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Not long ago I posted a message on Twitter about Christianity and politics. I carefully measured each word so as not to seem like I favored one party over another, but that was an almost impossible task since I was pointing out an imbalance in the political landscape right now.

 

My message intended to point out the fact that many candidates leading up the November 2018 midterm elections chose to lean into fear and resentment as a campaign tactic. Those candidates happen to be Republican. It is not wrong for Christians to object to this brand of politics or, more to the point, acknowledge that it is generally coming from one party and not the other.

In a sincere but misguided attempt not to wholly align with either party, many Christians have defaulted to false equivalencies or outright silence.

They think that being non-partisan means critiquing each party equally, but what if one party blatantly appeals to dehumanizing tropes and the other does not? What if the leader of one party has been frequently accused of racism and xenophobia and others in the party have followed that example? What if one party still has problems of racism and prejudice but generally sees those as issues to overcome rather than ones to leverage for votes?

Immediately after I posted my tweet, the contrary responses poured in. One person wrote, “I don’t think it’s unwisely partisan for Christians to point out the fact that it is only one party right now that embraces—even celebrates—the killing of babies in the womb.” Another said, “Would it likewise be wise for Christians to point out the fact that it is only one party right now that embraces – even celebrates – homosexual marriage, transgenderism, and the wholesale slaughter of babies, a disproportionate percentage of them black babies?”

These responses gravitated toward “culture war” issues of sexuality and abortion. But the overall message of many of the replies was, “Democrats are bad, too!”

Of course, Democrats have their problems. Many people, including black people, have cited the racism and failed policies of the Democrats. Decrying the flaws of one party does not exonerate the other. But as it stands, Republican candidates have embraced a tactic of appealing to the racial and ethnic fears of their base.

The 2018 Midterms

In May, Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor in Georgia, ran an ad where he promised to “round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself” in his pickup truck. Kemp who calls himself a “politically incorrect conservative added, “Yep, I just said that.” Supporters contend this ad is simply about protecting borders, but another reading of the ad is that it suggests an “invasion” of people who should not be here, one that is not actually happening.

Another ad from Republican candidate for governor in Tennessee, Marsh Blackburn, without any evidence, decries a migrant caravan in Central America as peopled with “gang members,” and “known criminals,” “people from the Middle East,” and possibly even “terrorists.” While the issue of immigration is an important one and the United States should have clear and fair procedures on how to obtain entry, it is not necessary to paint this group of protesters as terrorists.

Much more subtle but still problematic, outright racists and white nationalists align themselves with Republican candidates. In a debate for the Florida gubernatorial race, the moderator tried to question Republican Ron DeSantis about his appearances at conferences hosted by an anti-Muslim conservative, David Horowitz. An agitated DeSantis retorted, “How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?” Then Andrew Gillum, his Democratic opponent replied, “Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist; I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” If people who hold clearly racist views can find common cause with a particular politician or political party, voters should take note.

The president himself tweeted an ad that has been called openly racist. In attempting to stoke fears about immigration, the commercial highlighted the story of a man who killed two police officers while he was in the country illegally. The video also shows him in a courtroom saying, “I’m going to kill more cops soon.” The ad goes on to inaccurately state, “Democrats let him into our country…Democrats let him stay.” But this was less a message about Democrats and their policies than about characterizing whole groups of diverse people seeking to enter the country for various reasons as criminals.

A History of Fear-Based Tactics

Racially coded or outright racist messages from the Republican Party aren’t new. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, lost in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson. He carried only six states—his home state of Arizona and five states in the former Confederacy who rallied around Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1968, George Wallace, a third-party presidential candidate, won five states—all of them in the South—for his outright support of racial segregation.

In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan sought to drum up support for reducing welfare funding by repeatedly invoking the specter of the “welfare queen.” He told the story of a woman from Chicago with “80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security Cards” who gamed the social support system for $150,000 of annual tax-free income. This woman became a symbol for what many Republicans believed were the masses of “undeserving poor” who leeched a living off of the backs of hard-working Americans.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H.W. Bush utilized the infamous “Willie Horton” ads. Horton, a black man, raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on furlough from prison. The ad positioned Bush as supporting the death penalty for murderers while his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, was portrayed as soft on crime. The ad elicited cries of racism for depicting black men as criminals and playing on white racial fears. The current president’s ads about immigrants have been compared to the Willie Horton ads.

In a 1981 interview, Republican wunderkind, Lee Atwater, laid bare the strategy. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ’N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ’n*gger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. He goes on to explain, “Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” By avoiding explicitly racial terms like “black”, “white”, or “n*gger”, politicians can play on racial and nationalistic resentments while still insisting on their their own racial innocence.

Citing the racism, xenophobia, and nationalism of the Republican Party, does not mean the Democratic party is above reproach. That being said, many Christians will still dismiss this analysis as a partisan hack or Democratic cheerleading. Just to be clear, I am actually a registered Independent and, unlike many others who claim the label but still only vote for a single party, I have voted for each major party and for third-party candidates at both the national and local levels. Why? Because politics is complicated.

The Problem with “Balance”

But this is simple. The current public fear-mongering of the GOP has become increasingly overt. If Christians remain silent or timid about the tendency of some Republicans to demonize others based on race or nation of origin, they will not appear “nonpartisan” but will, in fact, seem overly interested in supporting the Republican Party no matter how many of its members traffic in racial and ethnic prejudice.

The problem with “balance” in the area of race and politics is that the picture is not always even. The solution to hyper-partisanship is not to pretend that both parties are equally wrong on an equal amount of issues. The truly transcendent Christian view of morality and politics recognizes that although both parties are flawed, at times one party may boast in bigotry more than another.

Christians should claim neither Democrats nor Republicans as the one “Christian party.” Instead, believers should strive to be faithfully Christian as a Republican or faithfully Christian as a Democrat or an Independent. Healthy politics means applauding or critiquing any party or politician when necessary, even when it means the criticism over a particular issue falls more heavily on one party than another.

The message is not “Vote Democrat” or “Vote Republican.” The point is that Christians should not hesitate to point out injustice even when it means their fingers often have to point in the same direction time after time.

Citizens of this nation stand at odds with one another across the mighty chasm that we call partisan politics. Christians, like the rest of the citizenry, have vastly divergent views of what makes for a healthy civic life and policies. Yet a fear of partisanship should not prevent Christians from telling the truth about either party, even (perhaps especially) when the truth makes one particular party seem especially objectionable.

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, and culture. He is the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. Jemar is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (forthcoming Jan ’19 from Zondervan) Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby

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