For some Christians, support for the Black Lives Matter movement is a no-brainer. After all, Jesus opposed violence, opposed the taking of life and opposed racial distinctions. As the apostle Paul taught in his letter to the Galatians, there is neither slave nor free, for “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Many Christian groups have become active in Black Lives Matter as the movement has progressed. The website of the United Church of Christ, for example, offers “Black Lives Matter” buttons. A campaign by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “affirms the Black Lives Matter movement.” And the American Baptist Churches alluded to the movement in its resolution, passed last March, celebrating its denomination’s role in civil rights. “We affirm today that black lives matter,” the statement read. “Every life matters.”
But those denominations tend to be liberal in their thinking. The path is trickier for conservative evangelical groups. They would all agree that black lives, like other lives, matter. But evangelicals, especially those who support Republican candidates, are uncomfortable with the movement because of its embrace of liberal politics, associated with Democrats.
That was a lesson that 16,000 evangelicals, most of them student members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, learned in the aftermath of Urbana, the group’s triennial student missions conference in St. Louis in late December.
On the second night of the 75-year-old campus organization’s conference, song leaders took the stage wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” And the keynote speaker, Michelle Higgins, director of the advocacy group Faith for Justice, based in St. Louis, argued for evangelical support of Black Lives Matter.
InterVarsity, one of the country’s leading campus Christian organizations, is known for its history of racial cooperation and integration. But many of its members and supporters are conservatives who oppose abortion, support law enforcement and are skeptical of the welfare state. And in her wide-ranging comments about social justice, Ms. Higgins did little to make her speech more palatable.
“We can wipe out the adoption crisis tomorrow,” Ms. Higgins said at one point. “We could wipe it out this week, but we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned, we’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood.
“We are too busy withholding mercy from the living,” she said, “so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn.”
Liberal Christian magazines, like The Christian Century, reported positively on the event. But the combination of her Black Lives Matter endorsement with digressions that seemed an affront to abortion opponents worried some evangelical writers — and InterVarsity supporters.
A reporter for the Christian Post wondered why “a Black Lives Matter representative was included” at the conference while “a pro-life group was denied an exhibitor application.” The group of abortion foes in question was denied a permit because it was not explicitly religious in its mission, InterVarsity replied.
InterVarsity “got blowback from just about every side,” said Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s director for campus engagement. “Certainly we have donors and friends who have raised concerns and questions. They want to know how to interpret this. And we’ve had friends and donors say, ‘Bravo, that was brave and courageous.’ ”
A couple of days after the speech by Ms. Higgins, InterVarsity issued a statement clarifying its anti-abortion stance. “Scripture is clear about the sanctity of life,” the interim president, Jim Lundgren, said. “That is why I’m both pro-life and committed to the dignity of my black brothers and sisters.”
In an email, Ms. Higgins said that she, too, opposed abortion, in that she believed that “babies are fully human from conception” and that “it would be good to see adoptions increase and abortions decrease.” But she is “against the ‘pro-life’ demands that abortion should be fully banned and carry criminal charges.”
Even had Ms. Higgins never ventured into the dangerous terrain of abortion politics, her speech probably would not have pleased many evangelicals, who consider Black Lives Matter to be a liberal movement.
The historian D.G. Hart, who teaches at Hillsdale College in Michigan, noted in a blog post that the website BlackLivesMatter.com, a prominent one within the movement, expresses support for transgender and gay rights, issues that are problematic for conservative Christians.
“Some who support justice for African-Americans and oppose police brutality may wonder legitimately what Caitlyn Jenner or Dan Savage have to do with Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice,” Dr. Hart wrote on the website Patheos, contrasting icons of the transgender and gay rights movements, with black men whose deaths have galvanized Black Lives Matter.
The discomfort of evangelicals about Black Lives Matter goes beyond specific policies. Many believe that the church should not be intimately involved with politics.
In an interview, Dr. Hart, a member of the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, said that he took police brutality and racism seriously, and that those concerns might affect his voting in local or statewide elections. But in general, he thinks the church should not be a political actor.
“I tend to be a Machen guy,” Dr. Hart said, referring to J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian theologian who died in 1937 and was known for his belief that political participation could sully the church. “He believed that the church doesn’t do politics, though individual Christians may.”
Mimi Haddad, an evangelical, leads Christians for Biblical Equality, which works for the equality of women, including those in the church. She signed an open letter, printed in the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, congratulating InterVarsity for showcasing Black Lives Matter.
In an interview, she said that the evangelical suspicion of social issues like race goes back to the early 20th century, when politically engaged modernists in the church also took a more liberal view of scriptural accuracy.
“The concern is if you start to smell like someone invested in social justice, you really don’t believe in the major tenets of Christianity,” Ms. Haddad said. “ ‘If you are active in racial reconciliation, how can you believe in the Gospel?’ And we are saying that has always been integral to the Gospel.”
Ms. Higgins, who gave the speech that got so much attention, is a black woman in a mostly white, evangelical denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. She said her co-religionists did believe that black lives matter. “Most evangelicals are going to say, ‘That phrase is true,’ ” Ms. Higgins said. However, she said, evangelicals are uncomfortable with language critical of police, or supportive of transgender and gay rights.
“There it gets fuzzy for conservatives,” Ms. Higgins said. She imagined their thinking, “If I have to say black trans lives matter, I believe I am affirming something my religion calls me to denounce.”