Sunday, June 21, 2015

Wielding The "Faith" Weapon

Think Progress' Tara Culp-Ressler observes

Instead, many right-wing commentators are seizing on the location of the massacre — a Wednesday night Bible study in a church whose history dates back more than 200 years — as evidence that Christians are under attack in the United States.

Fox News was quick to declare that the Charleston shooting was an “attack on faith.” On Thursday’s Fox and Friends, panel members discussed the “rising hostility against Christians in this country because of our biblical views.” GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum followed suit, calling the shooting part of a broader assault on “religious liberty” in this country.

“We have no idea what’s in his mind. Maybe he hates Christian churches,” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in reference to the white shooter.

Focusing on the religion of the nine victims, however, obscures the larger reality of race-based hate crimes at houses of worship. The tragedy at Emanuel A.M.E. represents just the latest in along line of violent attacks on black churches — targeted not for their “biblical views,” but because of the color of their parishioners’ skin.

White Americans have long been wary of the black church establishment for reasons that are far removed from religious beliefs. In the 1800s, when freed blacks started organizing an autonomous denomination where they wouldn’t be subjected to segregation in the pews — the African Methodist Episcopal Church — their white neighbors were nervous that an all-black space would give slaves the opportunity to organize and rebel. Indeed, the early leaders of black churches preached a theology of liberation. One of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E. attempted toorganize a slave revolt in 1822, and the church was burned to the ground in punishment. White slaveowners were so wary of future attempts that laws prohibiting all-black congregations were enacted throughout much of the South and remained in place until after the Civil War.

During the modern Civil Rights movement, black liberation theology was forged in the context of the oppressive laws propping up institutional racism. Black churches taught their parishioners that, in a white-dominated society, the Gospel was relevant to them because it proved that God is invested in the struggle for justice and freedom. It’s not hard to see why houses of worship became hubs of activism in the black community in the 1960s — but, just as in the 19th century, they were punished for it.

In what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama killed four young girls and injured 22 others. A year later, KKK members beat churchgoers leaving Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Mississippi, and eventually burned the building to the ground. White supremacists continued targeting black churches well in the 1990s, as racially motivated arson attacks swept the South.

These crimes weren’t about the fact that parishioners were reading the Bible or praying to Jesus (and, in fact, they were largely perpetrated by a racist group that identifies as a Christian organization). They were about the fact that African Americans were drawing power from all-black spaces, organizing in their own communities, and standing up to racial oppression. In other words, black Christian churches aren’t attacked for being Christian; they’re attacked for being black.

Politicians including Giuliani, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham,and Rand Paul have been shocked! shocked! that firearm violence has taken place inside a church. But Emanuel A.M.E.  was not targeted because it was an ordinary church, but an extraordinary one, one with a long and storied involvement in the civil rights movement. Many houses of worship leave their door(s) unlocked during Bible study, worship services, and during other activities. They are not immune from the gun violence which characterizes  American society, as we learned six years ago (Maddow report of the time, below) when The New York Times reported

George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the nation who performed abortions late in pregnancy, was shot to death here Sunday in the foyer of his longtime church as he handed out the church bulletin.

The authorities said they took a man into custody later in the day after pulling him over about 170 miles away on Interstate 35 near Kansas City. They said they expected to charge him with murder on Monday.,,,

A provider of abortions for more than three decades, Dr. Tiller, 67, had become a focal point for those around the country who opposed it. In addition to protests outside his clinic, his house and his church, Dr. Tiller had once seen his clinic bombed; in 1993, an abortion opponent shot him in both arms. He was also the defendant in a series of legal challenges intended to shut down his operations, including two grand juries that were convened after citizen-led petition drives.

On Sunday morning, moments after services had begun at Reformation Lutheran Church, Dr. Tiller, who was acting as an usher, was shot once with a handgun, the authorities said. The gunman pointed the weapon at two people who tried to stop him, the police said, then drove off in a powder-blue Taurus. Dr. Tiller’s wife, Jeanne, a member of the church choir, was inside the sanctuary at the time of the shooting.

Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder was soon arrested and at trial maintained "I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him."   Nonetheless, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where in May, 2013 he was placed into solitary confinement for 45 days for making threats against abortion providers.

On the most visible issues of culture, the right doesn't have much left, with support growing for both same-sex marriage and abortion rights, a relatively un-traditional Pope speaking out against the foundation of conservative belief, and the nation gradually (but perceptibly) becoming more libertine. The obsession of many conservatives with portraying themselves as victims most opportunistically takes the form of smearing the left- and American society- as bias against religion or, in the new (secular) parlance, "faith."   It is the new front in the culture wars and one which Democrats running for national office must be ready to confront.

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