Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation
Edited by Gerald McDermott. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2020. 278 pp.
It is quite a delight to come across a serious book on race that doesn’t buy into the narrative of systemic racism but rather, while taking racism and the plight of the black poor seriously, builds a Christian case for positive action and reconciliation. This book—Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots of American Reconciliation—offers just that. Edited by Gerald R. McDermott, newly retired from the Anglican Chair at Beeson Divinity School, this book has a bevy of heavy-hitters whose chapters are taken from their presentations at a Beeson conference on the racial issues that plague our country.
The book’s three parts offer a good preview of what the book is about: Part 1 deals with the national covenant in scripture and history; Part 2 is on race, covenant, and contemporary society; and Part 3 is on the theology and practices of the covenant community. The key concept of the book is, of course, covenant. The writers, particularly in part 1, liken the American national covenant forged at its founding—which offers equality and dignity to all Americans—to the covenant that God made with Israel. God makes special agreements with nations, not only with the church. Both the early settlers and founders envisaged the American experiment as a covenant with God in which he would bless the nation when it fulfilled its promises and punish it when it failed to do so. Several authors illustrate the recent employment of that vision in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement he led.
Though others may rightfully lift up different essays of the many (17) excellent ones in the book, I was especially moved by several. McDermott, in his usual erudite way, probes our national dilemma in the leading essay of the book. Mark Tooley summons the churches to recover the notion of national covenant, an essential element in our civil religion. James Patterson’s chapter on the history of the civil rights movement is a real refresher course that also filled in many more details that I didn’t know or had forgotten. Economist Glenn Loury recommends a “transracial humanism” that redefines identities rather than redistributes resources. Sociologist Jacqueline Rivers calls for a renewal of covenantal marriage in the black community while Alveda King makes a strong argument against abortion in a chapter entitled “Little Black Lives Matter.”
Carol Swain argues that blacks and their churches should return to Christian identity first and black second. Similarly, Derryck Green sharply criticizes the heretical turn toward an “idolatry of race” in the influential black theology of the 60s.
I was particularly impressed with the chapter on race and school choice by Robert Woodson. There he addresses the most intractable challenge facing us—the predicament of low income blacks plagued by fatherless families. He argues that such a deep quandary cannot be solved by “distant experts” or by the government. Rather, those who have “first-hand experience” are the most likely problem solvers, and they are the ones who agitate for vouchers that poor people can use to access schools that can make a real difference in their lives.
A majority of the writers are blacks who come to the racial challenge with perspectives not often found in the oppressor/oppressed dichotomies so popular in critical race theory and its many offshoots, including the Black Lives Matter organization. They refuse to indulge in “group think” or identity politics. Yet, they all have their own intimate experience with racism and do not soft-sell its evil impact. However, they all agree that the current trend toward victimology is not only inaccurate but harmful. It is inaccurate because it sells short the many advances and accomplishments that blacks have made. It denies real agency to blacks, making them objects of the actions of others rather than subjects of their own. It is harmful because it tends to deploy a false hopelessness and passivity to a rising generation of young blacks who certainly do not need those roadblocks.
I have found the book’s “covenantal” approach to one of our nation’s greatest challenges to be deeply illuminating and useful. I agree that our founders—and many later great leaders—employed the idea of a national covenant with God as a profound way of understanding America as both blessed and obligated. I also agree that God deals fittingly with nations, who collectively depart from or at least partially adhere to his deep-running laws. Covenant is a powerful religious notion that can help the nation live up to its commitments to citizens who have been unjustly treated.
At the same time, however, I believe that all of this is on the horizontal level of history. The national covenant is in the order of creation rather than redemption. It is crucial to our civil religion but it is not the religion of eternal salvation. A nation cannot save souls nor can its degradation damn individual ones. Orthodox Christians cannot accept any nation’s claim to be their redeemer. Several authors make the distinction between “common” and “saving” grace, which is an important one that probably should have been more prominent in the book.
Nevertheless, this book is an important alternative to the quasi-Marxist approaches to our racial conundrum that have so dominated secular elite interpretations and proposals for action. It is deeply religious and resonates with our Judeo-Christian heritage. Moreover, the black contributors show bravery in breaking with the popular purveyors of racialism. We can only hope that more of our religious and political leaders will take it seriously.