Friday, October 20, 2006

Mark Noll on Race, Religion and American Politics

Nine or ten years ago I read a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. At the time I knew next to nothing about American church history, and I’d never heard of Mark Noll. I approached the book as a young Christian keen to learn more about Reformed and evangelical theology. A flatmate had already read it, so I borrowed his copy when he said the book was required reading. At the time my understanding of the Christian faith was beginning to deepen. My experience of Christian churches and organizations was still fairly limited. But I thought I knew enough - I had the basics in place.

Noll’s book was fascinating, interesting. However, I was left wondering about what Noll was really getting at - I thought he was theologically na├»ve. The history was impressive - but I pretended that my theological view was safely detached from Noll’s critique of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. But I knew that Noll was getting at something, a problem with the movement that brought me to a living faith in Jesus Christ. I was frustrated that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind told the story without solving any of the theological problems inherent in that story. In some ways, my development as a Christian reader of history and theology has wrestled with Noll’s thesis ever since.

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Noll’s last lecture in a series of three public lectures given at Princeton University. It is safe to say that I no longer doubt Noll’s historical or theological insights. Even if the last lecture relied on other authorities on 20thC American history, Noll’s development of his views on race and religion in American politics deserves to be widely discussed because it has the potential to explain the weaknesses of evangelical Christianity today.

The lecture series developed Noll’s earlier work, found in America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002) and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006). (You can read reviews of these works here and here.) Basically, Noll argued that the Civil War solved the problem of religion and slavery. But the problem of religion and race remained. It remained right up to the mid-20th century, and, by implication, to the present day. White American Christianity developed alongside an essentially separate Black Christianity. This black prophetic religion was a significant trigger for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

White Christian ‘elites’ accepted and often promoted civil rights. But there was a consequence to this acceptance of federal promotion of civil rights. Resentment shifted to the expansion of federal government. A coalition between Republican and white evangelical interests grew out of this to form the current conservative power block. Illustrations of this resentment include the growth of creationism - a phenomenon that Noll linked to the investment in public scientific education that was funded by federal government in the late 1950s and 1960s. This federal policy was viewed as an imposition on local Christian values, because public science was inevitably the science of Darwin and evolution, and it was therefore anti-Christian. I was reminded of the scandal of the evangelical mind at this point.

This post is too long already - the lecture series was full of stories that made me cringe. Noll’s comparison of moral religious support for the Civil War, and the moral religious basis of the Civil Rights movement was chilling. Chilling, because in the 1860s white men fought and killed each other in the name of God. In the 1950s and the 1960s, black people fought against injustice and racism using, among other things, public prayer and preaching.

Noll spoke as a white evangelical. He admitted that America was a highly successful country, and a place where millions of people have benefited from values originating in American Protestantism. He ended his talk by positing a ‘Calvinist theological interpretation of a problem caused by “Calvinists”’ But, I will need to get the book before I think about this some more. The lectures will be published by Princeton University Press some time next year.

1 comment:

C G said...


Fascinating. Forgive my ignornace, but is race as much of an issue now in American churches as it was 40 years ago?

How do black Presbyterians, in particular, respond to their history and their present?

This sounds really interesting.