The Least of These

“SOMETIMES I wonder,” said Doug Long, shivering among the demonstrators in Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 13th, “whether everyone who defines themselves as Christian really believes in the same God.” As a rabbi sharing the interfaith stage blew a shofer, and a protest group called the Raging Grannies denounced restrictions on voting rights, Mr Long, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, explained that, in his view, Jesus would have stood for racial and sexual equality. Another clergyman told the crowd that, since everyone is made in the image of God, legislators should remember that “the harm they do unto others, they do unto [Him].”

Waving placards celebrating Planned Parenthood and public schools, and proclaiming that immigrants “make America great”, the marchers processed to the state capitol. There they were addressed by the brother of a Muslim murdered in North Carolina last year, the brother of a civil-rights activist killed in Mississippi in 1964, and finally by Reverend William Barber, the star turn and one of the rally’s organisers. He complained that the state’s politicians had “made it easier to get a gun than they have to vote”. Citing the Book of Isaiah, he declared: “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.”

This is not the sort of politics typically associated with devout Christians these days. Several Republican primaries are said by psephologists to turn on the votes of evangelicals; Ted Cruz, one of the front-runners, has based his strategy on the hunch that they can send him to the White House, endeavouring to motivate them with fire-and-brimstone denunciations of liberal depravities. On the face of it, this perception—of evangelicals as irate ultraconservatives—has some legitimacy. Once left-leaning, many evangelical congregations swung behind the Republicans under Ronald Reagan, shepherded by influential televangelists, and have since, as Jim Guth of Furman University puts it, “come to believe the Republican Bible cover to cover”. Growing majorities of white Protestants, and indeed white Catholics, have since embraced his party.

That realignment has not been driven by faith alone. Class and (especially in the South) race have also played a role. But Christianity is part of the story, not just in moral concerns about abortion, homosexuality and the church’s place in public life, but in economic attitudes too: for many evangelicals, self-reliance is the corollary of personal salvation, wealth a divine blessing and overweening government anathema. Some, at least, see helping the poor as a private obligation rather than the state’s. Yet another Christian constituency doubts that God would approve of, say, the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, or a squeeze in health-care provision.

That includes Mr Barber. “We can no longer allow a heretical adaptation of evangelical faith to take centre-stage in this country,” he says, decrying the term “religious right” because “We don’t think they are religiously right.” By his own lights a conservative evangelical, Mr Barber started the Moral Mondays initiative, a multiracial, unobtrusively religious campaign of protests against North Carolina’s skimpy education funding and failure to expand Medicaid, which has spread to other states. An evangelical, he argues, adducing scripture, must bring good news to the poor. After all, he says, Jesus was a radical.

Part of the trouble with how Christianity is perceived, thinks Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, a Christian social-justice organisation, is that the media is mostly secular-minded and prone to demonising believers. They say “Iowa evangelicals”, for example, when really they mean “old, white people”. The Bible, Mr Wallis points out, contains 2,000 verses touching on poverty, rather more than mention homosexuality; a worldview that neglects “the least of these”, he insists, “makes no biblical sense”. Among the outfits that agree is the PICO Network, an ecumenical alliance of religious communities which, says Reverend Michael-Ray Mathews, feel “compelled by faith” to tackle communal problems such as gun violence. Participants, he explains, use prayer and religious texts to develop “a vision of a better life”.

In black churches, the tradition of social activism stretches through the civil-rights movement to abolitionists and slave rebellions. Many are evangelical (as are rising numbers of Hispanics); their congregations mostly vote Democratic, invalidating any glib equation between that strand of Protestantism and right-wing ideology. As with American Christians as a whole, the politics of black churches is more nuanced than is sometimes assumed.

Trials here below

Consider a recent Sunday service at the Vision Church in Atlanta. Along with sensational music, it featured moving re-enactments of recent police killings of black Americans, scenes counterpoised with members’ own stories of triumph and resilience: alcoholism and deprivation overcome, degrees earned, businesses started. It also, in a largely gay congregation, contained frequent allusions to sexual tolerance and AIDS. “Some of us are not supposed to be here,” intoned a preacher, “but He preserved us.” A fur-clad worshipper rose from his pew to sing beautifully the refrain to “Can’t Nobody do me like Jesus”.

The presiding minister, Bishop Oliver Allen, founded the Progressive Pentecostal denomination to which the church belongs; it is now a national fellowship of gay-friendly, predominantly black churches. “Civil rights cannot just be for black people,” Mr Allen says. “If we’re not liberating people, what good are we?” Christians of all stripes, he thinks, should not allow their faith “to be hijacked by the loudest political voices”.

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