Adam Russell Taylor is president of Sojourners and author of the new book A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community. He spoke with Sojourners’ Jenna Barnett about what the term “Beloved Community” actually means and why he believes it has the potential to bring about an imago dei equality in the United States.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenna Barnett: Why did you decide to write this book?
Adam Russell Taylor: The 2016 election was a major influence. My older son, Joshua, who at the time was 5 years old, came to our room at 3 a.m. the night after the election. He was like, “Mommy, daddy, I need to know who won.”
We were kind of in anguish ourselves. And we said, “We think Mr. Trump won.” And then his response was, “I don't understand how someone who has said and done such mean things could win.” And I was just speechless. I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know how to make sense of it. And it wasn't because a Republican won, it was because someone won who was just so amoral, who was able to tap into some of the worst impulses of our country, particularly racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. I felt in that moment that it was time for me to leave my position at the World Bank and get back into the struggle for faith and justice.
I was also was trying to come to terms with how so many white Christians voted for Trump. So I wanted to write a book that could better explain to my sons what happened, why it happened, and how we could reclaim the soul of our country … But until we have a shared understanding of where we've been, it’ll be hard to know where we're going.
Honestly, it confuses me that Christians seem to be at the forefront of resisting exposing our kids — and even our adults — to the realities of our troubled American history. Because baked into the Bible are such clear models for truth telling, looking back at sins, and pathways to redemption. So why are Christians reluctant to embrace these hard truths?
Well, I think some of it is sadly tied to the ways in which American Christianity was used as a bludgeon to bless and defend the institution of slavery and even the subjugation of the Native American population. So there's this manipulation of the Bible to defend a number of things in our history that still have not been fully repented for in the way that I think would lead to greater healing and transformation … It's the responsibility of Christians in particular to try to push back against that and defend what we think our faith is about.
There’s a misnomer that the Religious Right was founded in opposition to abortion. But in reality, abortion didn't become a primary issue of the movement until about 10 years after the movement was created.
The movement really was a political agreement between Jerry Falwell Sr. and a Republican political operative named Paul Weyrich. They formed an agreement to try to mobilize a lot of evangelical pastors in opposition to the forced integration of Christian schools, which were created after the federal government — through the 1964 Civil Rights Act — forced schools to desegregate. And so a lot of white Christian students fled public schools, created their own Christian schools and then refused to allow Black students in them. And ultimately that became the tinderbox that helped spark a lot of outrage and grievance, ultimately enabling them to build a massive list and generate a lot of funds [for] the movement.
And so you can't separate the Religious Right from the poisonous seed of racism. And I think that seed continues to show up in the present. Organizations like the Family Research Council won't really talk about the history because they know it's not palatable, but it helps to explain why so many of their supporters found President Trump's appeals to white racial grievance — let alone his more overt racism — inspiring.
I want to pivot to focus a little bit more on Beloved Community. I'm really drawn to the term because community is probably the main reason why I'm a Christian, but it's also one of those words that's used so much in progressive Christian spaces, that sometimes it loses its meaning a little bit. What does Beloved Community mean to you?
The Beloved Community has so much power and potential to help unite us across many divides, in part, because it hasn't been co-opted yet by the Right [in the way that] “social justice” as a term has become either overly watered-down or politicized and misunderstood. You make a good point that there are certainly ways in which, in progressive religious circles, “Beloved Community” gets referred to a lot. Sometimes it's kind of just thrown out there as a concept, but not really well-defined. Interestingly, when I revisited a lot of Dr. King’s speeches and civil rights history, [I noticed that he] would often mention Beloved Community, but there wasn't like a singular speech where he completely unpacked what the Beloved Community means. And so in one sense, it was almost like it was assumed that a lot of people understood what the concept meant, or maybe he was hoping that people would kind of fill in [the gaps] with their own values and priorities. And so I feel there is a need to recast the vision for the Beloved Community in more contemporary terms.
In the book, I have a somewhat more technical definition of Beloved Community: A society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, ableness, gender identity, sexual orientation, or pretty much anything that has been used to create a hierarchy of human value.
For me, the Beloved Community really combines the strength of both words: The understanding that we are beloved — that we are made in the very image and likeness of God. And that is the religious expression of it, but it's also the constitutional expression that every person has inalienable rights and is created equal. We know that that was violated and compromised from the very beginning, but still that overall principle is really powerful and it's worth defending.
Then, as you said, there’s this notion of community. We are built for community. That is how we are hardwired. Now we're also hardwired for division and for polarization, so we have to acknowledge that there is this push and pull within us. For me, the Beloved Community is creating a community, a society, a nation, where everyone is seen, everyone is respected, where everyone is enabled to thrive, and everyone is able to realize their God-given potential. Obviously that is a big goal. But I think that that is something that almost everyone would resonate with. How we do it is where we're going to get into all kinds of disagreements. And that's good. That can be healthy.
Our current reality is so far from that, and we've fallen woefully short of actually realizing those goals, but they're consistent with our constitutional commitments and the promise of America. And they're very consistent with our deepest held religious values.
What does the Beloved Community look like in real life?
There's what I call a Beloved Community revolution already happening around the country. I learned about from Marlon Peterson, who was an Aspen Fellow. Marlon spent 10 of his most formative years of his life in prison. While in prison he ended up being able to complete his education, and he became a real advocate for completely transforming our broken prison system. While in prison, he started noticing that some of the older inmates would refer to each other as “beloved.” They'd be like, “Yo beloved, what's going on?” “Hey, beloved, how you doing?” And Marlon was kind of taken aback by this. And so he asked them, “Why do you keep referring to each other as ‘beloved’?” And they basically explained that it’s a way to deescalate conflict in a very volatile environment. And it’s also a way to reaffirm the humanity of people that have been stripped of their core humanity. That is so powerful to me because we as a society do not treat the incarcerated or the formerly incarcerated as beloved. It’s an example of where the power of imago dei equality really gets tested and, you know, really needs to be expanded.
In the book, I also talk about how the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, to repair the world, really is a moral vision that's about Beloved Community. And while those actual words aren't necessarily used, it's a lot of the same overall commitments. [These commitments also] show up in Islam. In the Korean tradition, there's this notion of jeong, which is also so much about interconnectedness and community. Then there’s the Latino/Latina emphasis on familia justicia, which is also aligned with the Beloved Community. And so for me, It's not as critical that everyone is using the words “Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community is not complete until each of us is able to contribute our own definition. I hope this book can prompt people to share their own expressions about what the Beloved Community looks like.