Donny Reagan runs the Happy Valley Church of Jesus Christ in Johnson City, Tennessee. This weekend, he was marked as "the most racist pastor in America" for the video sermon above. But Reagan's teaching is serious business, and it can teach the uninitiated a lot about American evangelicalism's dirtiest laundry.
The sermon—which is from last year—has gone sort of viral in the past few days, on the basis of links in The American Jesus and The Raw Story. But while teh interwebz are understandably laughing "Look at this fucking Bible-thumper" at Reagan, they've been slow to ask a bigger question: How does somebody believe this, in America, in 2013 or 2014? What is the historical or biblical source of that belief?
The answer is critical to understanding one of the craziest turns in America's centuries-long pop-flirtation with Protestant revivals and personal revelations.
On its website, Happy Valley Church—which has an all-white, all-male staff and board of trustees—claims to be nondenominational but steeped in Pentecostal traditions. Pentecostalism is one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the world, largely because it lacks what most Christian churches hold so important: static doctrines and dogmas and intellectual debates led by ossified priests and bishops. It is a mystical religion that takes seriously the Protestant fear of putting men and the world between an individual and his God: It believes that individual believers can experience the Holy Spirit directly through ecstatic, "charismatic" practices such as speaking tongues, or musical performance, or handling snakes, or laying on of healing hands.
In the absence of absolute authority—Pentecostals have no pope, no presiding bishop—they believe all Christians have equal access to the holy through literal interpretations and personal experiences of the Gospel. Practically speaking, though, this leads to differences in interpretation and experience. Happy Valley Church and Reagan's controversial sermon follow the teachings of one grand old man of the American Pentecostal movement, William Branham.
Branham believed some peculiar things: First, that his own existence presaged the Second Coming of Christ, a belief that was belied after his death in a head-on car collision in 1965. Second, he believed in a doctrine called the Serpent's Seed: the notion that Eve's act of dooming mankind involved her actually having sex with the Satanic serpent of Genesis, and that her son Cain, and a generation of "giants", was the offspring of this union.
The Serpent's Seed doctrine has been used by religious white supremacist groups, like Christian Identity, to justify a belief in separate lineages for the races: white, pure, from Adam and Eve; black, evil, from Eve and the serpent. Branham's followers stress that he did not believe this, citing a 1963 sermon in which he asserts that "We're all of one blood. We all come from one tree, and that was from Adam."
Fair enough, but in the same sermon, Branham says that "Martin Luther King is communistic inspired, which is going to lead about a million people to a absolutely a death trap [sic]," and that segregation was good for minorities, and that "my colored brothers and sisters in the South oughtn't to rise up to arms against their brethren and things like over such a little thing as that."
It's that fraught kind of benevolent, quietist racism—a racism that sees itself as divinely inspired progressive kinship—that Reagan was saluting when he cited Branham in this new viral sermon:
We realize that there's a move in the message of blacks marrying whites, whites marrying blacks… and folks think it's alright. But you know what? My God still has nationalities outside the city. Now watch this: Brother Branham says: "Hybreeding, hybreeding, how terrible hybreeding!"
Here, and in the rest of his speech, Reagan is resting not on his own words, but citing a particular 1960 sermon of Branham's, titled "Condemnation by Representation." Its larger argument is a classically Pentecostal one: All the different offshoots and denominations of Christianity are aberrations from the Word of God, because they represent intellectual hybrids: cross-splicing the Gospel with the secular world of reason. But Branham ends up railing against hybreeding of all sorts, on the grounds that you don't mess with the stable categories that God has set up for you:
Hybreeding, hybreeding, oh, how terrible, hybreeding. They hybreed the people. You know it's a big molding pot. I've got hundreds of precious colored friends that's borned again Christians. But on this line of segregations and things they're talking about, hybreeding the people. What, tell me what fine cultured, fine Christian colored woman would want her baby to be a mulatto by a white man? No, sir. It's not right. What white woman would want her baby to be a mulatto by a colored man? God made us what we are. Let's stay what God made us; I believe it's right.
Oh, my. What are we doing, friends? Men think they know all about it. The people would be better off if you'd just let them the way they are, the way God made them. Let the brown race marry the brown race, the white race marry the white race, the dark race, the yellow race and whatevermore, stay the way God made them. If a violet... God made it and it was white, let it remain white. If it's blue, black, brown, whatever the flower is, let it alone. If corn was raised a certain way, yellow corn, don't mix with white corn. If you do, you mix it up, then it can't breed itself back again.
Besides the fact that any follower of Branham should have trouble buying food or garden supplies without breaking this supposed commandment of God, the base stupidity of applying this doctrine to race is pretty obvious. What makes Branham think that whites and "darks" and "yellows" and "whatevermores" belong to stable categories ordained by God, but a "mulatto" baby is an abomination of God's law? It's completely arbitrary.
But because Branham couches his segregationism in a supposed love of all of God's diversity, he and his followers attempt to wriggle free from charges of racism. Reagan goes on to quote another 1964 sermon of Branham's:
What—what business would a beautiful, young, intelligent colored girl want to marry a white man for, and have mulatto children? What would a fine, intelligent colored girl want to do a thing like that for? I can't understand it. And what would a white woman want to marry a colored man, with mulatto children? Why don't you stay the way God made you?
In his sermon, Reagan claims that speech is proof that his church's doctrine is the very opposite of racist:
Now you tell me what KKK guy would call a black woman beautiful. What white supremacist would call any black woman beautiful. This is not from a white supremacist. This is not from a racist. This is from a prophet of God… this is a man who loves truth.
Earlier, Reagan paused to explain how some other followers of Branham's prophecies were uncomfortable with how "racial" he was, and had taken issue with some of his teachings as a result. But this picking-and-choosing, Reagan argued, was precisely the kind of "hybreeding" of thought—mixing of the Gospel and worldly reason—that Branham railed against. "This ain't a Shoney's breakfast buffet," Reagan laughed.
This is the root of racism in Reagan's and Branham's thought, and also the danger inherent in Pentecostalism, the reductio ad absurdum of a church without rigid doctrines or hierarchies, or any sense of irony about them: the mistaking of personal prejudices for Godly insights. That such a deeply personal, deeply flawed faith should find a home in the id of America should surprise no one. But it should appall everyone.