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The Uneasy Evangelical Ethnic Alliance
It’s been more difficult to be an African-American and an “Evangelical” or “Reformed” these last few years. It was never an easily negotiated identity or space. But a certain quietude about matters of “race” and racism made it possible to enjoy a measure of unity in theological matters and some seeming trust as spiritual family. A degree of political affinity, defined largely by the obvious wrongs we opposed, created a co-belligerence that kept our eyes off our differing political needs and emphases along ethnic lines. Suspicion and mistrust were kept at bay by a tacit sense that some things were more important.
For many, all of that is over, like childhood summers remembered fondly but blurring in the fading distance of time. Things are more difficult in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin, Mya Hall, Mike Brown, Alexia Christian, Tamir Rice, Meagan Hockaday, John Crawford, Sandra Bland, the Charleston Nine, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Natasha McKenna, Freddie Gray. Things are less quiet following the various grand jury decisions that seemed once again to betray African-American pleas for a recognized humanity. Not that all those cases were the same or deserved the same outcome. They weren’t and didn’t. What was the same in each instance was the dreadful sense that African-American lives were nothing to be respected, protected or celebrated. What was largely the same in those instances was an encounter with what generally felt like white American and Christian indifference, antipathy and resentment. It didn’t matter if the life belonged to a 12-year old boy playing in a park or saints of various ages welcoming a stranger into their prayer meeting. The “respectable” and “dignified” were assaulted and the “unrespectable” and “undignified” further vilified and thuggerized. Many Christians felt that once again our best theology was failing to produce our best behavior—across the board, black and white, male and female.
The Trump Card Played at the Worst Time
Then came Trump.
We laughed at first. We thought it good theater. Then our laughter turned to unbelief. How could this man even be in the Republican primary, much less leading? Disbelief gave way to disdain toward those who filled stadiums supporting Trump. Who were they? Where were they coming from? Do they have an education—or teeth? So we questioned in our disdain and superiority. But they were there in the millions and—shockingly for some—they not only identified as Republicans but also “Evangelicals.” A lot of them.
Somewhere along the way some began to say #NeverTrump. But it was all too late. He’d bested every professional contender in the primary and was poised to receive the GOP nomination. He didn’t win on a technicality or through some bizarre trick with the rules. He won it outright and by a landslide. And the inevitable began to happen. GOP opponents, insiders, and king makers began to fall in line. They offered tail-tucked whimpers about problems with tone and not appearing “presidential.” But they fell in line nonetheless.
All of this happened, of course, while most of us were still catching our collective breath from the string of shootings, video playbacks, and debates about how to understand it all. When inter-ethnic tolerance and understanding were perhaps most stressed and frayed, along came a presidential candidate terrifyingly adept at strumming the chords of racial unrest, animosity, and resentment. And as one person put it: He didn’t use the silent dog whistle of racial resentment so common in politics; he simply whistled outright and out loud to gather the disaffected.
I try to be very judicious in calling anyone a “racist.” I recognize that label sticks, paralyzes and banishes. And I recognize that some overuse it. If you review this site, you’ll find that I’ve almost never used it of specific people. But, I don’t see another term to use for Mr. Trump. And I’m not alone.
— Kathryn Freeman (@KathrynAnnette) June 7, 2016
Public Service Announcement:
Saying someone can’t do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of “racism.”
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) June 6, 2016
Paul Ryan called Donald Trump’s criticism of a Hispanic judge “racist.” But he reiterated his support for him. https://t.co/YhE8IMNHHz
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 7, 2016
The Growing Chorus Who Seems to Follow Suit
As Speaker Paul Ryan illustrates, despite identifying “textbook racist” comments in Trump, the GOP will line up to support him. Even some Evangelicals who were #NeverTrump sound a lot more like #ProbablyTrump these days. Some of them offer a soft apologetic: “Clinton is just as bad;” “At least he’d appoint conservative SCOTUS justices;” “He’s not a career politician.”
Some of these retorts are offered to African Americans whenever we point out the racism endemic to the man’s candidacy and behavior. I’ve even been asked, “Which is worse? Abortion or racism?” Though they quickly add, “This is no defense of Trump,” it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that racism rests lightly on the oft-cited conscience of some Evangelicals.
Here’s the problem with living 50 years after the American Civil Rights Movement and the de jure segregation of the land that produced it: Too many people now have no idea how every-day-horrendous-and-perilous life was under that system. And if you can’t imagine the daily stresses and sudden endangerment faced by African Americans in that system, then chances are you can’t quite fathom the alarm that survivors or students of that period have when we look at a Mr. Trump. Chances are you don’t quite appreciate the consternation felt when a brother or sister in the Lord appears to make light of racism’s evil and effects. And failing to recognize these things, you may be vulnerable to sliding over to the Trump column without due consideration of the ugliness of racism.
You also might be vulnerable to lobbing charges of racism toward African Americans and others who oppose Trump. Just the other day, I received a kind note reporting to me the concerns that some Evangelicals have expressed about my writing regarding the election. I’ve heard all the concerns before. They go something like this, with variants of emphasis:
- It’s un-Christian to vote for a Democrat.
- Any consideration of a Democrat makes you a baby killer, a supporter of abortion.
- Any positive mention of a Democrat means you’re endorsing them and all they stand for, especially the worse parts of their beliefs and platforms.
- Abortion is the single greatest evil of our time, by which is usually meant, “Do not talk about any other issue as if it has importance.”
- If you talk about any issue other than abortion, especially a “racial issue,” then you’re idolizing “race” and betraying the unborn.
You get the picture. The uneasy coalition of inter-ethnic Evangelical concern comes collapsing down. The problem, we are told, is the injection of “race” into “everything.” The problem, we are lead to believe, is that some people would dare break ranks with evangelicalism’s political orthodoxy—GOP loyalty and single-issue voting. The problem, we are told, is that African Americans need to quit bellyaching about racism and the mirage of systemic injustice and just get on with it. We are told these things by people who seem to steadily ignore or downplay the racial elements of this election. So the chorus grows.
Setting Back Reconciliation?
Then the African American is told that he or she has “set racial reconciliation back 10 years” or more. They’ve managed with a blog post to undo all the hard work good white folks and good black folks have done to achieve peace between the people groups.
My friend, if your “reconciliation” can be undone with a blog post then you were never reconciled in the first place. If a different, more inclusive set of issues or priorities pushes you from the table, you were never truly at the table in commitment. If the simple matter of voting differently and daring to speak of it publicly causes you “to lose all respect for someone,” then you never respected them in the first place. You respected the ways you thought they were like you and you “respected” them only insofar as they were like you. You didn’t respect the right of a person to have their own mind, think their own thoughts, or act in accord with their own conscience. They must act according to your conscience. You were not reconciled across that difference.
While an outward peace existed between the groups, you patted yourself on the back and took credit for being enlightened and gracious and loving. But such virtue made wings and flew away the moment you discovered—gasp!—that that person didn’t think like you at every point. While there was no cost or inconvenience to you, you could tell yourself that progress was being made and you were a part of it. As long as uncomfortable differences along ethnic lines were muted, you sang “Kumbaya.” But when an African American began to speak about how they really felt and thought, then the old man of white supremacy—the old man that insisted he never be questioned or accused in matters of “race” and the treatment of African Americans—that man came out of hiding to demand what he’d always felt entitled to: even the mental submission of Black people to his view of the world.
Friend, wherever the preceding paragraphs above are true or accurate, then reconciliation has not been set back. Rather, reconciliation has not really been achieved. There’s a massive difference between detente and peace.
But I’m so grateful to God that the above paragraphs do not apply to a great number of Evangelicals. I’m so thankful for the many, many Evangelicals who prove themselves brethren in the Lord precisely when disagreement and distrust emerge. Those are the Evangelicals who are friends to freedom, friends to life, and friends to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those Evangelicals who say, “I disagree and I love you and I protect your right to say whatever” are the true inheritors of Christ’s love. And for them, I give God praise and continue to write in the hope that reasonable men will once again agree, disagree, concede, argue and debate with charity and mutual affirmation of one another’s dignity and humanity. And I write with the hope that a true, deep and lasting reconciliation might be achieved on a firmer basis, on the basis of Jesus Christ’s completed work on the cross and in the resurrection.
Now, on to Trump and this question of abortion and racism. For those who can still listen and who will allow me the dignity of my own thoughts (and it should be clear that I’m not asking for that dignity but asserting it), here’s how I’m thinking about the charge that I am making more of “race” and racism than I am of abortion. In general, the charge is false. But, specifically, here’s the two-point outline of my thinking.
Single Issue Voters Have No Champion for Their Single Issue
Without doubt Mrs. Clinton proves herself to be an enemy of millions of lives in the womb. Without doubt she would do nothing to curb or eliminate the abominable practice. We know that.
However, I don’t see Mr. Trump doing a thing to limit abortion or roll it back either. Not a thing. He hasn’t even made it a campaign issue. And when he’s spoken about it he’s changed his position several times IN ONE DAY. He’s not a champion I would trust.
You see, the choice is not between Hilary’s zeal for abortion and Trump’s bigotry—as if Trump were better on abortion and Clinton better on racism. There’s no tradeoff here. The two, in my opinion, are a push on abortion.
There’s At Least One Other Issue to Add to the Single Issue Nobody Champions
Now, if neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Trump will change or challenge our laws making abortion legal, then the question for me is: “What are the other set of issues these guys bring to the table?
That’s where racism gains more prominence and Trump’s open statements of bigotry and his intent to put some of it into policy becomes unbearable. When we recognize that Clinton and Trump are a push on abortion, then the message becomes, “Voter, you’re going to have abortion for the next four years either way you go. Do you want abortion and a 1950s America where racism and sexism abounded’?” That’s the question for me. And I think that’s exactly what you’d get in a “President Trump”: abortion + racism.
Again, Mr. Trump’s comments are not merely individual sentiment and personal animosity. His comments go directly to policy: register Muslims, walls against Mexicans because “they’re rapists,” questioning a judge’s competence because of his ethnicity, and so on. He’s suggesting clear religious and civil liberty violations become the law of the land. Nevermind setting reconciliation back ten years; this is setting law back sixty! This is not making America great again; it’s making America racist again.
And, oh by the way, a “President Trump” would have the help of a GOP that itself has been a refuge for far too long for racist sentiment. When neo-con architects like Karl Rove feel comfortable telling Black women they should be more thankful because he “freed them” and gave them the right to vote (see here), we shouldn’t be surprised that there are millions of minions frothing with even worse diatribe. For too long the GOP has been home to this kind of thing and I wouldn’t want the party invested with Presidential power to act on it.
Now, my suggesting I’d vote for Mrs. Clinton in order to stop the twin evils that Mr. Trump represents is no more an endorsement of Mrs. Clinton or the Democratic party than our Lord Jesus Christ telling His audience to pay taxes to Caesar was an endorsement of Caesar or of emperor worship. Most every reader who earns a wage pays their taxes without the slightest qualms about their money being an “endorsement” of this government’s every action or policy. I don’t endorse Clinton or her views on abortion, sexuality and a host of other things. Claims to the contrary are simply a disingenuous effort to skip the discussion by sullying the writer. That won’t do. There’s a greater evil afoot than my particular leaning when it comes to voting in this election. The real evils abroad are murder, racism and sexism. And I feel I must do something, however marginal, to hold the line as best as possible. I trust you do, too, even if you choose a different “something” to do.
Now if my including racism in my thinking is “idolatry,” well, so be it. But, frankly, I don’t think it is. And if it is, then we’d best recognize it’s a kind of shadow idol, the dark negative of much of white America’s idolization of its own whiteness. Racial idolatry comes in twin packs at least. It’s been that way from the moment some founders and denizens decided that whiteness would be privileged among all the so-called “races” and advantages would be given to “whites” over all others, at the expense of all others. They built their shrine to themselves and their skin color while effectively guaranteeing others would do likewise if for no other reason than survival. Logs and specks need to be checked at our own eyes.
Further, I think the folks who can only talk about abortion and can’t factor anything else into their decisions are guilty of another form of idolatry. Some make a tremendously important moral issue a “god” of sorts. Further, some make their conscience an idol by obeying their conscience instead of the whole counsel of God. For surely the Bible condemns hatred, partiality and the failure to love as much as murder. Wherever we set one part of God’s word aside with claims of conscience, then we make conscience “god.”
And we shouldn’t lose sight of this fact either: This idolizing of abortion has come at the teaching, preaching and advocacy of pastors and leaders. Some are offended that I’ve dare say these things “as a pastor.” But the church has been political for a long time and telling people how to vote for a long time. Sure, most avoided naming any candidate. But strong insistence that we only consider one issue and refuse voting for anyone who isn’t anti-abortion is, in fact, an attempt at binding the conscience in a political way in political elections. Insofar as one party has officially stood against abortion, then it’s also been a partisan binding of the conscience. That’s why so many today can’t even imagine a pro-life Democrat and can’t imagine participation in the party with the goal of changing its platform. Though the cause is just, wherever we pastors have gone too far in insisting that people’s consciences conform to our own, we’ve fostered idolatry and weakened the ability of many to consider and negotiate more complex realities.
None of this is to minimize abortion; it’s to say some have over-reached if they can’t negotiate a world where other things are on the table alongside this issue.
So, there are a lot of idols to avoid and to smash. Political parties, racial identities, moral issues and even the conscience can usurp the place of God in our lives.
Let me conclude by asking, “So what if I did ‘care more about race issues than abortion’?” What if I did think a situation or system of constant racial antagonism or outright oppression were a daily existential problem for African Americans that needed redress? Why would caring about something that affects your entire life and daily living be idolatry? And why would the white evangelical who cares about abortions that in many cases touch conscience but not their actual lives not be idolatry? Who decides that?
I’m doing my imperfect best to respond to the world as I see it unfolding. It’s an election where I take seriously the term “evil” and it’s application to the actions and policies of both candidates. If I could stop it all, I would. I can’t. I respect those who will choose to sit out the election and I wouldn’t want them to violate their conscience where God’s word is silent (see here). But my conscience finds no safe refuge in sitting out the election. I feel compelled to oppose as much as I can as effectively as I can. That means working to stop Trump in a field where there are no other viable options other than Clinton. Here I stand; so help me God.