The Christian Evangelical Movement's Ugly Racist Streak
Many people of faith have rushed to denounce "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson's homophobia — but his racism is a different story.
December 25, 2013 |
The Evangelical Church has a racism problem. And it is
incumbent on us in this Christmas season to tell the truth about that.
Recently A&E suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of its hit
show, “Duck Dynasty,” for making incredibly homophobic statements in a GQ magazine interview.
In typical fashion, he affirmed his evangelical belief that
homosexuality is a sin, but went even further, comparing gay people’s
sexual behavior to bestiality, and declaring emphatically that they
would not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Liberal-minded folk, some
Christians included, have been outraged at his homophobia, while
conservative Christians of all races jumped to defend his right to free
speech. Many of these Christians feel particularly threatened by what
they call “censorship” of Robertson, because the belief that
homosexuality is a sin, and the right to declare that belief freely
without recourse, has become for many of these people a defining marker
of their identity as Christians.
A reluctant evangelical, I reject
conservative theological teachings on homosexuality; the violence that
the Church does to gay people in the name of God is indeed one of the
primary reasons for my reluctance. But I am also ambivalent about the
Church because of its continued subjugation of women and its failure to
be forthright about its continuing racism problem.
I grew up in a
black baptist church, in a small town in North Central Louisiana, about
30 miles west of where “Duck Dynasty” is filmed. I made my first
“profession of faith” in Jesus Christ while at a white baptist church I
had visited with my childhood best friend, Amanda, when I was about 7
years old. I was baptized at the age of 13.
At 33 years of age, my
disillusionment with the church — which has come to full bloom in the
last five years or so — is the thing that perhaps most solidly marks me
as a member of the Millennial generation. Though I am often ambivalent
about that label, too, I still get why Millennials, fed up with the vile
homophobia of the church — as particularly evidenced by the “Duck
Dynasty” episode — are leaving the institution in droves. But in the
fervor and closing of ranks over Robertson’s homophobia, many
Christians, white and Black, old and young alike, have missed the racist
remarks he made in that same interview. Millennials, it turns out,
haven’t proven themselves to be fundamentally better on race, despite
post-racial proclamations to the contrary.
according to Robertson, 1950s and 60s Louisiana — the Louisiana of his
childhood — was a happy heavenly place where Black people hoed cotton
and eschewed the blues:
“I never, with my eyes, saw
the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all
farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m
with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the
field. … They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black
person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a
word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They
were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
have several aunts and uncles and a grandparent who would beg to differ
with Robertson’s account of events. In 1956, several hundred African
Americans were purged from the voter registration rolls in Monroe, and
spent years struggling to be re-enfranchised.
I’m reminded of these words from James Baldwin’s essay “A Fly in Buttermilk”:
has worked brilliantly in the South, and in fact, in the nation to this
extent: It has allowed white people with scarcely any pangs of
conscience whatever, to create, in every generation only the Negro they
wished to see.”
But racism and colonization have also
allowed white people, like Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, to create the
Jesus they wish to see, too: a blonde, blue-eyed white man with long
hair. Now my Bible says that Jesus was a Jew with Egyptian (Read:
African) ancestry (Matthew 1). But many white people are decidedly
uncomfortable worshipping a God that doesn’t look like them.
Evangelicalism goes, racism, homophobia, and sexism go hand in hand.
Black evangelicals like to tell themselves that they can reject
Christianity’s racist past, while embracing homophobic and sexist ideas
about the position of gay people and women, in the world and the church.
I have come to say: It just isn’t so.
God is not a racist. I know
that despite a Bible that sanctions enslavement and implores slaves to
obey and be kind to their masters.
God is not a sexist. I know
that despite a Bible that tells me that women are to be quiet in church,
that women are not to teach men, that women are to submit.
God is not a homophobe. I know that despite a Bible that declares sex between men to be an abomination.
is love. That is a truth I learned first and foremost from the Bible.
And it holds moral and political weight for me because of the life that
Jesus Christ lived, from birth to death and back again.
I love the Church, despite myself. But I won’t love it uncritically. This is what hermeneutic consistency requires.
And worshipping alongside white folks who are more moved to stand with a
homophobe than to stand against racism gives me great pause.
Church can no longer afford to be disingenuous about its racism problem.
Easy unity is not what we need. Time has run out for an African
American Church that continues to tack hard to the right — uncritically
imbibing the agenda of the (white) Evangelical Right, without
acknowledging that this position, predicated as it is on the belief
that Christian = Republican, is fundamentally averse to, and in some
ways responsible for, the declining social and political condition of
African Americans, gay and straight alike.
Ironically enough, the
progressive Christians who inspire me the most these days are white.
Rachel Held Evans, Jay Bakker, Brian McLaren and theologian Peter Enns
are fighting the good fight of faith. But I won’t let any of them off
the hook for their failure to be more forthright in addressing racism.
Evans, Bakker and McLaren are great on questions of homophobia, poverty
and sexism; but racism, when it is addressed at all, is largely
addressed as a problem of individual attitudes rather than systemic
disfranchisement. What Robertson’s statements point to, however, is that
individual prejudices, and the amelioration of them, are bound up with
the structures that support them. After all, it wasn’t
his raciststatements that got him suspended.
This is the season of
hope. And I am hopeful. Because even though Phil Robertson said gay
people would not inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus did say that the
Kingdom of God is within us. Phil Robertson and his ilk don’t possess
the keys to the kingdom. We do.