Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Robert P. Jones's Commentary on the "Historical Record of Lived Christianity in America," White Supremacy, and the Recent Sojourners Débacle

An important contribution (and subtext) of Robert P. Jones's new book White Too Long is its focus on how white Christianity is lived in the US — as opposed to what churches say about themselves or profess in their official statements. As Jones states,

The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy (p. 6).

The phrase "lived Christianity" is doing a lot of work here. Jones is asserting that if we want to see what a religious group really believes, we have to look at how its adherents behave (and vote) and not just what it says about itself. 

This is an important distinction since, as Jones says later in the book, at the very same time that leaders of white mainline churches and the Catholic church were issuing nice-sounding denunciations of racism during the Civil Rights period, a large percentage of members of these same churches were actively resisting black Americans' claims to equality. He writes,

However, the pro–civil rights orientation of white mainline Protestant and white Catholic leaders is not an accurate barometer of the influence of white supremacy among white Christians sitting in the pews. Declarations on racial justice by national institutions and hierarchies were more often than not ignored or actively flouted by local clergy and their congregations (p. 63).

Then he adds,

We could easily continue to pile up examples, but the pattern is clear: white Christians and their institutions, especially at the local level, were not just passively complicit with but also broadly and actively resistant to black Americans' claims of equality. This massive religious resistance was happening even as white Protestant mainline denominational offices and the American Catholic Bishops, at the national level, were issuing statements calling for their constituents to support aspects of the civil rights movement (p. 68).

Religious teachings/doctrines do not mean just what words on paper say or what comes out of the mouths of church leaders. They also mean how people embody those teachings in their real lives, how they live those teachings — whether they belie those teachings in their behavior.

These distinctions are especially important in the Catholic context in the US, where a majority of white Catholics vote in alliance with white evangelicals while pretending that this alliance does not implicate them in the racist resistance to Civil Rights legislation that gave birth to the alliance. White Catholics like to pretend that they are "only" voting "pro-life," that their alliance with people who began their religious right protests in overt racism does not implicate white Catholics in racism.

It is so important to the religious and political right to shield white "pro-life" Catholics from charges of racism that, according to a recent report in National Catholic Reporter, after the publication Sojourners published an article arguing that American Catholicism harbors a subculture of racist hate, both representatives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities contacted Sojourners editor Jim Wallis to express outrage, and Wallis then pulled the article from publication.

The National Catholic Reporter account notes that Sojourners participates in an ecumenical consortium called the Circle of Protection that supports ministry to those living on the margins of society. The implication of the NCR report is that the Catholic bishops and Catholic Charities threatened to break up this ecumenical arrangement if Wallis did not deal with the article that outraged both groups.

The article in question was written by religion scholar Eric Martin and is entitled "The Catholic Church has a Visible White-Power Faction" and appeared in the August issue of the print edition of Sojourners under the title "Harboring a Culture of Hate." Wallis responded to the pressure directed to him by the Catholic groups by unpublishing the online version of the article. Two Sojourners editors, both people of color, Daniel José Camacho and Dhanya Addanki, resigned in protest of Wallis's action.

After NCR published its report, Sojourners republished Martin's article online, and Wallis himself has now resigned as Sojourners' top editor. 

The threat of representatives of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities to torpedo an ecumenial organization ministering to the needy will sound familiar to all of us who have seen this threat used repeatedly by the same agents to threaten organizations or government groups or cities offering support to LGBTQ people. The Catholic bishops and Catholic Charities have repeatedly threatened to shut down Catholic Charities ministries if those groups refused to cease supporting LGBTQ people, and, in some cases, they have actually done just that — shut down Catholic Charities ministries.

This history makes the following tweet of Daniel J. Camacho as he announced his resignation as a Sojourners editor all the more significant:

A primary reason the Catholic bishops and Catholic Charities want white Catholic racism shielded from public scrutiny is that recognition that white Catholics are just as motivated by white supremacist thinking as white evangelicals are draws critical attention to what the "pro-life" movement has been all about from its origins forward. It was born in resistance to civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Abortion came along as a unifying cause only later.

The resistance to Roe v. Wade is grounded in resistance to civil rights legislation aiming at giving African Americans equality. That's where it all begins, and this foundation is fully apparent in the choice of 8 in 10 white evangelicals and 6 in 10 white Catholics to elect Donald Trump. The political and religious right want all this history to remain hidden because it suggests that the moral foundations of the so-called pro-life movement are far less admirable than many people want to imagine.

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