Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars (University of Alabama Press, 2017), 216 pages.
**Before we dive in, I should note that because I found the book so thought-provoking, I decided to engage a little deeper. This review is longer than normal and fairly academic in its engagement.**
There is a regular confusion over how African Americans tend to mix two seemingly contradictory ideals: generally conservative Protestant theology and generally progressive politics defined by racial identity. There are reasons for this, and Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews of the University of Mary Washington addresses some of the historical formulations of this phenomena. She delimits her study by looking at African-American Baptists and Methodists from about 1915 to the Second World War. The basic argument is that the conjoining of doctrinal fidelity and racial justice is older than normally thought. This goes back to the interwar years, at least. Theologically, the same hermeneutic that argued for conservative doctrine also argued for racial progress. This left African American evangelicals without a home in fundamentalism or modernism. As a result, “African Americans created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism” (2). The history is fascinating and the book well-written. Here is how Mathews tells the story:
She begins by considering the fundamentalist movement and their attitudes toward African Americans and racial discussions. Fundamentalism became a movement during an era when most whites took (at the least) a paternalistic view toward African Americans. Mathews argues that white fundamentalists did this for at least four reasons: (1) they did not want to challenge racial norms because (2) this would not have been strategically helpful to a fledgling movement, (3) as most white Americans they were largely unaware of the plight of black Americans, and (4) they had built in mechanisms that limited their social outreach. Many fundamentalist pastors were outspoken opponents of integration, they also regularly argued that black people in general were deficient in understanding and leadership, which then led many to compartmentalize and limit black contributions because whites did not trust black intellect. Fundamentalists were already marginalized in the 1920s and being counter-cultural was simply not on their mind. For these reasons, Mathews observes that fundamentalism was largely a white phenomena.
With the understanding of white fundamentalist views toward black Christians, Mathews then considers African American interactions toward white fundamentalists. African Americans kept a close eye on fundamentalist/modernist debates. They realized that modernism was also largely a white phenomena. Black leaders could often appreciate when white leaders spoke against modernism and racial injustice, but they would then point out inconsistencies in how these white leaders would support other racist groups and ideals. Because what happened in the world of white America had extensive practical import on the lives of black Americans, black leaders could not afford to ignore what white leaders were doing and saying. Conversely, white leaders could afford to ignore, stereotype, and racial demean black people and leaders as it had little to no existential ramifications. In trying to make sense of the lay of the land, many black leaders felt, on the one hand, that they could work with some semblance of modernism because it was not full-blown modernism (that was a white problem). On the other hand, some black leaders claimed fundamentalists abandoned the Baptist heritage of “using religion to ameliorate social problems and their tradition of freedom of conscience” (59). In sum, black evangelicals were highly interested in the fundamentalist/modernist battles for two reasons: race and religion. They saw the importance of the doctrinal battle and normally sided with fundamentalist doctrine, but they also had to know where they stood at every moment in the eyes of white people because racial oppression was a real problem.
The distance between white fundamentalism and black Christians resulted in black Christians working out the theology of their unique experiences on their own. Many black leaders saw no need to be theologically progressive. They believed that conservative Christianity contained what was needed to also affect social change. Black leaders could not accept all fundamentalist doctrines either, because some were fairly novel, and black leaders could not appear to be reading their Bibles incorrectly. As a result, they refused to choose a side. African American leaders would use terms and phrases of both fundamentalists and modernists but would often interpret them in their own way. They tended to be conservative theologically but also include notions of racial equality. The question was not: which side supports whatever particular issue. It was: does Scripture support it? They tried to hold the past while accommodating to the future, a task which had perils, and which was already a first step to modernism. Mathews makes the astute observation that African Americans saw not a bifurcation between fundamentalism and modernism, but a continuum.
At this point the story takes its important turn. Mathews tells of the African American concern to uphold their traditional theology but also think theologically about their social situation. African American Protestants often mirrored white fundamentalists in their concerns over how modernism was affecting society. African Americans were often in support of social conservatism while also being suspicious of the racial prejudices of many social conservatism advocates. African Americans have a long record of many social justice activities. However, they could also deviate from traditionalist religious beliefs and social norms if it was conducive to their racial aspirations. The 1928 presidential election saw many African Americans realize that a concentration on a social issue that they normally would support (Prohibition) might mean ignoring a host of dangers to the black person. Therefore, many began prioritizing racial realities. The pressing needs of black people overruled much else politically. This was the major turning point of African American evangelicals away from the Republican party. The need for civil rights became more important than the need for absolute adherence to certain behaviors and beliefs. And there was a theological reason for this: racism (and racial progress) was a theological subject and to hold to racism (in its many forms) was to fall from orthodoxy.
African American theology dealt with a daunting task. “As African American Protestants wrestled with their understandings of modern culture and changes in theology, they were unified on another matter—the true Christian church embraced equality for all races and that equality was not present in the United States” (126). There was a growing realization that Christianity called for equality and charity which was found occasionally on both sides of the theological and political aisles. Common ground for many was found on racial, as well as other theological, lines. Black ministers shared a common frustration that the universality of Christianity meant segregation was a gross evil, which many whites were willfully ignorant. Importantly, black Christians did not see the racism in white conservatism as inherent to the theology. Black Christianity grew. And they insisted it was not Christianity that was problematic, the problem was white racism. The situation was becoming clear for many African Americans: American Christianity was a paradox. There was the assertion of liberty, freedom, and democracy while at the same time there was segregation, racism, and lynchings.
The historical dualism that sees fundamentalism and modernism as stark and wholly separate entities simply cannot account for the African American experience that Mathews writes about. Because of the imperfections of both parties, especially in the area of race, African Americans had to be more nuanced in their search for a home. Rather than seeing a dualism, African Americans saw a continuum. African American leaders between the wars charted a course that accepted traditional religious beliefs while also using that same hermeneutic for racial progress. This left them outsiders to fundamentalists and modernists alike. Theologically, black leaders never accepted certain theological tendencies of fundamentalism (such as dispensationalism and the indifference to racial issues). But modernism was not appealing either, it was a white heresy (and could also be indifferent to racial issues). The path was a narrow one between two unsatisfying (though not equally so) options.
Thus, Mathews’ thesis: “African Americans created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism” (2). African American leaders showed you did not have to choose only one side, there were a myriad of ways to respond. Mathews argues that Historians must see the complexity and not force black evangelical history into a box.
There is little doubt that Mathews has proved her thesis. In the first half of the twentieth century, when American Protestantism was fracturing along fairly clear lines, African American Christians did not find a home in either major category because race and doctrine did not allow it. Perhaps the best contribution of Mathews’ study is her recognition of a continuum between modernism and fundamentalism. The categories were not neat. Many histories of fundamentalism recognize something similar in the presence of moderates and the distinction between fundamentalist “come-outers” and “stay-iners.” But what Mathews contributes is the bald historical fact that large groups of Christians could not identify with either side, precisely because of the issue of race. Mathews’ chronicling of subtle, and oftentimes blatant, racism of many fundamentalist leaders is both undeniable and damning. It is a dark stain on fundamentalism.
Mathews also makes the point that when the Northern Baptist Convention was splintering during the 1920s and 1930s, African American leaders made astute observations about their relationship to Baptist tradition. At least some argued that white Baptist leaders of the time ignored “the Baptists’ heritage of using religion to ameliorate social problems and their tradition of freedom of conscience” (59). The idea that fundamentalists (as well as modernists) were inconsistent with significant pillars of their Baptist heritage is thought-provoking. I can agree that there was a pretty significant dissonance between fundamentalist attitudes toward engagement of social issues and that of their forebears. But it is also true that resistance to the social gospel was a theological reason for it. Likewise, on freedom of conscience, Baptists have traditionally allowed such an idea, but they have also insisted on standards of orthodoxy. The balancing of the two and the definitions of both are heavily debated. Still, this observation by black Baptist leaders is astute and worth continued discussion.
Overall, this is a must-read for those interested in American religious history, the history of black evangelicalism, and the history of fundamentalism. My own understanding of the history of fundamentalism is greater than my understanding of the history of black evangelicalism, and this book is written with its focus on the history of black evangelicalism. From that perspective, this is a welcome book that helps explain several of the reasons why black evangelicals resisted, and continue to resist, the categories that (mostly) white evangelicalism uses. On the fundamentalist side of the story, there is no hiding what was said loud and clear from the pulpit and from published sources, no less in their actions. Fundamentalism, like nearly all of American Protestantism, has a tattered history of racial indifference and racial prejudice.
The theological questions this book raises are still pertinent: Is race and racism a theological issue? If it is, how important is it in one’s overall theology and one’s lived experience? In other words, is it a doctrine where deviation from scriptural teaching is seriously problematic and requires some form of practical censorship? As Mathews shows, these questions have been discussed for quite some time among African American evangelicals. I don’t believe the same can be said for their white brethren.