Race and the Creditability of the Church

The faith community has a moral imperative to condemn hate.

A parishioner walks up the center aisle of a church in Everett, Massachusetts, February 2009. (AP/Stephan Savoia)
A parishioner walks up the center aisle of a church in Everett, Massachusetts, February 2009. (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Since President Donald Trump came to office in January, many have expressed outrage, disappointment, and sheer disgust over his inability to exercise moral leadership. At no time has that deficiency been more evident than in the wake of the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead of offering words to catalyze healing and unity, the president made racially inflammatory remarks that not only pandered to the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other terrorist hate groups, but also drew moral equivalence between hate groups and anti-racist demonstrators. Ideally, the nation would look to the office of the president for moral clarity. It is increasingly clear that this leadership will not come from President Trump.

However, regardless of the political environment, we should always be able to rely on the faith community to be a moral voice in calling out evil. Faith leaders have a moral responsibility to condemn hate and advocate for a revolutionary love that embraces, cares for, and respects the dignity of all people.

In that light, perhaps more disturbing than the president’s racially insensitive remarks has been the response from key leaders within the faith community. In a complete rejection of Christian teachings, several members of the president’s evangelical advisory board—comprised of faith leaders charged with providing a moral and spiritual compass for the world—rushed to the president’s defense, an act tantamount to theological negligence. A few condemned the rally, but many faith leaders remained silent and simply watched from the sidelines as the national tragedy unfolded. None of the board members criticized Trump for his divisive comments, and all but one chose to remain on the board. This stands in sharp contrast to the White House business council members who, in a strong rebuke of the president’s response to Charlottesville, resigned in rapid succession.

If there were ever a moment in the country’s history when the nation needed to hear a clear, prophetic, and unequivocal voice from the faith community—one that condemned ideology espousing racism, anti-Semitism, hatred, discrimination, and violence—that moment would be now. In a majority Christian nation, one must question whether Christianity’s foundational principle of love is a lived theology, particularly in light of this country’s anguished history with issues of race. The faith community must evaluate whether it has done enough to condemn and challenge white supremacy.

Now is the time for the faith community to exercise moral courage and call out depravity when it sees it. It is impossible to lay claim to a value of love on one hand and either remain silent or defend acts and symbols of hatred on the other. Not only is this antithetical to the Christian faith, but it also destroys the creditability of the church and further alienates the growing number of Americans who no longer identify with organized religion. Practicing a lived faith means demonstrating the courage of one’s convictions and exercising the moral leadership to challenge the underlying causes of racial injustice. The gospel rings hollow unless it speaks to the oppressive conditions under which people live. In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, many people are struggling with how they should respond to the intensifying social crisis in this country. There are three principles that should guide the faith community in its efforts to challenge hatred and bigotry: be a vocal critic when witnessing acts of hatred; challenge those who defend hatred; and act in a manner that is consistent with its beliefs and values.

Condemn hate: Silence is not an option

Faith leaders are called to be a moral light. However, far too many remain silent on issues of deep moral consequence, even in the face of oppressive policies that adversely affect members of their congregations. The unfortunate reality is that the faith community has been inconsistent when it comes to issues of race and discrimination. In fact, there is a deep level of culpability on the part of the church when it comes to the racial, cultural, and religious divisions plaguing our nation. Sunday morning is still “the most segregated hour in America.” In a LifeWay Christian Resources 2015 study, researchers found that of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, 43 percent claimed to speak of racial reconciliation once a year or less. Although most congregations remain racially and ethnically divided, only 4 in 10 churchgoers believe that their church needs to become more ethnically diverse. And just this year, controversy erupted during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, when its leadership decided not to consider a resolution that condemned white supremacy and the alt-right. The leadership only reversed course after significant backlash from its membership. The debate surrounding the resolution unearthed the troubling history of “a denomination that was explicitly founded to support slavery.”

Even more revelatory of the continuing work needed to address race relations within the denomination was the leadership’s decision to strip out the denunciation of “the Curse of Ham” theory. This deeply flawed and pernicious biblical concept was advanced to justify slavery and segregation. The resolution had originally called on the denomination to reject this misnomer, which the group has historically taught and endorsed. This history creates a special urgency to be vigilant and respond with clarity, certainty, and conviction. The failure of faith leaders to challenge the sin of prejudice and racism within their congregations allows people to participate comfortably in a system of oppression with neither conviction nor self-reflection.

In the face of blatant hate, the silence and passivity of both faith leaders and people of faith contributes to a culture that allows Christianity and bigotry to co-exist. It is likely one of the reasons that so many white evangelicals could look the other way when President Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists; stoked fear and anger against the Muslim community; ingratiated white nationalists with racial appeals; mocked people with disabilities; and made demeaning, misogynistic comments about women. Silence merely perpetuates a culture that reinforces white supremacy—a pervasive evil that has poisoned critical policies in areas ranging from criminal justice and immigration to housing, education, and employment. The faith community must confront this silence. Because when the faith community fails to exercise the moral courage to challenge hate in all its permutations—including Confederate symbols—it becomes complicit in fostering an environment that leads to a tragedy such as the one in Charlottesville.

Challenging his peers in the aftermath of Charlottesville, evangelical pastor Ed Stetzer wrote:

[A]s a white evangelical, part of a demographic category who disproportionally (sic) supported President Trump, let me start by saying this movement is antithetical to the gospel. It is an abomination to all that we stand for, and it must be condemned on every level of leadership in the Church. There is no room for waffling. We cannot sit in silence hoping this will pass.

Challenge those who defend hatred

Given the public position that faith leaders occupy, they have a responsibility to challenge those who defend hatred. The inherent conflict between President Trump’s comments and Christianity’s core principles has left many questioning why faith leaders continue to remain affiliated with the president’s evangelical advisory board. The very nature of the ministerial role requires a recognition that no one is beyond redemption and that everyone is in need of pastoral counseling grounded in confidentiality; therefore, abandoning those who seek counsel, including the president, could be viewed as an abdication of one’s duty as a minister. However, counseling does not negate ministers’ obligation to challenge sin and speak truthfully—not only to the person in counsel, but also to the masses.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the board members actually function as spiritual advisers and counselors to the president merely because they hold the titles of “minister” or “pastor.” It is possible that President Trump seeks counsel from the board, but it is equally possible—if not more plausible—that the board is a mechanism to give an air of religious and moral legitimacy to Trump’s oppressive policies. Politicians using the cloak of faith as a cover to insulate themselves from critique is not new; faith leaders have been used to justify, rationalize, and legitimize racist policies and attitudes for decades. Nixon, for example, turned to a priest and a rabbi for public support during Watergate.

The evangelical advisory board was formed during Trump’s campaign, so presumably, it supports him. While it is unclear how regularly the board consults with and counsels the president, its members made public appearances with him in February for the National Prayer Breakfast and in May during the press event for his executive order on religious liberty. Rev. A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and former member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, referred to the board as a “photo op.” His comments cast clear doubt on the pastoral function of the board and suggest that the ministerial dilemma, which could conceivably prevent members of the board from resigning and speaking out, is nonexistent.

Act consistent with beliefs and values

In stark contrast to the advisory board and other faith leaders who chose to remain silent, thousands of clergy and people of faith issued statements condemning both the rally in Charlottesville and the president’s response. Modeling faith in action, some faith leaders went beyond public statements; they put their bodies in physical danger during the rally as a symbolic gesture that words alone are insufficient to address the culture of hate.

If the nation is ever going to eviscerate hate, all faith leaders and people of faith must be willing to move beyond words and actualize their beliefs through actions: by engaging in their communities, voting, and supporting inclusive and compassionate policies. Moreover, the faith community must hold its political and religious leaders accountable in order to ensure that their words are consistent with their actions.

Religion in service of politics is ideology, not theology. The moral creditability of Christianity is at stake; it is compromised and discredited when faith leaders place political allegiance above the divine call to speak truth and challenge hate.

LaShawn Y. Warren is the vice president of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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LaShawn Y. Warren

Vice President, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative