Whitworth professor uncovers history of how people of faith influence policies
Dale Soden, history professor at Whitworth University for 36 years, recently received recognition for his research and publications on the political and social influence of Pacific Northwest individuals motivated by their faith.
For his contributions to the study and teaching of Pacific Northwest history, the Washington State Historical Society awarded him the Robert Gray Medal—named for the first recorded American to navigate into the Columbia River.
A focus of his current work is on the role of African-American pastors and churches in civil rights on the West Coast.
Dale is campus historian. He wrote An Enduring Venture of Mind and Heart: An Illustrated History of Whitworth University. He also helped establish a special collection for Protestant materials in the Pacific Northwest at the Whitworth University Library.
His classes have covered American intellectual history, religious history, popular culture, great trials, history after the Civil War, history of financial collapse, history of the Vietnam War and Northwest history.
For a January 2019 class, Dale had a 1973 Whitworth graduate and Vietnam veteran to meet with and embrace a Vietnamese soldier he may have fought against. His 10 students said the encounter was a life-changing lesson.
His teaching style includes sharing his love of folk-protest songs from the 1960s.
Growing up Lutheran in Seattle, while studying history at Pacific Lutheran University, he realized how his opposition to the Vietnam War differed from his grandfather, who fought in World War I, and father, who fought in World War II. His father linked his belief in country and conservative politics with patriotism.
"I considered myself liberal, not radical," Dale said. "I believed we were in Vietnam for the wrong reasons and should have withdrawn earlier. Most of my peers who were Christian differed from their parents, too. Religious impulses led to protest against the war.
"Lutherans are not pacifists, but we read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's resistance to Nazism and were concerned that most Germans acquiesced," Dale said. "I realized we could not be passive."
In 1973, he earned a bachelor's in history, then a master's in 1976 and a doctoral degree in 1980 at the University of Washington. After teaching five years at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla., he came to Whitworth in 1985.
"My interest is explaining the impact of social, political, economic and religious forces on American culture and life in the Northwest before and during the last 100 years," he said. "I teach history of the late 19th and the 20th century through the prism of the present. How did we get to where we are?"
Interest in integrating faith and learning led him to help form Whitworth's Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning in 1998.
Dale is fascinated that the Northwest—the "least-churched" area of the U.S.—has been significantly influenced by people with religious convictions.
"While threads of Christianity have evolved away from mainline Protestants and Catholics toward non-denominational and evangelical churches, mainline churches have had a strong influence in public policy on social justice through the Faith Action Network in Olympia and the Oregon Council of Ecumenical Ministries in Salem," he said, adding that nondenominational and evangelical churches have recently addressed human trafficking, poverty and homelessness.
In his first book, The Rev. Mark Matthews: Activist in the Progressive Era, published by the University of Washington Press, Dale discusses how the pastor of one of Seattle's biggest churches reached thousands through a radio ministry, a new media then.
Today Dale believes that after the pandemic, tech media will impact the ways people worship.
"It will not destroy individual congregations but will affect them," he said.
On the intersection of economics and politics, he said an ongoing challenge is to make sure capitalism, which overwhelmingly benefits those with resources, does not make it too difficult for people to move up the ladder.
"The wealth gap is a challenge we have tried to manage for more than 100 years. The church works to prevent the economy from overly benefitting the few at the expense of the many," he said. "There is no question our economic system has provided opportunity for people to rise, but from the late 19th century to the present, we have seen capitalism increase the gap and so we needed to create a safety net.
"Racism, sexism, discrimination against gays and lesbians are ongoing challenges," Dale continued. "We live in a culture struggling with white supremacy, male power and homophobia. Christians are not of one mind on those issues."
He said some pastors, preachers and theologians use the Bible to justify their previous views.
"Religion can provide critique of or reinforcement of beliefs," he said. "Many do not develop a critical religious view until they have adopted a political, economic or social view. Children learn Bible stories. Later they use religion as a lens to affirm or critique social or political values."
While Dale sees this era as different from the 1960s when there was an unpopular war and an anti-war movement, he sees comparisons of the civil rights/black power movements then with today's Black Lives Matters protests after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, recasting the focus to policing.
In both times, protests stirred politicians to call for "law and order." A difference is more white people are involved now, he said.
"Sadly, even with the election of Barack Obama, social and political changes have been exceedingly slow. In the early 1960s, there was hope Americans could change attitudes, practices and policies on race because of the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty and housing laws. Many feel we did not change hearts and minds, because black people still experience more fear than whites."
From studying the Northwest's history of race, Dale advocates for racial justice and supports Whitworth's move to have more diverse faculty, students and classes.
He wrote on black churches and pastors on the West Coast from 1850 to 2000 in Seattle and Portland in Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History by Oregon State University Press.
Next, he will focus on churches in the Bay area and Los Angeles.
"I discuss activism among black pastors and churches, and how religious leaders influence issues to make the world a better place," he said. "In early days, black pastors fought laws restricting blacks. Oregon attempted to exclude blacks, so few settled there."
In 1890, Calvary Baptist and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal churches formed in Spokane. Because there were few African Americans here, churches were havens for them. Early incidents led the NAACP to form in Spokane in 1919.
From World War II to the mid-1950s, Dale said West Coast black pastors were activists, setting the stage for the mid-1960s to 1970s civil rights movement. The drug war in the 1980s and 1990s took a toll on black communities, he said.
"Since the 1960s, many black pastors have navigated between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. on black empowerment, depending less on white liberals and government to address justice issues," Dale said.
As a white history professor at a white Christian university identifying documents and facts to tell the story, he said history is about making selections.
Despite that, Dale said a black pastor friend in Oakland and black pastors he has interviewed keep encouraging him to tell the story.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2020