Occasionally I go to the mailbox in my nightgown. Or I check our roadside egg-stand in my bathrobe after an evening soak. Living in the country, we don’t see much traffic, but we do see some. And each time I happen to the roadside clad in my night-things, I figure a neighbor or a worker headed to the local mushroom farm might find my outfit amusing. I can waltz into the front yard in my bathrobe without worrying I will be harshly judged—much less that people will make prejudicial assumptions about my entire race because I’m out there in my nightclothes.
Pondering this in recent days, I was reminded of an article entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh1 that I read in 2002 as part of a month-long training with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Chicago. In the article the author lists dozens of experiences of white privilege to highlight how oppression isn’t about one group being disadvantaged in a social context, but even more so, about the dominant group accruing many advantages. The bathrobe scenario above is one item on her list. Other items are far more grave, such as: I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed; or I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them; or When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is; or If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. I am grateful for the CPT training and the learning that stemmed from it.
Presently many Americans affiliated with the Christian faith are not moving the country in a direction of dismantling structural racism, healing wounds inflicted by racist policies, and deepening work for equity. Rather, they are moving the country in the opposite direction. Broad swathes of the white American church are dramatically heightening racism and racial tensions in our country. The Christian faith may be vast and diverse, but no doubt, parts of it are making things much worse.
At the same time, there are those who, like me, are challenged by our very Christian faith to work at unmasking, dismantling, and making reparations for structural racism. Much of my learning about and growth around systemic racism was taught to me and nourished by Christians, beginning with that 2002 training with CPT. The multi-day training revealed to me how racism is not just individual acts or attitudes of meanness, but a social order that conveys unearned advantages on the dominant group. This learning continued to season and deepen in me through the years until I now see the world and myself differently thanks to those trainers—principally Mary Scott-Boria. I view the work of undoing racism as daily work. I am also aware, especially in recent times, of how distanced I am from the acute pain of it—of news stories of police brutality against people of color, especially Black Americans, the exhausting onslaught of daily racialized aggression.
Currently I and a large group of other Oregon Episcopal clergy are participating in a bi-weekly, ten-week course developed by the Episcopal Church USA on structural racism and its history in our country and in the church. The reading and video assignments between ZOOM sessions take me into articles by James Baldwin and into Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited, the best book on Jesus I have read in a long time. Like I said, much of my learning about and growth around racism has been taught to me by Christians, and that continues. If it wasn’t for my proximity to progressive Christian circles these past two decades, I’m not sure I would have received the depth of learning that has opened my eyes. Nowadays, I am affiliated both with my Episcopal diocese and a small Quaker community I sometimes sit with in unprogrammed (silent) meeting. Both groups are committed to “doing their work” around racial injustice. These groups are reckoning with their past and with white privilege; naming and unpacking systemic racism while deepening understandings of policies that perpetuate it and advocating for policy change; working in practical ways toward creating equity; and having hard, painful conversations about racial inequities, prejudice, and violent, careless speech within their smaller, tight-knit communities. I understand many Christian churches in the United States are doing this work.
People have recently pointed out that a poison has infected the “American church” as statistics show a majority of white Christians supported Trump’s election, and many of these voters have become the unshakable base of his regime—a regime demonstratively racist since his first campaign speech on June 16, 2015 characterizing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” bringing drugs and crime to the country.
My question is: What do we call this group, this base of Trump supporters?
It is a conundrum that often leads journalists and others to lazily call them simply “Christians.” But aligning all of Christianity with Trump support, or implying that all Christians support him is to encourage a misleading and unhelpful stereotype. It is counterproductive to efforts within Christianity to call out bigotry and hatred, and to tell the truth about white American Christianity’s failures. For the many communities within the broad and diverse tent of Christianity who decry Trump’s policies, seeing the word “Christians” used so frequently in the media to refer to Trump’s supporters, when we know blanket use of the term is as faulty and destructive as is all stereotyping, is frustrating, to say the least.
I tend to call the large segment of the white American church that is Trump’s base: “right-wing American Christianity.”2 The segment is often referred to in media as “Evangelicals,” but “Evangelical” used in this way is also problematic. Some white American Evangelicals are not right-leaning at all. Furthermore, the term “Evangelical” applies to the theology of many Black churches and Spanish-language churches that likewise cannot be characterized as right leaning or Trump supporting. And some Evangelicals simply don’t support Trump, no matter what their political leaning. I do appreciate all efforts to put a qualifier before “Christian” when talking about Trump’s base, though. We need to be nuanced, precise in our language.
Right-wing American churches are fueling and propping up the Trump movement, and they are making racial divisions in our country even worse. These churches are white, and they can be Evangelical, Catholic, Mennonite, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—you name it. The through line is not Christianity, per se; it is whiteness and right-wing ideology. Polling, research, journalism all bear this out.
That said, much of the history of the white American Christian church was about promoting white supremacy and claiming divine sanction to justify it. Historically, any poison in white American churches was always there. Since the founding of the colonies, the white American church—in nearly all its denominations and forms—not only perpetuated American-style systemic racism, the racial “caste system” we see in this country to use the language of Isabel Wilkerson, but participated centrally in crafting and spreading it, giving it theological underpinnings like the “Doctrine of Discovery” that was used to justify genocide against Indigenous people.3 This is a crucial part of the story the broad Christian religion must tell if we are to learn from and transcend that story. White supremacy within white Christianity is being exposed more and more.4 Conversations in some white Christian churches that acknowledge the evil past and present of white supremacy within a broad swath of white American Christianity, and not just the “personal evil” of individual attitudes of prejudice, are only beginning. These communities need to settle in for sustained work, as it will surely transcend our lifetimes. In many places, dedication to doing the work is strong. Those who will have the most effect in challenging the racism inherent in right-wing American Christianity will likely come from within the larger Christian movement. This is one reason to support Christian groups doing the work on undoing racism instead of applying blanket, stereotyping statements to the faith as a whole.
After all, as Howard Thurman reminded us, Christianity is—at its roots—a religion of the “disinherited.”5 Jesus was a Galilean—a minority group that was distained and disregarded, looked down upon by other Palestinian Jews, and experiencing occupation and total domination by a brutish empire. Jesus ministered as one of the disinherited, speaking to the disinherited, and most other New Testament authors were interpreting his movement for those who were likewise under threat and disinherited—to some degree—by virtue of Rome’s war against the Jewish people in the latter third of the first century. White American Christians only begin to apprehend the meaning of Jesus and to experience the transformative power of the Christian faith as we begin to see the world from the perspective of the disinherited (those with their “backs against the wall,” as Thurman puts it). This threatens white supremacy and privilege. It is no wonder, then, that those who don’t want to see the world differently or to have their experiences of privilege challenged, have turned Christianity into an enervated story of individualistic belief, personal professions, and merit systems that win eternal salvation over the masses of the damned.
For those of us coming from privilege, Jesus challenges us to allow the disinherited to shine searchlights on our illusions and blindness, which is, in part, what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing. Only when we begin to see will we as Christians apprehend what Jesus—a disinherited Galilean Jew, was talking about. We cannot understand Jesus or his spiritual genius unless we become “poor in spirit,” both conscious of the pain we cause through structures we participate in and vigilant in working to change those structures, and until we recognize how our privilege has made us spiritually and socially anemic.
2 I use the term “right-wing” in the sense defined in this Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-wing_politics: “Right-wing politics represents the view that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically supporting this position on the basis of natural law, economics, or tradition. Hierarchy and inequality may be seen as natural results of traditional social differences or the competition in market economies.”
3 This film by the Anglican Church of Canada is a good introduction to the “Doctrine of Discovery”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQwkB1hn5E8.
4 For example, see Jemar Tisby and Lecrae Moore’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Zondervan, 2019; James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis, Reprint 2011;or Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, 2001.
5 Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press, reprint 1996.