Amid protests, U.S. faith leaders engage racism and politics
NEW YORK — As days of anti-racism protests sparked by police killings push Americans toward a national reckoning, religious leaders are stepping more directly into the politics surrounding discrimination, entering into a dialogue that cuts across lines of faith and colour.
Groups from multiple denominations across Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have publicly called for action against racism, aligning with peaceful demonstrators’ goals following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Even beyond those statements, the amount and diversity of religious involvement in the ongoing protests suggests a possible sea change for faith-driven engagement in racial justice issues.
“I’ve seen people of different faiths coming out and saying ‘this was wrong’ in ways I didn’t see before,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice at the United Church of Christ and an early spiritual leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Religion’s role in struggles against racial bias long predates Floyd’s killing, which sparked mass demonstrations across the United States and even in other countries. But a notable shift has taken place this week.
Among those who’ve publicly backed protesters are clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
Meanwhile Catholic and Episcopal leaders openly criticized President Donald Trump after peaceful demonstrators were forcefully cleared to make way for his brief visit and photo-op outside the historic St. John’s Church near the White House.
On Wednesday, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, leader of the United Methodist Church’s Washington-area conference, joined Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington’s Episcopal diocese, which includes St. Johns, and other faith leaders for a prayer vigil that aimed to orient the religious conversation around fighting racism.
“I think that all leaders that consider themselves to be religious or moral leaders have an obligation to rise and to speak to this moment, because institutional racism and supremacy cannot be dismantled by African American leaders alone,” said Easterling, who is African American. “Those who enjoy the privilege of those systems must rise.”
The vigil was initially set to take place at St. John’s but had to move to a nearby block after local law enforcement extended the security perimeter around the White House.
Budde, who expressed outrage Monday over Trump’s use of St. John’s as a backdrop, said white Americans need to engage more in “the realities of this country that we … are allowed to be blind to in ways that cost people of colour.”
Trump’s visit, in which he held up a Bible and said “we have a great country,” was at least in part intended as a show of solidarity with faith, according to the White House. But the manoeuvr nudged Budde and other religious leaders to wade further into the political realm, airing their disagreement.