Evangelicals have a generational divide over racial issues, aid group leader says

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Gary Haugen speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in February. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

MIAMI — The generational divide among white evangelicals over issues of race and social justice has given the group a more conservative reputation than is merited, but that will change in the coming decade, according to the head of an influential Christian aid group.

Speaking with a group of journalists here this week, Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM), which mostly works outside the United States, also addressed questions about what insights he might have about injustice in America.

Haugen avoided commenting directly on issues of racial injustice, or on the question of why white evangelical Christians have been stalwart supporters of President Trump, who rose to power by demonizing immigrants. But Haugen stood by his assertion years ago, before the rise of Trump, that there is a “sea change” among evangelicals as it relates to issues of injustice. However, he qualified that much of this change is not yet being seen among older white evangelicals.

In particular, Haugen pinpointed the world of conservative philanthropy, which intersects closely with nonprofit and aid work. The tension, he intimated, is between a money sector in evangelicalism dominated by wealthy individuals who skew older and much more conservative in their politics, and an activist sector that is younger and far more progressive in its worldview.

Among aid and reform groups like his, “if you aren’t actually talking about justice, you’re probably not credible,” Haugen said at the Faith Angle Forum, a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“[But] those folks do not hold the money and the power in that church community right now,” he said. “But in 15 years they will. I think you will see a different phenomenon.”

Haugen, 56, worked early in his career for Bishop Desmond Tutu’s National Initiative for Reconciliation in South Africa, then directed the United Nations’ investigation into the Rwandan genocide, and also investigated police abuse cases for the Justice Department in the 1990s during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He started IJM in 1997, and the group has grown now to have an endowment of around $50 million.

Speaking at the same event, columnist Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said Haugen was the kind of Christian who “makes the term evangelical worth fighting for.” Haugen followed up by saying he “may not be willing to fight for the word evangelical” himself.

The term, he said, has come to represent a set of political beliefs rather than theological commitments.

But speaking to journalists, Haugen argued that conservative Christians’ focus on the kind of international aid work his group does is not at odds with an emphasis on injustice in the United States. It’s possible, he said, to care about fighting sex trafficking in Third-World countries without it distracting from the problem of mass incarceration or police brutality here in the U.S.

Nonetheless, some younger Christians and people of color in the faith community are suspicious that the focus on international aid among white conservatives is a way to avoid more difficult issues of racial injustice at home.

At a conference in Dallas last weekend focused on “racial harmony,” a leader from IJM was “welcomed with thunderous applause,” according to an account published Tuesday by DeeDee Roe, an African-American freelance writer from Dallas who attended.

“She spoke passionately about the work of IJM confronting perpetrators of police brutality in Kenya. The audience made tearful commitments to partner in her work, tears I knew did not extend to Black victims of police brutality in this nation,” Roe wrote.

Roe went on to describe her observations of a hostile reaction from some white attendees to a different speaker, Ekemini Uwan, a prominent author and speaker. Uwan criticized the idea of “whiteness” as “rooted in plunder, theft, enslavement of Africans, and the genocide of Native Americans.”

“Whiteness is a power structure. The thing for white women to do here is divest from whiteness,” Uwan said, according to Roe’s account. She described seeing some white attendees walking out as Uwan spoke.

Sparrow Conference, which organized the event, did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Haugen acknowledged that white evangelicals’ interest in international aid may not always translate into a commitment to fighting poverty and injustice in their own neighborhoods.

“How it actually works out in your community, the overwhelming problem is going to be what your fears are,” he said. “These lids always tend to get put back on because people get scared of things.”


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