Why are thousands of churchgoing Christians supporting a political agenda that would ban immigrants from our shores, ignore growing income inequality, demean women and fail to address climate change?
David Gushee, the outgoing president of the American Academy of Religion, has a one-word answer to that question: racism.
“What many white Christians worship most faithfully is ourselves, our beloved whiteness, the nostalgia of white communities that we remember and envision, and the white God that we have made in our own image,” Gushee told academy members meeting in Denver last weekend for their annual conference. This worship of whiteness, he charged, had nothing “to do with Jesus of Nazareth,” and “leads us wide open to the idolatry of Donald Trump.”
Nevertheless, Gushee, like the thousands of progressive, largely Christian religious leaders and thinkers who gathered in Denver, continues to believe not only that religion can bring us together, but also that its potential to heal has never been more needed.
Christianity always has been about repentance, conversion and change, these leaders say.
Gushee’s story is no exception. Gushee was a longtime evangelical leader who held that homosexuality was a sin. In 2014, after much reflection and study of Scripture, he wrote “Changing Our Mind,” which advocated for the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ Christians, a book that led to his break with white evangelical Christianity.
But it was Trump’s election, supported by 81 percent of white evangelicals, that prompted his “Oh my God” moment.
For most of this career, he’d been a scholar and moral leader of Baptist institutions in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. He felt that his own moral blindness made him complicit in the election results.
To repent, he immersed himself in black writers, particularly novelists, growing to understand through their writings how white supremacy has harmed the lives of people of color for generations up to the present day. His address at the annual meeting of the academy was part of his public repentance, he said. But he intended to do more than confess his sins. “We must learn to do theology collaboratively (with black scholars) in a listening mode, rooted in deep interracial friendship and richly diverse communities of scholarly conversation,” Gushee said, pledging to take this path in his professional life.
Throughout many of their sessions in Denver, the mostly Christian, politically progressive academy scholars, teachers and writers expressed two convictions: that religion, although often harmful and divisive, continues to have the power to heal and unite. And that religion has a critical role to play in a divided and wounded nation.
“There’s hope, there’s optimism, there’s despair and there’s disempowerment. Do we have a choice? Not really,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Ecology, which has brought together diverse religious leaders and scientists to address environmental problems for two decades.
Their work, Tucker said, offers “possibilities of hope.”
“We have no more urgent moment ... than now,” agreed feminist theologian Mary Hunt. “There’s no more chances,” she said. “We in religion have to find our unique role to play, and the colleagues we need, to play that role within the larger society.”
Jim Wallis, a longtime social activist and religious leader, said that not only white evangelicals, but also white mainline Protestants and Catholics, needed to understand their complicity in the nation’s polarization and dissension. “When the operative word in ‘white Christian’ is not ‘Christian’ but ‘white,’ we are in dangerous trouble, not just politically, but theologically and spiritually,” he warned.
Political engagement is important, but it is not sufficient, Wallis said in an interview following his speech. People of faith must “go deeper,” into their own religious practices, into their relationships with others, “breaking out” of “racialized” neighborhood boundaries and increasing their “proximity” to the most vulnerable, the poor and immigrants.
The religious themes of repentance, conversion and hope resonated in many conference sessions.
In North Carolina’s Bible Belt, where even the “e-word” — evolution — offends, Catherine Wright teaches ecology and religion by addressing hunger. Working with scores of local churches, her students learn to care for the Earth through planting gardens, giving their harvest to local food banks.
The leaders of Interfaith Voices for Reproductive Justice seek to empower women to make decisions about their reproductive and sexual lives. The group’s principles are “grounded in black feminist thought and human rights,” said womanist scholar Toni Bond Leonard.
She stressed the importance of moving beyond the pro-choice/pro-life debate to a larger conversation: “What do we need to do” to ensure healthy families and healthy communities, safe from violence and environmental harms?
Religious institutions often “get in the way” of change, said Latina theologian Teresa Delgado. She puts her faith in people. It is possible, she said, for members of diverse faiths to use “the power of religion to bring together and affirm human dignity and to assert justice.”