On the face of it, the riots in Charlottesville didn’t have a strong religious component. I mean, other than the fact that Neo-Nazis are not fond of Roman Catholics, historic black churches, Jews, Pentecostal Christians (the most racially mixed churches in America), Southern Baptists and others.
Yes, there were pastors marching in protest against the white nationalists, but so were lots of other people.
Then, everything went very wrong very fast. What I saw next, mainly on Twitter, were people demanding that white clergy nationwide condemn the white nationalist protest in their Sunday sermons. I was fascinated by how some media -- who wouldn’t be caught dead implicating certain other groups when one of them does an act of violence -- decided that all white Christian clergy have to answer for the violence in Charlottesville.
Do you think I’m painting with too broad a brush? Read this NBC News opinion piece blaming all of Christianity for the Ku Klux Klan and -- by extension -- the events in Charlottesville.
I saw a lot of lecturing at evangelical Protestants -- who are reminded nonstop that 81 percent of them polled as voting for Trump last year -- that they are responsible for what happened this past weekend. Much of this came in the form of opinion pieces ranging from an essay on Fox News’ site by a white Southern Baptist seminary professor to an essay in the Washington Post’s Acts of Faith section -- written by a black clergyman -- urging white pastors to speak up.
The key question here: Did the opinion pieces and all the fire on Twitter bleed over into the mainstream news coverage?
Let me start with Saturday night when I was seeing tweets like these by Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian in Nashville and formerly of the renowned Redeemer Presbyterian in New York.
Also this one by Katelyn Beaty, editor-at-large for Christianity Today:
I totally get protesting what was happening on the streets of Charlottesville. But … telling pastors what they must preach about?
The Dallas Morning News did away with the sermonizing to do a very balanced report on how local clergy were condemning the riots and which Texan members of Trump's evangelical advisory board were speaking out and which ones were silent.
As President Donald Trump takes a tongue lashing for not calling out white supremacists directly in his speech condemning the violence in Virginia, his faith advisers are issuing their own statements -- some blunt, some as vague as the president's.
Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress tweeted a request to pray for Charlottesville, where a massive gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters and a driver plowed into a crowd protesting the racist rally Saturday.
The leader of First Baptist Dallas went on: "Let there be no misunderstanding. Racism is sin. Period."
By the way, Paula White, the head of President Trump's evangelical advisory board, also condemned white supremacy.
America magazine published comments from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a few individual dioceses. Here's the text of a strong statement from conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a Native American who is part of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe. He noted:
Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted. We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence.
But we need more than pious public statements. If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories.
I couldn’t find much from other religious groups other than this Jerusalem Post piece about American Jewish leaders blaming Trump rhetoric for the violence. No big surprise there.
Typical of the news/opinion mix that has been running this weekend was Sunday’s article by Emma Green of the Atlantic that was posted as a news piece but ended up being something else.
Religious communities in America have long struggled with racism in and outside of their halls. Christians in particular have worked to overcome their complicity in slavery and Jim Crow. Almost immediately after the Charlottesville murder, a wide range of Christian leaders spoke out against the violence, encouraging fellow Christians to condemn white supremacism.
But something else happened, too: Some people got angry, really angry, at the white Christians who they see as complicit in a culture of systemic racism. This included white Christians, black Christians, liberals, and conservatives: Many people within the church are frustrated with what they see as passivity in the face of bigotry. In the same way that Muslims are often expected to take responsibility for those on their fringes who commit violent acts of terrorism, people demanded that white Christians account for the violent racists who claim to share their faith.
Some Christians, such as Catholics, the United Church of Christ and the Rev. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission condemned the white supremacists, she added, but others such as Franklin Graham “spoke only in vague terms.” She ended with:
Much of the anger directed at white Christians following the Charlottesville attacks was tied to Trump. Some people believe his election empowered white-supremacist fringe groups like those who gathered in at the “Unite the Right” rally this weekend. They blame white Christians for enabling this to happen: More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the president, as did 60 percent of white Catholics. At best, they ignored or dismissed Trump’s appeal to these racist fringe groups, these critics say; at worst, they were complicit.
It’s easy to call out blatant hatred and violence, but the bigger question is whether Charlottesville will change anything next Sunday, or the next, or the next.
I liked that article until the concluding paragraph, which made it sound like these Christians were hopeless racists who won’t lift a finger for change. Once again, we have that simplistic figure about 80 percent of white evangelicals voting for Trump -- without mentioning the evidence that about half of them did so with great reluctance, because they couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton.
I wrote a few weeks ago about Christian conservatives being the new media bogeymen for all of Trump’s policies and that sure was evident this past weekend. There were plenty of white (and/or conservative) Christians willing to condemn the white nationalists but were journalists interested in finding them?
Michael Wear, a former Obama staffer who has written on that administration’s botched attempts to reach out to the faith community, asked on Twitter if anyone was going to be speaking out about the riots on Sunday morning and got quite the response from lots of conservative Anglicans, Vineyard members, Southern Baptists and so on.
The debate is only going to get uglier. Currently there’s a Twitter campaign out there asking for viewers to provide the names for photos taken of the alt-right protesters so pressure can be put on their employers to fire them. The New York Post tells how one has already lost his job.
All that is only going to make white nationalists don KKK-style hoods the next time they venture forth. Doesn’t our Constitution feature something called the First Amendment that allows all points of view, no matter how unpopular?
The bottom line: The First Amendment is painful, sometimes. The marchers had the right to march. The counter-protestors had the right to protest. No one had the legal right to use violence. It's time for those who oppose white supremacy to seek strategic advice from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Look at the tensions in this amazing pair of tweets from a New York Times reporter who was on the scene, watching the horrors unfold.
This is not going to end well.