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Why conservatives want to make Charleston about "religious liberty"

Rick Santorum.
Rick Santorum.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There are lots of ways to react to the horrifying shooting Wednesday night at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Implying that the attack is about people who hate Christianity isn't one of the good ones.

"This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time, and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before," former Senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum said. He wasn't alone: both Sen. Lindsey Graham and Fox News's E. W. Jackson connected the attack to hatred of Christians.

But attacks on black churches, especially those with Emanuel AME's august civil rights history, aren't just attacks on a Christian institution. Historically, they are attacks on black communities: a form of terrorism designed very explicitly to punish African Americans who dare to demand equal rights. The evidence we have so far strongly suggests that this racial hatred is what motivated the Charleston attacks.

And the fact that some leading Republicans are having trouble talking about that tells us something important about race and politics in the Obama era.

What attacks on black churches mean

Dylann Storm Roof flags


Dylann Storm Roof, wearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. (Facebook)

To understand what's wrong with looking at this as simply an attack on religion, you need to understand a little about the relevant history here — specifically, the role of black churches in community organizing and civil rights activism.

"Historically, black churches are not just houses of worship — they have also acted as sanctuaries from racism and organizational hubs for civil rights rallies," German Lopez explains. "White supremacists throughout American history often saw these churches as threats, making them prime targets for those who wanted to terrorize and maintain control of black communities."

This is targeted racial violence, not an anti-Christian crusade. The theory behind these attacks, like the "Bombingham" campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in the '50s and '60s, is that they can create a climate of terror that makes black political organizing impossible. If black communities are too scared to meet, the chilling logic goes, they'll be incapable of organizing demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of protest. It's the "black" part of "black church" that's being targeted here, not Christianity per se.

"The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history," as President Obama put it in his Wednesday remarks on the shooting. "This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked."

Things might be different if there were any evidence that the suspect, Dylann Roof, was motivated by anti-religious sentiment. But there's not. The suspect's Facebook profile featured him wearing a jacket festooned with racist flags. His target was a South Carolina church whose most famous parishioner planned a slave revolt in the early 19th century. Both the historical pattern and the evidence about this specific case point toward race.

The politics behind the Christian dodge

This isn't just a simple, politically motivated error. These kinds of comments represent a broader internalized ability to talk about what racism is — and how it works in a time when we're seeing a wave of protests about racial inequality in America.

Take Graham's comments. "There are real people out there who are organized to kill people based on religion and based on race. This guy's just whacked out," he said. "But it's 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill."

There's a nice two-step in those comments. First, Graham is saying this guy's deranged, so it's hard to impute any real significance to the attack (a point he reiterated later in the day). But at the same time, he's cautioning that the real thing to be on guard about — in 2015! in America! — is an organized campaign targeting Christians. Race just sort of falls by the wayside, when in reality it's at the heart of the issue.

So why do Graham and Santorum sideline race? It's hard to know for sure, but there's a very plausible explanation: race is hard to talk about as a Republican, and religion is much, much easier.

Race has long been a problem area for conservatives, but the conservative dilemma in the Obama era is particularly acute. Some pretty extraordinary research, from UC Irvine's Michael Tesler, shows that racial issues have become especially polarized during the Obama era: basically, the fact that America's got a Democratic, black president means Republicans have grown more skeptical that structural racism is a huge, enduring problem. Racial attitudes in some areas have hardened: Republican opposition to affirmative action and interracial marriage have spiked under Obama.

What that means is that it's very difficult for Republicans to talk about racism as a serious, enduring problem without alienating a real part of the base. Some are making an effort: Sen. Rand Paul, in particular, tried to use his support for criminal justice reform to reach out to the black community.

But even Paul's comments on the Charleston shooting didn't focus on the race of the victims: "There's a sickness in our country ... it's people straying away, it's people not understanding where salvation comes from," he said on Thursday, per Bloomberg's Dave Weigel. Paul did discuss Kalief Browder, a black man who committed suicide after an unjust incarceration, and told his audience that "you can be a minority for a variety of reasons." But that's part of his standard pitch; his shying away from framing the Charleston shooting as racially motivated illustrates just how delicate racial issues are in the GOP.

An attack on Christians is a much easier issue for Republicans to discuss. For years now, conservatives have been arguing that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States. Talking about an attack on a black church as an attack on a church fits that preexisting framework nicely, and allows politicians to talk about the news issue of the day without stepping into a political minefield.

That framing of Charleston, so far, has led to some deeply weird policy proposals. "I would urge pastors and men in these churches to prepare to defend themselves. It's sad, but we've got to arm ourselves," Fox's Jackson said. "There does seem to be a rising hostility against Christians across this country because of our biblical views."

Armed pastors won't stop someone from shooting a church, or bombing it. And it definitely won't address laws that help people get those weapons in the first place — or the reasons they want them.