A Window into What Many White Evangelicals Really Believe

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I had an instructive conversation today. I’m sharing it now with people’s identities removed because I believe it is revealing of the state of some aspects of popular white evangelicalism, but I have no desire to publicly call out the people involved in the conversation.

The conversation below might seem extremely bizarre to you. You’ll notice that I’m writing in a more evangelical bent than I often do here, as I was trying to communicate to people who might possibly resonate with such language. You’ll also note that my interlocutors were not always as coherent as you would wish. But this is part of the point. I believe exchanges like this are representative of larger numbers of ordinary white evangelical people than we would like to believe.

We often hear from evangelical leaders who might sound reasonable and express cautious disagreement with parts of Trump’s agenda, but their constituencies often aren’t very large. For most ordinary white evangelicals, President Trump is a great leader who has rescued the country from the evil rule of President Obama and the nightmare possibility of a President Clinton.

The exchange began when a friend posted this:

I offer no apology for what I am posting, for this is truly how I feel. Please know that this is my opinion and not open for debate.

If you don’t agree with me, that is your perogative, and I respect that. So, I ask that you afford me the same courtesy in return. I will not be responding to any and/or all comments.

I have lived through many United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, demeaned by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, threatened with death, threatened by some to rape our First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country. I am ashamed of the ruthless, insufferable, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the irresponsibility of the reporters who feel they have the right to deliver personal opinions just to sway their audiences in a negative direction even if there is no truth in their message.

After every other President was elected and took the oath of office they were allowed to try to serve this country without constant negative scrutiny from our news sources. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED while news sources search only for negative results from our President will not serve the people of our country. Nor will it create informed Americans. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH.

If only one of my FB friends would repost this, maybe everyone across the globe will understand that there are some of us who feel that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH of this disgrace to Our President and to our United States of America. Shame on the news media for allowing this ongoing hatred and constant state of turmoil to

I assume this is a viral post; it has that feel, right down to an unfinished final sentence indicating an incomplete copy/paste job. Lots of friends chimed in with supportive comments about Trump’s greatness, a few offered criticism, and the original poster quickly decided to engage with commenters after all. So I jumped in:

I think we should pray for our President, definitely. I think those prayers should focus on him coming to repentance and making restitution for his actions. There are several things that are unusual about President Trump compared to past Presidents, but I think what has made many people react so strongly against him is the way he has dehumanized groups of people with his words. As Christians, we know that every life is infinitely valuable and created by God. So it is particularly evil to speak of others in ways that demean, dehumanize, or incite animosity against groups of people. President Trump has expressed hatred for women; he has equivocated about the evils of white supremacy; he has spoken with extraordinary harshness toward whole nations. When coming from the President of the United States, these words have power. These words are action. If we as Christians do not stand against such evil acts, we are not aligning ourselves with the Gospel.

At that point a particularly effusive commenter engaged with me:

He has not Had spoken WORDS of Hate against Women ??
You must watch CNN ,or the other Lying Media ,,paid off by The Clintons an As Far as Praying For Him Im sure All True Christians Do ,,
How Do you know hes Not ,,a True Christian ,,,,You know Not his HEART,,!!
One thing about God says If their NOT Against us ,their With us !!
Trump is Sure Not against The Lord Nor Our Nation!!,,
PS An I guess you have Never said a Vile Word against Any one ,,Give Us a Break ,,
Repent your self!!!
STOP your Trying to Judge a Man God Put in Our Office Of this Nation !!
This is a Fact ,,

To which I replied:

Let’s roll the tape. Imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on. In fact, Trump did say all these things about other groups. Would you support his words if they were directed at your community rather than other communities? And in fact, he has expressed dehumanizing attitudes toward people like you. He boasted that he likes to commit sexual assault.

She replied:

Hes right ,,every illegal should be stopped as every ,,Muslim,,,they are the Antichrist,,,
Ready when they Know its time to Rise up an kill all they can ,,
Its already happen in Our Nation Beheading a women at her work place ,,
Even God says to take care Of your Own first ,,
Obama as Hillary help try an Devide The People ,,!
Its a Fact ,,Hillary ,,Has had People Murdered ,,shes for Murdering our Inncent babies ,,
Shes a traitor as a Lier ,,
She endangered US as Nation!!
Keep Thousands From Hatti,,,Dirty Enemie Filthy ,,Moneyv,,she recieved from our Enemies that Chant Death to us ,,
Gave as Recieved Millions from ,,the Enemies ,,
If shes Fine With The Slaughtering of Our Inncent babies ,,That alone Is Enough For ,,True People Of God tovNot Vote for her ,,
She Left A church because They Did not BELIEVE in ,,so called Aboration !!Thank God shes NOT in leadership .,God put TRUMP in ,,This is A Fact !!
Stop Throwing !! YOUR Stone ,,,Several ,,May Belong Toward you !!
You just havient felt the Impact Yet ,,

I responded:

Because Trump is President, I am focused on holding him accountable. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen with no public office at this time. I have my differences with her. In contrast to your views, the scriptures speak of welcoming the immigrant and being kind toward strangers. They speak of putting the interests of others ahead of our own. As Jesus taught so clearly, every human being is our neighbor. No one, no matter their religion or anything else, should be labeled the enemy or treated with indifference. Your own words– “dirty” “enemy” “filthy”–testify against you. This is not how Christians think about precious people for whom Christ died.

She replied:

This Black an white craps ,,from the pits of hell ,,,
The Demacrate s cound care less about the whites blacks ect ,,they are just out For ,them selves ,,
They were who ,,are full of the KKK ,,Factv,,had my daddy jumped on years ago because he would NOT join ,,them
I was a little girl an had to See this ,,He pulled his gun on them ,,
This white an black ,,issuecis from hell not from God ,,
satans Come down with great wrath ,,because He Knows his Times Short,,
Trumps In Office an ,,no one acted like Idiots when Obama was in ,,as He Litterly ,,tryed to ,,Distroy our Nation ,hes a Muslim traitor ,,,
Hes Not American ,hes A Unbeliever in Christ ,,Hes A True Infidel ,,
I for one Thamk God its out Of Our Office ,,He didnt care who come here ,,because he wanted America Weakened ,,
Hes for the Muslim ,,Enemie ,,Not us ,,
Gave even millions to thoses that chant death to us ,,as He sent weapins to them ,,
Made Great Mockery Of Jesus Spoken Words ,,
And Jesus said if their Not For. US THEY are Against Us!!
And Obama Was an Is NOT For Us !!
Trumps ,,A Strong ,,Bold ,,Smart ,,Man Like Reagon ,
Hes for helping any one ,,
But putting Americans First ,,
And its about Time ,,Jesus said take care of your own ,first or you Worse Then an Infidel ,,
We have Many in our Own Nation Who need help
We can not takecon a thousand a day that pour in here ,,A Thousandc,,smh ,
While we true Americans ,,many hungry ,an homeless as ,,sick ,and Putting them ,First Wrong ,,,
We Need To Take Care Of Our Own ,,,,Time For America ,,To het back On her Feet ,,stand Firm,,strong ,,an Be the Light on That Hill !!
Im Done With Hearing ,,such ,Foolisness!!!

I assume she began talking about “black” and “white” because of my “black lives matter” facebook profile image. Then she kept commenting:

Just ,,admit it ,,your just against him cause his a better ,,,man ,,,an yes Hes White ,,rich ,,bold ,,strong,,
And For God,as As Our Nation an her people,,
Give it a rest ,,Its unreal How some act foolish ,,just because their mad cause Hillary the lier lost ,,
They want the blacks as whites ect ,,at their beaken call ,,free this an free that ,,so they can rule all ,,,
Black or white ,,
They care not for blacks nor the Foreigners nor Illegals Dem just want their votes to keep em in office ,,Continuing their Corruption!!
Playing like they care about ya ,,smh ,,NO they Dont ,,

And again:

Lolololo,,hold Trump accountable ????
,Hillary Should Be in Prison as Obama ,,Soro ,,several others Bill Clinton ,,used sex slaves he as Hillary ,,
Ask Cathy Obrian , Basterds they are ,,Evil True Basterds!!

And finally:

Hebrews 12:8
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, THEN are ye bastards, and NOT sons!!!!!!!.”

Go to her profile page and prominently displayed at the top is this message: “LIVE For JESUS!!”

Now, I wasn’t in this to change her mind and I didn’t get angry about this exchange. That would be a waste of time. Frankly, I was just curious. And I wouldn’t think much of it if this conversation didn’t echo—even if in a more inchoate and unvarnished form—arguments and attitudes I’ve heard from other white evangelicals.

Thinking of these white evangelicals as unreasoning fools is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Notice how this commenter did in fact deploy theological argument to try to bolster her case. She invoked the sovereignty of God to try to foreclose any criticism of the President. In pointing out that I do not know Trump’s heart, her language recalled 1 Samuel 16:7. She referenced 1 Timothy 5:8 to make an argument for Christian nationalism.

She paraphrased Jesus’ cryptic words in Luke 9:50 to try to position Trump as a supporter of Christians even if he himself isn’t a very good one. She alluded to the story of Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery to argue that I should not judge Trump. She attributed division between black and white Americans (or perhaps even racial consciousness itself?) to the spiritual power of Satan. Finally, she directly quoted Hebrews 12:8, to what purpose I still can’t figure out.

The point is that her comments are overflowing with biblical allusion and theological argument. This is not merely a question of ignorance. It’s a question of what has been formed in her, and who has done the forming. Does she attend church? What is taught there? Is “love thy neighbor” so spiritualized that in practice you’re allowed to think and do whatever you want?

Notice how she positions her hatred not just as defensible, but as the proactively Christian attitude! She uses scripture to try to make a virtue of selfishness. So it’s a little hard to credit her professed concern for “innocent little babies.” It is characteristically human to love some people while hating others, but it’s a posture unlikely to win converts to your cause. This is especially so when the cause is invested in a vision of human dignity that you cheerfully deny to others.

It’s too easy to react to the views seen in this conversation with condescension. “Oh, she doesn’t know any better. Oh, she’s sincere. Oh, it’s a matter of ignorance.” As much as these factors may play a role, they don’t excuse the active theological reasoning taking place here. This is Christianity weaponized to oppress; it is salvation for me and hell for thee; it is “Jesus Saves!” as a gleeful taunt rather than a humble cry for help. This is what we’re up against in many white evangelical churches.

The Super Bowl Was A Glorious Assault On Our Moral Senses

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I watched the Super Bowl and I was thrilled to see the Eagles win. It was a great game. But it was also a spectacular assault on the moral senses. Perhaps I noticed it more now that I don’t usually watch games. At the Super Bowl the volume is raised to 10 and we are supposed to submit to our overlords of militarism, nationalism, and materialism. A healthy dash of sexism and historical appropriation is also recommended.

This is all so normalized that to talk about it is to immediately render oneself a hand-wringing do-gooder unable to have fun. Oh believe me, I had fun last night. But yeah, I noticed what I was being asked to bow down to.

There were the manipulative pregame displays of patriotism, in which we’re told to bask in militaristic nationalism. Nothing could be more quintessentially patriotic than saluting our troops, our carefully depoliticized troops, who are always only protecting us, defending freedom, always ready to respond to aggression but never to deliver it.

History is carefully excised from the patriotism on offer here. The aggressive and acquisitive militarism that has defined centuries of American expansion is not to be seen. There is only “America the Beautiful” embodied most fully in the humble soldier. After watching last night’s display, it’s no wonder so many people have the impression that the point of singing the national anthem is to honor soldiers in particular.

It is to be expected that nations would recognize and honor the important role that soldiers play in a fallen world. And whatever we think of the big questions of war and peace, it is unjust for us to be dismissive of the sacrifices soldiers make while we happily enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

The problem here is that patriotism has become militarized, so that the highest and fullest expression of American nationalism is the depoliticized and dehistoricized American soldier. This is an anti-republican ethos more suited to empire than a democratic state. But perhaps that’s fitting. Though our national self-image speaks of freedom and democracy, our celebrations tell a different story. We honor America not through self-government and civic-mindedness but by paying lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers.

And so protesting racism and police brutality on the NFL’s stage was unpatriotic. Somehow kneeling during the National Anthem had something to do with the troops. If you have a republican conception of citizenship and patriotism, this never would have occurred to you. But if deep down you believe in a militarized American empire, the logic works.

The debate over the player protests has not been about whether NFL games would become politicized. It has always been about whose politics would be displayed. And this is all quite cynical. In militarism there is money to be made. Concern for human life doesn’t sell. It offends too many Americans.

And then there were the commercials. Advertising in general is something not to be taken for granted. Basically, there was a time when it did not exist. Now it does. We are molded by it and we like it. I’m trying to raise kids and form some good things in them. But I constantly find myself asking, “how can I compete with that?” They are little materialists before they know what hit them. And I don’t know how to stop it.

There was the infamous ad this year, the MLK ad. Some folks thought it would be a good idea to use some words from one of Dr. King’s sermons to try to sell some trucks. Nevermind King’s increasingly radical anti-capitalist rhetoric. Nevermind that the sermon in question literally warned against buying cars and being duped by advertisers. Nevermind that the values King spoke of rebuke the foundations of our economy. That the King estate had to sign off on this garbage is yet another sad episode in a long and sordid tale of King’s descendants fighting for the crumbs from the table.

And how about that halftime show? It was a remarkably insipid performance, but you can’t really blame the NFL, right? It’s not as though there are a bunch of other talented performers around who could do a Super Bowl halftime show. So someone said, “Hey, what if we invite back the cause of the most notorious moment in halftime show history?” Sounds good! But what about Janet Jackson? “No, America has seen her boob. She must never perform again.”

If things weren’t so rigged against white men, Justin Timberlake would do the halftime show every year.

I had lots of fun watching the Super Bowl. I invited my sons to watch with me, and I just tried to close my eyes to all that it was demanding of us.

Historians: What Is This Supposed to Mean?

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National Review, September 11, 1962

While researching a (hopefully forthcoming) article about National Review’s treatment of African decolonization and the civil rights movement, I came across the cartoon above. I didn’t mention it in the article because I can’t really make sense of it.

It seems offensive, but what exactly is the message supposed to be? The immediate context around it is an article entitled, “Angola: Terrorists on the Run,” by Ronald Waring, in which he praises the Portuguese Army for its effective counterinsurgency campaign against Angolan rebels.

Waring was especially annoyed by what he saw as biased western press reports that played up Portuguese atrocities while downplaying African ones. Is that why the white figure in the cartoon is blindfolded? There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on in this image.

The best interpretation I can come up with for this cartoon comes from the broader context of National Review’s view of African decolonization. It saw decolonization as the retreat of western civilization, a retreat enabled by naive American and European liberals who had silly notions of egalitarianism and human equality in their heads. While they prattled on about human freedom, “primitive” black Africans launched crude grasps for power that threatened to return the continent to “barbarism.” White liberals, blinded by their delusions about humanity, refused to see what was happening right in front of their eyes.

Perhaps that sensibility is what this cartoon is trying to depict. But I’d like to know what other people make of it.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

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North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.

More Evidence that Churchgoing White Evangelicals Are Trump’s Base

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In and around white evangelicalism there’s a long debate about exactly how popular Donald Trump is and who the self-described white evangelicals are in all those polls. Some white evangelicals have continued to insist that polls are capturing the opinions of Trumpist “cultural evangelicals” who aren’t actually connected to local churches. Others say that the polling largely captures the reality of what white evangelicalism has become.

Reuters has a large ongoing rolling poll average that gives us another data point in this debate. It allows you to filter the data by a lot of different attributes. It shows some fascinating results.*

Let’s combine the polling from the last month and progressively narrow it down to smaller populations:

Trump approval/disapproval among:

Public: 38.3% / 57.0%

Ok, the public is not happy with the President.

Whites: 47.9% / 47.9%

White Americans are evenly split.

White born again Christians: 65.4% / 30.5%

Two-thirds of self-described “white born again Christians” favor Trump. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the “cultural evangelical” thesis is correct, self-described white born again Christians who rarely attend church will be more supportive of Trump than self-described white born again Christians who frequently attend church. Let’s see:

White born again Christians who attend church several times a year: 61% / 36%

Hmmm. Less favorable toward Trump than white born again Christians overall. What about more faithful church attenders?

White born again Christians who attend church every week: 70% / 27%

White born again Christians who attend church more than once a week: 80% / 17.6%

For what it’s worth, there you have it. Reuters thinks it’s the people in church every time the doors are open that are most supportive of Trump. Assuming for a moment that the data points to something real, it raises questions about what’s driving the correlation. Obviously it’s multi-causal, but it’s worth asking whether there is something about these church environments themselves that make faithfully engaged people more likely to support oppression.


I’m not good with statistics so tell me if I’m getting something wrong here. Obviously the more filters you add the smaller the sample size and the larger the margin of error. But these results align with other polling data that seems to refute the talking point that “cultural” evangelicals are more supportive of Trump than faithful churchgoing white evangelicals.

 

Cartoon of the Day

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Kenyan political cartoonist Victor Ndula provides a geographically precise depiction of Trump’s imagined Africa.

Remarks like the ones President Trump made yesterday are viscerally upsetting and are damaging in their own right. We’re correct to respond to them. But we should also try to keep our focus on policy and respond just as forcefully to cruel and inhumane actions, such as the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti. Trump’s negative comments about these places are drawing more outrage than his oppressive actions toward them.

This kind of behavior is yet another occasion to publicly lay down the marker we must keep laying down in our Christian circles: every day a Christian wakes up supporting Trump is a day they wake up engaging in wilful and open sin. They are mocking the gospel of Jesus Christ and have broken fellowship with the church.

The Story the Terrorists Told

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Our Mississippi was the main history textbook used by Mississippi public schools during the 1950s and 1960s. I encountered this book a number of years ago while working on my thesis and had forgotten all about it. While doing lecture prep today I discovered it again. Here’s what Mississippi high schoolers in the civil rights era were learning about the Ku Klux Klan:

In 1866, a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in Tennessee. It quickly spread throughout the South. The purpose of the Klan was the protection of weak, innocent, and defenseless people, especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers. Besides this worthy aim, the Klan had another purpose – that of restoring the political power in the South to the educated and responsible white men who formerly had held it…The Ku Klux Klan did its work effectively and well. One after another, unfit and corrupt people were removed from office. Not only the Negroes but also the carpetbaggers and scalawags were visited, and little by little these people became afraid to use their influence.”

People nurtured on these stories would find it very difficult to act humanely in the present. Folks, historiography matters a lot!

White and Black Are Not Innocent Metaphors

In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:

In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.

Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…

White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.

There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.

These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.

In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:

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These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.

This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”

The Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

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Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.

The Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Automatically Belong To You

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John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being beaten, 1961

A new civil rights museum is about to open in Mississippi, and President Trump is planning to attend. That this would be taken as an affront and would cause veterans of the movement to boycott the event ought to have been obvious. Trump is an opponent of what the civil rights movement stood for. When John Lewis duly announced today that he will not attend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.

Does Sanders know Lewis led SNCC? Does she know about Bloody Sunday? Does she care? Does she know that Lewis has taken criticism over the years for his willingness to sit down with white segregationists who claimed to be repentant? John Lewis, of all people, has shown himself willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them. He would probably do the same for Trump. But repentance has to come first.

It is impossible for Trump to honor the movement without first repenting of his open and flagrant racism. Unless he does so, he’s making a mockery of the movement.

If the absurdity of the administration’s position isn’t immediately obvious, it’s only because of the general ignorance the American public has about the civil rights movement.

This is a good occasion to return to my article on white memories of the civil rights movement, published this year in History & Memory. In that piece, I show how white Americans came to mythologize white resistance to the civil rights movement as inherently violent, extremist, and ultimately vanquished. Instead of grappling with the way opponents of the civil rights movement helped create “colorblind” America, white Americans began to believe there was a vast distance between the contemporary United States and the bad old days of the 1960s. This mythology has proven so strong that even when President Trump actively promotes racism many Americans are unable to accept the plain historical meaning of what he is doing.

But others know better, as the Washington Post reported today:

JACKSON, Miss. — The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”

Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses, and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August last year.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.

“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”

Trump supporters: the civil rights movement doesn’t belong to you! Have the courage of your convictions. The rest of us already see where you’re coming from. Time to be honest with yourself.