Yesterday, President Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, holding a Bible aloft as a nod to his white Christian nationalist base as he condemned those who damaged the church during the protests the night before. Minutes earlier, police had cleared the way from the White House to the church, which has a historic association with American presidents, with tear gas and physical force.
White evangelicals, many of whom regard mainliners like Episcopalians as dubiously Christian at best, have been quick to praise the president for what the Republican Party’s official Twitter account called the “truly touching and powerful moment.” Never mind that the diocese was not informed about the visit and that Episcopal clergy who were present are livid about the use of violence to clear the space.
Today President Trump made a strong statement by holding up the Bible in front of a burned out historic church. Joe Biden went to church too…and talked about shooting criminals in the leg. Imagine if @realDonaldTrump had said that inside a church! @JoeBiden
— David Brody (@DavidBrodyCBN) June 2, 2020
Yesterday @POTUS Trump made a statement by walking to @StJohnLafayette that had been vandalized & set on fire in Sunday night’s rioting. God & His Word are the only hope for our nation. https://t.co/DNsTr12TTh
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) June 2, 2020
Of course, more insidious than the direct praise of Trump’s show of Christian nationalist force, which came on the heels of his threat to use the military to restore order in the face of days of demonstrations against anti-Black violence and police brutality, is the gaslighting that white evangelicals employ in such moments to deflect from their obvious support for white supremacism.
According to David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, Pastor Robert Jeffress of megachurch First Baptist Dallas declared today that “holding up that Bible is a reminder that God’s Word denounces both racism and lawlessness.” This is the same Robert Jeffress whose church choir infamously performed a quasi-hymn unoriginally titled “Make America Great Again” in July 2017, and who, after Trump declared that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville in August 2017, took to CBN to declare of Trump, “there is not a racist bone in his body.”
(In an unexpected exception to the general pattern, on June 1, Pat Robertson himself called for first degree murder charges against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, and suggested that Trump should have called for justice against Chauvin and the other officers, adding that it might have calmed the riots.)
To those attuned to evangelical doublespeak, Jeffress’s invocation of lawlessness alongside racism calls to mind the slaveholding Christian’s favorite Bible passage, Romans 13:1-6, which in the NRSV begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions famously used the verse to defend the Trump administration’s indefensible policy of separating children from their parents at the border, an interpretation that scholar Wil Gafney characterized, here on RD, as “white, patriarchal, confederate Christianity.”
In a video speech posted on Facebook, evangelical superstar Pastor Rick Warren similarly condemned both racism and rioting, invoking the authority of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to do so while bragging that he’s the first white pastor ever to have been invited to speak in Dr. King’s pulpit. Perhaps Warren hasn’t read the entirety of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, since he fails to recognize himself in King’s denunciation of “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
But even those white evangelicals who seem more well-intentioned are in most cases proving quite tone-deaf in their responses to the current crisis. Southern Baptist author Beth Moore, for example, tweeted, “Jesus, come get us,” prompting ex-evangelical author and women’s rights advocate Asha Dahya to respond, “Or how about, instead of trying to escape the situation, do the work of undoing generations of systemic racism and oppression perpetrated by the white Christian American church? As a leader you should be leading. This is the wrong take. Jesus would’ve stayed & turned the tables!”
Or how about, instead of trying to escape the situation, do the work of undoing generations of systemic racism and oppression perpetrated by the white Christian American church? As a leader you should be leading. This is the wrong take. Jesus would’ve stayed & turned the tables! https://t.co/h8I5qIpxZV
— #TodaysWonderWomen OUT NOW! // Asha Dahya (@Ashadahya) June 2, 2020
Meanwhile, Jo Luehmann called out prominent evangelical pastor and author Andy Stanley for deleting a take comparing George Floyd to Samson after he was criticized for the comparison, with many pointing out that black lives shouldn’t have to be lost for white Americans to turn away from racism.
Let’s talk about another way white supremacy shows up with Christian pastors:@AndyStanley you posted a problematic post, I called you out on it, as did many others. And then you just deleted it. Deleting with it our work of educating you and your followers. (1) pic.twitter.com/GS197Cggv3
— Jo Luehmann (@JoLuehmann) May 31, 2020
Similar sentiments from white evangelicals prompted Andre E. Johnson, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Memphis and senior pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries, to tweet:
Why does it seem like it takes Black death to redeem us?
— Andre E. Johnson (@aejohnsonphd) June 1, 2020
While he is currently busy supporting local activists and his congregation in addition to his other commitments, Dr. Johnson generously agreed to comment for this article. Responding to a question about Andy Stanley, he expanded on his lament about the need for black bodies to provide American redemption. “Whenever we talk about how God is going to use something evil for good, why does it have to take black bodies being strangled out, to be strangled and killed, on camera?”
Regarding the necessary presence of the camera, Johnson also minced no words. “We don’t get this response if there’s no video. And I’m not only talking about white evangelicals, but I’m talking to white liberals too. You would not be feeling what you are feeling right now without video, and I want you to own that.” He added, “I’m lamenting the fact that Breonna Taylor’s name is not mentioned as much as George Floyd’s, but one of the reasons why is that we don’t have video.”
“It’s easy to imagine that Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend must have done something wrong,” Johnson continued, “the police wouldn’t just break into a house. But of course they would! They do it all the time.” The fundamental problem, in his view, is that “Black truth still does not matter. If black truth mattered, we could really begin to put a dent in this issue.” And one of the reasons that black truth doesn’t matter, Johnson stresses, is that white conservative Christians’ theology is fear-based and “and rooted in the hatred of black people, and all people of color and all people who are not white men, as well as the belief that they are superior, that they are God’s chosen.”
Today, when many white evangelicals have pretensions to respectability despite their support for Donald Trump, most would surely deny Johnson’s claim. But, as Johnson says, “There is no conversation to be had” with those who do not see or accept his full humanity; no middle ground with those whose tradition is grounded in slaveholder Christianity, no matter how much white evangelicals have worked to superficially scrub their record on these matters. It’s hard to see how white evangelical subculture can possibly change for the better unless white evangelicals start facing hard truths like those Johnson lays bare—unless black truth begins to matter.