Center for American Progress

Christians Have a Role To Play in Defending U.S. Democracy
Article

Christians Have a Role To Play in Defending U.S. Democracy

An Interview With the Rev. Adam Russell Taylor

CAP interviews one of the country’s most influential Christian leaders, the Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, to learn more about Christian political engagement at this moment in history.

Hundreds march in Washington with event banner in front
Hundreds march on 15th St. from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to Black Lives Matter Plaza across the street from the White House as part of Prayer Walk for Peace and Justice, organized by the Alfred Street Baptist Church and the NAACP, June 14, 2020. in Washington, D.C. (Getty/Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

How should Christians engage in politics? That’s a difficult question to answer in 2022, as white Christian nationalists are garnering so much attention in society and the media. But there are positive roles for Christians to play in defending U.S. democracy and building a just, inclusive society. The Center for American Progress interviewed one of the country’s most influential Christian leaders, the Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, in December 2021 via email in an effort to understand more about Christian political engagement at this moment in history—and find inspiration from influential historical leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Taylor has served as the president of Sojourners, an ecumenical Christian organization, since 2020. He succeeded the Rev. Jim Wallis, who founded the organization to advance justice and peace. Taylor is also the author of the new book A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community. He previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group and served as a vice president at World Vision U.S. The Rev. Taylor is ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention and serves in ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. CAP recognized him as one of our “Faith Leaders To Watch in 2020.”

CAP: In your new book, you write, “The vision of the Beloved Community animated the civil rights movement, but since then it often has been overshadowed and derailed.” Why was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s moral vision important to the civil rights movement’s policy priorities, and how was it overshadowed and derailed?

Rev. Taylor: The vision of the Beloved Community provided a north star and meta-narrative within the civil rights movement. The vision made clear that the goals of the civil rights movement were universally rooted in both the most deeply held beliefs of many of the major faith traditions as well as the most cherished ideals and aspirations tied to the Constitution and our democracy—such as the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. While the civil rights movement was so often anchored in and fueled by the Black church, the movement welcomed and attracted Americans from all faith traditions and walks of life. The Beloved Community vision also made clear that a fundamental commitment to nonviolence served as both an ethic and a means to achieving the Beloved Community.

There are many factors that overshadowed and derailed that moral vision in the late 1960s, including Dr. King’s assassination, which marked a tragic watershed moment in which the movement stalled. Other factors include Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Richard Nixon’s electoral victory after stoking and appealing to white fears through the Southern strategy, the continued escalation of the disastrous war in Vietnam, and worsening cultural clashes at home. In the wake of these events, the deeper spiritual underpinnings and broader and bolder moral vision of the movement receded.

CAP: You call on Christians to be active in the pro-democracy movement: “While many forces are undermining our democracy, our voices, our activism, and our votes represent both the antidote and a renewable source for revitalizing democracy.” How do you respond to critics who think Christian involvement in politics has been a major contributing factor to undermining democratic norms?

Rev. Taylor: The question shouldn’t be whether Christians are called to be engaged in politics but of how we engage. Following Christ has profound political, economic, and social implications. Participating in our democratic system, to protect the most vulnerable and to promote justice, is integral to Christian discipleship.  That being said, we should engage in politics in ways that prioritize our faith values, such as a commitment to loving our enemies, which feels particularly timely and revolutionary in our currently polarized and so often vitriolic politics.

Following Christ has profound political, economic, and social implications. Participating in our democratic system, to protect the most vulnerable and to promote justice, is integral to Christian discipleship. The Rev. Adam Russell Taylor

Dr. King once wrote that, “The church must be reminded once again that {it} is not to be the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.” This focus on being the conscience is still desperately needed and would help congregations avoid the pitfalls and dangers of trying to be the master of the state or of ending up serving as a servant of the state.

CAP: Your chapter on “Redeeming Patriotism” made an interesting connection between the Christian sacrament of communion and interrogating American history. “Repenting for our failures allows us to create more authentic space for that more perfect union to be realized, to celebrate the ideals that make America worth loving and honoring,” you write. What are your most important reasons that you believe America is worth loving? And what message do you have for those who think acknowledgment of America’s sins detracts from patriotism?

Rev. Taylor: I believe America’s ideals and aspirations, going back to our founding, are admirable and worth fully realizing. The key is to understand that, sadly, they were severely compromised from the inception due to slavery, women’s inequality, the genocide of Native Americans, and more. Redeeming patriotism requires understanding and working relentlessly to close the gap between America’s ideals and the reality for many people, especially people of color and those with other marginalized identities.

Redeeming patriotism requires understanding and working relentlessly to close the gap between America’s ideals and the reality for many people, especially people of color and those with other marginalized identities. The Rev. Adam Russell Taylor

But the commitment that so many have demonstrated over these centuries to closing that gap, particularly African Americans, to co-creating an America that truly lives up to its founding ideals—I can’t imagine a greater expression of love for this country than that. It redeems and promotes patriotism to name and seek to repair for those sins. I believe that the right to critique America and hold America up to its highest ideals is the brilliance and something I love about America.

CAP: Fifty-seven percent of white evangelical Christians agree with the statement, “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith”—rather than a country made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions—according to a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. What are the dangers of letting this view take hold? What connection do you see between this kind of Christian nationalism and white supremacy? And what responsibility do Christians have to combat Christian nationalism?

Rev. Taylor: I think it’s incredibly dangerous that this view has taken hold among so many in this nation, and it undermines the integrity of the Christian faith and witness. And the connection between Christian nationalism and white supremacy is really fundamental—I don’t think it’s truly possible to disentangle or separate them. In fact, in many cases Christian nationalism is just a slightly more socially acceptable way for people to say they want to go back to a past where white supremacy wasn’t challenged as much.

The connection between Christian nationalism and white supremacy is really fundamental—I don’t think it’s truly possible to disentangle or separate them. The Rev. Adam Russell Taylor

Christians certainly have a responsibility to speak out against these views and call people into a commitment to anti-racism. We must make the careful distinction between a destructive nationalism that is primarily defined by fear of various “others” and a redemptive patriotism that sees America’s growing racial and religious diversity as a strength integral to the nation’s present and future.

In a chapter focused on “Unmasking America’s Myths,” I address how we must debunk a number of founding myths that shape the DNA of the nation, including the myth that we are a Christian nation. The truth is that we were founded around a clear commitment to the separation of church and state and to become a religiously inclusive and pluralistic nation.

CAP: Sojourners is a well-known Christian advocacy organization that is seen as a moral voice in many areas of public policy. How do you determine when, where, and how Sojourners engages in advocacy?

Rev. Taylor: Our biggest guide has always been the priorities, values, and commitments that rooted in the Bible in terms of what stances to take on the issues of the day—and perhaps no biblical text more than Matthew 25:32-40. Essentially, we look at any particular issue and ask, “How does this impact those who are in the most vulnerable situations and who are most marginalized—in other words, the modern-day version of the widow, orphan, stranger, and impoverished? Does this bill help or harm undocumented people? Does this bill help or harm those experiencing hunger and poverty?

As to specific tactics or how we allocate staff and other resources across various issues, those are always important and continuing conversations on our staff team and in consultation with our coalition partners in justice work. We also try to hold together a firm commitment to play a prophetic role of speaking truth to power about God’s particular concern for the marginalized and vulnerable while also building bridges with people from whom we hold different theological and ideological views to advance and address issues of shared concern.

CAP: What are the biggest changes in Christian political advocacy that you’re seeing in the country?

Rev. Taylor: I think two of the biggest changes we see are those happening in the newest generations of Christian activists, and it’s around two issues in particular. The first is that more and more young Christians are getting engaged in advocacy around the global climate crisis, in recognition of this issue’s profound impact on every other issue we care about. I’d also say that you see more and more young Christians committed to affirming the rights and fighting for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. Another significant shift is the degree to which the white evangelical movement has increasingly become a primarily political and partisan one, most recently aligning itself with and capitulating to former President Donald Trump—rather than being a theological and religious one. This trend continues to damage the reputation of the Christian faith and contributes to the exodus of particularly young Christians from identifying with evangelicalism.

CAP: Dr. King understood the wisdom and global consensus of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that, to quote Dr. King, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And that our civil and political rights are inextricably linked to our economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to decent housing, health care, food, a living wage. What happened in America—and in the world—to break that consensus? Why did we deny that wisdom? And who are the standard-bearers today for its revival?

Rev. Taylor: The Vietnam War, followed by landslide victories for Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, caused a splintering of the coalition that made up the civil rights movement—and in some ways, it has never fully recovered. I’m also not certain that there was ever a deep and enduring consensus that our civil and political rights are inextricably linked to our economic, social, and cultural rights; thus, there is still an imperative to build this consensus.

It is also important to remember that the Poor People’s Campaign, which explicitly sought to make that connection between civil and economic rights, took place after King’s assassination and failed to gain the kind of momentum that the earlier campaigns for civil rights had achieved. In fact, King’s assassination happened one year to the day after his famous speech at Riverside Church when he came out openly against the Vietnam War and named “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” as the three major interconnected evil triplets. That prophetic anti-war stance and his growing critique of American capitalism made him unpopular at the time of his death, even among many former allies.

Today, the modern Poor People’s Campaign is admirably dedicated to seeing all these rights as interconnected and interdependent, and the Rev. William Barber II is an important national voice and standard-bearer of this commitment.

CAP: If there’s one takeaway you want to leave readers with, what would it be?

Rev. Taylor: Our nation urgently needs a shared and unifying moral vision that can heal and bridge many of our deep divisions and provide a road map for how we co-create a more just and inclusive multiracial democracy. Building the Beloved Community is about both the journey as well as the destination. Rather than being a pie-in-the-sky utopian vision, as Coretta Scott King put it best in her book My Life, My Love, My Legacy (pp. 186–187):

[T]he Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness. In the Beloved Community, caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. The Beloved Community is a state of heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation. At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world that we have now, but I do believe it is a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination, and through education and training, if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment.

Conclusion

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. As the nation reflects on this moment and the ongoing fight to defend democracy, it needs to grapple with the religious elements of both the white Christian nationalism on display that day and the pro-democracy faith movement. Religious leaders have helped strengthen democracy throughout U.S. history, and they have also served as the best counter to the anti-democratic elements in the nation who have misused religion. Christians, people of other faiths, and the nonreligious can all find hope in the witness of the Rev. Adam Russell Taylor and his social justice advocacy alongside leaders of other religious traditions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Author

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons

Fellow, Religion and Faith

Also read

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.