When I was growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Moral Majority thrived among the Southern Baptists who raised me. Our churches couldn’t endorse Ronald Reagan, but he made it clear that he endorsed us. A young political hopeful, I paged for Strom Thurmond in the US Senate and studied to learn how politics might redeem America.
Then I met the Reverend William Barber. He was the guest speaker at an event hosted by our Democratic governor, but we connected because of our common faith. Rev. Barber was the best preacher I’d ever heard. He was also African-American. Our friendship opened my eyes to the ways race still matters in our supposedly colorblind society.
Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was running for president for the first time, I published a book on race and the church with an evangelical publishing house. It didn’t sell well. For most white evangelicals, President Obama’s election was proof enough that America had moved beyond our racist past.
But Rev. Barber knew better. As head of our state’s NAACP, he was the direct recipient of anger about a black man in the White House. His office not only received photos of Obama hanging in effigy outside courthouses but also death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
Still, Rev. Barber was clear that this overt racism was not the most dangerous backlash against a more diverse electorate in the South. Much worse than Klan threats was the way political operatives manipulated religious language to divide-and-conquer the coalition that had challenged their power. Though he’d embraced me as a brother, Rev. Barber knew well how dangerous the Moral Majority had been to his community.
I confess, I didn’t know the history he taught me. I never learned in my public school education about the Fusion Party that brought white Populists and black Republicans together in 1896, inspiring a backlash which included not only Klan violence and intimidation but also a political movement to pass voter suppression laws and institute Jim Crow legislation. That movement was led by white men who called themselves “Redeemers.”
The Redeemers of late 19th century America had a clear political goal: to restore the Southern way of life that Reconstruction interrupted. This meant breaking up fusion coalitions and attacking black power. But Klan violence was as unsettling in post-Civil War America as it is today. Rather than use overtly racist language, the Redeemers framed their vision as a moral crusade against the sin and corruption of Northern politics. Good Christian people came to believe that advocates of Reconstruction were subversives with an ungodly agenda, hell bent on destroying American morality.
I didn’t know this history when I went to work for Strom Thurmond twenty years ago. In my mind, the Bible I’d memorized and the redemption I treasured were handed down to me from the early Christians who stuck to their faith and died in the catacombs. Our evangelical movement was an embattled minority in liberal America. Or so I was told. I had no ear for the way biblical language had been hijacked to serve the interests of white power.
If Obama’s presidency has made anything clear, it’s that we are not living in a post-racial America. Whatever our politics, most evangelicals are painfully aware how race still matters, from the voting booth to the Super Bowl. I spent this past week on a 21st-Century Freedom Ride with black, white and brown sisters and brothers who were eager to learn from civil rights history what it means to work for racial justice today.
Like many political and faith leaders in America, my fellow freedom riders were outraged that Donald Trump has won the Republican primary in every state we drove through on our Southern tour. Fifty years after George Wallace—after all the blood, sweat and tears that were shed—how can political extremism be winning?
It’s a troubling reality, but one that Rev. Barber saw coming. When wealthy investors spent $30 million to take over the state house after Obama won North Carolina in 2008, Rev. Barber insisted that we stop calling them conservatives. They’re extremists, he said. The new voting maps they drew based on race were illegal. (It took a federal court five years to agree.) They pushed extreme legislation through with a majority based on those illegal maps. And when thousands of North Carolinians protested, their move to arrest us was illegal and extreme (It took a Superior Court judge a little over a year to dismiss the charges.)
To most Americans, Trump’s corporate fascism is extreme. “We must stop him, ” the establishment is saying, on the left and the right. But much of what Trump is proposing (and worse) is already the law in state houses throughout America. Unlike 50 years ago, the political extremism we’re subject to isn’t only Southern. Michigan’s “emergency management” oversaw the poisoning of an entire city, even as 19 states continue to refuse their poorest citizens access to federally funded health insurance. In perhaps the most closely watched presidential race in US history, almost no mainstream media has covered the voter suppression laws that have been pushed through state houses since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision.
Listening again this week to the story of the Nashville Movement in 1960, I was struck by the way Diane Nash, a Fisk University student, stood on the steps of Nashville’s municipal building and asked Mayor Ben West whether he thought it was right to refuse service to someone simply based on the color of their skin. Mayor West said after the fact that he realized he had to respond not as a politician, but as a man. Nash reframed the extremism of segregation as a moral issue. As a moral issue, it could not stand.
The bad news, I’m afraid, is that extremism goes far beyond Trump. But the good news is that the Movement past and present shows us that moral language doesn’t have to serve extremism.
If “white evangelicals” are supporting Trump, they are following in a long line of religious extremists, from the 19th century Redeemers to the Moral Majority of the late 20th century. But they do not own the language of faith and morality. We can reclaim what has been hijacked.
We can insist that extremism is wrong.
Even when extremists are in power, we can put our bodies on the line to resist them.
We may not change extremism today. We may not change it in ten years. But as long as we refuse to let it change us, we can hold onto hope. That’s what this year’s Freedom Ride taught me.