RICHMOND, Va.—Dear white evangelicals:
It’s decision time. You can’t pretend any longer that President Trump is not a racist. Evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.
Any number of examples going back years should have tipped you off. Like when Trump launched his political career by falsely claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. Or when he said many of the Mexican migrants coming across the border rapists and drug dealers. Or demanded the closing of U.S. borders to all Muslims, regardless of their countries of origin. Or said some of the white supremacists who rampaged through Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Or tweeted countless dog-whistle messages giving his more radical followers permission to spew racist hatred.
Church folks can passionately debate the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So evangelical Trump supporters — for a time — could rationalize some of Trump’s words as something other than bigotry or cynical manipulation of racial-ethnic resentments for political purposes.
But we’re beyond reasonable doubt now. Way beyond. You need to decide whether you will continue to support a president who, apart from his other failings, is clearly racist. His latest tweetstorm about a “rat-infested” Baltimore-area congressional district, which just happens to be majority African-American and served by an African-American congressman, is only his latest code-word attack. Expect at least one a week between now and the presidential election next year.
After Trump recently told four Democrat congresswomen of color to “go back [to the] crime-infested places from which they came” — then struck a Mussolini-esque, jaw-jutting pose as supporters chanted “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at one of his rallies — you can’t seriously contend that he hasn’t injected bigotry into his rhetoric and politics. And now he is pursuing a racist reelection strategy designed to further divide our already-divided nation.
The pretext for his shameful words, that the four congresswomen “hate America” or are “socialist,” is just that — a pretext. I’m no fan of some of the quartet’s outlandish pronouncements, either. But they have every right to make them without being told to “go back where you came from.” All four are American citizens. Three are native-born; one, Omar, is a naturalized immigrant (like Trump’s own grandfather and current wife).
You might not know what it’s like to be told to “go back where you came from.” But nearly every immigrant, child of immigrants and person of color in America does. What must they think of an evangelical movement that claims to follow Christ but continues to support (or ignore) such bigoted demagoguery?
Meanwhile, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released July 22 tells us that 73 percent of self-identified white evangelical Christians continue to approve of Trump’s performance.
A little personal history: I’m a white evangelical myself. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I believe Jesus is our resurrected Lord and that salvation through him is the only way to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. I enthusiastically worked with missionary agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention for upwards of 40 years to spread the gospel to others.
I’m also pro-life and socially conservative. I used to be a Republican — until Trump hijacked the party with his hatred and fearmongering.
Divide and conquer is the specialty of racist demagogues, especially those of the populist variety. Being from Georgia, a state once ruled by racist/populist firebrand governor Gene Talmadge, I immediately recognized Trump’s style when he hit the national stage. Every white person who grew up in the South during the Civil Rights era heard similar, thinly disguised racist appeals.
I was just a kid in the 1960s, living in an overwhelmingly white suburb of Atlanta. But I knew what was going on. I watched TV and read the newspaper. I heard the hateful things said by racist politicians such as Lester Maddox and George Wallace — and some of my own relatives. And I’m still ashamed of my silence.
Too many “good Christians” stayed silent in those days. It wasn’t very hard to rationalize silence back then, but it was wrong.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once said. “Silence is betrayal.”
I won’t be silent now.
Evangelicals, what you say or don’t say now, in 2019, with blatant racism coming out of the president’s mouth, is something you will live with for the rest of your life.
The world Christ commanded you to reach is watching you. Your own non-white brothers and sisters in Christ are watching you.
Watching and listening.
Bridges, former global correspondent for the Richmond-based International Mission Board. covered religious and international trends worldwide for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.