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Is the White, Evangelical Church Changing Its Mind About Racial Injustice?

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When Derwin Gray, a former NFL player who pastors Transformation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, heard the statistics, he wasn’t surprised. Gray, a black man who has long cultivated a more diverse Church body that embraces racial equality, said he’s seen “more of an awakening” from white Christians than ever in the past year, and is encouraged by new data showing that white, church-going Christians have begun to shift their views on race. 

According to fresh research from Barna Research, released exclusively today to ChurchLeaders, white, church-going Christians—long resistant to embrace things like the phrase “Black Lives Matter” or admitting racial discrimination is still present in society today—have slowly begun to shift their views on those issues and more. The research for the data surveyed 1,525 U.S. adults between June 18 and July 6, asking questions like “Do you think our country has a race problem?” and if the U.S. has been historically oppressive to minorities. 

It shows that on a number of hot button racial issues, practicing Christians in 2020 are definitively more affirming than in years past of efforts to combat injustice through protests, personal economic choices, language usage and the removal of Confederate statues.

The evolution of their support for use of “Black Lives Matter,” revealed in the new data, illuminates the stark shift. From only 13 percent of Christians supporting use of the phrase in 2015 (preferring “All Lives Matter” instead) to 45 percent holding a “positive” or “very positive” view in 2020, the jump is significant. 

Another dramatic leap within just the last year demonstrates evidence of change. In 2019, 48 percent of Christians “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” agreed that historically, the U.S. has been oppressive to minorities. The new data shows that number increased to 57 percent this year. What’s more, nearly 2/3rds (64 percent) of Christians report they are at least “somewhat motivated” to address racial injustice in our society. 

The longstanding gap between white and black evangelicals has begun to close, even if the gulf is still exceptionally wide. Gray admits the “majority culture evangelical church has struggled,” but he’s seen evidence of the “signs of revitalization” the new numbers reveal. 

“I’ve had more emails and calls in the last 2-3 months from white pastors seeking guidance, than I’ve had in the last few years combined,” he said, echoing reports from other young, black pastors who have been inundated. 

The white, Protestant Church inhabits ghosts when it comes to the historical treatment of Black people. Several factions of the Church (Baptists, Methodists, among them) split over disagreements regarding slavery, and Scripture was often used to justify support for both segregation and slavery, for example.

Many of these disparate viewpoints held by black and white Christians on the surveyed issues—like opinions on police brutality and outlawing the Confederate flag—are still apart. For example, white Christians are much more likely to view police brutality as an isolated incident, while the majority of black Christians view it as a larger, systemic problem. But the gap is shrinking within Christianity, led by Millennial and Gen Z Christians, who consistently align more with Black Christians. 

Justin Giboney, who is Black, and the co-founder of the AND Campaign, an organization focused on the intersection of faith and politics, like Gray, isn’t surprised by the positive shift either. Given the vocal set of white, evangelical voters who were put off by the election of President Trump in 2016, he said over the phone, it makes sense. Giboney attributes much of the positive change, however, to people “taking their blinders off” after witnessing the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year. 

In August, Giboney’s AND Campaign assembled a large group of Christian organizations to launch the Prayer & Action Justice Initiative, an effort to combat racial injustice and advocate for police reform across America. The coalition included a diverse collection of groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of God in Christ denomination, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, the American Bible Society, Center for Public Justice, Prison Fellowship, the Asian American Christian Collaborative, the National Day of Prayer, and World Relief. 

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Ericka Andersen, a freelance writer in Indianapolis, and is author of “Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness.” Follow her on Twitter: @ErickaAndersen