David French writes that the civil rights movement should give beleaguered Evangelicals hope in the current cultural malaise. He's partly right, partly wrong.
He's right that white Christians have much to learn from the history of African American Christianity. Once Protestants formed the American elite. Nowadays, though theologically conservative Protestants are still numerous, we're no longer the dominant cultural force.
It seems likely that traditional Christian beliefs on a range of issues will become more not less marginal. It seems likely that America's current elites will be increasingly hostile to the benighted orthodox Christians.
This is where black Christians have much to teach the white churches. American blacks know how to carve out and cultivate a Christian counter- and sub-culture within a hostile mainstream culture. For much of American history, that is the story of the black churches.
Forced out of white civil society, they formed black business networks, developed parallel civic organizations, supplemented the subpar education their children received at the public schools. Through it all, the church was the center of African American life, an incubator for the leaders and the passion that emerged during the Civil Rights movement.
French draws somewhat different lessons. He points out, rightly, that most Civil Rights leaders appealed to American ideals as a test for American reality: "Black Americans understood that oppression was incompatible with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and slavery (and later Jim Crow) were in irreconcilable conflict with the core values of the Constitution."
The Civil Rights movement succeeded, against tremendous odds, because they persuaded America to become more American.
Instead of making this kind of appeal to American ideals, Evangelicals today are fearful and pessimistic. Some, French notes, are questioning liberalism itself. This, he thinks, will be disastrous. He chides anti-liberal Evangelicals: "to discard classical liberalism is to discard the very instruments and ideals that are most effective at guaranteeing your continued freedom and blocking the designs of those enemies who most fervently seek your demise."
French is, I think, naive about the effects of the massive cultural changes that have taken place since the heyday of Civil Rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. could assume a consensus about American ideals. His Bible-laced rhetoric resonated with a nation that was still biblically literate. He could appeal to the American conscience because something like a unified American conscience still existed.
Much of that consensus has collapsed. There's no easy appeal to American ideals because the American ideals are themselves in dispute. Christians can appeal to founding ideals of liberty, but that gains little traction when "freedom" is defined as freedom from constraint as such, or freedom from Christian bigotry. There's less room to maneuver as this ideal of freedom is institutionalized in law and policy. Appeals to freedom get caught up in the national narrative of liberation whose milestones are Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.
This only highlights the first point: If conservative Christians want to flourish in a hostile cultural climate, we need to learn from brothers and sisters who have survived, and triumphed, against far worse odds.
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