Love the sinner: among the Southern Baptists

A bittersweet tale of prejudice, overcome and enduring, in the deep South

The Economist | October 24th 2015 OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

ERIC HANKINS had been pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, for seven years when he learned of a shaming episode in its past. Good-looking, charismatic and articulate, he is a spine-tingling preacher, combining biblical erudition with folksy humour, compassion with fierce devotion. He was already an ornament to First Baptist: Oxford’s oldest church in America’s biggest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, and so a flagship institution, boasting beautiful stained-glass windows and two thronged Sunday-morning services.

In the minutes of church meetings Mr Hankins found, as he puts it, that “a great wrong had been done” on April 21st 1968. Four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act—and less than three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King—the members of the First Baptist Church voted to exclude black people from their congregation. They may have been concerned by the prospect of a “kneel-in”, as black protests in white churches were known. For a while, the church remained adamant: it also refused to let its bus be used to carry black children.

At the time, discrimination was routine in Southern Baptist congregations. “The church was the last bastion of segregation,” says Wayne Flynt, a historian and pastor who left the denomination in the 1980s amid ongoing clashes over integration. But it wasn’t usually codified in this way, and Oxford’s own recent past lent this instance a special piquancy. Genteel and urbane today, in 1962 the town became a byword for racist hatred when a 2,000-strong mob fought a fiery battle with federal marshals, National Guardsmen and paratroopers in a last-ditch bid to prevent the registration of James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black student. “Can they hit Oxford?” Robert Kennedy joked shortly afterwards of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. You can still see the bullet marks made by the mob on the façade of the university’s Lyceum.

Donald Cole—a freshman at the university in 1968, now an assistant provost—recalls that when, in this climate, he and a group of fellow black students were turned away from First Baptist (they generally moved in groups), he wasn’t especially shocked. But 45 years later Mr Hankins was, and he “wasn’t going to do nothing”. Sceptics regard the interracial initiatives of some churches as ploys to swell declining congregations, by attracting ethnic minorities and liberal youngsters. But Mr Hankins was sincere. His father was an enlightened pastor, too; and as a novice preacher in rural Mississippi, Mr Hankins was vilified by bigots. Believing there is “no such thing as passive anti-racism”, he drafted a resolution of apology. It drew on one issued by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995, when it finally repented of its support for slavery (God, Southern Baptists taught, wanted slaves to obey their masters) and its defence of segregation (He assigned each race its proper place). In July 2013, Mr Hankins read the resolution in church during Sunday service.

He didn’t sugar-coat it. “We sinned,” he told his congregation, deploying his electric repertoire of breathless crescendos and dramatic pauses. Had they been at church that day in 1968, they would have done the same, he told his white listeners. That is almost all of them: in Oxford as elsewhere, 11am on Sunday remains—in King’s famous words—the most segregated hour in America, albeit voluntarily. At the last count only 14% of congregations were multiracial. “Does it not break your heart?” Mr Hankins asked. Around 600 members endorsed the resolution; only a handful demurred.

Next he personally conveyed the apology to the nearby Second Baptist Church. It was an appropriate recipient, not only because it was founded by former slaves, who met at first in the woods; after the vote in 1968, First Baptist also declined to host communal prayers involving the Second’s black members. “It was very moving”, says Andrew Robinson, its pastor. “It showed a great deal of humility.” The congregation “had never witnessed anything like that”. It voted unanimously to accept.

Mr Hankins wanted to achieve more than symbolic gestures and, given his church’s wealth and prominence, he was well-placed to. When he was pondering the resolution he consulted Susan Glisson of the university’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which runs innovative, farsighted programmes to bring about interracial dialogue and improvements in traumatised southern communities. Her advice—not to pass judgment, to let people talk—was, he says, “invaluable”. Afterwards they discussed new projects, such as co-authoring an article and educating other churches. Mr Hankins seemed enthusiastic.

Then, last year, he abruptly pulled back. “It was very disappointing,” Ms Glisson says, because Mr Hankins could be a “persuasive advocate in churches grappling with their history”. His reticence derived at least partly from another, seemingly unrelated issue: gay rights and same-sex marriage, which Ms Glisson and her institute publicly support, and which Mr Hankins, like many evangelical Christians, vehemently opposes.

Sin no more

Mr Hankins says he and Ms Glisson have never discussed that subject, but that he was concerned lest the focus on race “be pulled into some other agenda”. But he acknowledges, too, that he disagrees with the university’s approach to sexuality. Indeed, at around the time he stopped communicating with Ms Glisson, he used a sermon to criticise a textbook, co-authored by the institute, which offers guidance to students, including Christians, on coming out as gay. In another sermon he relayed rumours of professors vowing to convert students from Christianity to godlessness.

For Mr Hankins disapproves of homosexuality as passionately as he deplores racism. Homosexuality is different from other sins, he has preached: it is “a signal of a culture that’s coming apart at the seams”. Gay marriage is “insane”. He envisages a time in which, because of secularism’s advances, he is forced from his pulpit and God from the country: God “may decide to move on from America”. Some see resistance to gay rights as the latest iteration of Southern Baptists’ habit of intransigent (if doomed) opposition to social change; Mr Hankins rejects any analogy between gay rights and the civil-rights movement.

The pastor and his church, like other southern congregations, have hosted mixed-race prayers and sponsored outreach efforts among deprived black youngsters. But the projects he and Ms Glisson were planning collapsed. Their article was never completed. A talk, no doubt powerful, by Mr Hankins to another congregation never happened. Ms Glisson still hopes they may collaborate. Mr Hankins seems almost crestfallen, too. “I have not known quite what to do,” he says.

He and his flock do a lot of good. His views on sexuality are orthodox for his creed, just as racism once was (though there have always been dissenters: as he was turned away from First Baptist, Mr Cole says, some white worshippers extended their hands in friendship). Indeed, the way orthodoxies fall, rise and displace each other is among this episode’s lessons. Rarely, though, does adherence to one prejudice collide so directly with a bid to ameliorate another. The tale of Eric Hankins and the First Baptist Church is a sad story with a happy ending, and vice versa.

Category: America