A Visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Plus Some Thoughts on Evangelical Christians and Racism

A visit to the newest Smithsonian brings about this personal reflection. This is an overview of the museum plus some thoughts on how Evangelical Christianity struggles with racism. From the origins to the SBC to the segregation of churches today, Evangelical Christians are haunted by the issue of race. However, is the greatest indicator of how Evangelical Christians struggle with racism comes with their embrace and strong support for Donald Trump? After all many evangelicals can live their fears or their hate through Trump, and that has become a major stain on the church in the United States. 

“After the men were all sold they then sold the women and children. They ordered the first woman to lay down her child and mount the auction block; she refused to give up her little one and clung to it as long as she could , while the cruel lash was applied to her back for disobedience. She pleaded for mercy in the name of God. But the child was torn from the arms of her mother amid the most heart-rendering shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other. Finally the poor child was torn from the mother while she was sacrificed to the highest bidder. In this way he sale was carried on from beginning to end.”

Henry Bibb in 1849 describing the sale of slave child. Plus a reminder that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded believing that slavery was Biblical.

“The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes, we believe in.”

Virginia KKK Leader Supporting Donald Trump.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27 NIV

 

Smithsonian of African-American History and Culture 

A dark moment from my youth, the Los Angeles riots in April of 1992. 

On Saturday June 3, I was in downtown Washington, D.C. and I decided to see if I could get into the Smithsonian National Museum of the African-American History and Culture. This is a museum that is quite popular in D.C. and the hardest museum to get into currently. Since its opening its been the talk of Washington. One needs to get tickets for the museum which can be hard. I have heard that some go down early in the morning to get tickets, but waiting lists are long. I knew that but since I was nearby I swung by hoping to see if I could get it. The person at the door explained this to me and just as I was about to walk away someone who was African-American asked me how many tickets I needed. I said, “Just one” and with that she gave me an extra and told me to learn and enjoy it. I was taken back and thanked this person for her generosity and kindness. So with that I was let inside and started to explore the museum.  

 

An Uncomfortable Experience and the Tables Being Turned

When I entered this Smithsonian and started to proceed to explore there was something I noticed about the museum. The longer I was there the more it was re-inforced by going through the exhibits. At the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture about 70 to 80% of the people who attended were black. Whites for the most part were avoiding the museum. It began to trouble me deeply that many whites were staying away. For the first time in my life I learned what it felt like to be a minority. Because in that museum I was a minority. It was deeply uncomfortable and upsetting but I knew this was where I was supposed to be. As a white person I had to face some uncomfortable facts and confront some dark truths about history.  A country or church can’t run away from its past. Nor can it stick its head in the sand and pretend otherwise. The only way to move forward in this area is to acknowledge the situation. So with that thought in mind I embraced the day and learned some very difficult history.

 

What the Smithsonian Museum of the African American History and Culture Showed

The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture is large. Do not let its small size fool you. A good portion of the museum is underground. In the history exhibit it starts out discussing slavery in the 1400’s in Africa. It looked at the slave trade both to Europe, and later to North America and the Caribbean. It looked at slavery in colonial America. The growing geographic issues with slavery between the north and the south was also presented. Life as a slave was displayed. The museum looked at the political scene in the United States before the Civil War. From “Bleeding Kansas” to the Compromise of 1850 up until the Civil War itself. During the Civil War the museum focused on black contributions to the war effort. Afterward they explained the Federal occupation of the South and failed Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws. Racial discrimination and hate along with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan was discussed. Black culture in regards to music, literature and more were explored. The museum looked at the Civil Rights era. The most powerful exhibit in the museum was the display of the casket from Emmett Till. Emmit Till was murdered in Mississippi and his mother had an open casket funeral in Chicago to display her son to the world. It was a statement on racism. The situation became the spark for Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white man. The museum looked at the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s. From church bombings to Freedom Rides into the Deep South. It went up to the 80’s and 90’s and to my displeasure had very little about the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The last exhibit is the election of Barack Obama with him being the first black president of the United States.

The history exhibit was laid out very well. It was very compelling and explored the issue of black history from the 1400’s until modern times. It was balanced and had no political agenda to it which I thought helped make the museum professional. The exhibits were stunning. From Nat Turner’s Bible to a couple of slave cabins to a railroad coach from the Southern Railroad which showed segregation in transportation. There was a hushed silence and displays that were hard to look at. Pictures of lynchings in the Ku Klux Klan exhibit were difficult to consume.  But the museum laid it all out and said “this is our history as a nation in this area and its heritage.” I found the museum to be exceptionally well done, and in line with the other Smithsonian museums I have attended. The staff was capable and well trained, and kind. One staff volunteer who made an impression on me is Kwanza. She was lively, kind and a joy to be around. The museum is fortunate to have her as a volunteer.

 

We Have a Deep Problem with Racism in US Culture and History and it Reveals Itself in the Evangelical Christian Church 

We need to be candid, but we have a deep history that is tainted with racism here in the United States. And for all that troubling history we need to acknowledge the racial issues playing out in many parts of evangelical Christianity today. Many evangelicals are going to deny that racial issues are a problem but let me expand and discuss upon it further. Many whites actually fled the cities and established suburbs in the 1950’s. Now in some cities like Washington, D.C. many younger professionals are actually moving back into the city and reversing the trend. But in many parts of the country many whites moved away and almost created homogeneous cultures in the suburbs that act and function like bubbles. They are ethnically the same in a lot of ways and this is deeply reflected even further in many churches. Now as I type this it dawns upon me as to how many churches that I have been involved with in the suburbs that are largely white with no minorities around. By living in such circumstances I would suggest that many whites are probably not aware of the racial issues that exist because of how they live their lives. They are not aware of the total abject poverty or unemployment rates for black youths in the urban city. By living in the suburbs one can avoid all those issues. They don’t even have to think about them. In the process you can avoid social justice issues and become engaged in culture war issues on such topics as abortion or gay marriage. Living in white suburbia and evangelical theology goes hand in hand quite well. Now are there exceptions to this rule, yes, but as I reflect on them they are few and far between. But evangelical churches are some of the most segregated places today. There is no diversity in many white evangelical Christian churches. And this feeds the ongoing problems. 

 

The Dark History of the Southern Baptist Convention vs. the Encouraging History of the EFCA 

The largest Protestant denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).  The SBC claims to have a little over 15 million on the rooster and close to 47, 000 churches. The roots of the SBC go back to the issue of slavery itself. In 1844 the Georgia Baptist Convention wanted to have a slaveholder appointed as a missionary, which was denied by the Home Mission Support. The Alabama Baptist Convention also tried to do the same thing and was denied. In 1845 this led to the Virginia Baptists calling for a meeting in which the Southern Baptists separated from the Northern Baptists on May 10, 1845. You can read more about the history of the SBC in “An Open Letter to Russell Moore.” From the founding up until modern times the SBC has struggled with its racist past. There was the Jim Crow era, then there was the desegregation efforts which many SBC resisted. Then there was the issue of inter-racial relationships which many SBC thought immoral. Yes there were a few exceptions but the behavior by many in the pews speaks volumes in so many ways. Then there was Richard Land’s comments about Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida. In the process Land went after President Obama in deeply disturbing racial comments. You can read about that here. So from its origins until today the SBC is a troubled organization that has struggled and continues to struggle with its racial past. 

Now in contrast the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) has a much different origins and a far healthier foundation. Let me spend sometime explaining the history of the EFCA. The EFCA traces its roots back to Swedish emigrants. That emigration trend began in large numbers after 1840. 1.2 million Swedes immigrated to the United States between 1851 and 1930. That number represented about 25% of the total population of the nation-state of Sweden. It was economic conditions that initially drove the wave. The first big wave occurred between 1868 and 1873, with 100,000 coming and the next big wave occurred in the years of 1880 and 1893 when 475,000 people came over. Some who also came dealt with persecution issues as the Swedish church was a part of the government and dealt with corruption. There was a surge in Pietism which led to a desire to reform the Swedish church. Some broke away and came to the United States and founded the Swedish Evangelical Free Church in 1884. The Panic of 1893 curtailed Swedish immigration and then it was World War I that largely ended the period. Swedish immigrants that came to the United States settled in places such as Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas in the Midwest, and Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut in the East. Then in California and Washington there was a large Swedish population that took root as well.

Now its important to note that while there were issues the Swedes did not face as much discrimination as the Irish, or those from Eastern Europe. And yet because they were immigrants they were not nativist as the SBC could be. As immigrants they struggled to adjust to culture at times, but they did so. They had to acclimate  to new cultures and a very different way of life. As immigrants the Swedes had a very different take on life and culture and it reflected in their churches. The differences between those in the SBC and those from what would become the EFCA are strikingly different. And its refreshing and good history in my belief for the foundation of a denomination. The EFCA is not haunted by its past as the SBC is troubled by its. 

 

The “But I Have a Black Friend Argument…”  

Many evangelical Christians are going to react to this post and the way many will do so is in the following context. When one starts to discuss racial problems or history many people will say things like, “But I have a black friend.” Or they will say things like “But I help out occasionally at Big Brothers or Big Sisters in Chicago.” Or they will emphasize, “But I tutor a black girl from the inner city of Dallas!” They will use the word “but” to deflect and avoid having needed and necessary difficult conversations. They do that to downplay what people are capable of doing. That small conjunction “but” becomes a barrier and its why many evangelical Christians will not discuss the race issue or our past and history. In order to discuss racism we need to explore why do people hate? Why do people practice discrimination? Lets go a step further…why do people fear individuals of other races and nationalities and cultures? In order to have those difficult talks we need to stop being defensive and stop deflecting. We need to get to the underlying issues and explore why they exist. I am not telling whites that they have to apologize for the nation’s sins. I am not trying to make people feel guilty. But the fact of the matter is that we need to have these discussions.

 

The Strong Embrace of Donald Trump Indicates that Modern Evangelicalism Struggles Deeply with Racism 

I would suggest that the American Christian church took a major step back when they wedded themselves to Donald Trump. I think many evangelicals revealed the state of their hearts by embracing Trump and showed the world how dark and toxic some parts of evangelicalism ultimately can be. There are many examples that revealed Donald Trump’s blatant racism. These are but a few, as there are too many to list. There was the time Trump attacked federal judge Gonzalo Curiel for being biased because “he’s a Mexican.” In 1973 the Justice Department brought a lawsuit against the Trump Management Corporation for practicing discrimination against black people looking for rent in New York City. Three years after that was settled the Justice Department brought suit again against Trump Management Corporation for a second time for intentionally turning away blacks who were looking for rent. Even while apartments were available Trump’s company told them that apartments weren’t available. When Trump was running for president and white nationalists embraced him, Trump refused to condemn or criticize them. And in writing this section I am not even going into Trump’s criticism of a Gold Star Family whose son died in service in Iraq, or what he has said about Muslims, women, and more. 

The Christian church I would suggest took a major step backward and deeply regressed. I mean consider…when you have Saeed Abedini proclaiming that Trump will be a better President than Ronald Reagan, or Jerry Falwell Jr saying Trump is an evangelical’s “dream candidate.” What is Jerry Falwell Jr’s dream? Is it blatant discrimination and hate? Is that what Liberty stands for? In light of all the hate that I have written about above what does that say about the health and state of the modern evangelical church? I believe its incredibly damning and it reveals why many parts of modern evangelicalism are outright toxic. But why do many evangelicals love Donald Trump? I believe it might be for the following reason. As many evangelicals have struggled with racism and discrimination in their history Trump helps them make it normal. He makes it okay, and fine. Some evangelicals can embrace and live their hate through Donald Trump. They can hate the Muslim in Syria and live out their hate through Trump. They can hate Latinos and Mexicans and live out their feelings through Donald Trump. Under Trump, for some evangelicals its fine to live and promote falsehoods and fears.  This past election was dark because I believe it gave the United States a peak into the heart of evangelical Christianity in the United States. And what is there is often rotten for a number of people. And what the country saw is damning. Read that quote up above at the top of this post by abolitionist Henry Bibb. There were a number of Southern Baptists who embraced their past when in a voting booth they cast their vote for Donald Trump. From the foundation of slavery through all the Jim Crow era to resisting desegregation efforts, voting for Trump is another in a long line of incidents of some evangelicals embracing hate. They were just living out their theology in voting for Trump. This is why I believe for many people the modern evangelical Christian church took a major step backward. Its the reason why Russell Moore’s work is so crucial and needed, especially when it comes to racial reconciliation. 

 

In Closing This Post Out

This is going to be a difficult post for many people to read. I am sorry if you are offended. This is something that I had to get off my chest and just needed to say. I have always been someone who is blunt, and who speaks my mind. After visiting the Smithsonian I needed to get this out in cyber space. The goal of this post is not to enrage you and make you angry. Its to ask some hard questions and convey some thoughts that I hope will help to break down the racial walls inside evangelicalism. Again the goal is not to shame, but to open up the door to have those difficult conversations. For those who stuck through this I want to say thank you. I know this is not easy to read but people change when ideas are exchanged. And for the church I would encourage them to be open about mistakes and discuss them. Let’s get them out in the open. As I close this out I will leave you with a classic DC Talk song that speaks about racial issues. Thanks guys I do love many of you. 

12 thoughts on “A Visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Plus Some Thoughts on Evangelical Christians and Racism

  1. I am going to get up a separate post tomorrow full of pictures from the Smithsonian’s newest museum. I am uploading them now, and it will take some work to get this done. But its late and I need to get to bed. So expect a lot of pictures tomorrow that will show you the museum tomorrow. Night guys!

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  2. Just want to clarify when I discuss how the museum taught me how to feel like a minority I also want to be clear. It was a taste of it. I have not experienced systematic or systemic discrimination like some in the African-American community.

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  3. Maybe it’s because I live in NYC, but I haven’t experienced any racism in any evangelical or mainline churches, including an EFCA church that I attended for about 15 years. If anything, they’ve all been quite well-integrated, reflecting the community I live in, with dozens of cultures represented — if one feels the need to take the step of dividing people up by pigmentation, nation of origin going back multiple generations, age, gender, or whatever other artificial construct one wishes to divide people into.

    Really, as far as I could tell, the only “discrimination” I’ve ever experienced in these churches is the seemingly inevitable distinction between “saved” & “unsaved”, or “churched” & “unchurched” (which, of course, is another issue altogether). But within the body, it seems we all saw each other primarily as *Christians*, and our primary “affiliation” — regardless of pigmentation or whatever — was/is our *Christianity*.

    Perhaps this is an issue at museums, or in other areas (perhaps the deep south?), but as far as I can tell, it’s a non-issue where I live and in my experience, though I admit, my experience is merely anecdotal evidence.

    Your mileage may vary.
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    (Big aside:

    You also make a one-sided statement: “There is no diversity in many white evangelical Christian churches.”

    Having said what I said above, there are also some predominantly “black” churches in my community that do not have much diversity. Could that possibly be because people simply tend to congregate and feel comfortable with other people who are like-minded culturally? Wherever I’ve worked, it seems as if the women go to lunch together, the Asian dudes go to lunch together, the Russian dudes go to lunch together, etc. Why is that? Are they all racists? Or do they simply have more in common, such as language & culture? Need we always ascribe “racism” to such seemingly self-segregating behavior? A lack of “diversity” in any given situation doesn’t necessarily assume “racism”. If anything, only those people who see other people as primarily [pick your pigmentation/gender/age/whatever], rather than just *people*, as individuals, are the real “racists”. And certainly if a political campaign was all about dividing people on the basis of [pick your whatever], it was HRC’s campaign, which was driven by all kinds of demographic data.)
    .
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    Also, I fail to see what this has to do with Trump. My church experience predates his political career by over four decades, and an “embrace” of Trump — if you wish to call it that — doesn’t require one to ascribe to 100% of his views, just as peoples’ embracing of his predecessor didn’t mean that all who supported him supported every one of his views. And the UCC church that Trump’s predecessor attended for many years certainly had its own brand of radical reverse-racism going on from the pulpit. Certainly people could support him, without supporting the views his church was spouting.

    Methinks you’re painting with far too broad a brush regarding evangelicals.

    Now, if you believe that some evangelical leaders are backing Trump for power/influence/political purposes, that’s another discussion altogether, and I suspect we would agree more than we disagree there. 🙂

    But I continue to believe — as I’ve asserted previously in comments here — that for a Christian to back HRC, or any radically-pro-abortion candidate, is just unconscionable. And I believe (based on many conversations) that many Christians simply pulled the lever for the “lesser of two evils”, with abortion being perhaps the most abhorrent practice of evil in our present society.

    Eagle, for you to consistently ignore the abortion issue in your missives when discussing evangelicals’ supposed support of Trump, seems like a bit of a disingenuous “dodge” to me, as it doesn’t fit the “anyone who backs Trump must be a racist” narrative.

    As always, thanks for your thoughts, and for allowing dissenting opinions. You always get me thinking, which is something I deeply appreciate about you.

    Peace,

    ejj

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ejj I love the way you think. I encourage and ask you to push back. Speak your mind and correct me where you feel I am wrong. We may disagree on a couple of points here and there, and that is fine. But if I am going to ask hard questions or be critical, then its only fair that you and others push back. AS for the abortion issue I will probably write about that soon. I have to tell you that I am so burned out over it, because of so much of what I have heard. I am not much of a culture warrior. My hope and desire is for the church to let go of the culture wars and put their time and effort into helping people instead. Think of how much time and money that could have been spent in helping someone who is pregnant, and scared? Think of how much money was spent instead in engaging in politics. The reality is that abortion could be made illegal Ejj, and in the end one would still accomplish nothing. These are heart issues we are speaking of, People will still seek abortions even if they are illegal. You can’t change people through laws, you need to change through other ways. That is why I am opposed to the culture wars.

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      • “Think of how much time and money that could have been spent in helping someone who is pregnant, and scared?”

        That’s the focus of the church I currently attend. 🙂 We support & come along side our local Crisis Pregnancy Center in a major way, as did the EFCA church I used to attend. And I agree that they’re heart issues.

        But using your logic, why have laws against theft & murder? Just allow them legally, and try to change behavior in other ways, right? You can’t change people through laws, right? Why have laws against drunk driving? How does that change behavior? If the culture engages in driving while drunk, we need to simply engage the culture to change it through other ways, yes? Why make it illegal? It’s a heart issue, right?

        IMO, one can assert that the gay agenda is a “culture war”, and I believe we can certainly meet more than halfway, and there has been a lot of hateful rhetoric on both sides.

        But when it comes to abortion… sorry, murder is murder. A line should be drawn somewhere. That’s not a “culture war”, and to call it that minimizes its abhorrent nature in a way that I simply can’t abide. Nor can many others, which is big reason why so many people voted against HRC, IMO, as she held some of the most radical positions on the issue.

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  4. David:

    I would comment on this post, but I am still too upset with you for comparing Phil Johnson to one of America’s most dedicated law enforcement officers, Lt. Frank Drebin.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the African-American History and Culture, In Pictures | Wondering Eagle

    • Lynda if you don’t feel comfortable that is fine. This post arose out of attending the museum and wrestling with it. It was a lot to process. Racial topics are difficult to process, and they are hard. But I think we have to start somewhere, in some way. I think we have a long way to go. When I wrote this post I ran it by two other people for their thoughts. I knew is was going to be difficult, and if I write quite about atheism, doubt, and so many other hard things, why no explore other hard aspects. I am not saying you have to agree Lynda. Actually I am asking that you not. I am asking you to wrestle and think with difficult topics in many ways. This is a hard topic to process I admit. But you are always free to push back and speak your mind, either here on the blog or behind the scenes as a couple of people do. But you are always free to share your perspective.

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  6. From: http://www.salemchurchnyc.org/tell-me-about/our-history/

    ““The methods have changed, the demographic has certainly changed, but the message is the same,” says Rev. Eddie Cole, Salem’s former senior pastor. “There are very few Norwegians remaining, but in many ways we stand on the shoulders of these early Scandinavian men and women who followed Christ. Today we have about 25-30 cultures represented at Salem and we are still reaching newer Americans.”

    I’ve been at that church; this is true.

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