Writing in the mid-1960s, cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace described Lost Cause religion as a revivalist movement aiming “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past,” terms eerily close to contemporary calls by President Donald Trump to “Make America great again.” It is true that old-school Lost Cause theology is rarely aired in mainstream white churches today. But its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well.
To be sure, this theological worldview has done great damage to those living outside the white Christian canopy. But what has been overlooked by most white Christian leaders is the damage this legacy has done to white Christians themselves. To put it succinctly, it has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion. As antebellum Presbyterian preacher Donald Frazer argued emphatically, many abolitionists had the shoe on the wrong foot by pretending to be “more humane than God.” It was God’s law, not human conscience, that set the limits on the treatment of blacks by whites, he argued. Moral discomfort, even moral horror or outrage, has no place in this theological worldview. But surely it should give white Christians pause to continue to pledge allegiance to a theological system that contracts rather than expands our moral vision; that anesthetizes rather than livens up our moral sensitivities.