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Race, Religion, and the Republican Dilemma

The church has an opportunity to encourage human flourishing even more.
Race, Religion, and the Republican Dilemma
Image: Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Evangelicals talk a lot about the importance of voting for the right political candidates, particularly ones who will defend life and liberty. Rightfully so.

For many evangelicals, this means supporting pro-life candidates. In 2016, pro-life candidates almost all belong to the same party. This is fine if you believe the GOP represents you and your community. But for many minorities, the Republican Party is indifferent to the issues that affect their communities the most.

The accepted belief about race and presidential voting is that people of color will inevitably vote for a Democrat. Since 1980, the GOP has only received more than 13 percent of the minority vote twice: 18 percent for George Bush Sr. and 17 percent for George W. Bush’s second election.

In response to this reality, some pundits have argued that conservatives should simply concede that they will not receive the minority vote and focus their attention elsewhere. Others argue that the GOP has a lot to gain from actively courting black voters. With racial tensions increasing over the last few years, the racial divide between political parties has become an additional source of tension, not only within politics but in our culture, and even our churches. This fact was made clear to me recently as I have seen several of my conservative, Christian, black friends express interest in Bernie Sanders.

Their attraction to Sanders was not because they wanted “free stuff,” as some critics of Sanders have assumed, but because Sanders seems to be one of the few candidates to take racial issues seriously, and voters generally want their representatives to take their concerns seriously. Of course evangelicals have the option to vote Democrat, but it would be better if minorities also felt represented by the GOP. That they are not, strikes me as tragic and a sign of a deeper sickness in our country, not because my friends might support Sanders, but because the GOP has done so little to demonstrate that the challenges minority communities face matter to them.

Setting aside the very real possibility that the GOP will cease to exist in a few decades if it does not reach out to minorities, the more immediate and important reason to engage in such outreach is that it is essential for the health of our nation. If the Republican Party does not acknowledge and address the concerns of minorities as a priority, they can expect many of them to feel alienated not only from a political party but also from the its members and their values. And that would be the true tragedy. Conservatives have the opportunity to help heal our country’s racial divide by demonstrating that the GOP is not an exclusive party.

There is a popular belief among conservatives that conservative policies will make the lives of minorities better without having to create policies to specifically address the concerns of those minorities, so long as they work hard and abide by the law. The assumption is that whatever is ailing minorities is either already addressed in conservative policies or is the fault of the minorities. The possibility that there may be issues specific to minority communities that can be addressed by the government is often overlooked or avoided.

Consider, when have any of the GOP presidential candidates addressed the concerns of black voters? I can think of a couple of notable examples, but these are exceptions, not the norm. And even these exceptions are brief side issues, rather than platform issues. At a time when so many in our nation are concerned about race, criminal justice, and immigration, it is unacceptable to make these issues secondary.

If the idea of a politician targeting the concerns of a specific demographic seems discriminatory to you, consider the widespread GOP support for defending religious liberty, especially for Christians. Or recall the emphasis on defending and supporting the family unit. We accept that in a diverse nation there will be challenges facing specific communities, including racial communities, which can and should be addressed through the law. The only question is which of those communities will conservatives represent? And if they don’t seek to represent black, Hispanic, and Asian communities, where will these voters go? And more importantly, how will this affect the way we see each other as neighbors?

Politics do not (or at least should not) define us, but cultural values that are traditionally wrapped up in political movements impact our perception of our neighbor. If politicians and the pundits who support them regularly speak about immigrants as threats to our country or view poor minorities as drains on our economy, or if they mock Christian voters as backwards bigots and pro-life advocates as anti-woman, it shapes the way we envision one another. We grow skeptical of one another, hostile, and cynical. In a word, we become less neighborly.

We need GOP candidates who can understand and sympathize with the concerns of people of color who worry about deep problems with the criminal justice system, access to quality schools, violent crime, and a lack of social mobility.

It’s not necessary for conservatives to fully embrace the official #BlackLivesMatter organization or to join every protest over alleged police abuses in order to support minority voters. But neither is it appropriate to dismiss the grievances of the diverse group of Americans who use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, a group which includes many faithful, orthodox Christians.

Some of these Christians are also strong supporters of traditional conservative policies. They are against abortion, opposed to government overreach, and believe strongly in the importance of local communities as loci of substantial societal change. A willingness to listen to the concerns of these fellow American citizens and their experiences is a necessary start toward conservatives healing the artificial and unnecessary racial division between the GOP and many people of color.

Matthew Loftus has written persuasively on a number of specific issues which Christians Christian conservatives should be able to find common ground on with movements like #BlackLivesMatter, especially reforms to our policing practices that encourage community support for law enforcement.

In addition to Loftus’s suggestions, conservatives could offer government policies and initiatives that include partnering with faith-based nonprofits that strategically target cycles of poverty, violence, and drug abuse. High-quality early childhood education is one such an example of a high-yield investment we can make in our neighbors.

Democrats and Republicans will disagree on the nature of the challenges facing minority communities and how we can address them, but we can agree on the importance of advocating for the flourishing of all peoples. That agreement should go beyond platitudes and token supporters to concrete policies and initiatives sparked by significant dialogue with those within minority and underprivileged communities.

This will help disrupt longstanding barriers between minority voters and conservatives. Certainly this is only one of many areas of racial tension in our country right now, but it is a significant one, and it needn’t be.

Perhaps we won’t see much effort to address racial issues by conservative presidential candidates this year, but as local churches and church leaders speak out against racial injustice and as evangelicals make it clear through local elections that the challenges facing minority communities are important to them, I have hope that we will see a shift in priorities among our politicians. Such change will be difficult, and there will be many skeptics and critics, but if the church leads in supporting racial justice, our politics, our neighborhoods, and our pews will be the better for it.

Dual Citizen
Every week in Dual Citizen, O. Alan Noble considers the relationship between our role as heavenly and earthly citizens.
Alan Noble
O. Alan Noble, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.
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