The summer before his junior year in high school, Philip Yancey attended a Fourth of July rally that featured some of the most dangerous racists in America.
It was 1964, and the event, billed as “Patriots Rally Against Tyranny,” was held at a racetrack in Yancey’s hometown of Atlanta. It featured a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard alongside segregationists such as governors George Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi.
As Yancey sat in the bleachers with about 11,000 cheering White Southerners waving miniature Confederate flags, he heard speakers denounce the same enemies he learned about in his fundamentalist church, where the pastor lampooned “Martin Lucifer Coon” and preached that “coloreds” were inferior because of the “Curse of Ham.”
But something took place at the rally that made Yancey question what he had been taught.
He noticed a group of Black men sitting in the stands. Just before Wallace spoke, three of them began to boo. That was the cue for a group of Klansmen to rise from their seats and attack the men. Other Whites joined them, punching the Black men in their faces and hitting them with folded chairs as the men frantically tried to escape. The crowd began chanting, “Hit ‘em! Kill ‘em!”
“I reacted first as part of the cheering mob: Who were these Black guys trying to crash our party?” Yancey told CNN in a recent interview. “Yet when the White men started beating them with fists and even chairs, I felt sick at my stomach. I left the rally with a bitter taste in my mouth, the taste of shame. For years I didn’t talk about that experience.”
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There’s been a lot of debate in recent years about the rise of White Christian nationalism and White evangelicals’ steadfast support for former President Trump. But few people are better equipped than Yancey to explain how racism infiltrates White churches and how one can escape it.
Yancey went from being a self-described “born and bred racist” to becoming one of the most popular authors and speakers in contemporary America. His books have sold an estimated 17 million copies and been translated into 50 languages. Several, such as “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” and “Where Is God When It Hurts?” have become contemporary Christian classics.
The anecdote about the White supremacist rally marks one of Yancey’s most candid admissions of his youthful embrace of racism. It comes from his recently released memoir, “Where the Light Fell.” In the book, Yancey recounts how racism corrupted his faith and eventually led to him feeling betrayed by the church. He rejected the racism of his youth, though, after encountering a series of remarkable people during his years as a journalist and an author.
Yancey, 72, says he wanted to tell a story about what it takes to change the “calloused conscience” of someone who was raised to view Black people as inferior.
“I have a shelf full of best-selling books chronicling the Black experience and exhorting us to become anti-racists,” Yancey says. “I look in vain for one that explores the mind of a bigot and what it might take to change that mind.”
CNN talked to Yancey about White Christian nationalism, why he still calls himself an evangelical, and how he thinks the media distorts most evangelicals’ beliefs. The conversation was edited for brevity.
Why do you think you were able to change when so many other people who were ‘born and bred to a be racist’ never evolved?
I was a reader. And when I read “Black Like Me” (A 1961 nonfiction book about a White man who darkened his skin and traveled through the segregated South), that was a turning point, because it just didn’t make sense. Here’s the exact same person who artificially changed the color of his skin, and at one point he’s treated like a gentleman and has access to anywhere he wants to go. And then suddenly he’s treated like a dirty animal and people spit on him. He has to step off the sidewalk. He can’t use the restroom. Can’t get a drink of water. He’s the exact same person. It was a moral splinter that would stick inside my head and bother me.
Was a personal encounter just as important as a book you read? You talk in your memoir about meeting Dr. Cherry, a Black scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You were assigned to work with him during a summer job at the CDC.
The Dr. Cherry incident just blew my mind because it exposed that what the Church was telling me about races of color being inferior was a lie. It was absolutely wrong. Here was the smartest man I had ever met, and it just blew away all the categories I had been taught.
You said in your memoir that though you were poor, Black people gave you someone to look down on. How does that dynamic play out today?
It’s at the core of racism. I’ve been to 87 countries now. And I found that kind of instinct all over. When I first went to Norway, they started telling jokes about Swedes. They were the same jokes that we Whites told about Blacks growing up. I went to New Zealand and they’re telling the same jokes about the (indigenous) Maori people. Or then you go to Africa, like in Rwanda, where they have exactly the same color of skin. And one group starts killing the other group because they’re a little bit different. And there’s something about that fear of the other that we’ve got to overcome.
And as a Christian, this fear just stands out to me. Jesus talked about the Good Samaritan, not the Good Jew. The very first missionary in the book of Acts was a castrated Black man, the Ethiopian eunuch. The Apostle Paul was raised to be a Jew of all Jews, but he eventually said that in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, there’s something bigger than race.
Do you ever wonder if what you call the ‘thoughtful mainstream evangelical’ subculture has evaporated in the last couple of years? You’re known for writing open-ended books that ask tough questions about faith, but if you started out today writing such books I wonder if you would be as popular with evangelical readers.
I would say, no, it hasn’t. The group I came out of would be Wheaton College, Christianity Today magazine, InterVarsity, and Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ve spoken at a lot of Christian colleges and universities and there’s some really bright scholars in those places producing wonderful work.
I love being in a room with those people, and I wish that’s what people thought of when they thought of evangelicals. I don’t think they have disappeared, but what’s happened is the spotlight has turned away from those people, and it (the term evangelicals) has become a political filter. People only want to judge evangelicals by politics. Growing up, we weren’t political. Fundamentalists would never aspire to political office. And now the word “evangelical” almost implies right-wing politics to most people. And that’s really dangerous.
But Philip, look at the polls. Are they not accurate? White evangelicals have been the most steadfast supporters of former President Trump. White evangelical support for Trump actually increased from 2016 to 2020. Is it really unfair to say that many White evangelicals have become MAGA Republicans?
Okay. (chuckles) You got to be a little more subtle than that. I remember reading an article in The Imaginative Conservative magazine. You hear the phrase, 80 or 81% had voted for Trump. The more religiously committed evangelicals were, the less there is a complete sweep of going for Trump.
Nowadays, if you ask people who check evangelical in a box in a poll, a lot of them can’t even name two of the four Gospels. It’s become a label that to them means, I don’t like abortion. I don’t like the way the country is going to transgender or gay people, so I must be an evangelical. It used to be a theological category. It’s not now. It’s become a slogan for “I don’t like some things going on in my country and I’m kind of angry about them.” And Trump brilliantly tapped into that anger. But I think it’s more subtle than just assuming that all evangelicals or the vast majority voted for Trump. The serious evangelicals, of the type that I was trained in and worked around, did not vote for Trump.
There still seems to be a sizeable number of White evangelicals who support Trump? How would you explain that?
I would say the division in this country is between the coasts … and the South and the Heartland. It was more obvious in 2016. The media is coming from the coast, and progressives just assumed that when something like gay marriage happens, well, we’re all on board. Well, the people in rural Tennessee think, “Oh, that’s not right.” And then other people are very strong on the abortion issue. And then people get angry and say, “We can’t have people in schools teaching my six-year-old to decide whether to be a boy or a girl.” I think Trump just tapped into that sense that something’s wrong. We’re going in the wrong direction. Something is wrong with this country.
What would it take for White evangelical support for Trump to dry up? What would it take for them to abandon Trump?
I doubt anything would cause Trump’s hardcore supporters to abandon him. I’m sure you remember what he said while running in 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” He made that remark before a cheering audience at Dordt University in Iowa — a Christian college. Some polls indicate that the January 6 hearings have nibbled away at his popularity, but the problem is that hardcore supporters on both sides listen to separate sources of news and tend to hear what confirms their own biases. And more moderate Republicans can’t get much traction without Trump’s support base.
Since we’re talking a lot about politics, it makes me wonder: Is it more difficult to write now about the Christian faith? Do you get a lot more pressure to pick a side and come out this way or another on a political issue?
Yeah, I get some, especially on the gay issue. I get a lot of pressure to take a public position on things like that. And I said no, because someone has to be a bridge person. And as soon as you declare yourself, one way or another, then the other side doesn’t listen to you anymore. And I want to be one of those reconcilers.
How has your travel to other countries changed your faith?
Americans have what they think is suffering, but in the rest of the world, boy, it’s a lot worse. And I learn from those people. I remember being in China one time … with the underground church there. People had to sneak in, and they could have been arrested just for attending. And we were talking about praying for the government, which was persecuting them.
I asked them, “How do you pray for the government?”
They said, “We pray that we can bear the persecution.”
I asked them, “You don’t pray that they would stop, that you’d get a change in government?”
They said, “No, that’s up to God. We’re here, and our job is to demonstrate our faith in the midst of persecution.”
As someone who has seen the worst of what the church can do to people, how do you still call yourself an evangelical and hold on to your faith?
I’ve been blessed by meeting the cream of the crop. I know there are a lot of people out there who who’ve been burned by the church. And I certainly went through that as a child. But as an adult, I think God said, “You’ve seen the worst of the church, Philip. Let me show you the best.” Would I still consider myself an evangelical? Well, the word means “good news,” and in most of the world, it still means good news.
The United States is the one exception, because life (here) has become so political. But in most of the world, evangelicals are people who work in prisons, who work against sexual trafficking, who do health care.
I saw the other day that 50% of the health care in sub-Sahara Africa is done by Christian mission agencies. You ask the average African, what is an evangelical? Well, he or she might not know anything about theology, but they’ll say, “They’re the people who come by in a van with a cross on the side once a month and treat heart diseases.” That’s true all over the world.
I wish that when you say the world evangelical, people would still think to what Jesus said in his in his first sermon, that “I’ve come to free the captives. I’ve come to visit prisoners, to heal the sick and feed the hungry.” I wish people thought that when asked, What is an evangelical?