Today’s ministerial attitudes toward segregation, desegregation, and integration are strikingly similar to those expressed almost a century ago toward slavery. In that earlier day, extremists soon inflated the alternatives of “slavery or abolition” into the ultimate social issue. They used the Christian religion mainly to justify or to condemn one or another alternative. And they saw their antagonism at last ranged in a conflict that was as much a battle over States’ rights as over freedom for the Negro.
Radical abolitionists who demanded the immediate end of slavery prized the Church only if it swiftly promoted their social objective. If necessary, they readily invoked moral criteria independent of scriptural revelation and of the churches. In fact, they tended to judge the churches themselves by these external criteria. Intentional elevation of the abolition cause above the unity and peace of the nation, and above the mission and message of the churches, attested to the radicals’ primary interest in social change (if not in social revolution) rather than in personal regeneration. It revealed, too, their openness to incendiary methods of social reform. The extremists left in doubt the essential nature of the new social order wherein manumission of slaves was to be the central feature.
Like these radicals, moderates denounced slavery as evil. But they hesitated to support a social program that seemed devoid or neglectful of those spiritual resources that energize moral attitudes and actions. They hesitated to detach social justice from its necessary relationship to the Christian redemptive mission as the extremists were prone to do.
The decades since the Civil War have sharpened the segregation controversy now at its peak. In this span of a century both radical and secular movements have gained momentum in American life; their spirit has penetrated even ecclesiastical strongholds. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the contemporary debate over integration. It is curious, indeed, that while some leaders of Christian social effort dramatically appeal to the Spirit’s inward prompting in spiritual concerns (in fact, profess to honor the Spirit’s guidance intentionally above the guidance of Scripture), they nonetheless in social agitations readily support a morality of compulsion. Churchmen direct official letters to political leaders (often without any directives from their constituencies which might even question such mandates) and urge specific legal pressures to achieve immediate integration. Certain influential ecclesiastical leaders have even supported the use of tanks and guns, if necessary, to expedite this objective.
Others even impugn and disparage the evangelistic message of the Church (its demonstrated adequacy in the Acts of the Apostles notwithstanding) if it lacks direct focus on integration. Theologians whose reconstruction of biblical theology includes a modified doctrine of justification boldly encourage ministers and revivalists to make integration the central issue of their message, thereby incorporating “the cause of justice.” In a public word to evangelist Billy Graham, a distinguished American social philosopher openly implied the irrelevance of modern evangelism to the great moral issues of our day. He urged that approval of integration be made the decisive test of the genuineness of conversion. In his “Proposal to Billy Graham,” in the August 8, 1956, issue of The Christian Century, Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that under Finney’s inspiration abolition of slavery was made “central to the religious experience of repentance and conversion.” (Some historians feel that Niebuhr here interprets Finney “in the light of his own essentially worldly view of faith,” to quote one of them. Finney called converts to renounce all sin, and slavery was indeed considered sin. As is well known, Oberlin College [where Finney was president] was one stop on the Underground Railroad. Failure to join the abolitionist movement, however, was not considered sin. Finney did not offer his converts a specific prescription associating their experience of grace with abolitionism.)
Ecclesiastical use of political weapons to end race discrimination tends to detach such social reformers from reliance on the churches as significant reservoirs of moral energy. And it involves them vulnerably with politicians whose convictions in the segregation conflict reflect a vote-getting opportunity. It would be cynical, of course, even unjustifiable and inexcusable, to refer the convictions of all officeholders to the index of such selfish ambition. Not a few have jeopardized political careers when personal convictions concerning interracial matters differed from those of their constituencies, as the recent defeat of Congressman Brooks Hays eloquently attests. Fortunately, many officeholders take their church pews as seriously as the polling booth. Nonetheless, churches face great risk in supporting a social thrust whose central dynamic comes from political forces that enjoy the approval and encouragement of ecclesiastical leaders. Under such circumstances Christian vitality is soon measured by the depth of individual devotion to such a program. In much the same way approval or disapproval of the program of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People not infrequently becomes the index to an alert Christian conscience in race relations, while partisans of the White Citizens Council simply apply such a test in another direction.
The radical champions of swift integration seldom acknowledge that integration may not always be in the best interest of both races, nor do they readily grant that segregation need not always imply disbelief in the dignity and equality of fellow men. Rather, their sole emphasis and concern is immediate integration.
This fact greatly complicates the crisis of race. Incited by left wing philosophers, the twentieth century social revolution now shadows integration and other social issues with questions of far-reaching socio-cultural and politico-economic significance, as distressing as Southern intolerance of social changes that threaten a regional “way of life.” The loud voices for hasty integration have not infrequently had semi-collectivistic overtones on the American scene. They themselves may consider this an evidence of social alertness and progress. But in the churches a tide of anxiety has risen over their veiled approval of Big Government that enlarges Federal controls, promotes the welfare state, and relies more and more on legislated morality. Through this social initiative and our generation’s swift revision of the political order, the integration issue gains a context of debate far broader than the sin of race prejudice; it becomes a battleground where conflicting social philosophies maneuver for position.
To recognize these social currents is not to condone the slander that “integration is Communist-inspired.” Some influential clergymen, and some members of NAACP, doubtless have records of organization allegiance distressing to the House Un-American Activities Committee. But most are motivated by a sense of social responsibility and justice, indebted at long or short range to Christian idealism, but now conformed in its objectives to the temper of modern reform movements.
Earnest moderates, who denounce segregation and consider it doomed, sense danger in the present context of Supreme Court decree and Federal implementation. They realize that immediate integration may offer a strategic vehicle for a quasi-socialistic political philosophy that show’s little sympathy for limited government and States’ rights. Giant voices for the Big Church have exerted mounting pressures upon Big Government for social change. In so doing, they have abetted this intermeshing of the problem of social freedom with that of political freedom. In fact, many students of political philosophy now view the integration dispute as a smaller facet of the larger problem of Federal controls and States’ rights. For them, the major issue is not integration but rather the Supreme Court’s tendency to become a policy-making body. That is, the Supreme Court’s decisions are viewed more and more as the law of the land, rather than ruling on the law of the case at hand, thus weakening the reliance upon Congress and the states to implement and govern, and upon the Constitution itself to define and delineate the framework of American life. The Supreme Court, they protest, now tends to override its own previous determinations; to revise the Constitution (hitherto changed only by majority vote); to reflect its sociological and economic views in law; and to exercise an enlarging control over the lives and activities of the people through assumption of primary legislative powers. Thus the issue at stake becomes Big Government more than the Exiled Negro.
Various factors complicated the abolition problems a century ago. Widespread veneration of the status quo, ambiguity of reformers in defining the essential principles of an ideal social order, inclination to prize Christian agencies merely for lending support to programs of social change, contributed to the turmoil. Similarly, in our day the controversy over segregation is growing and sharpening into a conflict over competing social philosophies.
Radical integrationists dismiss evaluations of this kind as diversionary and evasive. As they see it, segregation is an evil, and the cause of justice requires American citizens and Christian believers to end it at once, even if by state compulsion if necessary. They consider evangelical moderates, despite their disapproval of compulsory segregation, as fellows of compromise with the segregationists.
Segregationists, meanwhile, as did many supporters of slavery, seek a biblical justification for their views. The booklet, God the Original Segregationalist, now in its 19th edition, has been read by a half million persons. Its author, the Rev. Carey Daniel, is president of the Dallas church chapter of the White Citizens Council of America, whose letterhead invokes Habakkuk 3:6: “He (God) hath driven asunder the nations (or races). His ways are everlasting.” By creation—we are told in segregationist propaganda—God made the black, yellow, red, brown, and white man, thus intending and designating their perpetual segregation.
Extremists at one end of the race spectrum prize integration above all else; extremists at the other end champion segregation as the ultimate ideal. Both, however, have attacked Billy Graham’s ministry. Both the integrationist left, and the segregationist right have assailed Graham for refusing to focus his message on their respective ideals. The integrationist criticism fails to see that Christian emphasis on love of neighbor has implications wider and deeper than “desegregation and integration.” Segregationist criticism senses, at any rate, that the evangelical protest aims not only against race prejudice as such but is likewise a threat to factors that undergird the various forms of segregation. When Governor George Bell Timmerman of South Carolina protested an unsegregated religious rally in Columbia on the ground that Graham’s views favor desegregation, the evangelist’s comment was much to the point: “Some people have become so unbalanced by the whole issue of segregation or integration that these have become their only gospel.” Both extremes, indeed, fall under judgment of the biblical proclamation that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile.” By their limited rationale and perspective, integrationists ignore the first half of the text, segregationists the second half. To justify racial segregation by appeal to the doctrine of creation is as unavailing as an appeal to Adam’s fall and the divine punishment of sin. Certainly created inequalities exist in individuals, but just as certainly they exist irrespective of race.
Unfortunately, some Southern clergy have linked the Christian cause as firmly to white citizens’ councils and racist politicians as have some northern clergymen to the NAACP and the Supreme Court. Because of this fact, the position and ministry of evangelical moderates have become increasingly difficult. The radical integrationist considers desegregation only a halfway house. The segregationist, on the other hand, views desegregation as a step toward unlimited integration.
Where can the evangelical moderate take his stand? By protesting race prejudice and disapproving forced segregation, he detaches himself from the radical re-constructionists. He is concerned not only to disown social revolution, but to avoid social reaction as well.
The persistent integrationist question: “After all, what’s wrong with racial intermarriage?” perturbs the evangelical moderate as much as the provocative slogan on letterheads of the White Citizens Council: “Let’s keep white folks white.” He hesitates to rely upon propaganda and compulsion to improve race relations, to the Church’s neglect (even disparagement) of the mission of evangelism, regeneration, and sanctification to motivate Christian social impact. He questions those who would use the Church as a means for social reform by enlisting its direct influence in politics, and who capitalize upon the race crisis specifically as a pivotal opportunity for aggressive church participation in this strategy of social action. He is wary also of those interpreters of the race crisis, ecclesiastical spokesmen included, who support semi-socialistic schemes, and thereby reflect their ignorance of the basic clash between collectivism and freedom. While supporting desegregation, the evangelical moderate nonetheless contemplates the current nebulous programs of integration with great caution. Their risk lies in engendering social chaos by schemes of “equal protection under the law” serviceable to social philosophies that are potentially quasi-collectivistic.
What course of action then remains for evangelical moderates who find themselves buffeted between the powerful crosscurrents of two extreme positions? However deeply they may differ from their critics over the method and dynamic of social improvement, evangelical moderates cannot afford to simply occupy the scorner’s seat, and neglect the social disorders and inequities of our age. Agonize they must over a so-called Christian nation whose political community and secular agencies seem to promote the dignity of man more energetically than the Christian enterprise and whose geographical Bible belt has been slow rather than swift to face and to resolve the race crisis. In good conscience the evangelicals must withstand racial bias as one of the most widespread evils in American life. They must sharpen religious awareness of the sinfulness of race prejudice and contempt. They must urge an end to the status quo insofar as this attaches inferiority to the Negro and other non-whites and deprives them of social justice. Evangelical moderates must strive to overcome the division of Negroes and whites into separate churches insofar as such segregation depends simply upon a color line. They must hear with new power the words of the Apostle of Love: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 John 3:10). They must instruct converts to recognize that Christian commitment involves a new attitude in race relations, one that creatively challenges the prevalent attitudes of a secular society. They must condemn the use of intimidation and violence to perpetuate present inequities.
But is it right for evangelicals to give advance approval to some undefined integration as a Christian ideal or objective? Is it right for evangelicals to exact support of integration from every evangelistic convert as a test of true repentance? Are evangelicals required to ask the Church as an institution to rally swift support of the Supreme Court decision with its many political overtones? Surely the Church which hears what the Spirit is saying ought to lodge its message to the races and its condemnation of race prejudice in primary New Testament directives more firmly than in secondary considerations.
Certainly every Christian believer must face in a new way the Scripture requirement of a love for neighbor that transcends race distinctions. He must be urged to practical participation that quickens the evangelical impact upon the moral life of the nation. In this century’s four remaining decades the Christian churches can yet become the decisive reservoir of moral power for a new era of Negro and white relationships. It is quite obvious that secular programs have created as many tensions in the race crisis as they have relieved. The minister dare remain neither silent nor inactive. Indeed, the Church can forfeit this great present opportunity in several ways. It can change its primary task to that of rectifying an unregenerate social order. Or even if it carefully maintains its basic mission of evangelism, the Church can nonetheless prove impotent in social ethics by neglecting race pride within its own house and fellowship. Great opportunity for social action exists within the society of the Church itself; churchmen dare not direct their exhortations simply to a community conscience ignorant of God’s revelation and power. In the present promotion of good will between the races, and resolution of problems, prayer is a neglected, poorly tapped source of assistance. In the fellowship of prayer all the redeemed—irrespective of ecclesiastical alignments or church membership—may find a vital, unifying means for Christian reconciliation and practical outworking.
The Church alone can properly bind man’s social concerns to God and his revealed will. She best manifests her guardianship over the spiritual and ethical life of the community by proclaiming the revealed commandments, the law of love and the Gospel of grace, and by exemplifying the power of the Gospel in human experience. The Church can do what civil law itself is powerless to do; by unmasking wrong ideas of God and man as the taproots of race hatred and lovelessness the Church can lay bare humanity’s need of redemption from its predicament in sin. While she must stress man’s brotherhood (now violated by sin) as of one blood on the basis of creation, she is particularly commissioned to proclaim man’s brotherhood on the ground of a redemption purchased by the blood of Calvary.
In promoting new channels of communication and understanding between the races, the Church must distinguish the factors peculiar to each local situation. Such sensitivity demands a unique kind of dedication and leadership. Christian communication is preoccupation with persons and souls, not primarily with a program. What would happen, for example, if each of the 160,000 readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY—both ministers and laymen—were to sincerely fellowship with someone of another color around the searching question, “What would Jesus Christ have us do?” Could not the mutually discovered and shared insights of such discussion inaugurate a new day of divine blessing upon the children of God and upon their complex task in the world?
Two Crucial Questions For Councils Of Churches
Two crucial questions are confronting state councils of churches throughout the nation. One has to do with the doctrinal basis for cooperation. The other with the churchly character of the councils.
In Connecticut there is currently a brisk debate as to whether the Council should define itself in its constitution as “a fellowship of churches which accept Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Saviour” or as “a fellowship of Christian churches.” If the former phraseology is adopted the Unitarians and Universalists would be barred from membership, if the latter, all bars of basic Christian doctrine would be down. American councils of churches have rather uniformly failed to incorporate in their constitutions the stronger Christological principle set forth in the World Council’s doctrinal basis—“a fellowship of churches who confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” The Connecticut issue is by no means confined to that state but confronts other councils throughout the nation where liberal, Unitarian or Universalist influence is strong.
The other problem is “conciliarism.” The term may be defined as the doctrine that councils of churches have churchly character and as such should have equal representation with the churches in state and national councils. Conciliarism had its rise as a result of such situations as community planning. Developers are now dealing with the metropolitan councils rather than the denominations and denominations are deferring to the councils in the final decisions reached. Institutional chaplaincies, social welfare work and other areas of service have often been transferred from denominational to council control. Thus the councils are functioning more and more as ecclesiastical bodies. The question is whether membership in state and national councils should be by “denominational judicatories” or by these state level ecclesiastical units plus local councils of churches. Should conciliarism prevail the councils will become quasi-churches in themselves. Decisions at the state level will inevitably affect future policies in the National Council of Churches.
It would seem that the stage is being set for one of the most significant developments in the ecumenical life of the Church of Christ in America.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.