Review: Ambivalent Miracles
Nancy D. Wadsworth. Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2014. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0813935317.
In Ambivalent Miracles, political scientist Nancy D. Wadsworth examines the Evangelical Racial Change movement (ERC). Starting in the 1990s, a growing group of conservative evangelicals has strived to address the legacy of race relations in America, particularly as it finds expression in segregated churches. According to Wadsworth, both belief in social miracles and ambivalence towards working for real political change mark this movement–̶ the ambivalence and miracles of the title. Wadsworth frames the question clearly in her introduction. “Why would religious conservatives invest time, energy, and social capital in mending racial divides without participating in conversations about justice, material distribution, and fair representation for racial minorities in political policy?” (6). This question matters for political scientists because, according to Wadsworth, evangelical Christians make up approximately a quarter of the electorate in the United States. This study, she hopes, will increase our “understanding [of] how complex mechanisms of long-term social change work” (12).
This same question–why white evangelicals are so ambivalent about addressing, or even seeing, systemic racial injustice–̶ has been addressed by sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith in their landmark book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Wadsworth builds on this earlier work by focusing her research solely on the political attitudes and cultural practices of participants in the ERC movement rather than those of evangelicals in general.
This work of political science thus builds on the work of sociologists, but the book has plenty to interest historians. As she notes in the introduction, “Within American evangelicalism, history functions as a loaded backdrop against which to engage dialogues long-delayed and address racial wounds long untreated” (8). In detailing this scenery and the “intersectionality” of race and religion in America, Wadsworth covers familiar ground. The review of the ecclesial divisions over slavery in the run up to the Civil War, the generations-long schisms resulting from that conflict, the deplorable track record of evangelicals in 20th century on matters of race, and evangelicals’ near complete absence from the civil rights movement in the 1960s should all come as no surprise. Yet Wadsworth breaks new ground when she turns her attention to the decades after the civil rights movement. Why is it not until the 1990s–̶ over 25 years after Selma and the passing of the Voting Rights Act–̶ that a significant movement for racial reconciliation emerged in American evangelicalism? It was, Wadsworth demonstrates, “the positioning of southern evangelicals in relation to the civil rights movement [that] effectively created a time lag within which reconciliation efforts seemed virtually impossible” (51). This positioning led to evangelicals’ silence over race in the 1970s and their “thin pluralism” in the 1980s. Two distinct racial narratives developed during this period in evangelicalism. On the one hand, a small group called for social justice; on the other, the majority adhered to a “social justice-aversion story.”
In the 1990s, a “third way” committed to “religious race bridging” emerged in conservative evangelicalism. Wadsworth traces the success of this third way in the pages of Christianity Today and in a racial reconciliation initiative between two congregations in the 1990s. During that decade, a more robust emphasis on racial reconciliation appeared in the evangelical churches. The ERC movement in the 1990s shared three central practices: admitting the sin of racism, intentionally forming new interracial relationships, and apology-forgiveness rituals. These practices found expression in church partnerships, denominational confessions of sin and apologies for slavery, and racial reconciliation crusades such as Promise Keepers and Mission Mississippi. This movement created politically ambivalent spaces for Christians of different races to meet together to facilitate intentional interracial relationships for the interactions they “experience as social miracles” (21).
Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, which emerged at the same time as the ERC movement, exemplify the puzzling–Wadsworth labels it “schizophrenic”–political ambivalence of evangelicals. With Dan Carter as his dissertation advisor at Emory, Reed understood and publicly acknowledged white evangelical complicity in white supremacy. However, even as he coordinated the moralistic political crusading of the Christian Coalition on abortion, marriage, and school choice, when it came to racial injustice, Reed insisted “social problems are not remedied through politics or government” (109).
Emerson and Smith had suggested in Divided by Faith that immersion in interracial networks most profoundly changed whites’ racial attitudes, particularly their ability to recognize systemic injustice. In the first decade of the new century, influenced by Emerson and Smith’s work, the ERC movement turned its attention to establishing multiethnic churches (MECs). Wadsworth surveyed members of Mosaix Global Network (an association of evangelicals committed to establishing MECs) and members of Resurrection Bible Church, an MEC in Denver, Colorado. She detects political ambivalence at work in MECs; however, “The more [white evangelicals] enter truly multiracial communities, the less able they are to draw clear boundaries around what is and is not political” (12). Examining MEC members’ inclination to political engagement, Wadsworth notes a shift on the scale from “averse” and “ambivalent” toward “nervously interested” (208). She offers anecdotal evidence that involvement in MECs leads evangelicals to become “New Activists” who “engage beyond the church setting” (215). Wadsworth cautiously concludes, “I believe [the MEC movement] has a good chance of impacting the main body of evangelicalism in positive ways over time” (259).
For the skeptical, there are plenty of reasons to treat even Wadsworth’s modestly optimistic conclusion with caution. The social justice averse tradition runs deep and wide through contemporary evangelicalism and is entwined with historically ingrained racialized attitudes and doctrines. Wadsworth herself notes that in the congregation she studied, white fundamentalists claimed a disproportionate share of leadership (226) and that the leaders privileged white worship practices on Sunday mornings (245). Sociologist Korie L. Edwards identified the same persistence of white hegemony in MECs in The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) showing how, if an MEC was to remain interracial, then “racial minorities must be willing to sacrifice their preferences . . .and [accept] the dominant culture and whites’ privileged status” (139). Another challenge to Wadsworth’s conclusions comes from Michael O. Emerson’s research into MECs. In People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), Emerson presents his finding that whites in interracial congregations do not differ from other whites in their “lack of support for potentially inequality reducing national policies” (162).
These sociologists and political scientists analyzing evangelicals and race in America are writing in the midst of the movement; they are perhaps most helpfully thought of as stenographers in the courtroom of history. They are not in the best position to predict the outcome or significance of the movement. In her insightful and well-written book, Wadsworth recognizes this limitation. Her last sentence includes the words “time will tell.”