The pro-life movement offers the evangelical church an opportunity to partner with the African American church in a meaningful and healing way.
by Cheryl J. Sanders
In his 1987 book Completely Pro-Life, evangelical theologian Ron Sider advocated a “biblically informed pro-life agenda” that seeks fullness of life for everyone, including the unborn and those marginalized in any way.(1) Twenty-five years later in Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, Sider observed that “increasingly, Christians are embracing this broader agenda.”(2) He sees the center of Catholicism and white evangelicalism now advocating a pro-life, pro-poor, pro-family, pro-social justice, pro-sexual integrity, and pro-creation care agenda. But what about African American Christians? Does a “completely pro-life” agenda also represent the thinking of a majority of African Americans?
While African American and white evangelicals both hold the Bible in high regard, many African American Christians adhere to a reading of the Bible that is theologically conservative and politically progressive at the same time. This reading supports heterosexual, monogamous marriage and a God who favors the poor and delivers people from slavery and oppression. It upholds the example of Jesus as a mandate for the church to preach good news to the poor and make disciples of all nations, supported by ministries of healing and reconciliation. This view of the Scriptures and the church is consistent with a pro-life agenda but opposes political indifference to poverty and social injustice.
One reason that African Americans and whites may differ in their embrace of a pro-life agenda is that many African Americans doubt the willingness of whites to acknowledge the value of black life outside the womb. In other words, the ongoing impact of the problem of race on the sanctity of human life imposes a huge dilemma upon African American Christians. The perceived indifference of many white Americans to poverty and hunger as public policy issues may cause African Americans to question the integrity of the pro-life agenda of white evangelicals, notwithstanding the moral presumptions African Americans may bring to their opposition to abortion. The task at hand is renewed advocacy of a progressive pro-life agenda that ascribes the same value to black lives as to others at every stage of development, with a consistent focus on elevating quality of life and equality of opportunity for all.
Made up of a diverse young group of Christians who believe that both prayer and action are needed to address the tidal wave of abortions in America today, Bound4Life conducts “silent sieges”—public stands of silent prayer where protesters wear duck tape over their mouths with the word “life” written on it—in front of courthouses and abortion centers around the nation.
An initiative of the Radiance Foundation, Too Many Aborted uses bold and creative billboards, videos, and other media to raise awareness of and decry the epidemic of abortion in the black community specifically and the broader community in general.
Racial identity and American politics: The elephant in the room
The media coverage of the 2012 political conventions and election night results presented some ironic and compelling portrayals. In the summer of 2012, the two political conventions projected two radically different images—an overwhelmingly white gathering convened by the Republican Party to nominate Gov. Romney on the one hand, and the broad diversity of the Democratic Convention on the other. On election night in November, the television networks cut back and forth between images of the diverse and exuberant crowd dancing as they awaited the delayed delivery of President Obama’s acceptance speech at McCormick Place in Chicago and the somber assembly of well-heeled white supporters who sobbed in a Boston hotel in woeful anticipation of a concession speech from a reluctant Gov. Romney. Given these contrasting snapshots of identity politics in the US, now may be the opportune moment for white evangelical Christians to choose one picture or the other as a guide to realign the future of evangelical faith and politics. The choice is between joining forces with African American Christians to craft a faith-based reconciliation movement that is diverse and inclusive in terms of race, gender, and class on the one hand, or, on the other hand, clinging to a religious outlook undergirded by an identity politics that despises diversity while carefully preserving the privilege of the few.
Looking back on the 2012 presidential election, it is clear that the vast majority of white evangelicals supported Republican candidates and policies, while African American Christians stood firm in commitment to the Democratic Party and the incumbent black president, notwithstanding President Obama’s pro-choice position regarding abortion and his support of same-sex marriage. Many African American pastors registered their opposition to the president’s approval of same-sex marriage while maintaining support of his candidacy for reelection. The logic of this position is grounded in a strong moral exception to the perceived racist undercurrents of the socially conservative policies and practices of the Republican Party, which remains more stringent than African Americans’ objections to the social liberalism of President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the NAACP.
The loyal support of the Democratic Party by African American voters can be explained in part by the positive impact experienced by African Americans as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in the 1930s and ’40s and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty programs in the 1960s and ’70s. Before the Depression years, African Americans (except in Southern states where discriminatory laws denied their voting rights on the basis of race) typically supported the Republican Party, following the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. However, the shift of allegiance of white evangelicals to the Republican Party after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (especially in the traditionally Democratic South) and the ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan as a champion of white evangelical values were seen by many African Americans as a political realignment motivated by race.
Any effort to unite African American and white Christians along the lines of a pro-life agenda must begin by addressing the “elephant in the room,” namely, the failure of white Christians to embrace African Americans as equal participants in the church and society.
For more than five centuries, generations of African American Christians have complained of the persistent and hypocritical racism of white Christians who promoted slavery and the slave trade; colonized Africa, South America, and the Caribbean; and endorsed racial discrimination and injustice in the US. So any effort to unite African American and white Christians along the lines of a pro-life agenda must begin by addressing the “elephant in the room,” namely, the failure of white Christians to embrace African Americans as equal participants in the church and society. How can we account for the inability of Christians to perceive the injustice of these practices as an ungodly affront to the human dignity of others?
Howard Thurman and the religion of Jesus
For a thoughtful answer to this critical question, we can turn to the testimony of Howard Thurman, the most influential African American theologian of the 20th century. He tells the story of his 1935 visit to Ceylon as a young minister and scholar, when during a conversation over coffee he was confronted by the principal of a law college who challenged Thurman to defend his Christian faith as a black American:
You have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation. One of my students who went to your country sent me a clipping telling about a Christian church in which the regular Sunday worship was interrupted so that many could join a mob against one of your fellows. When he had been caught and done to death, they came back to resume their worship of their Christian God. I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth.(3)
In 1949 Thurman published an account of his measured response to this affront in a small but influential book, Jesus and the Disinherited. He proclaims the significance of the religion of Jesus to “people who stand with their backs against the wall,” and he offers a line of questioning that bears directly on the current potential for meaningful interracial dialogue among Christians:
This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?(4)
In his book Thurman portrays Jesus as an impoverished Jew living under conditions of political and economic oppression in a Palestinian homeland crushed under the heel of the Roman Empire. Thurman’s defense of his own Christian faith is based on the simple logic that he is a follower of Jesus, who was absolutely truthful in his witness against the same forces of poverty, oppression, and injustice experienced by Thurman’s own people in his own time and social location. Encounters with God aboard the slave ships—under brutal conditions and endless humiliations of forced servitude—brought forth songs of lament and triumph known as the Negro spirituals. Out of deep suffering emerged hope for a future where freedom and justice would prevail, not just in the afterlife but also on earth for the benefit of generations to come. Throughout his lifetime, Thurman vigorously devoted his best intellectual energies and spiritual resources to fostering racial reconciliation and social change in the US and abroad.
Thurman’s story embodies the spiritual and ethical legacy of African American Christians—their lament of the moral failings of the white Christians who victimized black people, their prayers to God to look with favor upon the poor in their affliction, and their celebration of God’s power to bring justice and deliverance to the world. This perspective on faith and life is informed by the Bible, especially the Old Testament history, psalms, and prophets, and the New Testament gospels and epistles, notwithstanding the fact that during slavery African Americans in most states were by law deprived of access to literacy, education, and freedom of assembly for worship. A century and a half after the end of slavery, the only one of these three that has been effectively remedied is freedom to worship. Black denominations emerged during and after the slave era, not because of doctrinal disagreements but rather because white Christians insisted upon imposing the color line in all aspects of social life, most notably in their places of worship. Racial profiling prevails in our cities, suburbs, and churches—that is, instantaneous negative judgments of persons based upon skin color, hairstyles, and apparel.
As long as this situation persists in the public consciousness, and as long as Thurman’s question concerning the failure of Christians to address issues of discrimination and injustice remains unanswered, the problem of race will remain the chief factor accounting for differences in pro-life concepts between black and white Christians.
The task at hand is renewed advocacy of a progressive pro-life agenda that ascribes the same value to black lives as to others at every stage of development, with a consistent focus on elevating quality of life and equality of opportunity for all.
Reconciliation and hope in the Beloved Community
Is there any hope for achieving a unified agenda of religion and politics for American Christians? Sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith thoroughly investigated the problem of race and religion in the United States in their 2001 book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.(5) Based upon their surveys of 2,000 white evangelicals, they pinpointed some social blind spots that have caused white evangelicals to deny the problem of race and dismiss the agenda of racial reconciliation set forth by a few African Americans and whites after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Smith and Emerson conclude that white evangelicals’ emphasis upon individualism, free will, and personal relationships enables them to refuse to admit or acknowledge the sin of racial privilege. This problem could be alleviated by building personal relationships between blacks and whites, but these relationships are hindered by the reality of racial segregation in our communities and congregations. To make things worse, in the absence of regular interaction with blacks as neighbors or fellow church members, negative media stereotypes of blacks as criminals and buffoons further deprive whites of the opportunity to revise their attitudes toward blacks based upon personal relationships.
In 2012 Emerson partnered with Jason E. Shelton, an African American sociologist, to produce a comprehensive, systematic analysis of African American religious beliefs and political attitudes. This book, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions, shows how the religious beliefs and practices of African Americans are shaped by the experience of racial discrimination. Shelton and Emerson report that while black Protestants strongly support opportunity-enhancing and outcome-based policies designed to assist African Americans with overcoming the problems of racial inequality, the vast majority of white Protestants neither support government efforts to assist minorities and the poor nor possess a strong commitment to social justice.(6) These authors use the term “identity politics” to explain the political partisanship of African American Protestants and white evangelicals, defining it as “the political beliefs and actions that are associated with a group of people that someone identifies with.” Their study demonstrates how strong commitment to identity politics by both groups drives significant racial differences with respect to faith-based thoughts and practices.(7)
Shelton and Emerson acknowledge the continued importance of King’s vision of the Beloved Community as a governing influence for African American Protestants. However, they caution that King’s ideal of a “spiritually based gathering of people from all walks of life motivated by goodwill, reconciliation, and justice” will remain unachievable until Christians engage in “honest and forthright dialogue on the respective roles that racial oppression and privilege have played in shaping commitments to dissimilar models of Christianity.”(8)
King’s vision of the Beloved Community was incorporated into the racial reconciliation movement that emerged in the intermediate aftermath of the civil rights movement. The first wave of this racial reconciliation movement was pioneered by a handful of black preachers, including John Perkins, Tom Skinner, and Samuel Hines, who argued that racism is a sin that should be viewed in the same way that Christians view other moral transgressions such as murder, theft, and adultery. They also proclaimed that black and white Christians must demonstrate God’s power by not only reconciling to one another but also linking arms to fight against inequality and injustice.(9) The second wave of the racial reconciliation movement was popularized by white evangelical preachers and activists like Billy Graham and Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney.(10) The second-wave reconciliation movement spawned new organizations, books, musicians, articles, publications, formal apologies, sermons, instructional guides, and religious conferences that addressed the issue. Promise Keepers events drew crowds of white evangelical men numbering in the hundreds of thousands to the National Mall in Washington, DC, and to the nation’s largest stadiums and arenas. However, as the authors observe, the second wave fizzled out by the late 1990s due in part to its lack of a structural agenda for social change. Left in its wake were the masses of black and white evangelicals clinging to a divisive identity politics that has carried forcefully into the present century. Based on their findings, Shelton and Emerson are not particularly hopeful about the future: “Our quantitative and qualitative results suggest that contrasting commitments to identity politics severely limit prospects for racial reconciliation among black and white Protestants.”(11) They express the clear conviction that, “in the final analysis, we cannot expect to live in a better world if we do not become actively involved in efforts to eliminate racism, poverty, and injustice.”(12)
Perhaps we can conceive of a third-wave reconciliation movement, one that fully engages the cultural, interpersonal, and structural dimensions of the persistent dilemma of social injustice in the US.
Can the Beloved Community envisioned by King and the pro-life agenda advocated by Sider be merged to appeal to the current generation of African American and white Christians who are poised for renewed engagement in the public sphere? Perhaps we can conceive of a third-wave reconciliation movement, one that fully engages the cultural, interpersonal, and structural dimensions of the persistent dilemma of social injustice in the United States. Regardless of what it is called and who sets it in motion, the emergence of a renewed evangelical faith marked more by social justice than identity politics will be required to redeem any shared vision of the common good. African American and white Christians can come together in purposeful implementation of a pro-life agenda that is aligned with King’s vision of the Beloved Community. However, to keep each other honest in this pursuit, let us stay attuned to Thurman’s challenge to recover the potency of a Christian faith that deals radically and effectively with the issues of discrimination and injustice.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity. Her key areas of research and writing are African American religious studies, bioethics, pastoral leadership and womanist studies. She is also senior pastor, since 1997, of Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC, and has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).
Related reading: A Crisis of Vast Proportions