Interview with Curtis Evans (Warren Center Visiting Scholar)

This interview was conducted on October 6th, 2020, over Zoom between Dr. Curtis Evans and Ethan Goodnight. It was transcribed using, edited once for accuracy, and edited again for brevity by both parties. Copies of the full transcript or original audio recording are available upon request.

Ethan Goodnight  0:00  Hello and welcome, Professor Evans! So happy to be talking with you about your current work this morning. Your current project forthcoming from Oxford is entitled, A Theology of Brotherhood: The Federal Council of Churches and the Problem of Race. Can you share a bit about what the FCC is, and what it is about race and the FCC that seized your attention and compelled you to develop this project into a book?

Curtis Evans  0:42  Yeah, so the FCC stands for Federal Council of Churches in Christ. This is an organization that was founded in 1908, they met in Philadelphia, and their primary concern was twofold. One was to address the problem of labor inequality. I mean, they were really concerned about the growing power of corporations in American life, thinking about having fair labor for laborers, in terms of wages, and so on. But primarily, they were having what was called a Labor Sunday, to sort of celebrate the labor of workers in American society. I think the other purpose for which they formed was to try to utilize the collective strength of churches. So I became interested in part because I had heard about their annual race relations Sundays. I learned later that in some ways this was similar to Labor Sunday in the sense that it was once a year. This was a way in which the FCC said that our modern day issues of race, labor, and so on, need to have a place on the Christian calendar, as a kind of yearly or annual reminder to Christians of their significance. So, I became interested in what was called at the time the Commission on Negro Churches and Race Relations and eventually became called just the Department of Race Relations, which was formed in 1923. And I trace the various programs that the FCC engaged in from 1923 to 1950, when the FCC was incorporated into the National Council of Churches And so I would say there are two primary things that I'm interested in. One is, how did the Department of Race Relations in the Federal Council of Churches understand race, from the 20s to the 50s, prior to the emergence of the civil rights movement? And then secondly, I'm trying to understand what their concrete projects were: race relations Sunday, anti-lynching campaigns, interracial clinics or workshops that started in the 1940s. But there was just a massive dissemination of information to American churches to try to undermine or at least challenge the dominant scientific and theological racism that existed in the early 20th century.

Ethan Goodnight  4:22  You mentioned undermining the dominant racial paradigms that existed, and I'd love to hear more about how the FCC engaged with theologies defending segregation. How did they counter those theologies with what you've titled a theology of brotherhood?

Curtis Evans  4:43  The dominant view, especially in southern churches, involved utilizing the Bible and their theological views to assert that there was a theological basis for segregation. God created the races, white and black were distinct, and this was kind of appealing to the Genesis narrative and various other passages. Now, I should admit here that even though a number of Northern churches were not in agreement with the Southern way of reading scripture, on the ground, their churches were just as segregated as white Southern churches were. So from a practical level, there wasn't as much interest in trying to attack or deal with the problem of racism in American society. And so I would argue that the FCC started goading churches in the north, and to some extent in the south, to begin addressing issues of race. How were they reading scripture? What did their liturgies look like? The FCC would actually prepare liturgies on race relations Sunday's, scriptures to read, hymns to be sung. There was some discussion even about whether children should be informed about issues dealing with lynching, or maybe if that was too graphic, we should make them aware that God created all humans equal, and so on. So, the theology of brotherhood was an argument that invidious distinction between the races was contrary to Christian gospel that all are one in Christ. Additionally, some of the members of the Department of Race Relations didn't necessarily imagine before 1946, that they were trying to undermine the entire system of segregation, but trying to work within it. You might say it was a failure of imagination. The notion that segregation could be completely undermined just seemed inconceivable to some, because it seemed to be such a fact and such a reality. Now, it is true, I would argue, that the kind of theology they proposed was just fundamentally incompatible with the system of segregation. It only became, shall we say, conscious in the 1940s, when the FCC began reflecting on the nature of racism in Nazi Germany, the claims that African American soldiers were making in returning from the war, and when a more heightened awareness among sociologists, anthropologists, and so on emerged about the insidious effects of scientific and biological racism. And so in 1946 President Truman, in fact, was present at this event in Columbus, Ohio, when for the first time, a major Protestant organization, in this case, the FCC, claimed that segregation was contrary to the Christian gospel. And they made a kind of robust theological argument by collecting all of the various scriptural passages that they had been utilizing, drawing upon the most recent sociological literature that rejected the notion of scientific racism, that there was such a thing as a hierarchy of races. That's what in the most basic form I mean by a theology of brotherhood and the ways in which it was different from the kind of dominant theological views that persisted, for example, in the south into the 50s, into the 60s.

Ethan Goodnight  9:24  In about a month and a half, you'll be sharing a bit of the project with the Warren Center, and I was wondering if you could preview what you're going to focus on in this presentation?

Curtis Evans  9:50  I have several concerns in mind. One: this is a kind of act of historical retrieval. I think scholars are aware of the NAACP, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the main Southern organization that was involved in the campaign against lynching, and even the Association of Southern Women Against Lynching in the south, but very few people know about the Federal Council of Churches’ anti-lynching campaign. I think the other thing is that there was a correspondence between this emphasis on moral suasion and education, certain Southern church organizations and the FCC were very similar in that regard, except that the FCC was out ahead in front of them in terms of its critique. In fact, one of the things I'm wanting to make the argument about is that you see, as early as the 1930s, what many sociologists began pointing out in the 1960s and 1970s, that there was an increasing division between educated clergy and people in the pews. I, in fact, argue that the FCC experienced antagonism from local white Southern churches that was pretty much categorical in terms of opposition: on theological grounds, on the claim that it was meddling in their affairs, that it was an elite organization from Manhattan, and so forth, and so on. But the prestige of the FCC allowed it to have a certain influence. When FDR spoke before the FCC in 1933, in Washington, DC, on its 25th anniversary, what was his topic? Lynching. Even though he was not as actively engaged in the anti-lynching campaign as many of them would have wanted; nonetheless, he added a certain aura as President, in support of the FCC and some of the work that it was doing. Similarly, Harry S. Truman, for example, began adopting a number of anti-lynching measures in the late 1940s, similar to the kind of argument that the FCC itself was making. And so I'm trying to make an argument that by lending its public voice to the anti-lynching campaign, the FCC made a significant impact in terms of moral outrage against the practice of lynching. But also by drawing other people and groups into this campaign against lynching, the FCC lent a certain moral prestige that perhaps the NAACP did not have in certain quarters, even though the NAACP was the leading organization against lynching. In fact, the FCC worked alongside the NAACP. And so I wanted to sort of make an argument about historical retrieval that it is important to narrate what exactly was the antilynching campaign in the FCC, because most people are unaware of it.

Ethan Goodnight  24:54  You were just describing a divide between the ecumenical FCC and white southern churches around moral suasion from elites, etc. Is there still a divide between a maybe more nationalistic evangelical branch of Christianity and more liberal, globalizing Protestantism?

Curtis Evans  25:40  Yeah, evangelicals remain as a religious group -- or if we want to call them a religious group, a voting bloc, and so on -- most consistently hostile to what they regard as the United States potentially ceding its sovereignty to organizations such as the United Nations. Evangelicals have been persistently the most vocal in claims of American exceptionalism. Now American exceptionalism is expressed in different ways. But for evangelicals, it's usually tied to a kind of historical narrative. Part of it is defensive, which is to say that evangelicals usually argue that liberals have made the claim that the United States is somehow uniquely racist, imperialistic, and so on. But no, evangelicals say, “we were founded as a Christian nation, we have been the leading proponent of democratic values in the world,” and the list would go on. But it's a basic claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that there's something special and distinct about the United States. And it's not merely in terms of what one could demonstrate empirically in terms of like the United States' wealth, or the United States' manufacturing across the course of the 20th century, and so on, but an argument about the United States having a special and unique relationship with God. And that leads to a certain degree of suspicion to criticism -- certain kinds of criticism -- and a hesitancy to claim, for example, that systemic racism exists in American society. The other point I want to make is that there's a way in which evangelicals have been less concerned about what we might call religious liberty writ large, than about specifically protecting minority Christian communities around the world. And so, when Donald Trump, for example, is talking about the pastor who was released from Turkey, a number of evangelicals are lauding the president, specifically because of the concern about the work of a Christian pastor. And you see that, in fact, when Mike Pompeo and a number of others are talking about religious liberty, usually they're referring to Christian minorities in other countries protecting their right to preach the Christian gospel. And while some evangelicals out there don't share this view, they've generally not been as concerned about, say, Muslim or Hindu rights, and so forth. And that's what I mean by a particularistic view. One is it's a particular concern about Christians’ ability to preach the Christian gospel in various contexts. But also, there's a way in which it's an argument about the distinct nature of American society; there's a way in which Christianity and American exceptionalism is inextricably linked for many evangelicals. And I do think that that leads to a certain kind of, as I say, suspicion to any sort of organization or cooperative work that they feel could potentially cede what they regard as the distinct sovereignty of the United States. That’s the way in which the kind of ecumenical approach on the part of liberal Protestants has diverged from evangelicals.

Ethan Goodnight  37:44  As you're pursuing this work, uncovering the story of the FCC, I'd love to hear some of your hopes for engaging with the community of Harvard Faculty, Faculty Fellows, Postdoc Fellows, and doctoral students who are a part of the Warren Center program.

Curtis Evans  38:03  One is, I'm eager to get feedback because I know that any scholar has blind spots. I don't really want to be in a position of an "apologist" for the FCC, even though I think I am doing a work of historical retrieval, because I think this is a very important organization. I think there are ways in which it tells us something about the intersection of religion and public life, especially beginning in the 1920s, that doesn't at least initially fit into the sort of easy paradigms of liberal modernists and fundamentalist by looking at African American men and white women and African American women, in particular. The work that they're doing in the Federal Council of Churches, we see a kind of different, for lack of a better way of putting this, slice of Christianity that doesn't easily fit, because when you read some of their material, it reads similar to kind of an evangelical approach in terms of how they're reading or appealing to the Bible. But then on the other hand, when it comes to the kind of activism that they're engaged in, the set of issues that animate them are very different than what's animating the fundamentalists. I'm also interested in hearing more about like, how do I make this relatively narrow project speak to broader issues in the study of religion. One of the arguments I want to make is that you see a shift in the 20th century where someone like Billy Graham is eagerly invited to the White House by Richard Nixon, while the successor organization to the FCC, the National Council of Churches, they have no access to the White House in the late 1960s because of the opposition to the Vietnam War. These are the same people whose ancestors so to speak, were cozy with FDR and Harry S. Truman. And so thinking about the ways in which the cultural force or significance of a certain form of Protestantism wanes over the course of the 20th century, what that says about that particular version of Protestantism, but more broadly about religion and public life. And no one thought it strange, for example, that FDR would speak before this particular group, and that Truman would speak in 1946, on the topic of brotherhood, before this particular religious organization. And so I'm hoping at least as I said, to get some helpful feedback about this relatively narrow topic, how does it speak to broader issues, and especially broader conversations about the study of religion. The final thing I want to say is that I'm just really fascinated about the [Warren] Center in thinking about people who are working in very different time periods, different subject matter about the ways in which we can sort of illuminate one another's projects by thinking about certain recurring themes or certain recurring elements. How does one thinks about what we might call the unintended and sometimes hoped for consequences of forms of religious activism? Or historical actors and their intentions, what missionaries, for example, were hoping to accomplish? Is it useful to separate what historical actors hope and intend from the cumulative consequences of their actions? Because I think almost all of our projects in one form or another, at least the ones that I've heard thus far, are wrestling with that particular issue. But more than anything else, though, I'm just kind of open minded about what kinds of advice and feedback that I might get for my project. I'm really looking forward to that.