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.
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.
Since the emergence of Occupy Wall Street last year and the subsequent rise of the Occupy movement in cities across America, many have viewed them as a liberal counterpart to the conservative Tea Party movement. But how accurate is that analysis?
UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes supports the Occupy movement’s “efforts to shift the public conversation from a narrow focus on deficits and a libertarian view of government and free markets to one that addresses income inequality and the easy translation of economic power into disproportionate political power on an international stage.” Rafael Rivadeneira, president of the Illinois Chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, shares “core beliefs of small/limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional adherence, free markets, personal responsibility and individual freedom” with the Tea Party movement. UrbanFaith posed a series of questions to both men in an effort to foster respectful dialogue and to explore areas of possible common ground. The pair answered the following questions, then were given the opportunity to respond to each other’s answers. The dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
How Different Are They?
UrbanFaith: A Public Religion Research Institute poll that compared Tea Party supporters and Occupy supporters found some predictable differences between them. Among them are the fact that 85% of Tea Party supporters are white, one-third of whom are white evangelical Protestants, while 28% of Occupy supporters have no formal religious affiliation and a “sizeable minority” (37%) are people of color. Occupy supporters also tend to be considerably younger than Tea Party supporters. What do these statistics say to you? And, are there are areas of agreement between the two groups that might resonate with the 46% of respondents who said they didn’t identify with either movement?
Tea Party supporter Rafael Rivadeneira
Rivadeneira: A lot of people are fed-up with greed and waste. The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers are operating out of that same frustration, but Tea Partiers aim more at government greed and waste and Occupiers at corporate greed and waste. Of course, it’d be wonderful to see both the Tea Party and Occupy movement more diverse and representative of various races and ethnicities, religions and socio-economic standings, but I don’t believe that we need to look at these numbers and declare that one of these movements is more inclusive or more racist—or whatever wants to be said—than the other.
I’m a Hispanic Mainline Christian and I certainly don’t feel like an outcast based on any of that within the Tea Party. I’d imagine that a conservative white evangelical could say the same thing about the Occupy movement. When people agree on ideas and purpose, I’m not sure that race and religion get too much in the way. That the majority of Americans say neither movement resonates with them makes sense. Most Americans aren’t involved in politics and most Americans consider themselves “moderate.” Neither the Tea Party or the Occupiers are moderate positions, necessarily, and for the most part the members are active—or at least paying attention to—politics.
Wilkes: Many Americans are split between left-wing and right-wing populism. Chris Hedges, a former New York Times writer, tells a story about a veteran running for office in upstate New York that illustrates the point. He is frustrated by long-term unemployment, a fragile economic recovery, and the underwhelming performance of both political parties. Both movements, on one level, are an organized reaction to the perceived failure of established forms of dealmaking in our politics.
This poll, along with public opinion synthesis conducted by the Opportunity Agenda, suggests that many Americans share the three foregoing sentiments. The prognosis of each movement is different, but the diagnosis to some extent is shared – America needs to restore economic opportunity, particularly on the issue of jobs and education.
Rivadeneira: Absolutely. Consistently we have seen increased government regulation and the power of the teachers unions get in the way of economic and educational opportunity. There are many wonderful public schools, of course, and many wonderful teachers doing amazing work with few resources. However, I’m a big fan of charter schools and vouchers so that parents–ALL parents–have a choice in where their kids are educated. Choice in education leads to greater economic opportunities for individuals and communities.
Occupy supporter Andrew Wilkes
Wilkes: Various communities within the Occupy movement are concerned with corruption and ineptitude within both the public and private sector, but especially the financial sector. Despite Rafael’s personal comfort within the Tea Party, many Latino-Americans are put off by the nativist language that the Republican party and Tea Parties have used in the past.
Theologically conservative white evangelicals may very well be comfortable within the Occupy movement. It is highly unlikely, however, that politically conservative white evangelicals will not feel like “outcasts” within the Occupy movement. The untold story of the Occupy movement is that progressive voices of faith–progressive here referring to politics and economics–are organizing within the broader movement.
Is Race a Factor?
UrbanFaith: Last fall, The Washington Post asked “why blacks aren’t embracing Occupy Wall Street” when it “might seem like a movement that would resonate with black Americans.” Why aren’t blacks occupying?
Rivadeneira: I can’t speak for the black community, but there are other ways to protest and fight injustice than by setting up tents and hanging in public parks.
Wilkes: Black folks are indeed occupying. There’s Occupy the Hood. Some are involved in various Occupy Faith movements across the country. More recently, Occupy the Dream represents a broad attempt by black church clergy to reinvigorate its tradition of social justice rooted in Jesus’ liberating ministry, the prophets, and so on. It is true however, that a small minority of African-Americans are involved in Occupying. But at every stage in American history, from the abolitionist and suffrage movements to the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements it has been small groups of folks dedicated to making social change happen, not the majority
Rivadeneira: Small groups make big differences.
Do Tea Partiers Harbor Racial Resentment?
UrbanFaith: In a report produced for the NAACP, The Institute for Research & Education on Human Reports found that white Tea Partiers are more likely than other whites to downplay the problems faced by African Americans. They also tend to hold negative opinions about African Americans’ work ethic. Almost three-quarters told pollsters that government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for poor people actually encourage them to remain poor. One-fourth said the Obama administration favors blacks over whites, and three-fourths said the president doesn’t understand the needs of people like them or “share the values most Americans try to live by.” What, if anything, do these statistics prove?
Rivadeneira: I’m not sure that the findings “prove” anything, but here’s my take on government programs: I certainly don’t believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” As a minority, I’m well aware of the racism that exists—and the issues that stem from groups of people believing you are “less than.” But I know that this racism doesn’t respect party lines. I’ve faced racism from Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans (and every sort of moderate) alike. So I’m not ready to support any claims that the Tea Party is racist. Certainly some Tea Partiers are. But so are some Occupiers.
As to government “safety nets,” while certainly there is a place for public assistance, the truth is: many politicians delight in keeping people dependent on government (in one way or the other) because it gives politicians tremendous power over their constituents. So often big-government promises are less about helping and more about keeping people under government’s thumb. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. This is why we get so much fear-mongering in politics. Politicians want people afraid of how they’ll suffer if there is less help from the government.
I realize that many communities or people have battles ahead of them that are harder than many will ever have to face—failing schools, desperate poverty, cycles of abuse. So we can’t ignore that. But nor should we think that more government is always the answer.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.
In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in Somalia, Uganda,Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.
SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.
More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.
Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.
When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?
The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.