(RNS) — In nearly every presidential election cycle, a narrow set of so-called religious issues comes to the fore. In recent decades that set has been abortion, LGBTQ rights and religious liberty. Candidates fall on one side or the other, and predictable controversies erupt. It’s exhausting to see people of faith lumped into a media narrative that largely only follows white Christians.
But I believe that tired and oversimplified narrative is changing — and the crises of 2020 are making that change clearer than ever.
COVID-19 is changing American life and will continue to do so — not just in the sickness and death it is causing, but also by how it has laid bare the inequalities and injustices of our social system that makes the suffering so unequal. The COVID-19 pandemic has made plain the racial inequities in our society, as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are hospitalized with the virus at roughly five times the rate of white Americans. We’ve also seen far too-long-delayed awakening among many white people about our nation’s systemic racism, sparked by the public killing of George Floyd. An excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds has led to a deeper conversation about the last 401 years of slavery and racism — partly because the whole nation was home and watching. These twin crises proclaim a message that resonates with people of faith, and perhaps even reaching some of Donald Trump’s traditional base: white Christians. We shall see.
That message: Racism is a religious issue. Not only that, I would argue that racism is the central religious issue in this election.
It might seem like a bold idea that the word “Christian” could become more important than the word “white” when the opposite has been true for a long time. Especially since the rise of the Religious Right, white evangelicalism in particular has been successfully tied to right-wing politics indifferent or actively hostile to racial equity, which is a fundamentally religious issue. The Religious Right, in fact, was poisoned from its beginnings with white race, white identity, and white power being prominent among its organizing purposes. We know the numbers: 81 percent of white evangelical voters supported Donald Trump in 2016, along with 60 percent of white Catholics and 57 percent of white mainline Protestants. But Trump’s approval rating dropped among different groups of white Christian voters (including white evangelical voters) between 4 and 8 points at the height of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. New data released Thursday from five key swing states suggests that President Trump may lose as many as 11 percent of evangelical and Catholic voters who backed him in 2016. Time and the election will tell if these shifts are real and lasting.
As an evangelical Christian, I believe that issues such as abortion and religious liberty are important — but I’ve also lived the history and seen how those issues have been skewed and politicized by the Religious Right to paper over clear biblical imperatives surrounding poverty and race.
A Moment and a Movement
I’ve seen the decades-long stranglehold that politically conservative so-called religious leaders have over what their flocks consider to be primary election issues. But I believe this moment, this movement, of racial reckoning could begin to change all of that. As David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network observed when we spoke earlier this summer for his podcast:
[Jim] is saying [racism] is the single most important faith issue as it relates to the 2020 election. Racism. He didn’t say abortion, he didn’t say religious freedom, he didn’t talk about Israel, no, he’s talking about racism. And it kind of puts, if you think about it, evangelical leaders from a conservative perspective on the spot. Because as much as they talk about religious freedom and abortion and Israel — all Tier A issues for sure — well, Jim makes a good point: What about racism? Is racism not right there in the Tier A issues?
For example, evidence suggests that the president’s incendiary rhetoric around the Black Lives Matter protests in June measurably harmed his favorability among white Christians; his approval rating among this group dropped 11 points in the days after he made the threat “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
For decades, white political leaders in the U.S. have masked their racism, subtly stoking white voters’ racial fears, grievances, and animosity, so this isn’t new. But now, racist rhetoric and policies have moved from covert to overt in what I believe is a deliberate attempt to increase fear and animosity on all sides. Racial fear and division is now a central campaign issue and strategy. In early 2020, I wrote this election would be a test of democracy and a test of faith. I wish those words hadn’t proven true. Those of us who believe racism is the paramount religious issue in this election must find practical ways to put our faith into action for the sake of our democracy and of our faith.
Made in the Image of God
When sorting our politics, I believe all Christians should go back to the Bible. In fact, the foundation for all our politics — as people of faith — is found in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible: In Genesis 1:26, our holy scriptures say that God created humankind in God’s image and likeness. That is the foundation for every Christian decision: supporting what affirms the imago dei, the image of God, in others, and opposing what denies it. Appeals to racial fear, grievance, and hate are assaults on the image of God in others. Therefore, every act of racialized police violence, every family separated at the border, every wink or appeasement to white supremacists, and every attempted suppression of even one vote because of skin color, is denying the image of God — imago dei. Until white Christians understand that loving their neighbors as themselves means fighting unrelentingly for justice for Black and brown people and dismantling the oppressive structures of white supremacy, white American Christian claims to understand the heart of the gospel ring exceedingly hollow.
The voter protection work now being done all across the country is clearly a matter of faith to protect the image of God — and I am imploring all of you to join in. You can find all the information on the work Sojourners is doing in partnership with The Skinner Leadership Network and The National African American Clergy Network — Lawyers and Collars/Turnout Sunday here. We are in nine key states now — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Arizona — and if you live in those states, are in churches there, know pastors there, or know lawyers in those states, we need your help from now until Election Day. And there are many other voter protection campaigns that could use your help.
We need to defend the legitimacy of our electoral system against the increasing attacks we’re seeing, including presidential claims the election will be “rigged,” attacks on the validity of voting by mail, efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, and even threats not to accept the election results. This moment in American electoral history is both unbelievable and incredibly dangerous.
The good news is that these attempts at racist voter suppression and broader white nationalist re-entrenchment are happening precisely because the views of many white Americans are changing for the better: In the two weeks following the killing of George Floyd, support for the statement “Black Lives Matter” rose nearly as much as it had risen in the previous two years. But even more encouraging is the fact that this movement merely accelerated a longer trend of rising support for Black Lives Matter among all races, including white Americans. The changing perceptions among white Americans of what it means to be a Black person in this country — and further, what it means to be a Christian in this country amid so much inequality and oppression — is leading to an unprecedented national conversation about the last four centuries of American life and about a term I have now heard more in the last few months than at any other time in my life: America’s “original sin” of racism.
Of course, we need those conversations to come with concrete commitments and actions that lead to new politics and policies.
Since May, dozens of state and local police reforms have been enacted, showing that committed activism for justice can produce real results, even as much work remains to be done. But policy changes cannot stop at incremental reforms like banning chokeholds or updating use-of-force policies — we must reevaluate the ways we invest in health care, housing, living wages, and the best means of resolving community violence, including domestic violence.
A Crossroads for Christians
While Black voters, and especially Black women, are the core of the Democratic Party and are among the most religious people in the country, the party has in recent decades been reluctant to talk about faith. But when candidates talk about racism as the preeminent religious issue in this election season, it changes the conversation and opens up new space for religious voters to engage with their faith and apply it to their politics.
In this moment, race is being talked about and even preached about — it’s become a Bible study topic in churches where that has never been done before. Many white Christians are expressing a desire for more relationship and solidarity in the multicultural “body of Christ.” Therefore, calling on all Christians, including white Christians, to regard racism as a central religious issue in this election may now be more possible. Voting in this election could become more “confessional” than “electoral” or “partisan.” It becomes not just a referendum on our democracy, but a referendum on our faith.
People of faith and conscience voting against racism means protecting against the re-entrenchment of white nationalism that has emerged in this country and protecting the future of Black and brown Americans — what’s at stake is literally life and death for families and children.
Our nation and American Christianity as practiced by those identifying as white are at a crossroads. If white Christians once again refuse to treat racism as a political deal breaker for their support, any chance to regain some of the credibility they’ve lost by their political captivity of recent years will be gone forever. Also lost will be the desire of Black churches to work together with white churches who make it clear that they don’t see racism as a gospel issue. Many Black faith leaders have already told me they will no longer work with those churches. Perhaps the future of churches (especially white churches in this country) will be lost if young people turn away from them for ignoring racial justice. Because of this, Sojourners — in every way we know how — will be raising our voice to help white Christians understand that racism is the central issue of faith in this historic and country-changing election in 50 more days.
The call to recognize racism as a primary election issue is invitational, not confrontational. It’s about going deeper than our usual political ideologies and toward the moral politics of doing the right thing. What you can do wherever you are — in your congregations, in your Bible studies and small groups, in your faith-based organizations, in your schools, and in your families — will help to create a new conversation about religion and politics this consequential year. It could be what opens the door to transform our country and even our churches moving forward. May God help us.
(Jim Wallis is an author and the founder of Sojourners. His new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)