Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, N.C. He is a member of the National Steering Committee of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and author of Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.
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What's Next for the Poor People's Campaign?
We have said from the very beginning of our work together that our goal is to shift the moral narrative in this country. And we know that means changing who holds power.
Who Poisoned Talk Radio?
ANNE NELSON IS a child of Stillwater, Okla. Though she left home to attend Yale University, traveled as a reporter to Central America in the 1980s, and has lived in New York City for four decades, Nelson stays connected to her hometown.
In 2004, while visiting family back in Oklahoma, she noticed something about the conversations on talk radio as she drove across town. People in Oklahoma were not simply processing the news through different filters than her neighbors in New York City. They were getting different news—a whole different story about what was supposedly really happening in America. A good reporter, Nelson wanted to know why.
Her research led her to a group called the Council for National Policy. Founded in 1981 by extreme conservatives who cut their teeth in right-wing politics and the struggle for power within the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s, this little-known network brought together Republican political operatives and preachers of the new Religious Right with independent radio and media companies. In the words of Richard DeVos, a longtime member, the CNP became a coordinating committee for the “donors and the doers” of reactionary right-wing politics. A strange conversation on talk radio led Nelson into the inner workings of an elite network that has labored for four decades to convince everyday Americans in the heartland that they cannot trust East Coast “elites.”
In Nelson’s recent book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right , the longtime professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and School of International and Public Affairs invites readers to see what’s happening in the United States today as a product of the propaganda that CNP produces. Anyone who has been confounded by the willingness of some Christians to march in lockstep with Donald Trump and the Republican Party through the personal scandals and political controversies of the past four years would benefit from placing a list of the characters from Nelson’s new book beside their daily news source. People who have defended Trump from the White House—Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway—have in fact been connected through the CNP for decades to the white evangelicals—James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Ralph Reed among them—who have been most eager to praise Trump as a champion of “religious values.” On the same list, less recognizable names point to radio and television networks that offer an alternative story to the fact-based journalism Trump and his enablers attack as “fake news,” to the data companies that empower targeted political organizing, and to the money that makes all of this possible.
Critical books in recent years, such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, have uncovered the influence of big money in efforts to undermine American democracy. But in an era of the most extreme inequality since the Gilded Age, how do oil-rich plutocrats persuade everyday Americans that someone like Donald Trump represents a populist agenda? The answer to that question has everything to do with the way Christian values have been reframed in American public life by members of the CNP over the past 40 years.
As a growing movement of Christians organizes to challenge the Religious Right, Shadow Network is an important resource. Nelson, who is herself a member of the Episcopal Church, sat down with me to talk about how her research can inform faith-rooted organizing to reclaim democracy for the common good.
Reviving the Soul of America
The Religious Right was not wrong to tell people of faith that the Bible is political. Its critical mistake and enduring sin is not that it challenged Christians to engage in public life, but that it invited us to join a reactionary coalition driven by racial fear, male chauvinism, and corporate greed. Decent people with sincere motives joined the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to put their faith into practice. But these organizations made fallible people worse than we would have been otherwise. They led us astray.
Fear is the Slaveholder Religion's Tool of Control
Fear became slaveholder religion’s tool of control, inspiring millions of poor white families in the South to send sons to war and pray for victory, even as the white sons of plantation owners avoided combat. During Reconstruction, when black and white representatives worked together in Southern legislatures to guarantee public education for all people, many poor white children went to school for the first time; many poor white people received healthcare at Freedman’s Bureau hospitals. Still, their preachers told them to be afraid. Even when black power helped poor white people in measurable ways, slaveholder religion taught white people to fear shared power.
God-Talk Echoed Through Congress This Week
To mark the anniversary of Juneteenth, when enslaved people in Texas finally learned about the Emancipation Proclamation in June of 1865, the House Judiciary Committee held a special hearing on reparations for slavery this week. When asked about the idea of addressing the generational inequalities created by centuries of governmentally sanctioned white supremacy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded that America fought a civil war, passed landmark civil rights legislation and elected its first Black President to address the “original sin” of slavery. As far as he is concerned, the sins of the past can be forgotten.
Trump Turns to Christian Nationalists When He Feels Vulnerable
President Donald Trump began his week tweeting about biblical literacy: "Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!" By great, he means great for him — in the way that someone who is desperately parched might call anything wet, “great!” For the vast majority of us — Christian or not — the religious nationalism Trump binge drinks when he’s feeling politically vulnerable is really bad.
My Encounter With The Right-Wing Rage Machine
Whoever makes the bomb or pulls the trigger is culpable, of course. But he does not act alone. The social media trolls are as complicit in this violence as the mobs who gathered to watch the spectacle of lynchings. Fox News and Breitbart are as connected to these attacks as 19th century newspaper editors were when they ran sensational stories about black men ravaging white women to rally the Red Shirts who overthrew Reconstruction governments. Politicians who push stories that sow division today, from the White House to the County Commission, will stand in history alongside the Southern gentlemen of the 1960s who never ordered the death of a single civil rights worker but stoked the rage that ultimately erupted in the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others.
We Must Go Beyond Trump and Reconstruct Our Democracy
In the richest nation in the history of the world, 140 million Americans are poor or low income — one emergency away from not being able to meet their basic needs. We cannot be distracted by arguments about which president or party in recent history had more quarters with over 4 percent economic growth while Congress seriously considers cuts to programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Donald Trump is not on the ballot this November, but the fate of poor people in America certainly is. In state legislature and congressional races, we must ask ourselves which candidates are willing to challenge the lies that keep millions of our neighbors in poverty.
Rejecting the Religious Liberty of Slaveholder Religion
How did religious liberty come to mean nearly the opposite of what its founders intended?
Waiting for God in Sanctuary
When the Magi told King Herod about the heaven-sent child they’d come to honor, Herod also issued an executive order — kill every Hebrew child under 2. Herod’s henchmen would have slaughtered the Christ child along with the others had his parents not acted quickly to cross a border and protect their baby. Mary and Joseph were dreamers before Jesus. To prepare for Christmas is to remember Mary and Joseph’s dream and the civil disobedience it inspired.
Is a Contemplative Life Still Possible?
As we face the 21st century realities of ISIS-backed terrorism and reactionary Christian nationalism, we are grappling with the nature of evil, as Merton and others did in the late 1930s. Given the similarity of our contexts, Merton’s insight is prescient. "There was something else in my own mind,” Merton wrote as he watched World War II coming, “the recognition, 'I myself am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too.'"
Subverting Democracy Is Not Partisan. It Is Immoral.
Since the summer of 2013, we have called this law — which the 4th Circuit struck down on Friday — a monster voter suppression bill. It was the first and the worst of many voter suppression measures to pass through state houses since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision stripped the Voting Rights Act of its power to guarantee fair elections in this country. In many ways, it performed the new Southern Strategy of James Crow, Esq., which attempts to hold onto power as white voters become one among many minorities in this country. It is a strategy that necessarily depends on old fears, racism, and divide-and-conquer tactics.
Interrupting Injustice with Action in North Carolina
Just as we are called to speak the truth in love, we also act in love. Yes, we are interrupting business as usual. Yes, we are refusing to cooperate with the orders of law officers. But we are doing it out of love for our transgender neighbors who want to use the bathroom in peace. We are doing it out of love for the poor and working people who must choose between buying medicine and getting groceries. We do it out of love, even, for political leaders who have become so deluded by power that they may truly believe they are standing for righteousness.
The Racism Lurking Behind N.C.’s Anti-LGBT Law
Meeting for a one-day emergency session last week, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed HB2, which has been widely criticized as the nation’s worst anti-LGBT bill. In supposed defense of the general welfare, conservative lawmakers moved to stop a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgender citizens to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identify. But their call to “protect our women and children” echoes language of the white supremacy campaign that overthrew local governments in this state 120 years ago. Both then and now, the call to defend families against imagined predators is a crude power grab.
5 Ways to Teach Kids About Justice
READERS OFTEN ASK US: How can I incorporate a hunger for justice into my child’s spiritual formation? How do we help the youngest members of the church understand the gospel’s call to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves? Sojourners asked five Christian parents engaged in various forms of justice work to share their best tips for helping children put their faith into action. Here’s what they said. - The Editors
1. Look for Teachable Moments
by Kate Ott
MANY PARENTS FEEL unprepared to talk about sex or faith with their children. I was one of those parents until I realized age-appropriate sexuality information could empower my children and keep them safe. I also realized that teaching my kids about sexuality meant more than talking about “sex.” After all, if I didn’t talk to my kids about how Christian values of love, justice, and mutuality guide the care of our bodies and our relationship choices, who would?
So rather than planning for a single “big talk” or waiting until I know all the answers, I practice parenting through teachable moments. For example, in our house we talk about how clothing choices and hygiene reflect our thankfulness for our bodies as part of God’s good creation (including remembering to brush teeth!). As a parent, when I take a picture of my kids, I ask them for permission before posting it on social media; this encourages thinking-before-posting and consent as an active yes. And when we’re watching TV or listening to a song in the car about attraction or a relationship, I ask questions like: How would you feel in that situation? Do you think that person values their body? Does that seem like a mutual decision/relationship? Is that kind of love balancing God, neighbor, and self? In the short conversation, I always say something like, “Being in a relationship takes a lot of work and requires communication, honesty, commitment, and mutuality.” This models how to use one’s values to assess relationship choices.
Why It's Possible to Reject the Klan and Still Support Racism
If Donald Trump is telling the truth, he only recently learned that David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is an avowed segregationist. Apparently, the KKK and its history have faded from many white Americans’ memory. Jeffrey Lord argued on national television this week that the Klan is an invention of “the left.” As native sons of the South, we could forgive these men their ignorance. (“Bless their hearts. They ain’t from around here,” is the polite way to say it.) But we can neither forgive nor ignore the way 400 years of white supremacy have been naively reduced to whether a candidate will disavow the support of a hate group leader. Racism lives on in policies that perpetuate racial disparities, with or without the KKK.
A Moral Movement to Hold Candidates Accountable
This tenth annual People’s Assembly was made up of black, white, and brown, gay and straight, rich and poor, labor and civil rights, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, people of faith and people whose moral visions are rooted in reason or politics. Planned Parenthood advocates marched in pink hats alongside evangelicals, singing the same freedom songs. Black Lives Matter activists linked arms with elderly white veterans. The Moral March did not rally around a messiah candidate but challenged all leaders to serve the common good with policies that are morally sound, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane. While a kaleidoscope of campaigns vie for everybody’s attention, this long-term, grassroots coalition to reconstruct democracy in America is a movement to hold all candidates accountable.
The Second Career of James Crow, Esq.
Our lawyers have made a strong case this week that the voter ID component of this legislation places an unnecessary and undue burden on voters — especially poor and African-American voters. We will ultimately win this fight in the courts. But this case is about much more than defeating voter ID laws. It is about a central question of 21st-century American politics: is a multiethnic democracy possible?
A Politics Beyond Fear
Since the Republican presidential front-runner announced after San Bernardino that he would close America’s borders to Muslims, a debate has ensued about what “radicalization” means and how far we as a nation are willing to go to protect ourselves from it. So-called liberals (and even some in the Republican party’s mainstream) have said, “Not all Muslims have been radicalized.” To this Donald Trump retorts, “Until we know which ones have been, let’s keep them all out.” The unquestioned consensus in America’s public square is that we can only be safe by figuring out who the un-American terrorists are and getting rid of them.
But where we're from in North Carolina, we should not be so naïve. We have a disproportionate share of homegrown terrorists.
Twelve Years for a Paintbrush
EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING, I drive to the Durham Correctional Center to pick up Greg. He’s spent the past 16 months at a state prison down east, working overtime in the kitchen so he could get out six weeks early. A few days ago, the Department of Corrections transferred him to this local minimum-security facility. Greg knows the place well. He’s walked out of here more times than he can count.
“Feel good to be out?” I ask as we walk through the gate of the chain-link fence, nodding goodbye to the guards. “You know it does,” Greg says, his back straight and his eyes fixed on the horizon. He’s relishing this taste of freedom.
But Greg knows this pleasure is fleeting. As good as it might feel to walk through the gate and hop in a car, leaving prison doesn’t mean you get to leave this part of your life behind.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.4 million Americans are locked behind bars (and 12 million cycle through local jails each year). At any given time, some 6 million Americans are caught up in the criminal justice system—if not behind bars, then checking in with a parole officer who can carry them back to jail for the smallest of transgressions. Like Greg, a disproportionate number of those impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system are African American.
Even if you walk out of the gate like Greg, time served, you still have to deal with the debts that ruined your credit while you were locked away. You still have to rebuild relationships that were cut off because you spent the past decade behind bars. You still have to check the box on almost every job application that says you’re a convicted felon.
I live in a home named Rutba House, where we have opened our doors to friends like Greg who are coming home from prison. Doing so has helped me see that our country’s original sin of race-based slavery has shifted its shape again in the 21st century. As the Black Lives Matter movement has tried to make clear on America’s streets, race still matters. But in light of the fact that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, we cannot understand race in America today without understanding prisons.