On June 5, 2020, it had been just over a week since a white Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd, an unarmed, African American man. Protests were underway outside Central United Methodist Church, an interracial church in downtown Detroit with a long history of activism on civil rights, peace, immigrant rights and poverty issues.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the church was no longer holding in-person worship services. But anyone walking into its sanctuary that day would have seen long red flags behind the pastor’s lectern, displaying the words “peace” and “love.” A banner reading “Michigan Says No! To War” hung alongside pictures of civil rights icons Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as labor-rights activist Cesar Chavez. In line with her church’s activist tradition, senior pastor Jill Hardt Zundell stood outside the building and preached about her church’s commitment to eradicating anti-Black racism to her congregants and all that passed by.
In our sociology and political science research, we have both studied how race, religion and politics are intimately connected in the United States. Our recent book, “Race and the Power of Sermons on American Politics” – written with psychologist James S. Jackson – uses 44 national and regional surveys conducted between 1941 and 2019 to examine racial differences in who hears messages about social justice at church. We also examined how hearing those types of sermons correlates with support for policies aimed at reducing social inequality and with political activism.
For centuries, many Americans have envisioned that their country has a special relationship with God – that their nation is “a city on a hill” with special blessings and responsibilities. Beliefs that America is exceptional have inspired views across the political spectrum.
Many congregations that emphasize social justice embrace this idea of a “covenant” between the United States and the creator. They interpret it to mean Americans must create opportunity and inclusion for all – based in the belief that all people are equally valued by God.
Politics in the pews
In our book, we find that, depending upon the issue, between half and two-thirds of Americans support religious leaders taking public positions on racism, poverty, war and immigration. Roughly a third report attending worship settings where their clergy or friends discuss these issues and the importance of politically acting on one’s beliefs.
African Americans and Hispanic Americans tend to be more supportive of religious leaders speaking out against racism and attempting to influence poverty and immigration policy. On the whole, African Americans are the most likely to support religious leaders expressing political views on specific issues, from poverty and homelessness to peace, as we examine in our book.
Black Americans are also more likely to attend worship settings where clergy and other members encourage them to connect their faith to social justice work. For example, according to a July 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 67% of African American worshippers reported hearing sermons in support of Black Lives Matter, relative to 47% of Hispanics and 36% of whites.
Race also affects the relationship between hearing such sermons and supporting related policies. When statistically accounting for religious affiliation, political party and demographic characteristics, attending these types of congregations more strongly associates with white Americans supporting progressive policy positions than it does for Black Americans and Hispanics.
White worshippers who hear sermons about race and poverty, for example, are more likely to oppose spending cuts to welfare programs than those who hear no such messages at their place of worship.
This is not the case for African Americans and Hispanics, however, who are as likely to oppose social welfare spending cuts regardless of where they worship. In other words, while hearing sermons about social justice issues informs or at least aligns with white progressive policy attitudes, this alignment is not as strong for Blacks and Hispanics.
Clergy of predominantly white worship spaces are often more politically liberal than their congregants. Historically, this has translated into members pushing back when clergy take public positions that are more progressive than their congregation’s.
This may explain why white parishioners who chose to attend congregations where they hear social justice-themed sermons tend to be more politically progressive, or more open to sermons challenging previous views, than are other white parishioners.
From words to action
However, when it comes to the connection between hearing sermons and taking political action, race doesn’t matter as much. That is, when taking into account religious affiliation, party affiliation and social demographics, people who hear social justice-themed sermons in their places of worship are more likely than other Americans to engage in political activism, regardless of their race.
For example, during the months following Floyd’s murder, Black, white and Hispanic congregants who heard sermons about race and policing were more likely than others to have protested for any purpose in the past 12 months, according to data from the 2020 National Politics Study. More specifically, white Americans who attended houses of worship where they heard those types of sermons were more than twice as likely to participate in a protest as other white worshippers. Black and Hispanic attendees were almost twice as likely to protest, compared to those attending houses of worship where they did not hear sermons about race and policing.
The difference between people who attend houses of worship with a social-justice focus and people who did not attend religious services at all is even more striking. White Americans who heard such messages at religious services were almost four times more likely to protest than white Americans who did not attend services; Black and Hispanic Americans were almost three times as likely.
Today, many Americans are pessimistic about inequality, political divisions and ethnic conflict. Yet, as these surveys show, social justice-minded congregations inspire members to work for policies that support their vision of the public good.
YES THEY DID: Supporters of President Barack Obama celebrated his election night victory at the McCormick Place rally in Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012. Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win a second term in the White House. (Photo: Zhang Jun/Newscom)
Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office for a second term sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the white male in America is over.
The long drive for broader social participation by all Americans reached a turning point in the 2012 election, which is likely to go down as a watershed in the nation’s social and political evolution, and not just because in some states voters approved of same-sex marriage for the first time.
On Tuesday, Obama received the votes of barely one in three white males. That, too, was historic. It almost certainly was an all-time low for the winner of a presidential election that did not include a major third-party candidate.
“We’re not in the ’50s any more,” said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. “This election makes it clear that a single focus directed at white males, or at the white population in general, is not going to do it. And it’s not going to do it when the other party is focusing on energizing everybody else.”
How Obama Won
Exit-poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was four percentage points lower than 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was two percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.
The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young, undocumented immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign.
The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian-American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly three-to-one. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Although a far smaller group, gay voters went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)
“Obama lost a lot of votes among whites,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. “It was only because of high black turnout and the highest Latino turnout ever for a Democratic president that he won.”
Obama planted his base in an America that is inexorably becoming more diverse. Unchecked by Republicans, these demographic trends would give the Democrats a significant edge in future presidential elections.
But, despite opposition from conservative religious movements, President Obama captured the votes of 30 percent of white evangelicals. What’s more, he once again won the Catholic vote — which some attribute to his strong support among Hispanic Catholics.
The Latino Effect
GOP SAVIOR: The Republican Party is counting on emerging superstars like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to broaden its base. Rubio is a Latino conservative who supports immigration reform.
Latinos were an essential element of Obama’s victories in the battlegrounds of Nevada and Colorado. States once considered reliably Republican in presidential elections will likely become highly competitive because of burgeoning Latino populations, sometimes in combination with large black populations. North Carolina, where Obama won narrowly in 2008 and came close this time, is one. The Deep South state of Georgia is another. Texas and Arizona in the Southwest are future swing states, by 2020, if not sooner.
Besides demography, Obama had another edge: the superiority of the voter-tracking operation that his campaign built over the last six years, which generated increased turnout on Tuesday among young people and unmarried women.
“That was pure machinery. Hats off to them,” said Republican strategist Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political aide. “Our party has a lot to learn and needs to invest very serious resources in improving our own machinery.”
But Democrats Have a White Problem
The election was not an unblemished success for Democrats, who face a potentially serious threat from the loss of white votes. “I don’t think you can be a major party and get down to support approaching only a third of the white population,” said demographer Frey. “In some ways, maybe, Obama dodged a bullet here. If the Republicans had made a little bit of an effort toward minorities and kept their focus on whites, they might have won.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster, said that with Obama having run his last race, “we’ll have demographics working for us, but it is not going to be so easy to keep it patched tight. It’s going to fray.”
Without Obama on the ticket, socially conservative black voters might have been more inclined to follow the urgings of their ministers, who asked them to stay home to protest the Democrats’ endorsement of gay marriage.
But the Republican Party’s problems are more immediate, and much tougher to solve. Some GOP strategists have been warning for years about the risks of hitching the party’s fortunes to a shrinking share of the electorate.
What Should Republicans Do?
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who combines a tea-party pedigree with Latino heritage, said in a post-election statement that “the conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Al Cardenas, a leading Republican fundraiser, said his party is “out of step with the demographic challenges of today.” Like Rubio, the Cuban-born Cardenas is close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has long sought to broaden the party’s appeal to Latino voters and will be a prominent voice in the debate over the party’s future.
Romney’s chances ultimately depended on his ability to turn out a bigger white vote against Obama than Republican nominees received in earlier races. Eight years ago, Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, defeated Democrat John Kerry by 17 percentage points among white voters and won re-election. Romney took the white vote by 20 percentage points and lost.
The difference: despite an aggressive voter-mobilization effort, the white share of the electorate has fallen to 72 percent, from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004.
What It Means
Viewed narrowly, this week’s election essentially left Washington untouched. A Democratic president will continue to battle a divided Congress. Within the halls of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate, the balance of partisan power scarcely budged at all.
But pull back and a very different picture emerges. The civil rights, women’s and gay rights movements, designed to allow others to reach for power previously grasped only by white men, have made a real difference, and the outlines of 21st century America have emerged.
For more on how shifting demographics are changing the church, check out “The Culture Clasher,” our earlier interview with author Soong-Chan Rah, and “The Future Is Mestizo” by Duke Divinity School scholar Chris Rice.
THE END OF HYPOCRISY: Conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza built a career as a person of color who was willing to champion traditionally white conservative views. But a scandal lost him his job as a Christian college president. (Photo: Mark Taylor/Wikipedia)
Here is yet another example of how GOP conservatives pimp evangelical Christians.
Outspoken conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who is highly sought after on the Christian speaking circuit, recently resigned from his post as president of The King’s College, a private Christian institution in Manhattan. Why? Because while delivering the keynote address on “defending the faith and applying a Christian worldview” at First Baptist North in Spartanburg, S.C., D’Souza, who is married (though allegedly separated from his spouse), was outed for sharing a hotel room with a female who is not his wife. He referred to his “traveling companion” as his fiancé.
So let’s get this straight: A Christian leader, who promotes conservative Christian values in his books and speeches, who heads a Christian college, is speaking at a Christian event on defending the faith, but is sharing his hotel room — and likely its bed — with a woman, Denise Joseph, who is not his wife.
Christian publication WorldMagazinebroke the story which led to D’Souza’s eventual resignation from King’s College claiming he didn’t want to be a “distraction.” Of course prior to that D’Souza ran to the conservative Fox News and passionately denied wrongdoing because he and his wife of 20 years have been separated for two. He claimedWorld Magazine misreported the story and even wrote that “This is pure libel.”
“I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced, even though in a state of separation and in divorce proceedings,” D’Souza wrote. “Obviously I would not have introduced Denise as my fiancé at a Christian apologetics conference if I had thought or known I was doing something wrong. But as a result of all this, and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, Denise and I have decided to suspend our engagement.”
C’mon playa. Are all of us Christians that naïve, or just stupid? Certainly the world is not buying your pure lie.
Look, men (and women) behaving badly is not foreign to us Christians. I know it’s not foreign to me. Many of us were doing it out in the world before we came to know Jesus. Many of us have found ourselves falling into sexual sins while in the church, whether the sin be homosexuality, fornication, or adultery. In the Bible, David fell into adultery and brought Bathsheba down with him (2 Samuel 11 ). There are other examples.Sin is sin. There’s no hierarchy. We’ve ALL fallen short of God’s glory, which is why we need Jesus Christ to cover and redeem us daily. The deeper sickness is how too many so-called conservatives promote themselves as the keepers of the nation’s moral conscience, proclaiming how others must behave, yet masking their own sins. Unlike what Jesus warned us in Matthew 7, these hypocrites look pass their “beams” and point out other people’s “twigs” on their way to personal fame, fortune and political power.
But as certain Christians attach themselves to these conservative hypocrites, what does it say about OUR collective witness to the world when the truth comes to light? For example, how can we in good conscience fight against state and federal laws that would allow other taxpaying Americans their right to same-sex marriages, when we don’t honor the church’s marriage covenant? Meanwhile, we allow divorce, which is equally sinful, as if it’s no big deal.
Another big deal problem with D’Souza is that he not only pimps Christianity but also the sin of racism. D’Souza is behind 2016: Obama’s America, a scathing documentary about President Obama based on D’Souza’s best-selling book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. At $26 million so far, it’s the second-highest grossing political documentary. D’Souza is an Indian American who was born in Bombay, Maharashtra, India. Yet, he makes his fortune and fame by attacking not just a member of another minority group, but the nation’s first black president — the symbol of the dreams that helped black Americans endure the deep pain, blood, sweat and tears since the first child of African descent was born in North America in Virginia in January 1624.
Many Asian Indians began immigrating in large numbers to the United States soon after the passage of the 1946 Luce-Celler Act, which allowed 100 of them to enter per year and become naturalized citizens. Dalip Singh Saund, who would in 1957 become the first Indian American congressman as a Democrat from California, was instrumental in the act’s passage. He also supported the civil rights movement. Unlike black Americans whose ancestors were brought unwillingly crammed in hulls by the hundreds per ship as slaves whose backs would build America’s economy, many Asian Indians came by airplane on education and work visas from Canada, South African and of course India. Many of them today, in the spirit of Saund and Mahatma Gandhi, whose nonviolent leading of India’s independence from Great Britain inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., understand and appreciate the plight of being marginalized and oppressed in your own country. But then there are those like D’Souza, and governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who discovered they could slither along the back of the civil right movement, and move on up in the Republican “Dixicrat” Party. With their darkened skin tones, they prostitute themselves as some newer more acceptable minority that won’t rock the boat. Theirs is a new shuck and jive at the expense of blacks, whites and others who fought and died trying to equalize opportunities for all Americans.
Meanwhile, America grows more and more divided by race as recent polls show this election may be the most polarized since 1988 and that anti-black racial attitudes have increased during Obama’s presidency.
In light of this national crisis, how would our Prince of Peace, unity and justice have us defend the faith and apply a Christian worldview?
All of us, including D’Souza, ought to read Matthew 7.
CULT OR CULTURE?: Is the growing tolerance of Mitt Romney’s faith among evangelical Christians a sign of theological maturity or political desperation? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
“We’re electing him to be our Commander-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief.” That’s how one Christian woman recently defended her support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Facebook comment.
It has been curious to observe the about-face that many formerly doctrinaire evangelicals have taken when it comes to the subject of Governor Romney’s religion. For most evangelical Christians, the Mormon faith has commonly been viewed as an unorthodox, non-Christian religion. Even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which once characterized the Mormon religion as cultic, recently deleted that wording from its website. This has got me to thinking more about the relationship between politics and faith.
In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the principal architects of the modern evangelical movement, called conservative Protestant Christians to abandon their otherworldly stance encouraged by the liberal-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and to actively engage society from an orthodox Christian worldview in order to redeem our culture from the chaos of the times. Though his message initially was met with stiff resistance from older evangelicals, Henry’s message was warmly received by the younger ones who went on to positively impact society from a distinctively Christian worldview.
Since 1947, when Henry’s influential book was first published, until now, evangelicals have increased their sophistication in articulating the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and in their analysis of social problems and corresponding solutions. Evangelicals subscribe to a high view of Scripture and have always maintained that all true knowledge is divine in origin and is complementary to the Word of God. As a result of this conviction, they have boldly and confidently entered into all the realms of social engagement that previous generations affected by the impact of fundamentalism were reticent to enter. One of these areas has been the political arena.
The engagement of the political arena by orthodox Protestant believers is not new; from colonial times until the present, Christians have been at the center of much of the contested issues in American life. What evangelicals brought to the table was a clear commitment to the Bible, personal conversion, and social engagement. Evangelicalism sought to bridge the chasm opened by the focus of fundamentalists on evangelism to the exclusion of social witness and the focus on social justice by liberals to the exclusion of personal conversion. While evangelicals have always leaned towards the right politically, they have always done so with a theological articulation for that leaning. Plainly put, most evangelicals are convinced that the Republican Party is more compatible with the Christian faith than the Democratic Party.
While I am not surprised that most evangelicals heartily endorse the Republican Party given its explicit commitment to religious liberty and its stated support for certain moral positions congenial to conservative social ethics, I must admit that I am a bit disturbed by the implications of the current evangelical support for Mitt Romney. While aspects of my own sociology tempt me to critique this support for his candidacy, my main contention is theological.
I am concerned about the theological implications of Christians committed to a certain view of Scripture and of orthodoxy wholeheartedly endorsing a candidate who is a member of a religious tradition whose doctrine compromises both. I am not saying that it is inherently wrong for a Christian to vote for a secular candidate or a member of another religious tradition; after all, we do live in a post-Christian, secular, pluralistic democracy. What I am saying is that Christians have an inherent responsibility to wrestle with the implications of the teachings of Scripture, the witness of the Christian tradition, and sober theological reflection when doing so.
Simply put, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints matters. Maybe not enough to automatically invalidate him as a viable candidate, but it does matter. The reasons are obvious, almost all evangelicals have asserted that the the Mormon religion is not in fact a legitimate Christian denomination and is in fact a heretical sect. By contrast, as far as I know, no credible evangelical has ever stated that the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which President Barack Obama received his religious formation, is an illegitimate Christian tradition. (A bent for liberation theology and a progressive stance on certain social issues is not a disqualification for Christian orthodoxy.)
The groundswell of evangelical support for a Romney candidacy seems peculiar — not so much because of what evangelicals are saying, but because of what they have said about Barack Obama’s beliefs in the past, and what they are not saying about Mitt Romney’s now. Despite President Obama’s public confession of his Christianity on numerous occasions, many still question the veracity of his faith, calling him a “closet Muslim” or pointing to his support of same-sex marriage. But do they practice the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to Governor Romney’s beliefs? As a friend of mine recently said, “What’s worse, altering the definition of marriage, or redefining the nature of God?”
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.