Moore’s racist statement on 1965 Voting Rights Act offers a teachable moment
By Art Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick
Remember when the question “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)” was trending?
Well, Roy Moore of Alabama has forced the nation – and most critically, Christians of all stripes – to ask that question again.
Last week, at a revival meeting – oh, I’m sorry, I mean campaign event – in Jackson, Ala., Moore revealed his racist views when he said that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had created “a problem.” As numerous news outlets reported, Moore said, “They started creating new rights in 1965. Today we’ve got a problem.”
He is right. We do have a problem. Religious-based bigotry continues to be a guiding principle of far too many politicians like Moore. And, he was called out on it by Rev. William Barber, a founder of Moral Mondays in North Carolina, as well as scores of other pastors and laity at a gathering in Birmingham later in the week.
As Christians, Moore’s comments at first infuriated us, as we have seen far too many people – especially teenagers and younger adults – abandon Christianity because of people like Moore who pervert biblical teaching for political gain. Then we realized he had presented us with a teachable moment.
Indeed, we have both witnessed first-hand the caustic effects of politics in religion.
From 1979 to 1989, I served as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. During that 10 year period, I watched in dismay as a highly-respected pastor from the Dallas area was denied a teaching position because he had the temerity to allow his congregation to include women when electing deacons. This was just one event of many in which Baptist seminaries were taken over by fundamentalists so that they could transform the Southern Baptist Convention into what we see today.
As a Southern Baptist, however, I know that the concept of the “priesthood of the believer” requires that I use the brain given me by God to apply the teachings of Jesus.
Not only does political intrigue sully Christianity, but the misapplication of our faith also corrupts politics. Again, an anecdote drives home this point. During a recent election, a candidate for office was working a poll on Election Day and had a voter tell her, “I’m going to vote for you.” When the voter came out about 30 minutes later, she told the candidate, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t vote for you because you were not on the ‘Christian list.’”
Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments.
This is ludicrous. There is no “Christian list.” Neither political party – indeed, no political party – can claim to be the “Christian party.” Indeed, this sort of demonizing of people is entirely inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. This story is one that is repeated across the nation. It causes harm to the political process and our faith.
As a high school representative on my parish council in Clarksburg, W.Va. during the early 1970s, I witnessed the viciousness of ethnic bigotry as churches were consolidated. Parish priests who tried to reconcile the groups often found themselves banished to other parishes or desk jobs.
More recently, right here in Caldwell County, when I served on the Republican Executive Committee about 18 years ago – in fact, at my first meeting as a member – the local GOP opened the meeting by telling me they had a gift for me. It was a Confederate flag that read, “Hell No, I Won’t Come Down!” The reason I was given this “gift”? The News-Topic printed an editorial I wrote as a newly elected member to the School Board. In it, I argued that it was time we put a stop to students wearing t-shirts with Confederate flags to school and flying the Confederate flags from their trucks.
That flag presentation was the primary precipitant for me eventually leaving the GOP, though I repent for not doing it immediately; however, I naively thought I could change it. When presented with the flag, I answered the only way I knew how. I said, “I accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.” Many people living in Caldwell County today were at that meeting. In case there is any confusion for them about my answer, I will clarify it. The “gift” was offered in hate. While I did not accept it with hate in my heart, I knew their motivation and wanted them to know it.
Roy Moore and his ilk are the products of such bigotry.
The Bible teaches something far different than bigotry. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5: 22, 23 NIV).
While political leaders applying – and debating – Christian faith is as old as the republic, using our faith to oppress people – as Moore did by saying black people should not be allowed to vote – is simply evil.
We hold a different view. We believe that this is what the Christian faith requires of those in leadership:
- Show a preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable;
- Run a campaign that reflects favorably upon our faith; and,
- Upon election, govern with a servant’s heart.
There is a point-of-view within conservative Christian circles that it is not the role of government to care for the poor and vulnerable. First, Jesus never prescribed how we are to care for the poor, sick, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned and other vulnerable people; he just said care for them. That means we can do it individually, through government or corporately as a church.
We should remember that the only time in the New Testament that Jesus states how our lives will be judged is found in Matthew 25 in the story of the sheep and the goats. There, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40 NIV).
We believe that Christians seeking and in office must live as Christ lived – with a servant’s heart. Scripture teaches, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant …” (Phil. 2:4-7, NIV). So, we must first have a servant’s heart. That is the number one characteristic of a leader.
Once in that leadership position, we must live a life of love. We can – and must – do it. Still, in politics, that is no easy charge. Consider how counter to the political culture this insight is: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13: 4, 5 NIV). These verses warn against everything that is customary in politics. If we behave as most politicians, we are in violation of Scripture. Consequently, we undermine our witness and ruin our chance at our most important calling – “… the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24c, NIV).
Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments. Indeed, as we read in Matthew 19:22, Jesus does not hesitate to respect free will and allow people to walk away from him. So, whether we are at home, in town, at church or a U.S. Senator, we are to live our faith for the benefit of others, not to impose it upon them.
We do not need, nor can we survive, a theocracy. However, we are called to live authentic Christian lives, regardless of our vocation. It is not easy to do, especially in the realm of politics. It is not easy to do so when governing in a republic, with so many voices and so many needs. But it can be done. It must be done. If we do so, we are promised success of the highest order, according to Paul, who also wrote, “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8 NIV).
About the Authors
Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him.
Michael M. Barrick is a writer and educator. He has a B.A. in English and history from Glenville State College in West Virginia. His understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice informs his writing.
Both live in Caldwell County, N.C.