During my service as a board member for the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, I was confronted with the disturbing 1963 statement from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must face the fact the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.”
More than a half century later, King’s lament still convicts most of American Christianity. Its pews today remain some of the last vestiges of segregation. Ninety percent of all Christians worship in segregated churches. American Christianity has lacked both the interest and imagination to effectively solve a problem that will increasingly plague its progress.
Under the able leadership of Alberta Henry and Jeanetta Williams, successive presidents of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, we invited ranking Christian clergy to participate in major NAACP events and meet privately with prominent civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks and Andrew Young. Although these outreach efforts were remarkable and even historic in some cases, they did not change church pews and hardly changed clergy views.
Clearly, Christian pews will not change until Christian hearts have changed. Christian hearts will change only when American Christianity ceases to contort Jesus Christ into Jim Crow, trying justify its prejudices. American Christianity can inspire America to become a more virtuous version of itself when it truly embraces its own claim to the authentic Christ as its divine exemplar.
Peter, Christ’s chief apostle, proved the potential power of this possibility the moment he, while overcoming his personal prejudices, providentially proclaimed: “God is no respecter of persons.” His radical apostolic proclamation of inclusion opened Christ’s kingdom to all, resulting in Christianity’s rapid expansion, unmatched by all other religions combined at the time.
Early Christianity’s growth and prosperity was so profound and powerful, the previously persecuted and punished religion eventually became the state recognized religion, free to worship and act according to its beliefs. Its unrivaled influence not only religiously restructured the Roman Empire, it refashioned Western Civilization and reordered the world forever.
To competitively captivate the attention of America in its ascendency, like Apostle Peter, today’s clergy must boldly promote a shared identity of doctrine and deportment intended to attract racial diversity and decisively desegregate its pews. Failing to do so will assuredly doom American Christianity to the dustbin of the defeated.
The “browning of America” is American Christianity’s demographic destiny that can no longer be discounted. Today’s labeled minorities are rapidly growing into tomorrow’s majority. Instead of this being a cause for consternation, it should be a cause for celebration — a positive development that can advance the renewal of a faltering American Christianity.
America’s demographic transformation will advance either gratefully or hatefully among Christians. If hatefully, American Christianity will continue to slip away segregated and suspect, inevitably losing its already flagging freedoms. If gratefully, a desperately needed new Great Awakening can unfold, rescuing and reinvigorating American Christianity and the entire nation.
As the fated demographic surge surfaces, American Christianity should anxiously anticipate it by calling courageous clergy to convert Christian hearts committed to change Christian pews. If American Christianity will persistently pursue a pathway of united pluralism, America can achieve its transcendent aspiration: “E Pluribus Unum.”
Then, perhaps, Reverend King’s dream can be realized, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” And perhaps only then can King finally rest in peace.
Stuart C. Reid, Ogden, is a former board member for the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, Army chaplain and Utah state senator.