The Fork in the Road
This is the story of a fork in the road. This is a moment in time when the journey reached a turning point. A choice had to be made, and a choice was made.
Or, to be more accurate: a choice has to be made and therefore a choice is being made, because this story is still happening.
The story comes from a single paragraph in Peter G. Heltzel’s book Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race & American Politics (Yale University Press, 2009). This story is only five sentences long, and it concerns something seemingly minor—a single editorial decision made by a single publication three years before I was born. But there’s also a sense in which these five sentences explain almost everything we need to know about the history of white evangelicalism in America over the past 50 years:
In 1965 [Carl] Henry sent Frank E. Gaebelein to cover the march in Selma, Alabama. An associate editor of Christianity Today and the founder and headmaster of the Stony Brook School, New York, Gaebelein went to Selma and was so inspired that he wired Henry in Washington, DC, that evangelicals needed to join the march. But Gaebelein’s stories of the Selma march never saw the light of day. The resistance at Christianity Today was coming primarily from two people: J. Howard Pew, the Texas oil man and the financier of Christianity Today, and L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law and an editorial adviser at Christianity Today, who still had segregationist views. Pew and Bell did not want Christianity Today to speak out too critically against racism and capitalism, because they thought it would alienate important segments of the magazine’s constituency.
To his credit, Henry did publish Gaebelein’s initial report from Selma, which ran in the magazine on April 9, 1965. Pew and Bell weren’t wrong—it did, indeed, alienate important segments of the magazine’s constituency. Gaebelein’s subsequent reporting was censored, so he took off his reporter’s hat and joined the marchers, participating in further demonstrations and voter registration drives.
When Gaebelein’s reporting was censored, he took off his reporter’s hat and joined the marchers, participating in demonstrations and voter registration drives.
But after that initial report, the magazine and most of the rest of white evangelicalism took the other fork in the road—the one preferred by the financier and the segregationist.
Pew and Bell are dead and buried, but the financiers and the segregationists are still with us. Their heirs still steer the ship. Gaebelein has his heirs, too, but they’re fewer in number and they’ve never had much influence.
What of Carl Henry, then? I want to admire him here. He seems to have wanted to do the right thing in this story, and he even started to try to do it. He was on the right side in his power struggle with the money and the racism, but when the right side turned out to be the losing side, he stayed on—preserving his job, his post, and his position of influence even when it turned out that influence could only be used in ways approved by the wealthy oil man and the go-slow segregationists. And, well, that’s not easy to admire.
Still, we should be charitable. Henry was in a tough spot. A whole generation of white evangelical “leaders” have followed him in that very same tough spot, and very few of them have even tried, as he tried and failed, to do the right thing. Most of the people who have inherited his role of nominal leadership haven’t even had the courage to try to challenge the actual leadership of the moneymen and the guardians of white privilege. They’ve simply recognized—accurately—that this was a power struggle they didn’t have the power to win. Alienate the moneymen or those other “segments of the constituency” and you’ll only wind up getting Gaebeleined. Easier just to play along the way that Henry’s heirs are, even now, at this very moment, playing along.
And so here we still are, at that same fork in the road, perpetually facing that same choice. It’s almost like one of those time-loop stories from a sci-fi show or from David Ives’ comedic plays or Groundhog Day. Maybe we’re doomed to stay here, at this fork in the road, until we get it right.
Maybe someday we will get it right.
A former editor of PRISM, Fred Clark is a popular blogger (as Slacktivist) at Patheos.com. He describes himself, in part, as a Baptist Gen-Xer Mets fan.