Systemic racism persists throughout American history, no doubt about it. But it’ll surprise some to learn how the American version of evangelicalism is complicit in this.
We’ve been seeing how C. S. Lewis’ Great Divide of 1816 distinguishes between the European and American versions of evangelicalism. To keep it as simple as possible, the European version appealed to conscience. The American version of evangelicalism relied more on conversion.
The Clapham Sect exemplifies the European version. This network helped abolish the English Slave Trade. This in turn helped reduce systemic racism, transforming British culture. Clapham did this by “evoking the conscience of the British people” wrote Sir James Mackintosh.
They learned this from the Apostle Paul. He targeted “every man’s conscience” (II Cor.4:2). Luther appealed to conscience at the Diet of Worms. European evangelical traditions could collaborate with anyone and everyone, recognizing everyone is created with a conscience.
European evangelicals also saw conscience as the key to making disciples. I learned this in 1995 when a seminary prof showed me how “teaching all things” involves more than communication of information. “It involves, among other things, a recognition of the role of one’s conscience.”
This role comes from the gospel of God marrying us. Our creator is our husband (Isa.54:5). We prepare for the wedding banquet by making cultures (the cultural mandate). Being aware of how well we’re making cultures requires a conscience, or self-awareness. That’s why conscience is implicit in the cultural mandate, as well as in its reiteration, the great commission.
Appealing to conscience also yields self-suspicion. William Wilberforce noted this in a letter to his 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth. He urged her to keep a clear conscience, citing Jeremiah 17:7-9 where the prophet warns how conscience can easily dupe us. Wilberforce expected Elizabeth to have cultivated “self-suspicion” by inviting “the friendly reproofs of friends.”
We don’t hear much of this in the American version of evangelicalism. The leaders of the First Great Awakenings of the early 1700s were hardly concerned with conscience, culture, or politics. So slavery wasn’t abolished. In fact, by the late 1700s, America’s “peculiar institution” seemed to be expanding as American enthusiasm for religion seemed to be waning.
Then a wave of revivals hit. They grew out of growing discontent with older European traditions. American revivalists turned to an individualist theology – God seeks to save you. “What came first in the individualist theology was the saving of souls.” Revivalists assumed if converted people were taught the right things, they’d do right and society will be transformed.
But American society wasn’t transformed. Henry May says evangelical revivals provided heat for abolitionists in the North, while in the South, evangelicals warmed up their pro-slavery defense. By 1830, evangelicalism was splintering over this issue as both sides were “fiercely religious.”
Fiercely religious is what the Bible calls “excessively righteous” (Eccl. 7:16). Passionate people fixate on the speck in their opponent’s eye, not the log in their own. They’re not self-aware, explaining why revival leaders didn’t see how American evangelicalism was complicit in racism.
We see it in their churches. The Northern ones were about as segregated as Southern churches. Many Northern evangelicals did speak out against slavery, but not against racism. Many felt interracial relationships were unchristian. In the South, evangelical leaders justified slavery, urging Christians to focus on evangelism, stay out of politics, and follow the law.
The result was The Civil War. It created a raft of new laws, but as Samuel Johnson warned, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Small wonder that what Billy Graham wrote in a 1960 Reader’s Digest article on racism remains true to this day. “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”
A popular business saying explains this: your system is perfectly designed to yield the results you are getting. American evangelicalism doesn’t think systems. “Evangelical theology tends to be very personal, highly relational, and therefore, engaging issues of systems and structures becomes incredibly difficult,” notes Greg Jao, a director at InterVarsity ministry.
But not impossible. The solution is crossing over the Great Divide, returning to European evangelical traditions. It can be done. So we’ll continue our trek next week.
 Dr. Lanier Burns, “Teaching Them to Obey: The Conscience From the Biblical Text Through History to the Net.” Paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society conference: Orlando, 1993.
 Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976), 328.
 Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Emma Green, “The Unofficial Racism Consultants to the White Evangelical World,” The Atlantic, July 5, 2020.