Commentary Religion

Why Evangelicals Should Lean Into Their Struggle With ‘Black Lives Matter’

Pamela Merritt

Evangelical support for Black Lives Matter activism in Missouri has been virtually nonexistent, so it was exciting to find out that a full-throated challenge to that lack of support was thrown down at the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent student mission conference in St. Louis last month.

On the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, the New York Times published a fascinating piece by Mark Oppenheimer, “Some Evangelicals Struggle With Black Lives Matter Movement.”

As a reproductive justice activist, I was thrilled to see this piece published on the anniversary of Roe. Ending violence against Black people and creating safe communities free of oppression are key objectives of reproductive justice work. The article shines a rare light on the tension among some evangelicals to support the movement for Black lives, and it also highlights the potential of intersectional work to push groups to question their hypocritical opposition to policies that advance the human rights framework.

The New York Times article details the turmoil sparked by a call for evangelicals to embrace Black Lives Matter at the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent student mission conference in St. Louis, Missouri. As a St. Louisan, I barely remembered the conference taking place this past December, and I certainly do not recall local coverage of fallout from the challenge made by St. Louis native and keynote speaker, Michelle Higgins, director of the advocacy group Faith for Justice.

Clergy and people of faith have been visible and active during the Ferguson Uprising and the protests that have followed, but as the Times piece points out, most of the support has come from progressive denominations with established commitments to social justice work. Even though St. Louis’ Catholic Archbishop Robert Carlson called for the dismantling of systemic racism during an August 2014 mass for Ferguson, that call was quickly undermined in December when 75 Black Lives Matter activists who gathered for a solemn protest outside the Cathedral Basilica were greeted by armed riot police positioned in front of that church’s doors.

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Meanwhile, evangelical support for Black Lives Matter activism in Missouri has been virtually nonexistent. Some evangelicals have expressed concern over activists’ criticism of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Other evangelicals are alarmed by activists’ support of voting rights, LGBTQ equality, and immigrant rights. Many evangelicals are firmly married to a conservative agenda that has conditioned the faithful to ignore social ills for the cause of ending women’s access to abortion. So, when confronted with the life-and-death issues at the forefront of Black Lives Matter, evangelicals often hesitate because the lives on the line aren’t defined in the manner they’ve been conditioned to defend—fetal.

So it was exciting to find out that a full-throated challenge to that lack of support was thrown down here.

In her comments on various social justice issues, Higgins called on her fellow evangelicals to invest their energy in work other than opposing abortion rights. As for her stance, Higgins said in an email to the Times that she opposes abortion, believes that “babies are fully human from conception,” and thinks that “it would be good to see adoptions increase and abortions decrease.” But Higgins added that she is “against the ‘pro-life’ demands that abortion should be fully banned and carry criminal charges.”

In her keynote address, referencing what she called “the adoption crisis,” Higgins said, “We could wipe it out this week, but we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned, we’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood.”

She went on to add, “We are too busy withholding mercy from the living, so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn.”

Those are powerful words spoken by a faith leader in Missouri.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge her comment about adoption and how it is not possible to “wipe out” the crisis of which she speaks. As researchers and journalists, including Kathryn Joyce, have shown, the evangelical conviction to adopt has actually created more problems for many adopted children than solutions for the many individuals facing unwanted pregnancies.

Still, Higgins’ statement was compelling, especially on a stage in a state where a few years ago the legislature passed a regressive 72-hour mandatory waiting period for abortion care, and where a politically ambitious state senator has dragged Planned Parenthood staff before his “sanctity of life” committee in an attempt to leverage for attention the widely debunked videos attacking the organization.

It also should not be overlooked that Higgins spoke of withholding mercy from the living in a city ravaged by gun violence made worse by lax gun laws, where we boast some of the nation’s best hospitals and a mortality rate for Black infants that is three times that of white infants, and where local magazines showcase funky new restaurants even as food insecurity and hunger reach alarming rates.

Unfortunately, although some applauded Higgins’ address, it has initially sparked more controversy than reflection and action. As the Times noted:

A reporter for the Christian Post wondered why “a Black Lives Matter representative was included” at the conference while “a pro-life group was denied an exhibitor application.” The group of abortion foes in question was denied a permit because it was not explicitly religious in its mission, InterVarsity replied.

Even so, Higgins’ keynote was much like the action Black Lives Matter activists took to demand a plan from so-called progressives to address the movement’s calls for reform and justice at the 2015 Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix. In many ways, Higgins’ call was received with the same frustration, annoyance, and outrage. But I have hope that, just as Black Lives Matter activism in Phoenix sparked a debate over the inclusion of the movement’s agenda for reform and justice in progressive politics, Higgins’ call will spark a debate within evangelical spaces about the “pro-life” movement’s hypocrisy regarding the movement for Black lives.

In response to the outcry over Higgins’ criticism during her keynote address of her fellow evangelicals’ hyper-focus on abortion, InterVarsity’s interim president, Jim Lundgren, said in a statement, “Scripture is clear about the sanctity of life. That is why I’m both pro-life and committed to the dignity of my black brothers and sisters.”

For evangelicals, the devil is in the details. When imagining her fellow evangelicals thinking on Black Lives Matter, Higgins said in her address, “There it gets fuzzy for conservatives. If I have to say black trans lives matter, I believe I am affirming something my religion calls me to denounce.”

The thing is, Alicia Garza, who co-founded Black Lives Matter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, has been clear that the movement for Black lives has always been intended to be a declaration that includes transgender people. Unlike the “pro-life” movement, the movement for Black lives is gloriously intersectional. To support Black Lives Matter is to fight for the lives of all Black people.

And the devil is certainly in the details regarding “pro-life” hypocrisy. If evangelicals are truly committed to the dignity of Black people, then they should leap to action when Black children are gunned down in the street. A 13-year-old child was recently shot dead in St. Louis while rummaging through a car, and the man who killed him will not be charged because of a horrible state law backed by an anti-choice legislature. Where is the statement calling for reform from evangelicals or the Catholic Church? When Anna Brown was arrested for trying to secure health care from a hospital while uninsured, and then died in agony on a jail cell floor, why weren’t evangelicals shouting and marching because her life mattered? And yes, oh yes, the silence from evangelicals regarding anti-transgender violence is completely unacceptable and beyond telling.

Michelle Higgins did more than chastise her fellow evangelicals. She called them out and called them to action. I’ve long wondered about the amazing things communities could accomplish together if we weren’t always engaged on opposite sides of the abortion rights front. Now, I’m wondering what a dialogue with evangelicals about infant mortality rates in Missouri would look like. Or hunger and food insecurity. Or the ways in which we can build safe communities with common-sense gun reform, or use empowerment instead of shame to extend needed services to poor and struggling communities. That’s what has me excited about Higgins’ speech—that she spoke of Black Lives Matter as an example of what evangelicals should, could, and would be involved in but for their misplaced obsession with abortion. The push back on Higgins’ speech was to be expected, but the pockets of praise and support highlight the potential for a shift among evangelicals.

There’s nothing “fuzzy” about Black Lives Matter. Things look blurry as hell for some evangelicals, but that can change.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.