As a white kid growing up in rural Alabama, I was exposed to a lot of church and a lot of racism at an early age. I’ve attended churches that were overtly racist, where people felt free to make racist jokes and say that marrying someone of another race was Biblically forbidden. I’ve also attended churches that overtly decried racism, but where white men occupied all leadership positions and the congregants were unwilling to examine potential racism in their lives and political beliefs. I’ve been guilty of these failings, too. Rather than shy away from the challenge of examining ourselves and our political beliefs, it is time to step into the light. Many white Christian Republicans say their politics are shaped by an ethic of personal responsibility. Anyone who truly values personal responsibility should consider their duty to thoroughly investigate whether the policies and politicians they support hurt others. To do any less is to fail to meet one’s obligations to the body of believers.
We fail to meet our duty when we express sorrow for past wrongs without trying to correct them. In many of the churches I’ve attended as an adult, white pastors have mourned the blight of racism in our church and country. These leaders have done so with sincerity, expressing deep feelings of repentance for the negative effects of slavery. Almost everyone in the congregation agrees with these sentiments. Most of us within the church hate the idea of racism. Yet, in spite of this emotional response to the evils of racism, this regret for crimes committed by our ancestors—within the congregation, almost nothing changes. Rather than becoming more enlightened by seeking out diverse views about politics and race and culture, most churchgoers remain entrenched in their beliefs and want to silence those who oppose them.
A recent article in The New York Times addressed how many multi-ethnic evangelical churches that once boasted they reflected the diversity of America are diverse no more. When African-American churchgoers were interviewed about why they were leaving these churches, they revealed that white church leaders and congregants promoted their own political and social beliefs and were hostile to other members’ beliefs and experiences with racism. One of the most shocking examples from the article is a white church member telling her African-American friend that the spirit of God had chosen Donald Trump, whereas Barack Obama’s presidency was a mistake because he wasn’t born in America. Apparently, the God she believed was capable of using a foul-mouthed reality show host as a vessel was totally perplexed by a fake birth certificate. Then the white church member encouraged her friend to leave the church if she objected to the church’s politics.
I truly believe there is hope for some white evangelicals to realize their political beliefs are not shaped by the teachings of Jesus but by an irreligious political propaganda. One day, this woman may realize she is just a pawn to politicians who wear Christianity like a brand name and don’t understand what it is. Clearly, evangelicals have a better chance of understanding the complexity of divisive societal issues if they carefully consider diverse perspectives from within their own congregation.
It is baffling and troubling that white church leaders and churchgoers who are educated, powerful, and passionate about ending racism often fail to examine their politics and opinions about systemic racism. In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found in approximately 2,200 interviews that evangelicals mostly saw no discrimination against blacks in America. That was in 2001. In 2016, 80% of white evangelicals backed Trump (a man whose personal life and public persona are far-removed from the message of the Sermon on the Mount). These people might cry about slavery and pray for an end to racism, but they openly support candidates whose platforms are hostile to people of other races and backgrounds. For people in this camp, I ask them to hold themselves to their most cherished political standard: personal responsibility.
Politicians often say they have the guts to make tough political choices because it’s important to hold people accountable. With this line of thinking, people struggling to pay their bills should get a job instead of receiving help from the government, and people who want leadership positions and university degrees need to put their noses to the grindstone and stop worrying about barriers and discrimination. I frequently encounter Christians who say they are sick of hearing about systemic racism, white privilege, and publicized incidents of male abuse, yet who have never tried to listen empathetically to people who say they have been harmed by these issues.
Before people automatically vote for one party and promote that party’s beliefs in church because it’s “God’s party,” I ask that they have the personal responsibility to expose themselves to deeply opposing ideas. For me, it’s difficult to walk into most mainline white churches and small groups without hearing someone angrily complain about liberals. Opposing viewpoints are often received with anger and skepticism, as the above New York Times article indicates.
To my friends who value personal responsibility—before we take a stand on political and social issues that impact other people, we have a personal responsibility to ask them about their experiences. If we do not talk to people directly impacted by the policies we support, we haven’t done our research. While considering their perspectives, please also consider Biblical wisdom about caring for strangers and newcomers, sharing what we have instead of hoarding it, supporting the poor and oppressed, and abhorring favoritism. We have a spiritual and social duty to support other people, and effectively supporting people means listening to their self-described situations and needs.
I don’t say this as someone who has it all figured out. I lack perspective on many issues, sometimes because I’m too lazy to do research or to have uncomfortable conversations. I get it! But I’m proposing that one way forward for white churchgoers is to realize that the promotion of some of the political and social beliefs we hold most dear is weakening the Church. Politics has become an idol. We must tear it down. We might be unknowingly promoting the very discrimination we hate. If we can be more open to others’ opinions and learn to listen attentively instead of always trying to prove our points, we might learn something new. If educating oneself is a personal responsibility, then we should consider what we can do to better fulfill our duties. By educating ourselves, perhaps we can do our part to restore the effectiveness and unity of the church. As Jesus said, they would know us by our love, not our hate.
Ivy Grimes is a recent Virginian, a lifelong Alabamian, a lawyer, a teacher, a writer, and above all a reconciler. Her email is [email protected]. If you’d like to read more of her ponderings, you can find them at www.ivyivyivyivy.com.
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