Editor’s Note: Cornell William Brooks is a former president and CEO of the NAACP. He is visiting professor of ethics, law and justice movements at Boston University School of Law and School of Theology, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a senior research scholar at Yale Law School. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Americans are witnessing an agonizing moral choice being made within the conscience of American evangelicals. The choice is stark, unsettling and serious: between what Christians call the “Great Commission” and President’s Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA).
To make America great, according to President Trump, American policing must reflect a commitment to “law and order” with police officers encouraged to be “rough.” Sarah Sanders told the press she believed the President “was making a joke at the time.” Consistent with the President’s MAGA agenda, however, the President’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, also ordered a nationwide review of consent decrees, which previously held police departments accountable that were determined to be unconstitutionally “rough” through police brutality and racial profiling.
According to DOJ’s own reports, written during the Obama administration, unconstitutional and unlawful policing made people of color objects of suspicion, not subjects of protection – in their own communities – with often deadly consequences.
Many Christians believe in the Great Commission of Jesus. To them, it is an evangelical mandate to go into their own neighborhoods, as well as biblically speaking into the “uttermost parts of the Earth” to make disciples.
The Great Commission assumes the faithful make disciples everywhere, including so called s—hole countries.
At the same time, heading into the congressional mid-term elections, the support of white evangelicals for the President’s MAGA agenda affects the likelihood of Congress strengthening a weakened Voting Rights Act, calling on the Department of Justice to end police brutality, passing comprehensive immigration reform and enabling Dreamers to become permanent US residents.
The Great Commission is racially and radically inclusive, while MAGA, as a matter of rhetoric and reality, is racially exclusive and divisive. In addition to being a civil rights attorney, I am a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and I can say with certainty that conflict between the Great Commission and the racism of MAGA is not some Sunday school squabble among a parochial few, but a decision with profound moral implications for an evangelical many – and national implications for hate crimes, immigration, policing and voter suppression.
The fundamental question is whether an embrace of MAGA undermines moral credibility to fulfill one’s purpose as an evangelical Christian. This question goes beyond being merely being a theological concern for the religious, because support by leaders like Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham and many evangelical voters legitimizes the President’s racism and xenophobia. They not only make him and MAGA more respectable, but also more dangerous.
For example, hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and African-Americans spiked around the time of President Trump’s election and events like Charlottesville have tarnished his presidency, along with other notable incidents of hate speech and violence.
Correlation may not establish causation but it should be concerning for the religious and nonreligious alike –particularly for those who don’t want to lend legitimacy to the President’s comments about Mexicans as rapists, women as p—y to be grabbed, or black NFL players protesting police brutality as SOBs.
On the eve of the mid-term elections, the choice before evangelical leaders could not be clearer: reject the racist rhetoric and reality of the MAGA agenda or embrace the Great Commission – and the racial inclusion it demands in a modern, diverse democracy.
For evangelicals agonizing over the choice, as a fourth-generation minister and civil rights advocate, I offer a modern retelling of a biblical parable about great compassion. Trigger warning to immigration-sensitive readers, the story involves a foreigner from a s—hole country.
A story is told of a simple man who began a long road trip from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Mar-a-Largo in Florida. As the man was driving along, he stopped at a rest stop where he was set upon by a vicious group of white nationalists who beat and robbed him – assuming he was “ethnic.” As the man lay bleeding, a well-respected evangelical minister saw him. The minister was hastening to an important meeting in Washington and walked by the man, assuming that medical help was on the way.
Minutes later, a well-respected evangelical radio host nearly stumbled over the same man – but not before exclaiming “God bless you” and getting into his car. As the man groaned in pain, a Muslim immigrant saw and took the wounded man to the hospital. This Muslim stranger not only waited for the man to receive medical attention but paid for the hate crime victim to stay in a local hotel to recover from his injuries.
Jesus once told a similar and infinitely morally superior parable in the book of Luke. Jesus praised a foreigner, an ethnic outcast, and religiously unpopular “good Samaritan” as an example of great compassion. For evangelicals to have the moral credibility to carry out the Great Commission, they must demonstrate the compassion of the good Samaritan. Demonstrating this compassion means not only doing good works in church or in a distant mission field, but in the voting booth.
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Demonstrating this compassion and moral credibility means opposing a MAGA agenda that relies on racist presidential rhetoric, voter suppression, racial profiling and discriminatory immigration policies that keep out “Samaritans,” Africans, Haitians or Muslims.
Like all leaders, including this writer, evangelical leaders must either practice what they preach – or stop preaching.