Commentary
By Jim Wallis 11-08-2018

As we digest the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections, there are reasons for people of faith committed to social justice and the common good to be grateful and encouraged. There are also reminders of what we are up against and some real post-election dangers. Here are a few of the good results:

  • Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution was approved by well over 60 percent of voters. This amendment will restore voting rights to 1.4 million people formerly convicted of felonies who have completely paid their debts to society. The success of this ballot initiative, which had strong support from voters in both parties, interest groups from across the ideological spectrum, and from people of faith, finally begins to reverse one of the most insidious continuations of Jim Crow-era policies designed to disenfranchise people of color. Now we need similar referendums in other states where former felons are still prevented from voting.
  • Michigan and Nevada used ballot initiatives to adopt automatic voter registration, a move that empowers more people to participate in our democracy. Since 2015, 14 other states have made moves towards automatic voter registration.
  • Medicaid was expanded by ballot measure in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, and will soon be expanded in Maine with the incoming governor having pledged to so do. Kansas could also follow suit given the governor-elect’s support for Medicaid expansion during the campaign. This means 500,000 people will gain access to affordable health care.
  • The minimum wage was raised by ballot measure in Missouri and Arkansas.
  • 3 states, Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado, reformed their redistricting laws to make them nonpartisan and prevent partisan gerrymandering, and Utah’s proposal to do the same holds a slim lead as of this writing while final votes are still being tallied.
  • Women from both political parties won more than 100 House seats with several races still counting votes — a new high. The new congresswomen include the first two Muslim congresswomen, the first black congresswomen to represent Massachusetts and Connecticut, the first two Native American congresswomen, and Iowa’s first ever congresswoman.
  • My personal favorite election result was seeing Minnesota elected its first Native American lieutenant governor, longtime Sojourners friend and board member Peggy Flanagan—who is like a daughter to me as her adopted father. Peggy will become the highest ranking Native American ever to hold statewide office in Minnesota.
  •  Several African American candidates were elected to Congress for the first time in majority white wealthy suburban districts. These new members of Congress include former nurse Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Colin Allred in Texas, Antonio Delgado in upstate New York, and Lucy McBath , who lost her son to a racist gun crime several years ago, and this week won a seat in the Atlanta suburbs formerly held by Newt Gingrich —a startling reference point for how the country and Georgia have changed in the last 20 years.
  • Several local Sheriffs lost their elections because of their close relationship to ICE and their role in facilitating aggressive crackdowns on undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration.

Zooming out to the broadest level of the consequences of this week’s elections, the change in power in the House of Representatives will change Washington with the end of one party control of the federal government, and create a desperately needed check on Donald Trump’s power after two chaotic and frightening years where he faced virtually no limits or checks whatsoever. This is a vital check and a balance to growing concerns of this president’s executive power that both Democrats and some Republicans have strongly called for.

Prominent conservative columnists Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat each opined Wednesday, in much the same language, that the House of Representatives will now provide a much-needed check on a president and administration that desperately need checking.

But despite the many things to be thankful for after the Tuesday results, the midterm elections also clarified what people of faith and conscience are up still against — and it’s daunting. In the closing days of the campaign, as we and many others sounded the alarm, Donald Trump used open, unadulterated, and blatant racism as his closing strategy in conservative states. That strategy was rewarded by his party gaining seats in the Senate and likely electing his allies as governors in Florida and Georgia (still counting)—despite the brilliant efforts of two impressive and inspiring African American candidates, Andrew Gillum and Stacy Abrams, who did remarkably well in two southern states. Trump’s overtly racial appeals to the politics of white grievance and white identity caused many people like retirees in Florida to fear an “invasion” of an immigrant “caravan” that would bring leprosy, small pox, and violent criminals into America. Trump appealed to racial resentment, fear, and even hate because he thought it would work. And in some key races he was proven right — it did work. But it also sparked a deep response from minority voters and young people.

We also need to be clear about the tactics of voter suppression that were on public display during the campaign and may have impacted a number of races, particularly in Georgia and North Dakota. The fact that Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, was allowed to preside over an election in which he was on the ballot, is still outrageous.

Moving forward, people of faith must make it clear that we will be actively involved in protecting the votes of all citizens. Efforts like Lawyers and Collars, which took place in states across the country this year, must continue and expand moving forward.

Even as efforts to limit minority participation in the election were widespread in these elections, turnout was extremely high for a midterm election, which is great for democracy. Yet it’s worth noting that the president’s racist and fear-based tactics energized and drove some of the higher turnout from whites, including white evangelicals, which was much higher than usual for a midterm election, especially for the party whose president is in the White House. And as painful new data shows, it is white evangelicals who are the demographic group in this country now most opposed to an increasingly diverse multiracial future for America. As Wes Granberg-Michaelson methodically laid out this week , the recent 2018 American Values Survey from PRRI is a damning indictment of white evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. Among other things, Wes points out that according to this study, “ White evangelicals are the only religious group with more than half (54 percent) believing that the U.S. becoming a ‘majority of minorities’ in racial diversity by 2045 is a negative thing. Two-thirds of all Americans say this is a good thing ... White evangelicals are the only religious group with a majority (51 percent) favoring a law preventing refugees from entering the country. Only 37 percent of the country supports this.”

White evangelicals have wandered dangerously far from the gospel of Jesus and their leaders have failed to model and teach true discipleship. Calling out the use of white nationalism by this president has now become a test of faith for white evangelical leaders in this country, whose followers are tragically responding to direct racist appeals. We have a long road ahead of us and the integrity of our faith is clearly at stake.

Despite the split decision of this election— with the House going to the Democrats and the Senate to Republicans — the results do not mean it will be easy to prevent Trump from making further dangerous, corrupt, or autocratic moves over the next two years. But the election does mean that any moves like these will be challenged by key oversight committees in the House; at least after the new Congress is seated on January — but the lame duck session between now and then becomes a dangerous time to see what Donald Trump may try to do.

The coming change in power in the new Congress is the reason why President Trump is so afraid.

The first day after the elections, President Trump forced the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And instead of the normal procedure—promoting the current deputy attorney general to be acting attorney general until a new appointee is confirmed by the Senate—Trump immediately appointed Matt Whitaker, a Trump loyalist who has harshly criticized the Mueller investigation in the past and floated suggestions about defunding or otherwise constraining it. Whitaker has joined President Trump in calling the widely and deeply respected Robert Mueller’s investigation a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” even retweeting an article whose headline characterized the investigation as a “lynch mob.” This means that deputy attorney general, Rob Rosenstein, who was overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation, has been set aside from his role. Whitaker’s installation may have already effectively begun to try to undermine and ultimately end the investigation into Donald Trump, his campaign, and his administration. Even if this has not yet happened, there is tremendous risk that moves can and will be made to sideline or shut down the investigation before the new Congress takes office in January.

Yesterday, one of the most bridge-building and bipartisan senators on Capitol Hill, Chris Coons, also a committed Christian, tweeted this:

“If there is any indication that the President has fired the Attorney General and named Mr. Whitaker as Acting Attorney General to influence or end Special Counsellor Robert Mueller’s investigation, that would make today’s action an historic attack on the rule of law ... That is a red line which President Trump has been warned not to cross by Republicans and Democrats alike for months.”

Senator Coons is not known to express himself with this much alarm. That he is doing so indicates to me that this danger to the integrity of democracy is real and present.

In the days following the election, Trump has made a fresh declaration of political war against his opponents, including an incredible attack on the press at his first press conference in months, and the immediate firing of his attorney general that could quickly become the beginning of a constitutional crisis in America.

Let us watch, pray, and be ready to act.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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