The Racist Message of Do-Nothing Religion, Courtesy of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz after the results of the 2016 Nevada caucuses at his caucus night party at the Bill & Lillie Heinrich YMCA in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In the wake of widespread protests against police brutality, Americans are looking to their leaders for a message of unity. As pastors and elected officials get their footing and issue responses, a familiar pattern is emerging. Perhaps it’s best captured in a recent headline from the Texas Tribune which read, “Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says America must turn to God to heal racism.” Is this the spiritual wisdom that will bring us together, or more of the same complacency with racialized religious privilege that has come to characterize today’s Republican Party?

It depends, of course, on what (or who) you mean by “America.” And what you mean by “God.” Not to mention what it means to “turn to God,” or to “heal racism.”

The devil’s in the details, and paraphrased headlines are often misleading. What Patrick actually said in his Fox News interview is that to address racism in American culture, we need to “change the character of mankind.” That’s quite a tall order. No wonder it’s taking so long.

An evangelical Christian born again in 1994 and baptized in the Jordan river on a 2016 trip to Israel, Dan Patrick believes Americans have put the proverbial cart before the horse. “We cannot heal through commissions and blue-ribbon panels and more laws,” he said.  

So far, so good. In fact, activists who are serious about systemic racism have been saying for a long time that tweaking policies, scheduling more training sessions, and buying more body cameras will not get to the root of the problem.

Hence the “systemic” in “systemic racism.”

But Patrick isn’t advocating a sweeping, radical transformation of our institutions of law and justice. He’s not saying, “let’s go beyond incremental reform and change the entire, corrupt system!” No. When he says “God has been left out of this equation,” he’s saying even massive structural transformation is doomed to failure. It’s a fool’s errand “unless you accept Jesus Christ, unless you accept God.”

The root of systemic racism, apparently, is our collective failure to believe and worship as Patrick does. Not all Americans are at fault. “We have a country,” he says, “where we’ve been working really hard, particularly on the left, to kick God out.”

Notice how “we” means “they.” That is, the leftists who’ve been too distracted with politics and protests to bother changing hearts and minds. This rhetorical sleight of hand, this false dichotomy between belief and action, this denial of politics, is precisely the problem with Patrick’s argument. But it’s also exactly the point.

It’s tempting for critics to argue that Patrick is conflating conservative anti-government political ideology with good old-fashioned theology. But that’s too simplistic. And actually, it’s a bad argument if you care about the work of progressive churches.

The truth is, there is no clear distinction between political ideology and theology. The idea that you can cleanly and easily separate one from the other is self-serving fantasy—a deceit that hides politics behind God-talk.

Actually, all good theology is politically engaged, in the same way that all good citizenship is driven by a belief, a vision, an aspiration for a future that fully embodies the values we hold dear. Call it religious, or spiritual, or just passionate and heart-felt. You know it when you see it.

When Barack Obama was running for President, the same Fox News network that aired Dan Patrick’s righteous attack on liberalism painted Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as a political ideologue. Wright, they said, was the face of Obama’s “true” racial identity—someone who believed in radical leftism, not in Christianity. Wright’s style of God-talk is just politics, not religion, they said. It was a racist strategy that could have cost Obama the election if John McCain hadn’t refused to push the issue and asked the North Carolina GOP to tap the brakes on a TV ad they’d produced. But the late Senator demonstrated a quality  his more sanctimonious colleagues appear to lack: integrity.

That’s what’s missing from the current crisis—not God per se, but the Godly virtue of integrity. While we can never really separate politics and religion, we can still demand they be woven together ethically, in a way that respects and preserves the purpose of each.

When ethicists talk about integrity, they point to a few key elements. Coherence and consistency are among them. But another, and perhaps more important, element is risk. You know you’re facing a crisis of integrity when you have to choose, in one crucial moment, whether to stay safe while sacrificing your values or remain true to them by risking something important—your livelihood, your reputation, even your life.

Ask John McCain. Or Mitt Romney, whose visage has made the rounds on social media after he appeared, button-downed and masked, at a rally in the nation’s capitol. Better yet, ask any pastor following in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ask Jeremiah Wright. With his prophetic response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Rev. Wright knew he would face a backlash. His response drew loud criticism and vicious condemnation. As a black pastor in Chicago, political and spiritual risk-taking is part and parcel of his vocation. He hadn’t chosen a life of comfort and complicity with the status quo.

We see echoes of King and Wright’s black prophetic theology in the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s clear to anyone who’s willing to see it. When Dan Patrick says “God has been left out of this equation,” he is either blind, willfully ignorant of the history of American civil rights, or both. To the extent that he does see the spiritual dimension of this movement, he doesn’t recognize it as Christianity. At least not his Christianity. Not “real” Christianity.

So, given that it takes integrity to weave together politics and theology, and given that integrity always involves risk, what is there to say about Dan Patrick’s argument about American racism?

The answer is glaring. Patrick’s solution requires nothing at all from the Lieutenant Governor or his community of fellow believers. No change in belief, no change in behavior. Certainly no new laws or policies. After all, Patrick accepted Jesus Christ in 1994. He’s been doing the real work all along. If only we’d listened!

Joking aside, Patrick’s response to the current crisis—this terrible, amazing moment of opportunity—is to offer nothing in terms of self-risk or vulnerability from his community of fellow believers. His argument is a Godly version of “I told you so.”

There’s a troubling stridency in the Lieutenant Governor’s view. While he’s careful to condemn racism and police brutality, his words ring hollow against the backdrop of white evangelicalism, which historically has dismissed progressive black churches, or otherwise left-leaning churches, synagogues, and progressives of other religions, as illegitimate. Political, maybe, but not religious, and certainly not Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

What do we call a view that is prejudicial in a way that dismisses the deeply-held beliefs of people of color? Think about it. Patrick’s real message to other believers is simple: Do more of the same. That’s worse than doing nothing. It’s self-serving, disingenuous posturing. No serious person expects every American to turn and face the same direction, politically and theologically. It’s the theological equivalent of saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Unfortunately the Lieutenant Governor’s message is par for the course in today’s GOP, where the center of gravity has shifted toward the most reactionary forms of Christian Nationalism. As Patrick’s voice is one among many who share such views, a note of caution is well-advised: When a leader says racism won’t end until his political rivals “accept Jesus Christ,” that’s not a sincere proposal for a genuine solution. It’s a thinly-veiled threat.