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.
DEFENDING BLACKS?: Ann Coulter claims the Democratic party has made ‘civil rights’ about Hispanics, feminists, and gay rights rather than blacks. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia)
Interesting comments from conservative rabble-rouser Ann Coulter about blacks and civil rights this past Sunday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. According to Coulter, the Democratic party is dropping its concern about the civil rights of blacks (whom it presumably, according to Coulter, has in its pocket) to focus on Latinos and the gay community.
Though with Coulter every quote is equally explosive, here’s one of her more potent statements from yesterday:
“I think the way liberals have treated blacks like children and many of their policies have been harmful to blacks, at least they got the beneficiary group right. There is the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. We don’t owe the homeless. We don’t owe feminists. We don’t owe women who are desirous of having abortions or gays who want to get married to one another. That’s what civil rights has become for much of the left.”
What do you think? Is Ann Coulter right? Have Democrats abandoned blacks for other interest groups? Is identity politics undermining the unity of the Democratic party? Should civil rights only be considered a “black” issue?
On the eve of the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I ended up in a heated Facebook debate over the nature of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments — the latest furor in a series of election-year political clashes over tax policy, economic interventionism, class warfare, and the Occupy movement.
Not that the conclusive installment of this latest Batman trilogy has an overtly political agenda. Rather, its script, co-written by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, clearly resides in the context of our current, fractured political climate. As British-American filmmakers raised in Chicago, the Nolan brothers offer a unique take on blighted urban political decay. So their epic depiction of Gotham, and the way it captures our gestalt, the spirit of our time, owes just as much a debt to David Simon’s The Wire as it does to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
I’m sorry, did I just say “owes a debt?” There I go again.
See, as much as there is to love about this film, there’s just as much to object to — that is, if your goal is to use it as political ammunition.
(Mild spoiler alert.)
One story, two sides
Liberals can choose to see it as a story of corporate greed and hubris, and see the Batman as a hero of the people, the Ninety-Nine Percent. Conservatives can choose to see it as a story of a city hijacked by a runaway mob intent on redistributing the wealth of the One Percent, foiled by the ingenuity and grit of an American business-owner.
They’re both right because political factions never have exclusive rights to the truth. There are truths that liberals and conservatives both understand and embrace more or less compared to their counterparts. In the cultivation of these truths, we are drawn to political ideologies. But the pain and bitterness we feel from the losses incurred in the unrelenting allegiance to these ideologies … well, it blinds us. It traps us. We become slaves to the system. As a result, we end up doing things we regret, things we never thought we would.
Different kingdom, different mission
That’s the bad news, that when it comes to systems of this world, we are not in charge. But the good news is that in the scope of eternity, we are not in charge. The kingdom of God is not a democracy, but a benevolent dictatorship. As such, the kingdom goes by a different set of rules than what we’ve come to expect.
After all, Paul famously told the church that in Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, but we are one in Christ. He also told us that the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in our bodies. So there’s no reason why we have to remain trapped inside the identity of the closest prevailing political bloc. The more we acknowledge His Lordship, the greater basis we’ll have for humility, unity, and cooperation.
That sense of humility in action is what I found so moving in this latest film. Part of Batman’s redemption was in the way he was able to get beyond his pain and see more value in trusting and working with others. Most of us will never experience Bruce Wayne wealth, but all of us, if we put our faith in Christ, can rise above our fears and work with others for the common good.
Not only that, if we as the church are to fulfill our mission, we must rise above. Because there are others who need to experience Christ, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting for a sequel.
So let’s keep showing up, engaging, and rising above the conflicts that divide us. Because when it comes to saving the world, I have more faith in a risen savior than any caped crusader — even one as cool as Batman.
In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
NOT FEELING LUCKY: A gay activist used a clever Internet campaign to create a new meaning for GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's name on Google. Has the culture war gone digital? (Photo by Mike Segar/Newscom)
Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”
For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.
(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)
Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”
But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”
But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.
Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.
Words have meanings
See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”
For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.
Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”
Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.
By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.
But in this situation, it does explain a lot.
The gay civil rights movement
For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.
By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.
(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)
So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.
Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.
So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?
For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.