manipulation.
Indeed, Tisby’s theology, narrowly defined, is probably not all that different from popular evangelical theology on both the right and the left. There is little connection to the pre-war Protestant tradition of teaching on the civil order. Revealingly, both Tisby (whose final chapter is titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now”) and right-wing Trumpists would reject the teaching of Aquinas, Hooker, Burke, and Lincoln that prudence, rather than courage, is the principal political virtue.
As an outside observer who does not identify as an evangelical, the recent debates within evangelicalism about race, Trump, and other issues are somewhat baffling. Partisans on both sides claim to be defending the Gospel when, more often than not, they embrace the same non-creedal, non-sacramental, non-ecclesial theology. Are Beth Moore and Robert Jeffress really applying different theologies to our current moment? Or do they both subscribe to the same particular theology that is in constant search of an outlet for its enthusiasm, and that is confused by the broader political realignment that is happening across the nation? Similarly, when leaders of the Presbyterian Church in America or the Anglican Church in North America wade into these debates, are they bringing their denomination’s pre-war and even pre-American traditions and teachings on the civil order to the situation, or are they adopting the very same post-war evangelical model of using American-centric politics as an outlet for their enthusiasm?
“The Gospel” often has less to do with these debates than the participants think. American Christians, who need a better political philosophy, would be better served if their leaders stopped pretending it did. This is not to say that Christianity has no implications for our politics or our public life. It is rather a recognition that that too much of what passes for “theology” is merely narrative and manipulation for different socio-economic classes, and that a deintellectualized suburban/urban Protestantism is embracing Tisby’s version (following the broader suburban realignment to the center-left) while a deintellectualized rural Protestantism is clinging to the old A Beka Books version.
If there were such a thing as “the American Church,” the only thing that could be said about it today is that it is under-catechized and overly saturated in politics. Another book encouraging Christians to measure their faith by their level of political activism would be the last thing it needs.