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Have Religious Leaders Been Too Complacent In the Fight Against Racial Discrimination? Some Say Yes

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The rise of the so-called alt-right movement has brought attention to alt-Christianity, the present-day theological underpinnings of a rebranded white nationalist movement. An assemblage of white supremacist, Klan, neo-Nazi and other groups, supportive of and bolstered by Trump, their ideology is like a religion used to justify their extremism and racial violence. Some white clergy have become cheerleaders for white supremacy by enabling the current president and helping to create the current racially caustic American political environment. Other religious leaders have been complicit by failing to speak out against the injustices of the day.

White evangelical Protestants voted overwhelmingly for Trump—at 81 percent versus 16 percent for Clinton, according to Pew Research. The president’s approval rating among this demographic has been twice as high as that of the general public in recent months at 78 percent. Among those prominent evangelical clergy who support Trump are Franklin Graham, who said God had a hand in electing Trump, and blamed Satan for Charlottesville. Another evangelical Trump supporter, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, defended Trump’s comparison of white supremacists and antifascist protesters, amid some alumni returning their diplomas in protest. The recent laying of hands by evangelical pastors on President Trump — who has promoted racial intolerance and discrimination in his policies and his own personal history, and has reluctantly and halfheartedly condemned white supremacy — causes critics to wonder what kind of Christianity they practice, and what type of Jesus they worship.

Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina, a social justice leader who himself is a progressive Black evangelical, characterized the photo as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy,” criticizing politicians such as Trump who hide behind religion to enact hurtful policies.  “When you can p-r-a-y for a president and others while they are p-r-e-y, preying on the most vulnerable, you’re violating the most sacred principles of religion,” Barber told Joy Reid on MSNBC.

Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., told the Washington Post that the religious community must view the events in Charlottesville as a symptom of their failure. Lamar offered that the current political climate is as much an example of theological malpractice as political malpractice, with Black pastors failing to speak out and stand up. “The movement of Jesus was violently persecuted by Rome and religious leaders who served as chaplains to the empire. Today, many who claim Christian faith are fully aligned with the American empire and are fully supportive of the racialized violence and oppression that has funded and still funds this empire,” Rev. Lamar said, claiming churches must confess their loyalty to whiteness if there is any hope of improvement. “They helped to elect this president who morally equates white supremacists [with] those whom they oppress. They are satisfied with vague notions of personal salvation while not giving a damn about the sociopolitical and economic hell which assails many around the world. Jesus preached that the reign of God is now, not tomorrow.”

The violent, angry and young white supremacist men who support Trump adhere to an extremist ideology that is as much part of a religious movement as a political phenomenon. As Time reported, marginalized, alienated young white men become radicalized out of a search for identity, community and a sense of purpose — what all religions provide. As traditional Christian churches wane, white nationalists bond with rituals such as Nazi torch lighting ceremonies, and an ideology that facilitates racial violence.

The dynamics at play today, of white churches preaching white supremacy from the pulpit and failing to speak out against it, are nothing new. White Christianity always furthered racial injustice, even sanctioned slavery and justified Jim Crow segregation in the name of Jesus. The savage lynching of Black bodies was a religious ritual of Southern Christian evangelicalism, serving a white God that demanded purity of white women free from the racial contamination of Black men.

Moderate white clergy, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, stood silent or warned Black people not to move too fast on civil rights or engage in direct action, sit-ins, demonstrations and marches. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his grave disappointment with the white moderate. He realized that the oppressor would not voluntary give freedom, that the oppressed must demand it. Blacks have waited hundreds of years for their constitutional and God-given rights, he noted, and those who have never faced racism demand that they wait: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” King said. The civil rights leader noted the white moderate is one “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Formed in 1845 explicitly in support of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution decrying all forms of racism such as alt-right white supremacy as “antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and denouncing and repudiating white supremacy and racial and ethnic hatred as “a scheme of the devil.” The resolution passed amid chaos, following a period where the denomination initially refused to consider the proposal by Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor from Arlington, Texas.

Despite this apparent coming to Jesus moment for a church founded to maintain white supremacy and perpetuate the enslavement of African people, the Southern Baptists have a long way to go. One Black member of the convention, Lawrence Ware, decided he had seen enough and it was time for him to leave an organization that supported Trump and was complicit in the rise of the alt-right. In a New York Times op-ed, Ware said he loves the church but loves Black people more. While a number of convention leaders opposed Trump and the alt-right, Ware noted, the Southern Baptist Convention, for all of its Jesus talk, has been inactive on addressing racism. Citing incidents such as five Southern Baptist professors who dressed up as gangsta rappers, and the time he was called a n*gger at a retreat and told to turn the other cheek, Ware added the church has not done enough “to address the institutional nature of white supremacy in the convention. Many churches are still hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement, and even more were silent during the rise of Mr. Trump and the so-called alt-right.”

“White supremacy and racism deny the dignity of each human being revealed through the Incarnation. The evil of white supremacy and racism must be brought face-to-face before the figure of Jesus Christ, who cannot be confined to any one culture or nationality,” read a recent statement from 400 Christian ethicists and theologians called “A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism.” The statement, which frames racism as a Christian problem, rejects “racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God’s image.”

White Christians have failed to contend with America’s original sin of slavery. Simply being non-racist as opposed to anti-racist is to silently accept the benefits of white supremacy. Many Black Christians have spoken out on this new era where white supremacy is on the rise. Yet, white society remains in denial on the country’s racial toxicity. Recent polling found that while 80 percent of Black Protestants believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism, significant majorities of white Christians — from 61 to 72 percent — believe the flag represents Southern pride. Over 150 years after the Civil War was fought, however, white so-called Christian lawmakers threaten to lynch those who dare vandalize or remove Confederate monuments.

White Christians must retreat from the Confederate cause they love so much, and extricate themselves from the policies of white supremacy, which their politicians promote on the federal and state level. White folks who claim to love Jesus Christ — a man who was a drum major for social justice — advocate for voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, police brutality and mass incarceration, increased economic inequality and the removal of Black students from college admissions. If America is to fight racial discrimination, white Christians must acknowledge the fundamental role that white supremacy has played and continues to play in white Christianity.

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