Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black and White Evangelical Voters: A Teachable Moment

by Lisa Sharon Harper 11-06-2008 Reposted from God's Politics Blog

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, November 5, Wolf Blitzer listed “The Losers” in Tuesday’s historic election on CNN. Evangelicals were at the top of his list, joined by trickle-downers and social conservatives.

I wouldn’t have known I was a loser if Wolf hadn’t informed me. I am an evangelical—a black one.

Standing in the voting booth, I was overcome as I scanned pictures of my ancestors and wept before casting my vote.

Grandpop Lawrence stood at attention in his World War II uniform. When Grandpop came home from the war, he couldn’t get a job that matched his skills. So he worked as a door man at an upscale hotel in Philadelphia. Though doors were closed to him, he opened doors day and night for Philadelphia’s white elite.

Six years old, Uncle Richie posed for the camera in his Sunday best about 20 years before his lifeless body would flop to the ground. Richie’s future was swallowed whole by the newly drug-infested ghettos of the 1970s.

Grand-Aunt Martha stood with her back against a wall. She stared past the camera, no smile. She was the one who could pass for white. She died in an alcoholic stupor of hopelessness as the power of color politics pushed her from a third story window in the city of brotherly love.

Martin Luther King Jr. said the arch of history bends toward justice. Their memories were with me and this was their poetic justice.

Then, because of my faith, which aligns with Jesus –- who aligns himself with the ones whose backs are against the wall -– I put my hand to the ballot and said, “This is for you.”

I watched the election results with a diverse array of partners and leaders of New York Faith & Justice that night. When CNN announced “Barack Obama is President-elect of the United States of America!” I was not the only one overcome. There were tears and screams and jumping on furniture, then hugs and more tears, and hands lifted in the air.

Flags waved across America – in Chicago’s Grant Park, in Harlem, in San Francisco, in front of the White House in Washington D.C., and it felt like America was emancipated a second time—this time from the strangle-hold of racism itself.

Then we flipped channels to see how the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) was reporting the win. Two somber men sat in a quiet newsroom with one small silent graphic in the background. They talked about how “they” (liberals) won because of ”their” ground game. There was no connection to the justice of the moment. No acknowledgement that Obama, too, stood for biblical values.

Evangelicals did not lose on November 4. Evangelicals gained a teachable moment. The majority of the country celebrated, but 74 percent of white evangelicals mourned. Why?

According to Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s landmark study of race and religion in the U.S., these evangelicals likely emphasize individual responsibility, see most things through the lens of relationships and, most important, they see little significance in history and cannot or will not recognize the impact of systems on the plight of whole people groups—systems such as the education, health care, real-estate, or penal systems.

So, when McCain proclaimed in his Convention Speech that individuals can thrive if only government would get out of the way, 74 percent of white evangelicals believed him. It didn’t occur to them that in a democracy, the people are the government.

And when the forwards flew about Obama, the champion of infanticide, 74 percent of white evangelicals believed it, without question, because the forward came from a friend (a relational connection). They valued it because it touched on the most valuable relationship—the family. Righteous indignation replaced reason. It didn’t matter that Obama refused to vote for the law in Illinois because there was already a law on the books protecting viable third-term babies.

And when Obama told “Joe the Plumber” he wanted to “spread the wealth,” 74 percent of white evangelicals believed this meant government wanted to fly in the face of personal responsibility and give their hard earned money to people who didn’t work for it. There was no connection to the reality that it’s not necessary to ask “Joe” for more taxes when ending a war will release billions of dollars with the swipe of a pen.

Black evangelicals, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama, share the values for personal responsibility and relationships, but they live under the weight of broken systems. So, they seek to fix broken systems, changing them into systems that bless.

Emerson and Smith say the deepest divide in U.S. worldview is not between whites and blacks; it is between white and black evangelicals. The isolated evangelical church structure perpetuates the problem of race in America, but white evangelicals immersed in networks-of-color tend to acquire a worldview that includes systems and history.

Here is my hope: the number of white evangelicals immersed in networks of color—who have a value for history and an appreciation for the impact of systems—is growing. Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, estimates Obama won 2 million more evangelicals than Kerry. Only 21 percent of white protestant evangelicals voted for Kerry in 2004, but 26 percent voted for Obama this year. That signals a five point increase in evangelicals who value personal and systemic redemption.

Now, imagine the election year 2020. At this rate, by then, 41 percent of evangelicals will have enough contact with people of color to embrace the political needs for both personal and structural redemption.

Evangelicals did not lose on Tuesday night. We gained a teachable moment. And with God’s grace we shall all be overcome … one day.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the executive director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican … or Democrat.

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