Columnists > Soul Food

Moving goalposts

Reflections on race, religion, B.B. King, and B.B. Warfield

Issue: "Religious liberty fight," June 20, 1998

Until 1974, if the ball was on the 40, an NFL field-goal kicker had to kick the football 40 yards to score 3 points. Then the goalposts were moved from the goal line to the back of the end zone. Now, the kicker has to make the ball travel 50 yards for the same 3 points.

I find myself needing to kick the ball farther than I am willing or able in two areas of life very important to me-race and religion. It could be that, at 50, my leg has grown weaker and my eyes have lost acuity, but I think the goalposts got moved.

I grew up a racist. By God's grace I repented and began to do the works of repentance. I spent two summers in seminary working in a black church. I tried to set up a scholarship in memory of a deceased seminary classmate with the specific goal of helping black students attain a theological education. When I worked as a student minister on a Deep South campus, as many as 30 percent of the students at our weekly large group gathering were black, and black students served on our student leadership group. I paid some dues.

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I lost that job after a successful year, partly because I wasn't "wise" enough to denounce interracial dating and was "impolitic" enough to tell a local church that, if they wanted me to send students their way, they'd have to welcome blacks.

I accepted the ideal of integration, believing it better for the races to live together in a common culture than separately. I saw great injustice in denying people the right to vote, access to a quality education, evaluation as individuals, or respect as God's image-bearers because of the color of their skin. I believed in equality before God and before the law. I thought segregation was wrong because it isolated blacks and prevented their assimilation into society.

But now I'm a racist again. Why? Not because I've renounced my previous commitments but because I am not a multiculturalist. I don't believe in "black theology." I don't believe in distinctive minority admission standards or all-black dorms to let "blacks be blacks" on college campuses. I don't believe street language (or Southern slang) is the equal of standard English. I don't believe Toni Morrison's novels (or Danielle Steele's) are as good as Jane Austen's. I don't think Ice T's lyrics and music (?) are equal to Handel's or even Cole Porter's. I think Stonewall Jackson is a worthy hero (as is Colin Powell).

I am a "cultural chauvinist" to some. In general I believe in the superiority of the Western tradition. I believe in blending the best of other cultures into the Western tradition, and I believe it's possible to identify the best. I believe that we all ought to be assimilated to the best of this blended, but predominantly Western Christianized culture.

I have always been a religious conservative. I chose to go to a then-suspect conservative seminary for my ministerial training. I soaked up the theology of its most conservative professor. When my conservative denomination came into existence, I cast my lot with it though it meant loss of a church and a salary. In the early days of my denomination I was identified as one of the "TRs" (the "truly Reformed"), and I assure you it wasn't meant as a compliment. I have been accused of being indifferent to evangelism because I didn't use the "invitation system." I have been classed as a "stick in the mud" because I don't accept "entertainment worship."

But now, to some, I am a "moderate" (maybe even a liberal). Why? Because I'm open to quality contemporary worship songs. Because I don't believe the church ought to speak about such issues as women in combat. Because I don't support civil disobedience to protest or prevent abortion. Because I don't believe that the enactment of the Old Testament civil code should be the goal of the Christian legislator. Because I believe in freedom of religion, even for false ones. Because I don't subscribe to a particular view of the length of the creative day. But these are not new but 25-year-old views.

Somebody has moved the goalposts for race and religion. In some ways that's encouraging because it shows how much success has been attained by the proponents of racial equality and theological conservatism. But there's also cause for reflection. Has success given birth to radical racial views and reactionary religious ones? I'll do my reflecting while reading some B.B. Warfield and listening to some B.B. King.

William H. Smith
William H. Smith

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