Ambivalent Miracles

Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing

Nancy D. Wadsworth
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Ambivalent Miracles
    Book Description:

    Over the past three decades, American evangelical Christians have undergone unexpected, progressive shifts in the area of race relations, culminating in a national movement that advocates racial integration and equality in evangelical communities. The movement, which seeks to build cross-racial relationships among evangelicals, has meant challenging well-established paradigms of church growth that built many megachurch empires. While evangelical racial change (ERC) efforts have never been easy and their reception has been mixed, they have produced meaningful transformation in religious communities. Although the movement as a whole encompasses a broad range of political views, many participants are interested in addressing race-related political issues that impact their members, such as immigration, law enforcement, and public education policy.

    Ambivalent Miraclestraces the rise and ongoing evolution of evangelical racial change efforts within the historical, political, and cultural contexts that have shaped them. Nancy D. Wadsworth argues that the stunning breakthroughs this movement has achieved, its curious political ambivalence, and its internal tensions are products of a complex cultural politics constructed at the intersection of U.S. racial and religious history and the meaning-making practices of conservative evangelicalism. Employing methods from the emerging field of political ethnography, Wadsworth draws from a decade's worth of interviews and participant observation in ERC settings, textual analysis, and survey research, as well as a three-year case study, to provide the first exhaustive treatment of ERC efforts in political science.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3532-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. iii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This is a study of a growing, dynamic, increasingly influential, but little understood movement that has been unfolding in the last few decades within the diverse panoply of identities and faith-based organizations that is American evangelicalism. What I refer to here as “evangelical racial change (ERC) advocates” draw on core resources of their faith in hopes of conscientiously acknowledging a troubled past, repairing centuries-old wounds, and realizing a new, more multiracial present. They dream of transforming the segregated demographics of evangelicalism from the inside out, which means rethinking the social practices that built a racially fractured religious milieu. In this...

  5. Part One: What Stories We Tell:: Historicizing Evangelicalism and Race
    • 1 The New Paradigm of Racial Change
      (pp. 15-30)

      There was a time when most American evangelical Christians did not have to think about race in church—or at least not about race or racism as problems within the church. For people of color, of course, the impact of a historically racialized society is impossible to avoid. But race wasn’t supposed to matter among Christians: once a believer “accepted Christ” and was thereby “born again,” she was “saved” and part of the Christian community whatever her background or skin color.¹ Even so, for a variety of reasons most Americans have historically joined churches filled with members who looked, racially,...

    • 2 Evangelical Race Relations in Historical Context
      (pp. 31-55)

      With over sixteen million members, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant body in the United States and the largest Christian denomination outside of Roman Catholicism (ARDA 2000). It was also once a bastion of white supremacist religion. The SBC was founded in 1845 after a regional split with Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery and missions, with Southern Baptists stridently defending slavery. The denominational body resisted Reconstruction, tacitly if not actively supported Jim Crow, was slow to embrace civil rights movement era reforms, and then (as if it weren’t already conservative enough) underwent a well-chronicled “conservative...

    • 3 Competing Racial Narratives in the Post–Civil Rights Movement Period
      (pp. 56-78)

      In the world of evangelical racial reconciliation and multiracial church building, two different stories about race and power surface again and again. People told these stories in my interviews as frequently in the 2000s as they did in the 1990s, and I heard echoes of them from pulpits, in testimonials, at conferences, and in casual conversations. These are familiar stories, scripts that deliver meaning through chains of associations that resonate in particular communities and settings. They don’t sit comfortably together—indeed, they are perpetually entwined in a low-grade conflict that impacts the potential political implications of racial change efforts. But...

  6. Part Two: A New Wave:: The Turn to Reconciliation
    • 4 Religious Race Bridging as a Third Way
      (pp. 81-116)

      Social change is often awkward and uncomfortable. Even under the best conditions it requires us to alter the stories we have been telling for generations about ourselves, others, and “the way things are”—stories we understand to be if not alwaysperfectlyaccurate, then at least acceptable truisms that guide action. Like layers of geological sediment, collective narratives are marbled through the complex racial histories and identities in American evangelicalism. To dislodge entrenched frameworks that have provided meaning and identity for people would seem to require something akin to dynamite—a miracle, or an apocalypse. Even toreconsiderold stories...

    • 5 Epiphanal Spaces of Evangelical Culture
      (pp. 117-156)

      In the late summer of 1997, in Denver, Colorado, an African American man named Gregory Fields had a Ford van stolen.¹ Fields reported the theft to police, and a few weeks later a white detective named Colin Whitford came to his house to follow up on the case. In talking, the two men discovered that they each hunted and fished, were involved in the lay leadership of their churches, and shared a strong passion for the Bible and Christianity. Whitford brought up his recent participation in the Christian men’s movement Promise Keepers (PK) (he had attended a couple stadium rallies)...

  7. Part Three: Bridging the Future:: Culture, Politics, and Today’s Multiethnic Churches
    • 6 Troubled Waters under the Bridge: Avoiding Conflict through Customs and Etiquettes
      (pp. 159-192)

      The meaning-making systems and practices described in the preceding chapter served multiple functions within evangelical racial reconciliation (RR) settings in the 1990s. They also provided a first step toward religious race bridging. Guided by rituals of admitting, trust building, and apology/forgiveness practices, the epiphanal spaces of reconciliation settings emphasized relationship and spiritual intervention, and pointedly evaded more politically oriented conversations.

      At the tail end of twentieth century, these conversations took a new turn. Christian sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith conducted what would become the signature study of racial attitudes among U.S. evangelicals, and their results questioned whether any of...

    • 7 Politics, Culture, and the Multiethnic Church
      (pp. 193-222)

      Barbara and her family moved to Colorado to help build something different than anything she’d been a part of before. An old friend, Curt Cutler, had followed his dream of planting a multiethnic church (MEC) in the heart of the city and asked her family to come join their lay leadership team. Having grown up a pastor’s daughter in an all-white church in the South, she was excited about the vision of a young faith community that would unite to “glorify God” across differences in class, race, and national origin. Industrious, keenly intelligent, and curious, Barbara, forty-four years old during...

    • 8 On the Ground, In the Moment: Growing a Young Multiethnic Church
      (pp. 223-256)

      Entering a Sunday service at Resurrection Bible Church (RBC), a first-time visitor might wonder if she or he has stumbled into the wrong place—a public meeting about local police activities, perhaps, or a delegation of international tourists. Walking into the worn but well-kempt halls of the public high school Resurrection leases for services, the visitor is greeted by volunteers of all colors and backgrounds around an archipelago of tables arrayed in the makeshift lobby. Each station offers something: pamphlets about the church and its growing hydra of programs and services; headsets for simultaneous translation in Spanish and Swahili; sign-in...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 257-264)

    When I began following early racial change efforts among American evangelicals in the 1990s, the movement was not much more than a hatchling. Although a few tireless pioneers had long been broadcasting pleas for transformation, most white evangelicals were tucked too comfortably into their racially homogeneous church cocoons to notice.

    Today the influence of two decades of racial change efforts is undeniable. The well-coordinated multiethnic church (MEC) movement led by Mosaix Global Network (MGN) steers toward its ambitious 20/20/20 goal: “of seeing 20% of local churches throughout the United States achieve 20% diversity within their congregations by the year 2020.”¹...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 265-282)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 283-296)
  11. Index
    (pp. 297-312)