“In a way, I’m glad they carried tiki torches and wore well-pressed polo shirts.”

That was one of my (admittedly strange) thoughts while grieving the vile scene from Charlottesville this weekend.

The citronella made the barbarity feel suburban–and that matters.

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville
P: Zach Roberts/NurPhoto

The stereotype for white supremacy (as set forth by Jerry Springer) usually involves a two-toothed yokel in bib overalls, catfish bait beneath the fingernails, and married to a cousin.

That’s unfair.

Not to white supremacy, but to the many decent folks who wear bib overalls.

That picture of racism is dangerous because it’s easy to dismiss as distant and defunct.

“I don’t know anyone like that.”

But the young millennials marching in Charlottesville looked (well…) a lot like me:

  • sensibly dressed,
  • semi-literate, and
  • unacquainted with cousinly matrimony.

That’s important too.

Because as long as I view white nationalism as just a backwoods problem, I will never note the subtle ways it grows untended in my own backyard.

Now a word on that.

A DANGEROUS QUESTION

Shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed, a pastor-friend of mine posed this question to me.

How long could a polo-shirt wearing, tiki-torch bearing white nationalist attend your evangelical church before hearing something from the pulpit that would contradict his worldview?

One month?

One year?

One lifetime?

What would be your response?

I’m thankful to be part of a tribe that has tried to change the answer to such questions (see here). Yet we have some work to do.

SOME HONEST HISTORY

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the latest history of American evangelicalism (The Evangelicals) penned by Pulitzer Prize winner, Francis Fitzgerald.

It has been a painful but important read.

A stark reminder has been the extent to which many evangelical leaders found themselves on the wrong side of civil rights.

And by that, I do not just mean “the wrong side of history” (see here), but more importantly: “the wrong side of God.”

The reason?

White nationalism. And a desire not to run afoul of their “constituency.”

To take a famous example: Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority (and Liberty University) preached and published passionately for segregation; he called racial integration “the work of the devil”; and he denounced civil rights legislation with the claim that “it should be considered ‘civil wrongs’.”

He eventually disavowed these viewpoints. Yet his mature ministry was still marked by staunch support for the white supremacist government of South Africa, which he visited, while denouncing Bishop Desmond Tutu as “a phony.”

Billy Graham was (normally) light-years ahead of Falwell on this subject.

Yet even he struggled to stand up to his constituency. While MLK languished in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Graham chided his “good personal friend” with the claim that he needed to “put the brakes on a bit” in the quest for justice. Likewise, Graham often insinuated at the time that whites and blacks were equally culpable, even in instances when violence against nonviolent black marchers was at its height.  (If you have ears to hear, then hear.)

A HOPE

The reason for bringing up this history is not to look down our collective nose at those who were, like all of us, people of their time.

The motive actually is just the opposite.

Evangelicals must be honest about our past so as not to repeat it.

Because the real danger of white nationalism (or hatred of any kind) is not the Jerry Springer stereotype.

It is the subtle form that will kill us, without ever climbing behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger.