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Church Denomination Roots Out Racism

In the latest attempt by Christians to right the past, a Presbyterian denomination takes action against racist activism in its ranks

On Nov. 26, 2007, Neill Payne hit the send button on an E-mail to 19 people, including several members of the Presbyterian church outside Asheville, N.C., where he was an elder.

The E-mail contained an opinion piece from London's Daily Telegraph, titled "Ian Smith has sadly been proved right," asserting that the white, former African leader was correct in his belief that blacks would never be able to govern Rhodesia and noting that the country (now Zimbabwe) had fared miserably under the black dictator Robert Mugabe. Payne — a chiropractor with former ties to a white supremacist group who is now a board member of the neo-Confederate law center he helped found — began the E-mail with his own commentary: "How many times do we have to see this same pitiful, African disaster story replayed before we will realize that the story always ends the same way and regardless of all the best wishes in the world it will never go any differently?" he wrote. "Here is a telling article commemorating the passing of one of the last great white men in Africa."

Payne added a postscript: "IQ is the best and most reliable and most accurate predictor of these results. Only a cock-eyed Liberal believes that you can run headlong into a wall one thousand times and if you just do it one more time, somehow, magically, this time you won't bash your brains out."

The matter might have ended there, except that one of the E-mail recipients was Payne's pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. Hardly a "cock-eyed Liberal," the Rev. Craig Bulkeley nonetheless felt he couldn't ignore Payne's statements about IQ, race, and Africa's fate, which he maintained were not only unscientific, but also contrary to the Bible. Firing back a reply just a few hours after Payne's E-mail landed in his inbox, Bulkeley noted that Stalin and Hitler had managed to lead "whole nations into immorality and idiotic ruin. If those white guys and the millions of senseless white sheep in their Aryan and other European nations that willingly followed them had high I.Q.'s, the ‘I' stood for something besides intelligence."

The E-mail exchange, which continued over the next 11 days, triggered a battle for control of Friendship that split both the little church in Black Mountain and Asheville-area PCA leaders. After 2 years of bitter disagreements that ultimately reached the PCA's highest governing body, Payne left the church (along with several of his supporters) rather than face an ecclesiastical trial for the sin of racism.

The Friendship saga is probably the first time that PCA leaders have formally attempted to hold members responsible for racist statements. That's true despite a few notable examples in recent years of racial extremism in PCA churches, including two pastors affiliated with a racist neo-Confederate group who eventually left the denomination of their own accord. Yet the problem of racism faced by the denomination's leaders is hardly unique to the PCA. Other denominations also are trying to address historical and contemporary racism in their churches. The conflict in Black Mountain thus reflects the larger struggle of many Christians in the United States to deal with the bigotry in their churches' pasts by grappling with the remnants that persist today.

"The hope that a congregation and a denomination might prosper in this day and age while harboring a defense of racism — that's just preposterous," said Joel Belz, a former moderator of the PCA's national governing body. "Presbyterianism in the South has to carry a special burden because early Presbyterians there sometimes defended what can only be described as racist perspectives. Because of those historical roots, we have an additional responsibility to be clear about what we believe on the subject."

Teachings 'From the Pit of Hell'
For Bulkeley, who became pastor of Friendship nearly a decade ago, the E-mail exchange with Payne in late 2007 was a turning point. Over the years, he'd heard Payne make derogatory comments about blacks, Jews and Mexicans, even suggesting that blacks were meant to be slaves. Previously, Bulkeley had assumed the bigoted statements were merely traces of old views that Payne no longer truly held. Now, the pastor felt he could no longer defend Payne. "The church has a reputation of being a racist or white supremacist church," he wrote in a February 2008 memo recommending to the governing council of Friendship that Payne resign as a church elder.

Payne denied in church documents that he made the comments about blacks and slavery. In a statement sent to the Intelligence Report, Payne and his supporters also denied that the E-mails to Bulkeley "had any racist intent" and compared Bulkeley's criticisms of Payne to an "unholy jihad."

Payne also defended the E-mails several months after he sent them, telling Friendship members at a meeting that he wasn't ashamed of his statements. "I do believe that there is a superior race as far as intelligence testing goes — the Oriental race," he said in June 2008. "So if I am an Oriental supremacist, then shoot me because that's what to me IQ testing shows, is the Orientals score on top. Then white people, then brown people, then black people."

Payne and his allies (including his large extended family) tried repeatedly to get Bulkeley fired. At the June 2008 meeting, the roughly 50 adult members of Friendship voted narrowly against firing Bulkeley. In an even closer vote, they opted to remove Payne as an elder. Payne's supporters went on to file several official complaints against Bulkeley with the Western Carolina Presbytery, the regional governing body for Friendship and 30 other Asheville-area PCA churches.

"Here's a church that previously had been a peaceful community church, and then they were divided right down the middle, with a slim majority supporting the pastor," said the Rev. Jeff Hutchinson, who served as moderator of the presbytery during that period. The presbytery was also at odds, with about one-third initially opposing Bulkeley. (Most of the presbytery now supports him.) "You had longtime friends who were disagreeing with great dismay," Hutchinson said, "and that was one of the most heartbreaking things for me."

It wasn't long before Payne's brother-in-law, Kirk Lyons, became a key figure in the dispute. Lyons, whose Southern Legal Resource Center (where Payne serves on the board) in Black Mountain effectively serves as the legal arm of the neo-Confederate movement, repeatedly intervened on behalf of Payne and Payne's in-laws. One incident stemmed from a sermon Bulkeley preached in September 2008. In it, he condemned the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, saying its leader taught that Nazism was the "racial order" of God and that Jews should be eliminated. "This teaching was evil," Bulkeley told his congregation. "It is heretical. It is from the pit of hell and it's a direct offense against the gospel. There should be no mistake about that. It is completely contrary to everything the Bible teaches."

The next Sunday, just before the worship service, Lyons confronted Bulkeley outside the sanctuary and told him it was wrong to preach against the teachings of the Aryan Nations in front of his in-laws, Charles and Betty Tate, who had once been prominent members of the group. (In 1990, Payne and Lyons married the Tates' daughters in a double wedding ceremony at the neo-Nazi group's Idaho compound. Former Texas Klan leader Louis Beam was their best man.) Although Bulkeley hadn't referred to the Tates during his sermon, Lyons contended that the pastor's message amounted to an attack on his in-laws. He vowed to interrupt the service if Bulkeley preached about the Aryan Nations again that morning.

Bulkeley was undeterred. "Please understand that the abominable teachings of the Aryan Nations/Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Richard Butler are going to be condemned and denounced very publicly and unambiguously from Friendship's pulpit," he wrote three days later in a letter to Lyons. (The Church of Jesus Christ Christian was the religious name given to Aryan Nations by its late founder, Richard Butler.)

Lyons — who in an E-mail to the Intelligence Report didn't deny the incident but maintained that he "in no way told Craig what he should preach" — responded by filing further charges against the pastor on behalf of himself and the Tates. He alleged that Bulkeley had "fail[ed] in his pastoral obligations" in part because he "denounced and humiliated these two parishioners from the pulpit" and spread his opinion of the Aryan Nations throughout the presbytery. The presbytery ultimately dismissed all charges against Bulkeley.

The Right Thing
Last fall, the debate went beyond the presbytery to the PCA's 24-member Standing Judicial Commission, the denomination's highest court. Bulkeley and Hutchinson were unsuccessful in getting the commission to rule that the presbytery had not gone far enough in condemning Payne's views and censuring him. The two presbytery members opposing them included Morton Smith, a founder of the PCA. Smith, who declined to speak with the Intelligence Report, has said in past interviews that interracial marriage is wrong and that racial segregation is acceptable so long as it's "separate but equal."

In response to one of the commission's decisions, however, the presbytery formed a committee to privately try to help Payne realize that he was guilty of the sin of racism. Payne refused to meet with them. Rather than face a formal ecclesiastical charge, he asked to be "erased" from Friendship's membership roll, essentially excommunicating himself from the church. Friendship's governing body noted that the removal constituted an act of pastoral discipline.

Of Payne's most ardent supporters at Friendship, only Lyons has not left the church. Though he's no longer attending services at Friendship, Lyons — who has lost most of his secular battles over neo-Confederate "heritage violations" — wants to continue his quixotic quest to triumph over Bulkeley in PCA courts. "White supremacism, racism, has absolutely nothing to do with the issues," he insisted in a brief phone interview with the Intelligence Report. "Anything else is a falsehood and a defamation and an excuse."

Meanwhile, two Asheville-area PCA churches have drafted statements denouncing racism that the presbytery will likely adopt this summer. One of them responds specifically to the local controversy by, among other things, asserting that interracial marriage is not a sin.

For its part, Friendship is starting to see more faces at its worship services now that the Payne and Lyons families aren't attending. And that's especially gratifying for the PCA leaders who have been battling racism in their pews. "It's not enough to simply not commit sins of commission," Hutchinson said. "We have to also do the right thing."