There Is No Christian Political Party: A Conversation With Jemar Tisby
Jemar Tisby and I are sitting in an apartment near Central Park on the Upper West Side. It’s November, the year is 2018, and the air is crisp, if not downright cold. In a couple of months, Tisby’s debut book, The Color of Compromise, will be released.
Two years prior to this conversation, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. Before the election was called, Tisby tweeted a question that would prove prophetic: “Are white evangelicals *the* demographic of this election?” As we sit in this apartment, that question dominates the conversation.
“Whether it’s 400 years ago or 2018, race and politics are intermingled,” Tisby asserts confidently. “Drop the mic right there.”
Given the United States’ two-party system, recognizing and admitting this intermingling is something that Tisby believes to be of the utmost importance, particularly for Christians as they interact with politics.
“Let’s start with a theological framework,” he says, “and that’s simply to say, there is no single Christian party. That means Republican, Democrat, or anything else; you have to put that on the table.” But simply acknowledging that reality is not enough; an honest account of each party must be taken.
“Not all change is good,” he explains. “On the progressive side, we need to be discerning about what we’re changing and what the implications are. At the same time, not everything should be preserved or conserved. On the conservative side, we have to look at what we want to remain the same and what ought to change.”
For Tisby, whose life and efforts are committed to the work of antiracism and justice, there’s no discussion of fighting to keep things the same without sincerely grappling with the racism that has been endemic in all segments of American society.
“If you want to conserve something, then you’re going to have to work really hard to extract the racism from whatever that thing is,” he says.
Without missing a beat, Tisby quickly points out that, generally speaking, for those who claim a conservative political perspective, they also likely claim an evangelical perspective. “One party has, sort of, overtly set itself up as the Christian party,” Tisby says. “It’s the Republican Party, right? The Republican Party has been billed and even billed itself as the Christian Party. The Democrat Party, although there are plenty of Christians in it, wouldn’t wave the banner that they were the party of Christians. We have to deal with that.”
Tisby isn’t merely pontificating or spinning his own opinion as truth. In addition to being an author, pastor, co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast, and CEO of The Witness Inc., Tisby is a historian. His work and his conviction for today and tomorrow are influenced by the realities that precede us.
“We have to deal with the politicization of evangelicalism from the 1970s onward,” he exhorts. “The Moral Majority and the Religious Right were really effective in their messaging. They got together mailing lists of hundreds of thousands of people, raised millions of dollars, created radio stations and publications, and whole ecosystems of information that promoted not just a Christian worldview but a platform for Republicans. In theologically conservative, white evangelical circles, I think there needs to be a really intentional decoupling of Christianity from the Republican Party.”
Beginning to Interrogate
As an academic and historian, Tisby recognizes his comments may appear, to some, that he is endorsing the Democratic Party. What’s important to recognize, though, is that reckoning with one’s history and confronting evil does not equate to erasing one’s history or losing hope for redemption. Tisby, after all, is a follower of Jesus Christ before he is anything else. But his experiences, giftings, and expertise don’t exist independent of his faith and conviction.
“I’m not trying to give progressives or any party a pass,” he says. “What I’m saying is that if a party has set itself up as the Christian party and people believe that, then we really have to interrogate that.”
Thinking back on that tweet from 2016—considering white evangelicals as the demographic of the election—Tisby challenges Christians to begin their interrogation with the politicization of race and evangelicalism.
“No matter if it’s Democrats or Republicans, we live in a two-party system, and in a two-party system, there is generally one party that bills itself as relatively inclusive—racially and ethnically—and another party that wants to preserve an idea of race, which tends to be hierarchical and racist.”
Tisby pauses for a moment as he considers the juxtaposition between the two parties.
“For Black Christian voters, the choice tends to be very clear: You vote for the racist or the one who is at least trying not to be racist,” he says. “I think until our white brothers and sisters understand how critical that is, we can’t just write off as rhetoric racist and bigoted statements. History shows us those kinds of comments, at some point, end in action. And that action is very detrimental to people of color.”
Convicting Words, Prophetic Challenge
Though this conversation near Central Park took place more than two years ago, Tisby’s words—just like that tweet—have, unfortunately, remained critically relevant. Following months of unrest across the country as the result of the murders of unarmed Black men and the non-indictment of Breonna Taylor’s killers, the detriment Tisby spoke of in New York City on that cold autumn day feels closer than ever. With one of the most tumultuous presidential elections in recent memory and a deadly insurrection on this nation’s capital, the division within the body of Christ feels especially destructive.
But whether he’s talking in 2018 or today, Tisby is not without hope, and that hope is not without courage.
“I think we need to talk more about politics, not less,” he says, with a smirk on his face, almost knowing how that comment might be perceived. “I think we need to be less partisan, of course, but we need not be afraid of being political.”
Tisby’s challenge for Christ-followers is embodied not just in this conversation, but in everything he does. As he concludes The Color of Compromise, his hope is for others to heed the call for a distinct fearlessness rooted in Jesus Christ. “Therefore, we have the power, through God, to leave behind the compromised Christianity that makes its peace with racism and to live out Christ’s call to a courageous faith,” he writes. “The time for the American church’s complicity in racism has long past. It is time to cancel compromise. It is time to practice courageous Christianity.”
One day before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C., Tisby’s latest book—the follow-up to The Color of Compromise—released. In How to Fight Racism, he takes the challenge to practice courageous Christianity personally, sharing his work with the hope that more brothers and sisters will answer the call to join him.
As he says in the opening chapter, “This book is an invitation to dream. It is an open door for you to explore the possibilities of a world in which racism does not define so much of our reality, an opportunity to reimagine a life where we acknowledge our differences but do not use them to dismiss or dehumanize others.”
This opportunity is centered around what Tisby calls the ARC of Racial Justice, a concept he introduces briefly in The Color of Compromise and fully fleshes out in How to Fight Racism. “ARC is an acronym that stands for awareness, relationships, and commitment,” he explains. “The process of growing in awareness, relationships, and commitment never ends. You will always be learning, you will always be developing relationships, and you will always be discovering new ways to commit to a life of racial justice.”
In light of the country’s current political and evangelical realities—and the growing threat of white Christian nationalism—ARC is needed now more than ever if Christians want to see their faith dissociated from the Republican Party. And while this journey may bring fear and trepidation to many, Tisby offers a word of both urgency and comfort in his new book: “The only way to grow is to go. The only way to increase your courage, perseverance, and skill is to get started … We cannot give up. We are people of hope.”