On May 27, Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted, “I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own. If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, but only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!” The thread continues featuring a mask for sale with a purported image of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface beside someone dressed as a Klansman. (Northam later denied that the photo depicts him but admitted to wearing blackface in another context in 1984.)
This photo surfaced in February 2019 during Black History Month, creating chaos in the state. The controversy was addressed by many religious and nonreligious community leaders and politicians, which resulted in Northam’s administration developing an apology tour by scheduling visits to houses of worship and historically black colleges and universities.
Clearly, we must continue to address the implicit bias of such racist behavior that continues to happen in the United States during Halloween and other costume-inspired occasions, but Falwell’s ugly tweet deeply exposes and challenges the moral imperative of religious freedom in America. Frankly, his words and actions are not only a threat to Northam in his efforts to protect the citizens of Virginia as the coronavirus continues to spread, they also brazenly exemplify and normalize racial hostility towards black people and religious minorities.
If people are honest about the history of religious freedom in this country, we know that the Founding Fathers did not get everything right. Many owned enslaved Africans and never fought for their human freedom nor right to practice their religions freely. Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan – a Christian, white supremacist hate group founded in the late 1860s – and other hate groups continue to terrorize people of color and religious minorities such as Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others.
During this pandemic, when African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans continue to fight to be humanized in our country, there is no room for religious freedom advocates to be silent on the issues that continue to marginalize communities of color. Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, sexism and privilege are all issues that exist within the context of religious freedom in America.
The experiences of religious and nonreligious people of color must be centered in our discussions. As a Black woman in America who unapologetically champions religious freedom for ALL people of faith and none, I will continue to speak up about the hypocrisies that I see. I believe that people have the right to love whomever they love, that children should not be separated from their families and kept in detention camps and Americans should not have to fight to gain access to clean water, healthy food and proper medical assistance.
It is my conviction that those who sit around religious freedom tables and call themselves advocates need to recognize the critical nature of this moment. Now is the time to boldly address Christian nationalism, white supremacy and the many Jerry Falwell Jr.’s – as well as those who support officials who pimp these communities and poor people for their own gain.
In the words of Angela Davis, “[W]e will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects and our many bodies.”
If we do not take action, then we are hypocrites of the missions that we proclaim to protect the rights, freedoms and dignity of every human being.
Dr. Sabrina E. Dent is senior faith adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. If you are a faith leader or a nontheistic celebrant/chaplain who would like to work with Americans United, email us at americansunited @au.org.
Photo: President Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University. White House photo.