The Color of Compromise | Book Review


Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is a difficult book to read. The difficulty does not result from a complex argument or dense prose, for the book’s argument is simply and straightforwardly made. Rather, the book is difficult to read because of its subject matter, namely, white Christian complicity with racism throughout American history.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…

  • George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
  • Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” (emphasis added).
  • According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
  • A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.

These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.

So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.

Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.

Book Reviewed
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham (1918-2018)


The Rev. Billy Graham passed away this morning at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. For decades, Billy Graham was the face of evangelical Christianity, not merely in the United States, but around the world. His death is an occasion for mourning, but his life is an instructive example to Christian ministers today. In August 2015, I wrote the following book review of Grant Wacker’s excellent book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Rereading it more than two years later, it strikes me as a good summary of the lessons we can learn from the life and ministry of this great man.

*****

America’s Pastor is not a conventional biography of Billy Graham. It does not narrate Graham’s life in chronological order, in other words. If you’re looking for such a book, read Graham’s memoir, Just As I Am, or William Martin’s magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.

Instead, America’s Pastor is a biographical study that centers around three questions:

  • How did Billy Graham become the voice of American evangelicalism?
  • Why did evangelicalism become so pervasive in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • And what does it say about the relation between religion and America itself?

To each of these questions, Grant Wacker, a noted evangelical church historian at Duke University Divinity School, offers a single answer: “From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes.”

Wacker goes on to say that Graham “possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times.”

Graham’s “uncanny ability” explains why ministers would do well to read this book. We, too, need to speak for and to our times. And Graham’s life and ministry presents us with both an inspiring example … and a cautionary tale.

The inspiring example is what Christian pastors know best. In his personal life and public ministry, Graham and his evangelistic team set the gold standard of integrity. Much of this arose from a commitment to the so-called “Modesto Manifesto” of 1948, in which the Graham team set out rules of personal and organizational integrity.

Building on this integrity, Graham traveled the globe, using every available media to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached large evangelistic crusades, wrote a spiritual advice column, spoke on radio, appeared on television, produced evangelistic films, and stayed in the public eye. In addition, he helped found institutions that continue to shape evangelicalism: Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Lausanne Movement, among others. Graham was so involved with, and so central to, the postwar American evangelical revival that it is difficult to imagine it without him. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine postwar American history without him.

This doesn’t mean Graham’s ministry — or the mainstream evangelicalism he represented — was without flaws. The most glaring was his penchant for partisan politics. Perhaps nothing discredited his ministry more in the eyes of many than his too-close relationship with, and post-Watergate defense of, President Richard Nixon. And we might also ask how America would have been better off had he cooperated more closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and led white evangelicals in a greater support for African-American civil rights.

Historical counterfactuals such as this are interesting to ponder, but we cannot change the past. We can only learn from the past in order to do better in the future.

Grant Wacker has penned an interesting, informative, and, in many ways, authoritative interpretation of Billy Graham’s influence on American Christianity and the American nation. Those of us who, like Graham, are called to minister the gospel would do well to use the book as a mirror of self-reflection, asking questions such as these:

  • Do we conduct our lives and ministries with integrity, and is this integrity obvious to all?
  • Do we lament the baleful effects of contemporary media — television, film, social media, etc. — or do we leverage them to produce better effects?
  • Do we exercise a prophetic ministry within our society, or have partisan interests captured us?
  • In an increasingly secular society, do we cooperate with as wide a circle of fellow Christians as possible, or do we retreat into small circles of like-mindedness?
  • Most importantly, do we preach through our words and demonstrate with our lives the good news of Jesus Christ, calling nonbelievers to faith in Him, and believers toward a closer following of Him?

America may never see another Billy Graham — an evangelist who has influenced both church and society. It will see us, however. Are we, like him, speaking both for and to it in our own, much smaller circles of influence?

 

Book Reviewed
Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015).

P.S. Republished with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation’ by Grant Wacker


Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014). Hardcover | Kindle

[NOTE: This review originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Enrichment.]

America’s Pastor is not a conventional biography of Billy Graham. It does not narrate Graham’s life in chronological order, in other words. If you’re looking for such a book, read Graham’s memoir, Just As I Am, or William Martin’s magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.

Instead, America’s Pastor is a biographical study that centers around three questions:

  1. How did Billy Graham become the voice of American evangelicalism?
  2. Why did evangelicalism become so pervasive in the second half of the twentieth century?
  3. And what does it say about the relation between religion and America itself?

To each of these questions, Grant Wacker, a noted evangelical church historian at Duke University Divinity School, offers a single answer: “From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes.”

Wacker goes on to say that Graham “possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times.”

Graham’s “uncanny ability” explains why ministers would do well to read this book. We, too, need to speak for and to our times. And Graham’s life and ministry presents us with both an inspiring example … and a cautionary tale.

The inspiring example is what Christian pastors know best. In his personal life and public ministry, Graham and his evangelistic team set the gold standard of integrity. Much of this arose from a commitment to the so-called “Modesto Manifesto” of 1948, in which the Graham team set out rules of personal and organizational integrity.

Building on this integrity, Graham traveled the globe, using every available media to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached large evangelistic crusades, wrote a spiritual advice column, spoke on radio, appeared on television, produced evangelistic films, and stayed in the public eye. In addition, he helped found institutions that continue to shape evangelicalism: Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Lausanne Movement, among others. Graham was so involved with, and so central to, the postwar American evangelical revival that it is difficult to imagine it without him. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine postwar American history without him.

This doesn’t mean Graham’s ministry — or the mainstream evangelicalism he represented — was without flaws. The most glaring was his penchant for partisan politics. Perhaps nothing discredited his ministry more in the eyes of many than his too-close relationship with, and post-Watergate defense of, President Richard Nixon. And we might also ask how America would have been better off had he cooperated more closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and led white evangelicals in a greater support for African-American civil rights.

Historical counterfactuals such as this are interesting to ponder, but we cannot change the past. We can only learn from the past in order to do better in the future.

Grant Wacker has penned an interesting, informative, and, in many ways, authoritative interpretation of Billy Graham’s influence on American Christianity and the American nation. Those of us who, like Graham, are called to minister the gospel would do well to use the book as a mirror of self-reflection, asking questions such as these:

  • Do we conduct our lives and ministries with integrity, and is this integrity obvious to all?
  • Do we lament the baleful effects of contemporary media — television, film, social media, etc. — or do we leverage them to produce better effects?
  • Do we exercise a prophetic ministry within our society, or have partisan interests captured us?
  • In an increasingly secular society, do we cooperate with as wide a circle of fellow Christians as possible, or do we retreat into small circles of like-mindedness?
  • Most importantly, do we preach through our words and demonstrate with our lives the good news of Jesus Christ, calling nonbelievers to faith in Him, and believers toward a closer following of Him?

America may never see another Billy Graham — an evangelist who has influenced both church and society. It will see us, however. Are we, like him, speaking both for and to it in our own, much smaller circles of influence?

—–

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide Religious Web for Wednesday, January 4, 2012


REVIVAL WATCH: “Pentecostal Renewal Transforms Rwanda after Genocide.”

A MORMON TAKE ON BAPTISM IN THE SPIRIT: “Choose a life of constant refinement.”

LET’S HOPE NOT! OR HOPE SO? “The Next Billy Graham Might Be Drunk Right Now.”

CAN A FALSE TEACHING BE FALSIFIED? “Scientologists in feud over leader.” Because he has strayed from the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard…

ATHEIST REDUCTIONISTS, THAT IS: “Reductionists on Parade.” See also “Against Atheist Cant.”

WOULD YOU RATHER CLIMB A HILL OR TAKE A N.A.P.? “Atheists Face Uphill Climb With New Political Party.”

BECAUSE NOTHING RUINS SOMETHING LIKE POLITICS DOES: “Saving Happiness from Politics.” “Beyond a level of basic material needs, personal happiness is and will always be significantly personal and subjective. Attempting to provide it collectively through an assortment of entitlements is bound to fail. There is a thin line between facilitating the individual pursuit of happiness and prescribing it for all of us. That line marks the difference between a free society that maximizes the opportunity for prosperity and the chance of happiness and a compulsive system that reduces the possibility of both. We should therefore treat the happiness revival — in the academy, in politics, and elsewhere — with appropriate skepticism and concern.”

HOW WE COMMUNICATE AND FORM RELATIONSHIPS: “Two Trends Worth Watching in 2012.”

A FOUR-DAY-OLD YEAR ALREADY HAS MYTHS ABOUT IT? “Top 10 Myths About 2012.”

RATIONALIZE = RATIONAL LIES? “The Problem With Rationalizing the Bible.” “Miracles are articles of faith, for true believers today and for the Bible as well. Whether they actually happened or not is debatable. But to chalk them up to freak occurrences of nature is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of the Bible and of belief in it.”

LGBT AS A UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHT? “Hillary Clinton and the ‘Laws that Teach.’”

YEP: “How Christians Ought to ‘Occupy’ Wall Street (and All Streets): “Christians therefore must occupy the world in their occupations, doing all their work as Christians, whatever it is, ‘whether in word or deed,’ as the Apostle Paul instructs, ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col. 3:17 NIV). In this way the church finds its most significant and transformative cultural engagement through its affirmation of the daily work of Christians who already occupy Wall Street (and all streets).”

THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF CHARLES HODGE: “The Presbyterian Pope.”

FOR MANY REASONS: “Why Have We Seen a Drop in Crime?”

MEXICO HAS A GRAND WARLOCK? “Mexican Grand Warlock Predicts Obama Loss in 2012.”

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