Dr Sharon Jagger writes about a recent event that brought together two leading voices on US politics and the intersections of race and Christianity.
The Trump era in US politics brought to the fore the connections between White Christian nationalism and evangelical churches, leaving Black worshippers pondering their position. The Southern Baptist Convention in the US, for example, has been in the US news recently as several high profile Black pastors abandon their association with the denomination. One of the largest Protestant churches in the country, SBC has become associated with racial divisions, according to news outlets like the Washington Post.
Such public departures, says Jemar Tisby, US Black historian and church pastor, are indicative of the type of resistance that is needed to push back against Christian discourses that support White supremacy. At a recent online event, hosted by the Woolf Institute, Jemar Tisby explained his work in raising awareness of the increasing discomfort of Black Christians in the US, with his campaign coalescing around the trending #leaveLOUD movement. It appears that for some time Black worshippers have been leaving majority-White evangelical churches where support for Trump has been concentrated. The New York Times reports this as a ‘quiet exodus’. Jemar Tisby aims to make this exodus public and noticeable.
Explaining the intersections between race, Christianity and US politics, he points to the reported 81% of White evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016 as an indicator that the ‘veneer’ of racial harmony within evangelical churches is crumbling. Historically, there has been an understanding that White conservative evangelicals in the US have coalesced around the political Right under the pro-life banner. Jemar Tisby is revisionist, stating that the real connections between White evangelicals and the Right are rooted in White supremacist stances, reaching back to the days when racial segregation was part of US life. Interestingly, movements for reconciliation have swept through these evangelical churches; in 1994 the ‘Memphis Miracle‘ was hailed as a healing moment, as Black pastors were prayed over at a Pentecostal gathering, and the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1995, made a public event of repenting of their pro-slavery past. For Jemar Tisby though, these events have lost their currency with the resurgence of White nationalism amongst evangelicals. Trump’s presidency exposed the White supremacy narrative as the real connection between the political Right and White evangelicalism.
The second speaker at the event was Philip Gorski, a White American sociologist specialising in the intersection between whiteness, nationalism, and Christianity in the US. He talks publicly about the need for White Christians, particularly in the evangelical camp, to resist the divisive and racist nationalist positions that have become increasingly visible since Trump’s election in 2016. Philip Gorski is downbeat about the future of US democracy. The historic iterations of the struggle between multi-racial democracy and minoritarian White authoritarian politics have shown that the country tends towards the latter when a fork in the road appears.
According to Philip Gorski, the narrative of the US as a country founded on Christianity has produced religious tropes that are embedded into its political life which are fundamentally racist. The ‘promised land’ story of the Pilgrim Fathers is one of White victory over native Americans; the ‘End Times’ story enables White evangelicals to see a cosmic fight between good and evil revolving around the heroic White male; and the ‘Flood’ story segregates racial groups and is accompanied by undertones of supremacy of one (White) race favoured by God. It is through these lenses that events are often interpreted, leading to an overarching narrative of a battle for control over US political and cultural life based on White Christian supremacy.
For Philip Gorski, these narratives explain the rise of such groups as the Tea Party (a Conservative political movement in the US) and the sense of White existential threat that Barak Obama’s presidency generated. The conclusion is that White nationalist Christianity is a powerful engine in US politics and its divisive beliefs are worrying. Whilst Black activists like Jemar Tisby are working to raise awareness of the tensions within US evangelicalism, Philip Gorski says that the responsibility lies with White Christians to engage with the debate, to resist and to challenge White Christian nationalism that leverages Christianity to promote a political agenda based on the notion of White supremacy.
Jemar Tisby is author of ‘How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice‘. His latest book ‘The Color of Compromise‘ is due out in November 2021.
Philip Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale University. His latest book is ‘American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump‘.