race religion election

Race and Religion in the Post-Election

James Diddams on January 29, 2021

In a recent podcast Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary of the liberal and declining National Council of Churches (NCC), discussed polarization, race and religion with Michael Reid Trice of the Religica Lab at Seattle University, and how the Church can respond post-Trump.

It’s common knowledge that on Capitol Hill lawmakers cannot “reach across the aisle” anymore; “in the past people used to be able to vocally disagree with one another and then go out and have a drink or dinner together or have their families over with one another,” Winkler told Trice. “That Capitol Hill culture is gone. Part of what I think we are facing here is a way to just talk with each other.”

This is how Winkler, the former chief for the United Methodist Church’s General Board on Church and Society (GBCS) describes the broader problem facing America. But it’s worth asking: even if our national politics in Washington, D.C. are so polarized, why does everything else have to be? Trice agreed with Winkler that “there’s something about the sinews of our capacity to trust one another that have been dissolved.”

How can we begin to overcome our political polarization at a grass-roots before thinking about national change? How do we reconstruct conversations that now seem impossible to have?

The answer is largely spiritual, said Winkler. Daily prayer, Bible study and reading commentaries give him the strength to have these conversations. In addition, despite the number of churches shrinking numerically, many of them still have a broad swathe of Democrats and Republicans that trust each other enough to engage in dialogue.

Winkler noted that in his own church he had an adult sunday school class that discussed social issues, but that they also would “take covered dishes to one another’s houses if somebody was sick, have picnics and see plays together.” It was these pre-existing Christian bonds that built the trust that was necessary to have tough conversations about meaningful issues.

Winkler also said that he had seen many young people at United Methodist conferences respond very positively to speakers, having their minds opened to the experiences of others. For them, it was “like a light has gone on” and “now you never ever for the rest of your life have an excuse to say ‘I just didn’t know’ and so now the question is ‘are you going to work to change society for the better, to battle injustice and racism, or are you going to sit on the sideline?”

Especially with regard to race, Trice asked Winkler about his hope for the future of the conversation. In response, Winkler told a story about attending ecumenical conferences with black churches and hearing from pastors “I’m weary, I’m tired of white churches talking the talk but not walking the walk.”

This led to a new emphasis in the National Council of Churches to having more conversations and action on fighting and eradicating racism. “In this nation we’re finally saying we have to address white supremacy, we have to address the legacy of racism, we have to deal with reparations and so we’re partnering with the conference of national black churches and others to try to make change.”

But, he acknowledged that going in this direction has not been easy: “To be honest, the last four years have been nothing but resistance. It’s as if the white community is being very simplistic, but much of the white community is fighting a rearguard action against the change and drive towards racial justice that’s been part of the trajectory of the nation for decades. And I say rearguard because I think this is God’s justice. We’re getting on the correct side of God when we’re working for racial justice.”

The main takeaway from the conversation was the way in-person, face-to-face interaction among people you strongly disagree with in a church context is the key to healing our divides. Winkler and Trice both gave the impression that it’s much harder to hold the ‘other’ side in contempt when you’ve personally met, worshipped and broken bread with those people. 

Although our divides seem insurmountable that may be because our nation’s social capital is so diminished. Americans are less likely in recent years to see and talk with people whom they disagree with; we remain in our echo chambers, both online and in person.

Maybe there are some issues we won’t find any compromise on. Yet, if any institution can find common ground it’s the Church. Reconciliation across political, racial and social divides might seem impossible, but maybe this just means we need more faith in Christ’s body on Earth.

  1. Comment by Theodore Miner on January 29, 2021 at 8:49 am

    Theologians continuing to chase the ghosts of “white supremacy”. As is always the case this term is never defined nor is any particular person identified as such. Such terms are often the equivalent of totems or charms. They are magic words, which convey meaning and importance without having fixed definitions or referents. They gain power from their ambiguity. Of course, you know what this language really means when you hear it. It is an anti-white slur.

    “”much of the white community is fighting a rearguard action against … racial justice”.
    Once again we are left to wonder where is this rearguard action? And sadly once again it is just an anti-white slur.

    After this hostility to white people, the author desires to see the divides in our nation closed. It doesn’t work that way.

  2. Comment by Gary Bebop on January 29, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    The unfortunate reality of “table talk” as conducted in the mainline is its programmatic, propagandistic, paternalistic aspect. True rapprochement doe not occur because of the staging, the guiding assumptions. An invitation to attend one of these chats is like that of the spider to the fly.

  3. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 29, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    “But it’s worth asking: even if our national politics in Washington, D.C. are so polarized, why does everything else have to be? … How can we begin to overcome our political polarization at a grass-roots before thinking about national change?  How do we reconstruct conversations that now seem impossible to have?”
    Dr. Winkler asks worthy questions, but his solutions are quite shortsighted.
    “Bible study and reading commentaries.”  Studying the Bible as interpreted by what criteria, and reading which commentaries?  Evangelicals interpret the Scriptures by the Scriptures, whereas Mainline Institutionalists interpret the Scriptures by worldly philosophies, principles, and criticisms.  Further, they read different commentaries (assuming they read commentaries at all), and if they happen to read the same commentaries, these commentaries were invariably written before the 19th Century and are interpreted by Evangelicals and Mainline Institutionalists by the same criteria they use to read the Bible.
    “Churches (with) a broad swath of Democrats and Republicans that trust each other enough to engage in dialogue,” and “in his own church he had an adult Sunday school class that discussed social issues.”  Dialogue and discussions moderated by whom, what are the moderator’s theological convictions, and what are the theological convictions of the “Democrats and Republicans” who engaged in these dialogues and discussions?  I rather suspect that the moderator was the pastor of the church, with Mainline Institutionalist convictions regarding the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, and all the members who engaged in these dialogues and discussions, irrespective of political affiliation, had been influenced by the pastor’s theological convictions.
    “Many young people at UM conferences respond very positively to speakers, having their minds opened to the experiences of others.”  Young people tend to be very impressionable, and it is far easier to find a positive response to an emotional appeal to experience, which does not entail a great deal of thinking, than to a logical appeal to a written authority, which does, especially when the appeal is being made orally, and the young people’s theological convictions haven’t been formed.
    Conversations over controversial issues between Evangelicals and Mainline Institutionalists are complicated by the fact that Evangelicals do not trust Mainline Institutionalists—especially Evangelicals who are members of churches that have separated from Mainline denominations and endured lawsuits and/or loss of church property when Mainline Institutionalists in positions of bureaucratic authority imposed and sought to enforce property trust clauses on those churches.  And this profound lack of trust is often mutual.  Hence the polarization.
    To be sure, many Evangelicals recognize that there is a very real problem with race in this country, but they are inclined to seek and trust Biblical solutions to this problem.  Mainline Institutionalists, however, have long ago “concluded that none of the previous theological systems (of interpreting the Scriptures) adequately addressed” social problems in the world, such as racism.  For them, “Theology became issue oriented, and a diversity of approaches rather than a confessional consensus prevailed,” including such “approaches” as Liberation Theology and Process Theology, which Evangelicals regard as illegitimate systems for interpreting the Scriptures (Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, p. 28).  Mainline Institutionalists are rather inclined to trust worldly solutions, such as Critical Race Theory, which functions as a worldview fundamentally opposed to Biblical Christianity that divides humanity by race into the classes of “Oppressed” and “Oppressor”, with no appreciation for the depth, extent, and severity of sin in the human race, and with no grace to be shown to those classified as “Oppressor”.
    All of this begs the question: If Evangelicals and Mainline Institutionalists sit down at the table together to discuss race and the problems American society is facing regarding race in the 21st Century, will the Mainline Institutionalists genuinely listen to and be instructed by the Biblical solutions that Evangelicals offer?  Or will it devolve into a “blame game” in which the Mainline Institutionalists accuse white Evangelicals of being “Oppressors” that must be chastened rather than forgiven for their indifference toward the sufferings of non-white Americans?

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