A few weeks ago as I was leaving church after the Sunday morning service, I spoke with one of my friends about the unraveling of our democracy. The conversation turned to his father — in his 90s and a Trump supporter. My friend told me that his father only watches Fox News to get information and has no tolerance for information factual or otherwise that counters the narrative he hears on Fox. When my friend confronts his father about blatant and deliberately misleading statements from what has essentially become Trump News, his father declares unequivocally that the mainstream media is the one putting out lies.
And so a family rift has developed between my friend and the father he loves.
Except for those in isolation, most Americans are experiencing such tensions in some of their closest relationships. Bonds are fraying in families, neighborhoods, businesses, civic organizations, schools and faith communities to a degree not witnessed since the Civil War. As we know, that horrific conflict pitted families against one another in national bloodshed. Slavery was ultimately crushed and our union was stitched back together, but not before brother fought against brother, father against son. Families went to pieces right along with the nation.
During the four-year Civil War, propagandists for slavery surfaced at every level of society, from statehouses to courthouses, from newspaper offices to college lecture halls, from bars to pulpits, from kitchen tables to bedrooms. And like Republican Party leadership today, these propagandists drank deeply from a well of maniacal, self-serving, us-against-them ideology: Slavery was God-ordained! While the propagandists then had no Fox News to indoctrinate the fold, the media of the mid-1800s in the South were dominated by voices of oppressors who had enslaved an entire population of Americans. Non-slave-owning whites were — with notable exceptions — the enablers of the slave owners. Voices of liberation were mostly silenced in the forests and cotton fields from South Carolina to Texas.
Unfortunately, many of my ancestors in Texas were part of this oppressive regime. Some Burlesons owned slaves; most Burlesons may not have owned slaves but nonetheless plowed blood and treasure into supporting the South’s fight to perpetuate slavery. In fact, Burlesons were willing to die to preserve a way of life propped up by one of the vilest evils in history. All benefited by oppression of African Americans both before and after the War Between the States.
Rev. Rufus Burleson
While some members of my family such Gen. Edward Burleson, once vice president of the Republic of Texas, led in advocating white supremacy over African Americans and Native Americans, others such as Rev. Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor University, eventually became advocates for the rights of blacks. The change of heart did not happen overnight for this preacher-educator. When the Civil War began, Rufus Burleson was a chaplain on the side of the South, enabling their cause. Years later, after the North had won the war, he traveled all over Texas giving speeches to encourage towns to support free public education that included schooling the children of freed slaves. He also helped raise money for the establishment of Bishop College for African Americans.
Since Judge R.E.B. Baylor, for whom the university is named, was a slave owner, Rev. Burleson’s early advocacy for civil rights is remarkable, perhaps even singular among Burlesons at the time. Most of my ancestors (unlike Uncle Rufus) proudly bolstered the Jim Crow South once the war was over and Reconstruction collapsed. This legacy of discrimination lasted a long, long time. In fact, the Lost Cause narrative that gave rise to it defined several generations.
As a child growing up in Texas in the 1950s and ’60s, I found the racial prejudice in my extended family and neighborhoods was deep and pervasive. I was taught in school that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ rights — an example of revisionist history if it ever existed. The propaganda machinery went unchecked in the South for at least 100 years after the Civil War. In some quarters it continues today and has, in fact, been given new life through white supremacists emboldened by President Trump. Growing up, I learned from extended family members that slavery was not evil but rather a “peculiar institution” beneficial for African Americans and good for America. As a boy, I heard happy statements like, “Did you know that most slaves chose to stay with their slave owners after the Civil War ended?”
The message was clear: Slaves once in human bondage loved their masters so much they just wanted to remain in one big happy family. These sentiments were expressed at family gatherings and celebrations in willful ignorance of the depredation caused by an institution in which the recently freed had nowhere else to go, no way to survive except to stay with former slave owners who had treated them as their property, their chattel. These Southern myths were meant to assuage any collective societal guilt for enabling the political, religious and civic powers of oppression, past and present.
Myths can last for decades, even a century or more. When renowned Civil War historian Shelby Foote, resolutely Southern author of a three-volume history, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” spoke at the Beall Russell Lecture for the Humanities at Baylor University in 2002, he made the statement that slavery was ultimately “good” for African Americans because it took them out of primitive Africa. He said this “peculiar institution” allowed them to escape the Rwandan genocide! Many of us in the audience put our heads in our hands upon hearing this tired minimizing of America’s original sin.
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery. Baptists in the South sold their souls by separating from their northern Baptist brothers and sisters in preference for that “peculiar institution.” It took 150 years for the SBC to publicly apologize for support of slavery, asking forgiveness from “all African Americans.” Yet today the SBC again stands on the wrong side of history as its leaders openly support a racist in the White House. First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. have become the grand enablers of Trump as SBC congregations large and small across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and beyond voice adoration and awe for this president.
A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates 98% of Republican white evangelical Protestants oppose impeachment — significantly more than any other religious group surveyed. In Waco, punch-drunk evangelicals have either kept silent or openly supported Trump and his actions. One evangelical pastor — a friend of mine — defends Trump’s inhumane border policy, writing in this very newspaper that it “offered compassion” and “that it is an honor to serve on the Board of Latinos for Trump.” This reminds me of some Lutheran pastors and Catholic priests’ tacit and not-so-tacit support of Hitler’s “compassion” camps for Jews in World War II that separated families.
Evangelicals and evil
Christians surely should ponder this much: The Trump administration deliberately inflicted trauma upon children as a deterrent, an action morally repugnant and contrary to international law and biblical tenets. This action is indefensible. Yet many evangelicals are OK with taking the evil with the good. I often hear evangelicals say they don’t like the Trump tweets but tolerate them because of Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court, placing justices who stand ready to dutifully overturn Roe v. Wade. Like Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of porridge in Genesis, these evangelicals claim mightily to be “pro-life,” even as they enable and endorse a government that separates vulnerable children from desperate parents at the border, that orders immigrant children in need of lifesaving health care to return to their country of origin where such care does not exist, that encourages and excuses white supremacists’ violence, that tries to dismantle health care for millions of Americans, that precipitously withdraws troops from Syria leaving Kurdish men, women and children to face potential genocide, that refuses to do anything about the epidemic of gun violence in America, that guts the Environmental Protection Agency’s role in conserving clean air, clean water and other natural resources, that ignores the climate change so obviously threatening all human and animal life on the planet. This is pro-death, not pro-life. Yet Republican support for Trump remains sky-high — at least among those still willing to identify themselves as Republican to inquiring pollsters.
While recent surveys suggest younger generations of Americans are fed up with Republicans and their right-wing misogyny, homophobia, racism, greed and xenophobia, millions of other Americans — from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers — are entrenched in an ideological swamp that supports this president and his minions (some now under indictment or in prison). My church friend’s father, now in his 90s, will not be around many more years. He is likely to continue watching Fox News and its soul-snatching, mind-numbing, truth-bending embrace of Trump and his enablers till his last breath. And what of Trump disciples in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will live among us several more decades after Trump is removed from office, resigns or is defeated in 2020? Like the neo-Nazis in Europe and America, those voting for him and thus enabling him will likely continue to believe what they believe now — that he is a great president. They’re so caught up in a vortex of misinformation, mythology and falsehoods that they will remain in his axis till their dying days.
And the rest of us? When evil is called good, there can be no common ground on which to stand. At least, for now. Some relationships will be and must be broken. It’s not “just politics.” Lives are being lost — on our borders, in our schools, in our hospitals — because of Republican and evangelical enabling of Trump. Their endorsement is inexcusable and history will show little mercy. When the propagandist machine of Fox News, right-wing radio and evangelical pastors have twisted hard facts, surrendered constitutional principles and abandoned biblical tenets so that millions remain in an abyss of lies, a point eventually arrives when there can be no further conversation. One must walk away from the enablers and the sycophants and seek faith and renewal in the truth and the light.