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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

White Theology During the Civil Rights' Movement

The white southern church has long been criticized for its failure to stand up for African-Americans' rights during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet the white southern church proved equally ineffective in unifying segregationists. During the decades of the Civil Rights Movement, the white southern church’s theology was weak after the long battle between fundamentalism and liberalism.

Southern Christians had accepted the fundamentalist inerrantist and literalist understandings of the Bible, yet the Bible possessed no explicit statements condemning or mandating segregation. Segregationists contented themselves with showing that Scripture permitted segregation. They argued that Scripture taught God had created people of different nations, ethnicities, and cultures and, specifically in the Old Testament, God ordered society to respect these differences. Such permissions, rather than explicit commands for segregation, were not enough to rally white southerners against the prophetic voices of Dr. King and his colleagues.

The fundamentalist/modernist controversy also weakened conservatives’ understanding of the Gospel. In the wake of liberalism’s embrace of the Social Gospel, conservatives were suspicious of political engagement on the part of the church. Conservatives argued for evangelization against social activism. Southern Presbyterians, in particular, appealed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its statement: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth” to argue against the denomination’s attempts at integration. The spiritualization of the church rendered it incapable of supporting change in society but was also incapable of providing a motivation for whites to publicly resist the Civil Rights movement.

The New Testament contains a tension between the age to come and this present age that is passing away. The Kingdom of God is distinct from the age to come, yet the Kingdom has broken in and appears in this present age. While southern white Christians recognized that the true Kingdom of God is part of the age to come, they neglected the ways God’s Kingdom had come in their own day in the opportunity for racial justice.

[1] For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”.

[2] Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, p. 115.

[3] Ibid. p. 112.

[4] bid. pp. 112-112

[5] Ibid. p. 122.

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXXI.4.

[7] See 1 Peter 2:11.

[8] See Matthew 6:10.

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