Race, Politics, and American Christianity
January 28, 2013 3 Comments
Back in 2003, when the US went to war with Iraq, I was working in youth ministry at a primarily white church in the working-class city of Tacoma, WA. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a worship service during that time in which the preacher delivered a sermon in which he declared that John the Baptist was a patriot and, therefore, we should be patriots as well and support the war effort. More specifically, we were told that President G.W. Bush was God’s appointed for a time of trial and, therefore, we should not question but support his decisions.
Back in 2007, when Barack Obama was running for president, I was working in young adult ministry at a primarily black church in inner-city Los Angeles. The Sunday after the election, on which I was blessed to preach the sermon, many people proudly wore shirts bearing the image of President-elect Obama, and prayers were offered calling upon God to protect the soon-to-be president and to give him the wisdom required for such a position. In addition, several references were made to the “miracle” which had just occurred which many in the audience thought they would never see come to fruition – namely, a black man elected as president of the United States.
Leading up to that election I had a long conversation with my mentor from the church in Tacoma in which he professed his admiration of Sarah Palin and disbelief and inability to comprehend how a Christian, let alone the majority of a congregation, could vote for Obama in light of his position on abortion. For him, there was no way he could conceive of a justifiable reason to cast a vote for someone who supports abortion in any way. We talked about the ways that race influences politics and the complicated nature in which theological beliefs are translated into political policies and stances, but for him there was still no way that he could make sense of a “Christian” vote for a Democrat.
On a recent post in which I strongly criticized celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll’s statement on the day of the most recent inauguration, a commentor stated that “there is no hope for…conversation” between himself and those who (like me) maintain that Pres. Obama can be a Christian in light of his politics. A few days later I learned that on the Sunday following the inauguration, a man prayed at that church in Tacoma that God “please show Jesus to Obama.” Like Driscoll, this man apparently believes that Obama can not possibly be a Christian because of his political stances.
Finally, like many people out there, I’ve heard many friends from this church (and others with a similar racial composition) loudly criticize recent attempts at stricter assault weapon regulations using theological language and/or linking this political issue to abortion. Of course, I’ve also heard members of the church in inner-city LA voice their support for such legislation. Importantly, many of the members of the church in Tacoma are hunters and many of the members of the church in LA have had friends and/or family killed or injured by gun violence.
The irony here? The man who was the minister at the church in LA while I was on staff there has been invited to speak at the church in Tacoma on multiple occasions. Indeed, if you were to compare the “official” theological beliefs of both congregations they would be nearly, if not totally, identical. They make the same confessions of faith and participate in the same liturgical practices on Sunday mornings. They would, on most occassions, refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, there are many in the church in Tacoma, including those in leadership, who would declare that a Christian should never vote for a person who supports legalized abortion of any kind (or the legalization of gay marriage, for that matter). Indeed, there are probably some who, like the commentor on my previous post, believe that to vote in such a way is to prove that one is not actually a Christian. And, while many at the church in LA believe that Christians sholud not have an abortion when facing an unplanned pregnancy, I never heard anyone there equate it with murder (as is often done by members of the church in Tacoma) and know that the vast majority of the congregation usually votes for Democratic politicians in local and national elections.
What explains these different political stances and actions even though there is much theological agreement between these Christians?
As much as many want to deny it, race greatly influences the ways that people experience life in America. Of course, it is not only race which leads to these political differences (inner-city LA is quite different from Tacoma and its suburbs in a variety of ways), but race is a strong contributing factor to these differences.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center has demonstrated that race is a consistent factor in how abortion is viewed politically and morally, even among Protestants. White Protestants view it as morally wrong and believe it should be made illegal at significantly greater percentages than black Protestants. Based on the voting patters of white Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and black Protestants, it is safe to assume that these racial disparities continue across a range of political issues.
There are a variety of reasons for these disparities, but one (in the case of abortion) is surely the history of black women not being able to control their bodies throughout slavery and Jim Crow. It should be no surprise, and is totally understandable, that many black women in America don’t trust others (especially white men) to determine in advance what should be done with their bodies. White men have raped, killed, abused, and degraded their bodies for centuries, and many black women have not forgotten it even as most white people have.
In short, race impacts the experience of every American Christian. And these experiences directly influence the politics of many of the Christians in our churches. There is no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy and to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy, as is increasingly becoming the case among many white Evangelicals, is a grave mistake. And, though many would not say it in this way, there are many Christians who write off a significant portion of other Christians who are racially different than them because of their politics. In a world of increasing racial segregation (through the creation of primarily non-white urban ghettoes and primarily white suburbs and rural communities), people are still attending churches that are racially monolithic. This reality creates the environment in which people come to believe that their political beliefs (greatly influenced by racial experiences) are THE Christian political position and begin to use politics as a measure of Christian faithfulness and orthodoxy.
In this way, there are some who attend the church I served in Tacoma who are willing to call those who attend the church I served in LA fellow Christians on Sunday and (unknowingly?) dismiss them as non-Christians every other day of the week because of who they voted for. To overcome this contradiction we must admit the complexities of political life and recognize the way that experience shapes our politics (and, in many ways, our theology). In addition, we must work hard to live in racially and ethnically diverse communities of faith so that we actually know people who confess Jesus as Lord and vote differently than us. Otherwise, our politics can become, in practice, theologically racist because we will become ready to exclude people from the faith who vote differently than us. And, as it will turn out, those who are different from us politically tend to fall as much as, if not more so, along racial lines than denominational or theological ones.