The Unpardonable Sin? A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019, 253 pages, $21.99.

Details from Presbyterian church history about race relations in the United States are not pretty. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, for instance, saw members and officers leave when Mariano Di Gangi, predecessor to James Montgomery Boice, preached about racial prejudice, opened the church and session to African Americans, and served on the mayor’s commission on civil rights. At the time, Tenth Church was still part of the Presbyterian Church USA and did not join the Presbyterian Church in America until 1982; but that denomination had hurdles of its own to overcome. Sean Michael Lucas’s history of the PCA’s founding, For a Continuing Church (2015), includes stories of Southern Presbyterian conservatives who defended racial segregation on biblical grounds and sought ways to guard the church from important figures regarded as having erroneous understandings of racial equality.

The OPC herself debated the merits of civil rights during the 1960s in the pages of The Presbyterian Guardian that showed opposition to political reforms designed to end segregation. A black pastor in the church, Herbert Oliver, wrote an article about the positive contribution the Christian church had made to social reforms in the past and that supporting Civil Rights for African-Americans was another instance when Christians could be instruments of social change. Letters to the editor indicated that Oliver had failed to persuade some Orthodox Presbyterians. E. J. Young, for instance, wrote a letter to the editors in which he objected to both a view of egalitarianism that was clearly unbiblical and an understanding of the church’s role in society that failed to highlight the ministry of the gospel. If these instances seem inconsequential, perhaps J. Gresham Machen’s 1913 letter to his mother, strongly objecting to the integration of Princeton Seminary, will show how much ideas of white supremacy afflicted conservative Presbyterians who contemporary Orthodox Presbyterians esteem. If a black man were to take up residence in Alexander Hall, Machen wrote, he would consider moving out, which would have been “a great sacrifice to me.”

Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise, purports to narrate the story of white American Protestantism’s “complicity in racism,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Indeed, the subtitle also indicates that this will be “the truth,” an assertion that suggests most of the book’s intended audience do not know about the church’s history of either supporting or turning a blind eye to instances of institutional forms of racism. And yet, stories like those of Mariano Di Gangi at Tenth Presbyterian, or the PCA, or Herbert Oliver and Machen do not surface in Tisby’s survey of American church history. What Tisby does cover is chiefly political developments in the United States that demonstrate the nation’s and white leaders’ assumptions about racial hierarchy. From the arrival of African slaves in colonial America, defenses of slavery in the new nation that produced the sectional conflict that led to civil war, the institution of Jim Crow after the Civil War, additional mechanisms of segregation in twentieth-century America, and opposition to the Civil Rights movement, to the Religious Right’s indifference or hostility to African-Americans, Tisby’s book guides readers through the racial portion of American political and social history. The narrative concludes with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the 2016 presidential election. He quotes one scholar who opined that the election of Trump was “the single most harmful event” during the last thirty years of racial reconciliation (189).

As Tisby plows through well-trod ground of American history, his examples of the church’s actual complicity in racism—aside from standing by in a segregated society—are harder to come by. In some cases, the instances of racism are personal where individual blacks experienced assaults or opposition from local Christians (unidentified) or when Christian colleges either barred African-Americans from enrollment or prohibited them from living on campus. Even so, for all of Tisby’s insistence that the track record of church complicity in racism is long and extensive, his evidence is anecdotal. He fails to explore the institutional mechanisms of specific communions, their policies on church membership and ordination, or arguments in defense of segregation. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention’s determination to break with northern Baptists in 1845 over slavery receives any more notice than a paragraph.

This makes all the odder Tisby’s decision to single out Billy Graham for examples of complicity with racism. To be sure, the most famous Evangelical of all time had a checkered history. Graham’s ties to presidents (especially Richard Nixon) showed that he was not as politically astute as he could have been. At the same time, Graham regularly receives credit for integrating his revivals well before other leaders of Evangelicalism. Mark A. Noll writes, for instance, that Graham showed “how attractive a nonracist form of affective southern evangelicalism could be.”[1] That does not mean that Graham was guiltless or confronted moral dilemmas that prevented him from taking a consistent stand against segregation. Tisby points to Graham’s church membership at W. A. Criswell’s First Baptist Church in Dallas; Criswell was an outspoken opponent of desegregation. Additional evidence of Graham’s compromise was his association with Richard Nixon, who appealed to Evangelicals with a “racially loaded stance on law-and-order politics” (156). Overall, Graham displayed a commitment to preaching and an “assiduous” avoidance of any “countercultural stances that would have alienated his largely white audience and his supporters” (135).

That assessment of Graham is indicative of Tisby’s standard for evaluating American Christians and their churches. Early in the book, he argues that the question is not simply one of excluding blacks from membership in churches (church history) or implementing poll taxes to prevent blacks from voting (political history); It is a question of inaction. “The refusal to act in the midst of injustice,” Tisby asserts, “is itself an act of injustice.” “Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression” (15). This becomes the standard by which Tisby (and many other activists) lump together figures who belong to white supremacist organizations with ordinary white suburban Americans who only follow the campaigns and policies of the Democratic and Republican parties. Ignorance or passivity qualify as racism because they perpetuate an unjust system.

One problem with this approach to the church’s complicity with racism is that the actual instances of ecclesiastical rejections of past failings come across in Tisby’s book as too little, too late. In his last chapter of historical narrative (before a section of recommendations) the author recognizes that both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America have passed resolutions that acknowledge each communion’s racist past and that call for reconciliation with African-Americans in the church and society. These attempts at repentance and repudiations of racial prejudice give Tisby room to write that “[p]lenty of white evangelicals have promoted reconciliation and have attempted to address the racism that has defined large portions of the American church” (190). That seems like a balanced assessment of recent developments. But Tisby follows with a collection of new instances of racism. It now looks “different.” Today’s instances of racism include saying “all lives matter” to someone who says, “black lives matter,” supporting a president “whose racism has been on display for decades,” telling black Christians they are “divisive” when they mention topics related to race, and talking about personal relations instead of systemic racism (191). Tisby should be complimented for such candor—that racism is a fluid category that can be applied to a wide variety of words and actions. But he does not seem to be as candid about the fact that such a fluid definition hardly establishes categories for reconciliation and repentance.

Indeed, the fluidity of categories hovers over Tisby’s book and accounts for apparent contradictions in his narrative and judgments. For instance, he argues that the Civil War was chiefly the result of slavery (not preserving the Union), and that Confederate soldiers “were willing to risk their lives to protect” the evil institution (72). What Tisby fails to allow, by this logic, is that the 360,000 Union soldiers who died (almost 100,000 more than the South) were willing to give up their lives to abolish slavery. That sacrifice of life might qualify charges of deep and abiding white supremacy. A similar error of judgment clouds Tisby’s recommendation that the United States make Juneteenth a national holiday. June nineteenth is a day that signifies for some the significance of the 1865 emancipation of the last remaining slaves in Texas but also points back to the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), which made such freedom possible. Tisby writes that such a holiday would “commemorate one of the most important historical events in U.S. history.” Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation “opened the way for further legislation designed to grant black people their civil and human rights” (207). That is one perspective on the importance of legislation. Yet, Tisby also argues that “racism never fully goes away.” It always changes and adapts. So, “you cannot erase four hundred years of race-based oppression by passing a few laws.” Those lines follow Tisby’s discussion of the Civil Rights Act (1964). This invites the question: if the legislation for which Martin Luther King Jr. labored could not erase the legacy of racism, why should the nation commemorate legislation that ended slavery and opened the way for civil rights for African-Americans?

In the end, Tisby puts between two covers the substance of arguments that pervade some of the perspectives from Reformed and Evangelical Protestants who comment on systemic injustice and racism on Twitter, the blogospherse, and in podcasts. For those wanting a portal into those arguments and outlooks, The Color of Compromise is a valuable resource. At the same time, his recommendations for “effective remedies”—awareness of racism and interaction across racial lines, reparations, learning from the black church, creating a seminary for future black pastors, field trips to important historical sites—look overwhelmingly ineffective. If laws to end slavery and Jim Crow only create new conditions for racism to adapt and persist, why should readers of Tisby’s book think any redress of racial injustice could ever be satisfactory?


[1] Mark Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 157.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, May 2019.

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