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A History Of The Culture Wars

Jared Stacy

Culture War Christianity has long since ossified into the de facto expression of faith for many white American evangelicals. In Part One of this series (which you can find here) we introduced the American Culture Wars. As a whole, this series examines the historical & theological shape of Culture War Christianity in comparison to Jesus’ Kingdom through the lenses of these two camps, conscientious objectors and vocal advocates. We concluded last week with a descriptor: Culture War Christianity tends to make enemies, not love them.

This week, our second part examines the historical orgins of the Culture Wars. If you’re pressed for time, I present a TL;DR that takes 2 minutes, and you can return to read the article at your leisure…

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read Summary)

The key to understanding modern Culture War Christianity is the history of American race relations and Christianity. This article locates the birth…

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Donald W. Shriver Jr., who called America to repent of racism, dies

The former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, Shriver believed public repentance was the only hope for ‘a future less evil than our pasts.’

The Rev. Donald W. Shriver Jr. died July 28, 2021. Photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary

(RNS) — The Rev. Donald W. Shriver Jr., an acclaimed Christian ethicist and Presbyterian minister who wrote widely about the need for white Americans to face and repent of their racist past, died July 28 at 93.

Shriver served as president of Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1975 to 1991 and is credited with having hired leading Black scholars and clergy including James Forbes, James Washington and Cornel West. West once called Shriver “the most prophetic seminary president in the late 20th century.”

A son of the South, born in Norfolk, Virginia, Shriver took to heart the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and its call to white clergy. Shriver’s most celebrated book, “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds,” published in 2005, compared the work of public repentance in Germany and in South Africa with that of the United States.

In it, he suggested those two countries could teach the U.S. how to publicly acknowledge and repent for past evils. Shriver believed repentance was the only hope for “a future less evil than our pasts.”

American culture, Shriver wrote, will never be truly reformed, “unless the past we ought to mourn is mourned, in fact, in public, and in the context of concrete gestures and measures that put the past behind us in our very act of confronting it.”

The book won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2009.

“He was a profoundly Christian man,” said philosopher and social activist Cornel West. “He was someone fundamentally committed to the Christian gospel and making the connection between love, power and justice. There was nobody like him.”

Shriver hired West as a 23-year-old Princeton University graduate student before he had completed his doctorate. He also raised money for the prestigious Dietrich Bonhoeffer chair at Union that West will fill once again in the 2021-22 academic year. They remained friends till the end, West said, breaking bread once a month.

Shriver was born in 1927 to a family that supported segregation. His parents hired a Black domestic worker to care for him and a sibling, but she was never allowed to sit with the family at the dinner table. At 21, while still a student at Davidson College, he attended an ecumenical youth conference where for the first time he took Communion and sat as an equal with Black representatives to the conference who shared their terrors of living in a segregated South. It was a watershed “occasion for racial repentance,” he recalled.

Years later, in 1965, he marched in Selma, Alabama, for voting rights alongside King and others. Afterward, church elders tried to have him fired from North Carolina State University’s Presbyterian campus ministry, which he served at the time. That year he also published his first book: “The Unsilent South: Prophetic Preaching in Racial Crisis,” a collection of 19 sermons from Presbyterian pastors in the South who spoke out against white supremacy.

While Shriver served as a pastor earlier in his life — mostly in North Carolina — he spent the better part of his career in higher education. He earned a doctorate from Harvard, writing his dissertation on the theology of forgiveness, and later taught at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But he spent most of his career at Union Theological Seminary. He is credited with pulling the seminary back from the financial brink in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to hiring up-and-coming Black scholars, he also hired feminist theologians such as Beverly Wildung Harrison and Phyllis Trible — leading the institution on a justice-oriented trajectory.

Shriver and his wife, Peggy, a poet, were members of Riverside Church, the towering Baptist and Congregationalist church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. The couple had three children. His daughter, Lionel, is a fiction writer and a journalist who lives in London.

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