For so long, the Supreme Court was the deal-maker and -breaker for white evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, white Catholics and their unshakable partnership with the Republican Party. The GOP knew it in ways the Democratic Party never did, to its peril come election time. In 2016, with a narrow victory, President Donald Trump won the right to transform the federal judiciary and, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s help, has delivered.
But with the court’s decision this week protecting the rights of gay and transgender workers, written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s prime-time appointee, some of those voters were a little shook. This would not be the only reason to wonder if Trump is losing his grip, if only a bit, on his most faithful (no pun intended) voting base.
While there is no reason to think that those guided by socially conservative beliefs will turn en masse to the Democrats and Joe Biden — better the thrice-married devil you know — a few in that group may be considering issues of life and rights in more nuanced ways. You can see it in the sometimes clumsy but also heartfelt reflections on the growing protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and demanding police reform.
How open are faith leaders to the cries for justice from their flock and from “the least of these”? And if actions to eliminate inequality matter, will the Trump administration be evaluated and found wanting? Not that it would trigger a seismic shift away from a candidate and a man who is transactional in all the ways that matter. But might it initiate a conversation centered on the words of that good book Trump brandished but never bothered to open in his infamous photo op in front of St. John’s Church?
Of course, there have always been divisions among voters of faith, and lots of arguments on who is really on God’s side. Denominations have split over issues such as same-sex marriage. In my own Catholic faith, parishioners know which churches emphasize a socially conservative or social justice interpretation of Scripture and choose accordingly.
Age and, too often, race are dividing lines, on the holy day and beyond.
Certainly for some, the same deal-breakers remain. Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the conservative N.C. Values Coalition, said in a statement: “No one in their right mind believes that when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress intended the word ‘sex’ to mean homosexuals and transgenders, although bills have been filed in Congress for years to add those terms to the law yet have never passed.”
That issue and abortion take primacy.
Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse and a loyal Trump ally, said the ruling “is going to make it harder to defend our religious freedom, as far as an organization being able to hire people of like mind.” Yet, also in its mission, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team ministry, developed after 9/11, sent chaplains to Greensboro, North Carolina, as it had to Charlotte and Minneapolis, “to provide emotional and spiritual care with a message of hope to those who are protesting and expressing their concern for social injustice following the recent death of Mr. George Floyd,” according to Jack Munday, the team’s international director.
While Trump recently highlighted over-the-top praise from controversial Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who has called for Pope Francis to resign and condemned the protests and COVID-19 lockdowns as part of an orchestrated campaign by the “children of darkness” against the “children of light,” Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory was having none of it. He criticized Trump’s D.C. photo op, as well as leaders of the Catholic lay organization Knights of Columbus for allowing a shrine to be used to frame another stop by the president.
Pope Francis has praised American archbishops for speaking out after Floyd’s killing, which he attributed to “the sin of racism.” In a message to his “dear brothers and sisters in the United States,” the pope said, “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” challenging those who do not view racism, the death penalty and treatment of immigrants as life issues.
Justice for all
It’s not really surprising that more progressive faith groups, such as Faith in Public Life and Faith in Action, are raising their voices at this time. But in a country where one party has tried to define what it means to follow the word of God, others are loudly interrupting what has often seemed a one-sided conversation.
It wasn’t a throwback to the 1960s when white clergy held a symbolic “die-in” in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center to protest police use of chemical agents on protesters. The Rev. Glencie Rhedrick, a co-chair of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, told The Charlotte Observer: “As clergy, we all understand that when one dies, we all die.”
It’s contemplating what it means to live your faith and seek justice for all. The Rev. William J. Barber’s faith and justice work perhaps presaged the diverse groups now marching across the country and the world, coming together June 20, for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and the Moral March on Washington. Though it will be a “digital justice gathering,” one cannot imagine a message from the president, who so prominently spoke at January’s March for Life in the capital.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chided white moderates, many of them ministers, who applauded his goals but condemned the protests and the breaking of laws, however unjust, for being “more devoted to order than justice.”
Are his words landing decades later, as faith communities and the country’s leaders scramble to meet the moment?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.