Issac Bailey: Politicians using religion for their own narrow purposes is nothing new
But Detroit pastor allowed Trump to pull a veil over his long history of bigotry, Bailey says
Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
Bishop Wayne Jackson adhered to one of the most important principles of the African-American church by inviting Donald Trump to speak before his congregation. He also illustrated how faith is almost always diminished when it is used for crass political purposes.
Jackson had spent the days before Trump’s visit defending his decision to embrace a man reviled by most of the black community because of his decades-long track record of bigotry.
Jesus did not shun sinners, Jackson argued, and neither should the church. We all are imperfect and need prayer, and everyone deserves a chance to be heard.
That thinking is perfectly aligned with the church’s long history. Christ left room for all to redeem themselves and we should extend the same courtesy, even when it’s difficult — in fact, especially when it’s difficult. The already redeemed don’t need us to remind them about God’s grace, an unearned, unqualified favor available to everyone.
It’s in line with the families of Dylann Roof’s victims forgiving the young white supremacist who perpetrated a massacre in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last summer. That’s why Marion Barry could be caught on FBI video smoking crack with a prostitute and regain stature in his community, and why the most hardened young black men who’ve committed horrific crimes will be offered refuge.
The black church, at its best, opens its doors to all no matter what they’ve done. It’s the only way the black community could have survived slavery, the de facto slavery that followed, the lynchings and Jim Crow and the everyday institutional discrimination that persists in the criminal justice and educational systems.
That’s what Jackson was trying to tap into — and that’s what Trump exploited. Trump is a man who was sued twice by the Justice Department for discriminating against black people; a man that a former business associate said believes black people have a lazy trait; the man who helped vilify and send five innocent young men to prison in New York; the man who demeaned the nation’s first black president by pushing a fringe birther movement into the mainstream – and neither apologized nor acknowledged any of it.
He then kicked off his presidential campaign by painting Mexicans as rapists and murderers, proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, made racist allegations against a federal judge, attacked a Muslim-American Gold Star family and gave one of his most hate-filled speeches about undocumented people just a few days ago.
Politicians using religion for their own narrow purposes is nothing new. It’s both commonplace and disturbing. But Trump’s Detroit trip to Jackson’s black Detroit church was worse, because Jackson gave an unrepentant bigot access to his flock, allowing him to pull a veil over his long history of bigotry – without requiring anything of Trump.
Jackson could have demanded that Trump first show some genuine contrition for his long list of awful deeds, which also includes preying on the needy through the so-called Trump University. He could have even rescinded his offer after Trump’s hate-filled immigration speech – which convinced even some of Trump’s most ardent Hispanic supporters to finally cut ties with him – to show that he understands what Martin Luther King Jr. knew: that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
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Demeaning and scapegoating Latinos is the equivalent of demeaning black people, Jackson could have told Trump. Instead, Jackson allowed himself to become just the latest dupe in Trump’s phony black outreach. Trump’s efforts to court blacks didn’t begin until he fell way behind in the polls and have included ugly, false statements about the state of black America that he felt comfortable spouting before adoring mostly white crowds but couldn’t muster the courage to say in front of black people.
Jackson is right. Jesus embraced sinners and didn’t slam the church door in their faces.
But Jackson forgot an important part of the lesson, which is that Jesus also told them to go and sin no more. Instead of demanding that Trump become a better man, Jackson has instead sent a strong message to Trump that he doesn’t have to – because he’s gotten the benefit of redemption without having to put in the work to earn it.