White evangelical leaders hesitated to criticize President Trump after he ordered police and military authorities to use tear gas and rubber bullets to remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park near the White House so he could get his picture taken in front of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Trump’s purpose in creating the photo op was not immediately clear, but it hardly seems a stretch to imagine it was a signal to his most ardent Christian supporters that they could count on him to restore law and order to America’s streets. After all, his actions came only moments after promising in a Rose Garden speech to overwhelm beleaguered cities with force — even American soldiers to help calm things down.
From the beginning, white evangelicals have been among Trump’s staunchest supporters. Eighty-one percent of these believers voted for him to be president, and although his support with them has declined some over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, they remain crucial to his re-election chances. But last week’s stunt begs the question as to whether evangelicals will allow their faith to be a prop in the president’s re-election campaign.
As the nation comes undone over racial injustice, American evangelicals are revisiting a conversation, one that foregrounds racial reconciliation and minimizes the nation’s long history of racial violence and racial oppression. This emphasis on reconciliation situates the problem of racism as being solvable through creating understanding and building relationships. If whites and blacks would only come together as friends to acknowledge and forgive the past, the nation could heal.
Crucially, this reconciliation is framed as two-sided. It is about restoration and imagines a past based in equality.
It is easy to understand why an ideal of reconciliation might be appealing. Many conservative white evangelicals idealize their role in the abolitionist movement of the antebellum era, and also believe the nation’s more traditional, faith-infused past was better than its secular present. To focus on forgiveness and re-creation fosters a worldview, even a worldview about race, based in nostalgia and individualism, rather than one about structural injustice or the possibility of persistent and ongoing national flaws. This focus gets intensified because white evangelicals also tend to believe theirs is the foundational faith, which is to say the central thread of the nation’s origin story. If everyone would re-embrace the Christian beginning, most of the country’s problems would disappear. Reconciliation represents a shortcut. Where racism exists or black people struggle, it is because individual people have hate in their hearts or have made bad choices. The underlying system is good. Only the people need to change.
But reconciliation cannot bring George Floyd back to life. Reconciliation cannot make Central Park an uncomplicated site for Christian Cooper’s birdwatching. And reconciliation cannot make Georgia’s neighborhood streets unfailingly safe for the next Ahmaud Arbery. That’s because reconciliation refuses to look at what is really going on, or to confront the history of racism written into the very documents and history of the American founding.
Instead, reconciliation returns the burden of relationship to the victims of discrimination, and asks them to feel safe inside a system that has perpetuated continuing harm. As part of my research into the politics and worldviews of American evangelicals, I have listened to pastors talk about the nation’s problem with race and racism. I have heard leaders of the nation’s largest churches, from California to Minnesota, and from Washington to Florida, deliver messages that urged love over hate or taking seriously the problem of racial inequality.
Evangelical pastors have spoken with conviction about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and more. But these messages almost always emphasized how white Americans with good motives were not really culpable for what was happening, and also had the potential to join with black Americans to save — to reconcile — both their relationships and the true nation as it was always intended to be. This very conversation — goodhearted though it may have been intended — failed to foreground black voices or black experience.
For example, in October 2016, Keven Myers of 12Stone Church near Atlanta, moderated a discussion with three black members of his congregation. Myers talked about white privilege, Black Lives Matter, and how his church could help build “unity” in the greater-Atlanta region. In so doing, Myers described racism as first a “spiritual” issue that happened “to be a political issue as well.”
By emphasizing the presumed spiritual side of a discussion about race and downplaying the politics, Myers encouraged his congregation to understand racism as a sin problem. If individuals would change or behave like Jesus, there would be no problems with police violence against people of color, no racial hatred and systems of privilege would give out under the weight of Christian love.
But racism is all about politics, and it always has been. The Constitution — the very document evangelicals like Myers so laud — is a political document that includes the 3/5 compromise that counted slaves as partial people. Trying to undo that sin has required a civil war, three amendments, the unfinished work of the civil rights movement and today’s protests of police murders in the street. When evangelicals refuse the politics of reparations and restoration, including affirmative action and perhaps financial payments to constituencies of color, but embrace a nostalgic founding based in traditional values, they neglect to remember how the violence of today was approved by the compromises that began in 1792.
Reconciliation has value. Improved relationships matter. But conservative evangelicals can do better. The problem with a reconciliation-only approach is it promotes a partial solution and also maintains a logic of limited blame. It allows evangelicals to acknowledge racial injustice, while also pretending to rise above it or abjure their own benefit. But these attitudes are of little use to the aforementioned Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, an ER technician shot dead in a police raid of her Louisville home in March.
In his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” Martin Luther King Jr. said that black Americans had come to lay claim to a constitutional “promissory note” that all too often had “come back marked “insufficient funds.”
American evangelicals: the time has come to pay up.