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True colors: the Christian Right and people of color.

The Christian Right, it is commonly accepted, was a major force in the presidential elections of 2004, turning out in large numbers to send George W. Bush to the White House for a second term. After the post-election haze, a more complex analysis reveals significant shifts among other voting segments that traditionally voted Democrat and matching turnouts by new, especially young Democratic voters that offset the Christian Right vote. What's similarly blurry terrain is the relationship between the Christian Right and communities of color.

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Racism, especially the institutional variety that is entrenched in U.S. culture and built into its social, political and economic structures, extends far beyond the political right. But at the same time, various sectors of the right do in fact play an active and substantial role in perpetuating racism and racist systems in this country. The role of some sectors such as avowedly white supremacist groups is obvious. The function the Christian Right plays in perpetuating racism is not only more ambiguous but also more complex.

Framing Messages, Driving Wedges

The Christian Right of today is predominantly white both in terms of leadership and following, but people of color are sometimes placed in positions of leadership, and the Christian Right movement actively outreaches to communities of color. The basis for this interest in people of color can be found in a number of overlapping goals that the movement seeks to advance, framing its messages seemingly inclusively while at the same time driving wedges between potential allies.

At a very basic level, the goal is conversion--to its particular brand of Christianity. The Christian Right is after all an evangelical social movement, and evangelizing is its first order of business. But it is also a political movement, and its larger political agenda is two-fold: to win more political converts to its cause while at the same time keeping apart communities that could be potential allies in a larger progressive movement.

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One of the central frames the Christian Right uses to appeal to people of color is "racial reconciliation." The Promise Keepers, a Christian men's movement, has been a leader in this effort, calling on Christians to repent, renounce racism and embrace their fellow Christians. The real purpose of Promise Keepers, of course, is not ending racism as much as it is establishing its vision of a social order that is hierarchical and patriarchal--God to man to wife and children.

Though the general membership is still mainly white evangelicals and fundamentalists, Promise Keepers makes a special appeal to men of color, with rallies typically featuring them as speakers. "I think we see [a religious revival] in the Promise Keepers movement which is filling football stadiums all over this country with men of both races in many states who are being called back to being husbands, fathers first and wage earners second," former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed said in a 1996 interview with PBS.

The call is to individual men to take individual action--and even if this could lead to thousands and even millions of white, Christian evangelical men collectively renouncing racism in their individual lives, it stops far short of challenging embedded institutional racism. What racial reconciliation does do is assuage individual guilt. As Randy Phillips, president of the Promise Keepers in 1996, himself acknowledged, "The goal is not integration. The goal is reconciling through relationships." Moreover, as Native American scholar Andrea Smith has observed, "The basis of race reconciliation is, of course, Christianity. White evangelicals embrace race reconciliation only with those groups they see as sufficiently Christian." Racial reconciliation thus effectively drives a wedge within communities of color, between those that are "good" (Christian) and those that are "bad" (non-Christian), as well as between those that are sufficiently Christian by Christian Right standards and those not.

However, there's more to this frame that is not explicitly stated. For white people, accepting racial reconciliation implies renouncing racism, but for people of color it is tantamount to renouncing race itself. That is, in order to become "good" people of color they have to adopt white values, including white definitions of Christianity.

Racial reconciliation was the base on which the Christian Coalition, one of the most well-known Christian Right organizations, built its "Samaritan Project" in the 1990s. At a conference in Dallas in 1995, the Christian Coalition donated $750,000 to black churches that had been burned recently in the South, and in 1996 it offered a $25,000 reward for information that would lead to finding those responsible. Yet, on other matters of fundamental importance to communities of color such as affirmative action and welfare rights that relate to education, jobs, health, hunger, poverty and homelessness, the Christian Coalition (and the Christian Right in general) is firmly in the conservative boot-camp, which preaches that individuals' negative economic situations stem from their own laziness or sinfulness, not systemic causes.

The Christian Coalition's Road to Victory conferences regularly parade conservative spokespersons of color such as Alan Keyes and Star Parker to condemn government social and economic justice programs as causing and exacerbating, not healing, their communities' wounds. Such displays dovetail with the leadership of the political right's promoting or endorsing of conservative "leaders" such as Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez, Dinesh DeSouza and, more recently, Michelle Malkin to stake out positions whites cannot easily do for fear of being labeled racist.

Racial reconciliation and Christian Right overtures to communities of color have been called out for what they really are by a number of people of color, including some conservatives. Boston-based black evangelical minister Eugene Rivers, for instance, openly accused the Christian Coalition of being a "racist organization" in USA Today "because of its nearly all-white membership and what he called its 'failure' to reach out to black churches."

Moral Values

The other major, and probably far more successful, frame for the Christian Right's outreach to communities of color is ensconced in "traditional/family/moral values." Abortion and homosexuality are centerpiece issues that provide common meeting ground for the Christian Right and socially conservative communities of color. Appealing to social conservatism in these two areas enables the Christian Right to whitewash disagreement on economic and other social justice issues. These are also two issues that the Christian Right has sought to build coalitions around internationally through its activism at the United Nations level in U.N. conferences on women's and children's rights.

In a recently published, multi-year study focused on New York City, the Audre Lorde Project argues that "stressing components of their 'traditionalist' platform that they believe will recruit immigrant membership ... the U.S. Religious Right in particular has moved the terrain of political contest and battle to immigrant churches and related religious service organizations." Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. notes that Ralph Reed, in his book Politically Incorrect, explicitly outlines a strategy for appealing to communities of color, writing, "First, social issues are the key to unlocking support in the minority community. Republican candidates traditionally run on taxes and cutting government spending. The result is that they have won only a small percentage of the minority vote since 1936, when blacks left the party of Lincoln for the party of FDR."

Reed's second point, which the Christian Right has perhaps been less mindful of, is that, "If the pro-family movement hopes to make realistic gains among these voters, it must become more aggressively bipartisan and resist the temptation to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican party." George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, which diverts government social spending into organizations based within the faith community, has provided additional fodder for recruiting and alliance-building, particularly within the Christian (both Protestant and Catholic) sections of communities of color--as service provision is a significant way of reaching particularly working class and poor immigrant communities.

At the start of the 2002 Road To Victory conference, Christian Coalition president Roberta Coombs announced its Church Partners initiative, sharing the stage with primarily African-American pastors from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area whose churches the Coalition would also target to distribute its voter education cards. This was the one Coalition conference where a significant section of the audience was African-American, all parishioners of the pastors on stage. And in March 2004, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, held a highly publicized press conference with eight African-American ministers from around the country in Boston denouncing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage.

More recently, on November 19, 2004, the Washington Post carried a 16-page "advertising" insert for BothSides Magazine, edited by conservative African-American minister Derek Grier of the Grace Christian Church. Grier cites Walter Fauntroy, whom he clearly identifies as an African-American Democrat and an inspiring civil rights leader, to claim that BothSides is nonpartisan and that its "focus is simply on presenting the biblical perspective in a clear, thoughtful and engaging fashion."

The magazine's issue is titled "Are We Redefining Civil Rights?" And the lead article by Grier, "Same Sexuality and Race," asks the question, "Are the gay marriage initiatives a new civil rights movement?" Pictures of African-American civil rights activists being attacked by police dogs appear in the layout next to those of gay men kissing at a Pride march. Besides a Q & A with Focus on the Family head Dr. James Dobson, the issue also features an article by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Virginia chapter chair, James Canady, Sr., "The New Behavioral Civil Rights Movement." Canady argues that while race/skin color cannot be changed, sexual "preference" can, and contends that "Dr. King and others lived and died that we might have equal rights, but not for groups to obtain special rights."

Long-Term Strategies

Regardless of how influential the Christian Right actually was in the 2004 presidential elections, its overall influence on U.S. politics in the years since the 1990s is undeniable. This influence has not been gained by their alignment with the Republican Party alone. It is the result of over 30 years of grassroots movement building by the right as a whole. The leadership of the New Right recognized the potential for white, Christian, evangelical mobilization in the 1970s and assiduously cultivated it. Those same strategies are now being employed in cultivating the socially conservative sections of communities of color.

Nikhil Aziz is associate director of Political Research Associates, Somerville, MA.
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Author:Aziz, Nikhil
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:1718
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