This past Saturday, Dec. 12, supporters of President Donald Trump gathered in Washington, D.C., refusing to accept the results of our democratic election. The protests started hateful and quickly turned violent, as people were stabbed, and the pro-Trump protestors vandalized historically Black churches.
Just three blocks from the AU offices, the protestors set fire to the Black Lives Matter sign in front of Asbury United Methodist Church, the oldest Black Methodist church in D.C. A few blocks away, protestors shouted “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they tore down the Black Lives Matter sign in front of Metropolitan A.M.E church, the historic Black church where Frederick Douglass worshiped.
True religious freedom includes the right to worship without the threat of violence and terror. But for Black and brown Americans, the promise of religious freedom has long been rife with hypocrisy.
From the very founding of our country, religious freedom was lauded and protected for some, but denied to others. Our Founding Fathers didn’t see Black Americans as worthy of any of the rights guaranteed in our Constitution, let alone the rights to religious freedom guaranteed under the First Amendment. As scholar Sylvester Johnson explains in his book African American Religions, 1500 - 2000, many Africans, enslaved and free, abandoned their native religions not by choice but by force.
Only by taking up Christianity could early Black Americans have access to the institutions and power of colonial life. Under American chattel slavery, enslaved people were routinely and brutally punished for holding worship services or even just praying. Since 1955, more than 62 African-American churches have been bombed or burned – including the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls. More recently, in 2015 nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., were gunned down while praying, and the ACLU documents hundreds of anti-mosque incidents in just the last 15 years.
My wife and I are Quakers, and we are proud of our abolitionist ancestors who, having been persecuted in England for their beliefs, had a commitment to religious freedom and equality that ran so deep they risked their lives to help ferry thousands of enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Yet, we also live with the shame and hypocrisy that our Quaker ancestors, with the support of the U.S. government, ran Indian Boarding Schools that stripped Indigenous children of their family, language, culture and religion. Still today, the United States government refuses to respect the religious freedom of Indigenous Americans, routinely putting profit ahead of land Native people consider sacred.
Of course, the last four years have put these hypocrisies on full display. While Trump touted his commitment to religious freedom in front of audience after audience of white conservative evangelical Christians, he barred thousands of Muslims from entering the United States and encouraged white supremacist anti-Semitism with a wink and a nod.
As we saw last weekend in D.C. – and as we’ve seen throughout the Trump administration, and indeed throughout history – racism and Christian nationalism are perilous bedfellows. The Proud Boys who burned banners in front of Black churches this weekend, like Trump and too many evangelical leaders, don’t care about religious freedom. What they care about is white, Christian supremacy.
After the violence, Asbury United’s senior pastor, the Rev. Ianther M. Mills, declared in a statement, “We will move forward, undaunted in our assurance that Black Lives Matter and we are obligated to continue to shout that truth without ceasing.”
We, too, at Americans United, will continue to shout the truth that Black lives, and Black religious freedom, matter and to educate Americans about the intimate connection between racial equity and real religious freedom. In the spirit of the more enlightened ideas of our Constitution, at Americans United we know that, as Emma Lazarus wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Photo: Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Creative Commons Photo by Matthew G. Bisanz