Monday, March 14, 2011

Luker - Social Gospel in Black and White

Luker, Ralph. The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Luker is disputing the common perception of social Christianity into and during the Progressive Era which "suggests that, preoccupied with the ills of the new industrial order, the prophets of social Christianity either ignored or betrayed the freedmen and left their fortunes in the hands of a hostile white South." (2) Luker, of course, doesn't disagree that blacks were left behind in the reforms of the Progressive Era. He does seek to complicate the idea that social gospel proponents "ignored or betrayed" racial issues.

Luker offers several explanations for why conservative racial strategies of reform were in crisis:
  1. The decline of the previously crucial home missions movement. Handicapped by financial crisis of 1890s and replaced by a more secularized education movement after 1900.
  2. While social gospel prophets believed select missionaries should look to Africa, they rejected African colonization as a way to alleviate racial problems as a cruel hoax upon black Americans (largely out of a racialized imperialist view of the "dark continent").
  3. Central to a large part of Luker's book is the debate within social Christianity over whether the franchise was a natural right, whether education (Booker T. Washington) or franchise (WEB DuBois) should have priority [with education winning out], and whether federal or state action was better suited to fix Southern politics (with state winning out).
In the face of broad setbacks, particularly the continuing widespread horror of lynching, many reformers threw up their hands and trusted that God's justice would overcome in time.

In the beginning of his book, Luker shows how during Reconstruction northern white carpetbagger-like social gospel prophets sought to remake the south - black and white - in the image of the north.

Key Term
social gospel - H.P. Douglass was one of the first to use it. "referring generally to a fresh application of the insights of the Christian faith to pressing problems of the social order, it gained widespread circulation among contemporary religious reformers. In retrospect historians have used it to describe late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Christian efforts to address the social problems of the age, which they see as functions of urban and industrial growth." (1-2)

Theologies of Race Relations - Chapter 10
After winding through the history of his period, Luker spends a chapter discussing 5 figures who exemplify different theological perspectives of race:
  1. Josiah Strong, radical cultural assimilationist: prominent in the movement, Strong saw Anglo-Saxon as not so much a racial category but as a more culturally pure group, and thus as the superior group for pursuing God's Kingdom. The church should acknowledge current realities, and support separate institutions in black communities, condemn racial violence, and insist on equality before the law.
  2. Josiah Royce, conservative cultural assimilationist: believed all humans were fallen, yet beloved of God and all humanity was part of the Body of Christ. There was no inherent different in races, rather race antipathy was a "childish phenomena."
  3. Edgar Gardner Murphy, conservative racial separatist: differentiated between race hatred (negative) and race antipathy (positive and natural). For both races to realize their full potential they must dwell separately. Because of their racial history of slavery, blacks needed to be educated first before they could participate fully in American democracy.
  4. Thomas Dixon, radical racial separatist: Wrote The Clansman, the basis for Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Initially highly paternalistic view toward blacks, an inferior race which should be disfranchised until they are educated enough to participate in Democracy. Eventually became more radical in his novels, suggesting that the only alternative to race war and black extermination was to send blacks back to Africa. Thus echoing the tenor of many at the time, Dixon was the most prominent of all on this list.
  5. Harlan Paul Douglass, racial transformationist: The race problem was a test of humanity's capacity to overcome racial bigotry. Douglass was aware of growing evidence that racial differences were environmental, not heredity. And besides, even if it did that was no reason why humans pursuing God's purpose should not seek justice for all humanity. Quoting the Sermon on the Mount, Douglass wondered what profit it would be for the Anglo-Saxon to gain the world but lose its soul for lack of loving his black brothers and sisters.
The fits nicely before McCarraher's Christian Critics. It also somewhat overlaps Lear's No Place of Grace, although (without referring to my notes) I remember Lear's book transcending religious ideas to a broader cultural moment of anti-modern ideas.

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