Donald Trump created a firestorm of controversy when he blamed the violence in Charlottesville on “many sides.”
But a group of faith leaders who spoke out against racism Monday morning at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, seemed to agree with him. For Bishop Harry Jackson, co-founder of the Reconciled Church — the main organizing body behind the event — and his colleagues, ascribing blame to any side in America’s conflict is to neglect the saving power of Jesus Christ to heal all divides.
Despite the centrist rhetoric surrounding the press conference, billed as an opportunity to “discuss the church's role in healing our nation of its ‘original sin’ — racism,” the event was politically charged. It was held as a response to the "One Thousand Ministers March for Justice,” a rally of religious leaders — led by Rev. Al Sharpton. His event was to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington while also condemning President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Nearly all of the press conference’s participants serve on one of Trump’s advisory councils. And the theology it espoused — while allegedly one of love and nonviolence — in practice was also one of nonresistance: one that ascribed no responsibility to President Trump for his role in stoking racialized violence.
Jackson, the presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, was joined by a number of similarly prominent evangelical Protestant faith leaders, many of whom are people of color. These included Rev. Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life and Gospel of Life Ministries; Mark Gonzales, founder of the United States Hispanic Prayer Network and the United States Hispanic Action Network; and Rev. Charles Huang, advisor for the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.
The press conference marked a curious conservative strategy: one that seemed designed to hold on to Trump’s evangelical base by treating racism as, essentially, symptomatic of a lack of sufficient Christian faith. Its panelists worked to forestall criticism of Donald Trump’s handling of race issues by treating racism as an exclusively spiritual, rather than structural, dilemma, one that could be cured not through dialogue or through societal change but through prayer and reflection: a perspective that allowed them to adopt the same kind of contempt for “violence...on many sides” that Trump adopted in his now-infamous initial comments following the Charlottesville.
“God’s going to ... give us an army of people who are free from the sin of racism”
Speaking in turn, each panelist espoused similar ideas: that racism can only be defeated
“One blood,” the panelists repeated frequently over the course of the hour-long press conference, and “one race” — referencing a famous line in the Book of Galatians that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The panelists made multiple references to the idea that racism or racial division was externally imposed by news media, or by an unidentified “they,” rather than something endemic to society. Instead, they implied, a more religiously observant society would allow “true” — and not racist — Christians to be a necessary voice for love.
“God’s going to ... give us an army of people who are free from the sin of racism,” said Mike Hayes, founding pastor of Covenant Church in Dallas, “[people who currently] aren’t saying or doing enough about it …t hat we need to release to the streets in an unbelievable barrage … snuff out the fires of the hateful from the far left. ... There are millions of free Christians who love everyone … [and so we can] build a church free of racism.” Hayes likewise dismissed any social attempt to combat racism in society without Jesus. “I don’t think anything changes [politically],” he said, “until you have a personal encounter with Jesus, which breaks your heart.”
What the panelists did not say, however, was as significant as what they did say. They avoided the language of left-wing social justice — words like privilege, say, were absent from the conversation. They did not condemn particular groups or movements, from the alt-right to white supremacists to neo-Nazis, by name (although there was a single mention of the “far left”). Instead, they blamed the violence of Charlottesville on collective religious failure. One panelist, Gonzales of the United States Hispanic Prayer Network, told attendees that the “violence in Charlottesville has told us we need to humble ourselves before God.” At another point, attendees were exhorted to “pray for cessation of violence … and general anarchy in urban and rural areas” — vague words that did not identify or accuse any perpetrators.
It shouldn’t be surprising, either, that panelists rarely mentioned Trump, especially not in conjunction with any responsibility for violence.
Several of the panelists, including Jackson and Huang, also serve on Trump’s advisory board. When Trump was mentioned, it was with positivity; for instance, Huang told a story about trusting in Trump’s promise to support the Asian-American community — and his incendiary rhetoric, or that of his supporters, was not brought up once. At most, an oblique mention was made to the “self-righteous governor” of Virginia (Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat), who, they argued, blamed Trump for the Charlottesville violence: something treated by the panelist as patently and self-explanatorily ridiculous. (McAuliffe has criticized Trump’s leadership in the aftermath of Charlottesville.)
Rather, the panelists uniformly implied, any racial tension was the fault of a divisive and, presumably, left-wing media. The “real” crises of racial injustice, said Day Gardner, founder and president of the National Black Pro Life Union, were black-on-black crime and abortion. “We have become our own worst enemy,” Gardner told attendees. “The proof is in the cities where black-on-black crime is rampant … and in the womb … where abortion is the biggest killer [of black people],” adding “they separate us” without ever specifying who that “they” might be.
While many of the themes and ideas expressed during the panel are far from foreign to mainstream Christian thought — one would be hard-pressed to find a Christian that didn’t believe in “turning the other cheek,” say, or fighting division and violence with conciliatory love — their particularly politicized manifestation at the Press Club is not representative of American Christians as a whole. Social justice — and particularly social justice work in the fields of anti-racist activism — has a long history within the American religious tradition: from the abolitionists of the 19th century to the mainline Protestants who advocated desegregation during the civil rights movement to the proponents of liberation and black liberation theology, who saw the radical overthrowing of an oppressor as central to Christ’s message. Certainly, the 1,000-odd faith leaders marching with Sharpton agree.
(It’s also worth noting here that the faith leaders who spoke at the press conference were uniformly Protestant evangelicals, with no representatives from mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or other Christian traditions.)
The anodyne “both-sides-ism” of this press conference, rather, uses the Christian language of love not for its own sake but to prop up and legitimize an administration that owes more to The Fountainhead than to the gospel of Luke: conflating Christian forgiveness with political apathy.
Likewise, the nature of the press conference seemed designed to continue the Trump administration’s wider trend of allying with slick faith-based media outlets, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network, to create a kind of parallel media landscape in which racism (and indeed societal issues more generally) are the manufactured result of a “fake news” invested in social division, and in which Trump is its primary victim.
And — for Trump’s base, at least — it may be working. One Facebook commentator posting in response to a live stream of the panel seemed to be convinced:
Our news sources are trying to separate us since many workers in the industry did not receive the president they donated to. Since last November, we have been subjected to false truths meant to divide us as a country. I believe we need to use our voices to reject biased news sources because our judicial and politicians are not capable of changing this situation. I suggest boycotting certain news sources and trying to get case law brought about so there are CONSEQUENCES for publishing illegally leaked and false news. God Bless this group and Americans struggling to find the truth.