About a month ago, The New York Times ran a much-discussed story, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.” The piece detailed how formerly interracial megachurches were becoming MAGA-churches, with Donald Trump’s presidency being the source of the exodus.
Black worshippers who left the comfort and familiarity of the black church to forge an inclusive, integrated church with their white neighbors now find themselves church-less. The support of Trump’s divisive rhetoric within their predominantly white churches made their continued attendance untenable. Many of these African Americans now randomly select a new church each week in the hope of finding a new spiritual home.
While it is true that black parishioners are leaving white churches in droves, Trump isn’t the cause. He merely exacerbates a festering wound that white evangelicals have for years proven themselves incapable of healing, despite their attempts to convince us of the opposite.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, I constantly heard the refrain, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the more segregated hours in Christian America.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said this phrase on Meet the Press in 1960, but the reality he described continued for many years thereafter. Segregation may have officially ended in the 1960s, but across the South, whites and blacks still lived largely separate lives. And the few African Americans who lived in predominately white environments still mostly attended black churches. Church, and the barbershop, remained one of the few places where the black community could congregate.
King did not aspire to have a segregated church, and he welcomed white parishioners to Ebenezer Baptist Church. Likewise, as racial progress expanded in the South, despite the growing influence of the religious right, many African Americans aspired to break the South’s segregated status quo. The racial progress of Bill Clinton’s presidency emboldened many African Americans to leave the comfort of the black church and actively seek out churches with a racially mixed congregation. My mother was one of those people.
For the majority of my youth I attended an integrated church. It wasn’t a megachurch, but it had about 700 parishioners, and it was about 50-50 black and white. The sermons were fine, and it would be unfair to label any of the white church goers or ministers, and leaders of the church as racist. They wanted an integrated church as much as we did, but around the time I left for college in the early noughties my mother’s commitment to the church began to wane, and now she attends a predominantly black church.
For my mother, my sister, and me, the fissure began during the Monica Lewinsky controversy, as our minister began injecting conservative politics more and more into his sermons. He’d denounce Bill Clinton at almost every opportunity, and he seemed entirely unaware that the black members of his church were so firmly in Clinton’s corner that some considered him “America’s first black president,” in Toni Morrison’s phrase.
We honestly did not care that our minister was a conservative. Almost every white person around us was a Republican, and we found ways to get along. He based his distaste of Clinton on moral and political justifications, but not race. Yet his analysis, religious teachings, and idea of morality clearly did not incorporate the perspectives, experiences, and opinions of the black community or his black parishioners.
His inability to adequately incorporate black life into his sermons made all of us feel unwanted. He was neither malicious nor racist, and his inadequacy with considering and understanding race was just a logical byproduct of living in a religiously and culturally segregated society.
As African Americans in a predominantly white community, we did not have that problem. We constantly thought about the experiences of our white neighbors as we searched for common ground in attempts to be neighborly and build a strong, diverse community inside and outside the church.
Throughout the South, the cultural onus has always been on African Americans to adopt white ideals with little to no expectation of reciprocity. This inequality influences every aspect of society, including the church.
By the start of the 2000 presidential election, the three of us were on our last legs at the church. Every Sunday, we’d quietly hope and pray that he would stop telling us to vote for George W. Bush because Bush was supposedly a good Christian as he lambasted Clinton and Al Gore: Gore was guilty by association. Soon thereafter my family and many of the other black families also left the church.
This same dynamic is happening today with white evangelicals and the African Americans who attend their churches. The progress of Barack Obama facilitated this push toward integration. And Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric and outreach to the evangelical community has inclined ministers to both discuss politics in the pulpit and espouse beliefs that run counter to their black members’. The moral authority of white evangelicals has disappeared in the eyes of black and countless other Americans.
The harsh reality of today’s black evangelical exodus, and the smaller but similar one from 20 years ago, is that white Southern society has always intended for churches to be segregated, and progress makes this racially oppressive status quo abundantly clear.
White evangelicals have thrived in a vacuum devoid of black parishioners, and until recently, they took extraordinary measures to ensure that their churches remained segregated. Throughout Southern history whites forcefully prevented blacks from worshipping alongside them. The few pre-Civil War “integrated” churches required blacks to sit in the back. And during Reconstruction, when blacks demanded representation or the opportunity to preach from the pulpit in these “integrated” churches, the white members either left or forced out the black worshippers. This forced segregation remained the norm until the 1960s.
My dad grew up in Alabama during Jim Crow and the civil rights era, so he’s seen the Ku Klux Klan and everyday whites terrorize black church goers, and he grew up in a segregated worshipping environment. For him Saturday—when you get your haircut at the barbershop for church—and Sunday were the two greatest refuges from white oppression, when he and his friends could relax and worship without the threat of white terror.
Not surprisingly, African Americans would spend the entire day at the barbershop or church to seek sanctuary. My dad has always attended a predominantly black church and still spends most of Sunday at his church.
Honestly, the convenience of a shorter sermon at an integrated church as we attempted to build bridges with our white neighbors appealed to my mother, my sister, and me until the futility of that endeavor became clear.
Today’s exodus doesn’t show only how divisive Trump has made our society, but instead, how divided it has always been.