Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in his book Stride Toward Freedom that "it is appalling that the most segregated hour in Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." We have heard this line often since the Zimmerman verdict. But King meant this as more than an observation; it was a statement of a political reality. King was calling for the church to "take the lead in social reform": first, in congregations, and then in public laws.
Today, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial, many white evangelical Christians are asking what role we can play to promote racial reconciliation and healing. Immediately after the verdict, many pastors and leaders were talking about how the church can help lead a national conversation about race in this country. This would be a real conversation where we acknowledge racism exists, and try to learn more about it. It is a conversation that is necessary, apparently.
But for my generation, it is also preposterous. We are ashamed that the President of the United States had to validate the experiences of our African-American neighbors. We had our national conversation on race in the 1960s, and we decided that racism had to be fought not just in our hearts but in our laws. Now some folks just seem to be playing catch up.
I thought about King's statement not just after the Zimmerman trial, but also following the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act was a capstone accomplishment for both King and President Lyndon Johnson. The law prohibited discrimination in voting, in part, by requiring federal approval of changes to election law in certain states and localities. The Supreme Court decided that the formula determining the regions that fall under this oversight is outdated, and thus invalidates this aspect of the law. This decision has already prompted North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama to pursue detrimental changes to their election laws now that they are free from federal oversight. The Voting Rights Act – both the law itself and the symbol that signaled a new era for race relations in America – has been neutered.
You learn about the Voting Rights Act in school early on-definitely by middle school, perhaps in elementary school. It strikes me now that while as a young boy I appreciated the Voting Rights Act as a promise made to generations before, for my African-American classmates, they likely understood it as a promise made to them and their generation as well.
That promise has been fraying around the edges since it was made. In my experience leading faith outreach for President Obama's re-election campaign, I often heard fears from black clergy about disenfranchisement in their community. Fliers are distributed in urban neighborhoods providing misleading information about important election details-lies about who was eligible to vote, when to vote and where to vote. On Election Day, I went to polling sites where African-Americans were waiting over eight hours in line just to cast their ballot, because early voting periods and voter registration periods had been cut short.
I will never forget an encounter I had with an older gentleman in Florida during the 2008 campaign. He had asked me why I brought him water, and I told him that I could see he had been there a long time and it was hot, and so I didn't want him to leave. He responded, "young man, it doesn't matter if someone brings out a fire hose, I'm not going anywhere until I cast my ballot." He was old enough to have faced a fire hose in his life.
If the church truly wants to heal the divides in this country-sure, a listening session might help-but we should think about how we can make sure our country keeps its promise to men like the one I met in Florida. We should make sure that a young boy learning about the Voting Rights Act in school today doesn't see it as a promise revoked.
Our politicians are in a tough place following the Supreme Court ruling. Now, in order to pass judicial muster, they must draft up a new formula that, in effect, declares entire regions of the country to be under suspicion of passing racist legislation. Congress can barely name a post office these days. It is tough for a Congressman to vote for legislation that makes that kind of statement about his constituents. That is likely why Congressman James Clyburn and others have suggested that Congress enact a national formula that would avoid isolating specific regions for oversight.
Of course, Christians have always understood that sin – like the sin of racism – exists, and that we are susceptible to it. We know that we are not that far removed from the time when racism was not only alive in our communities, but that it too often could be found in our churches. That should give us a certain sense of humility.
So how should the evangelical church help to "solve this race problem?" The answer is the same as it was fifty years ago: not just by sparking a "national conversation," but by examining our hearts and reforming our laws. Let us join with our brothers and sisters in the black church, and give our politicians the courage they will need to renew that most basic promise of a full and fair right to vote for all people. We don't have to all share the same opinions about the state of race in America to do that. Think of the Voting Rights Act as a failsafe--a type of legislative accountability partner--helping to prevent the disenfranchisement of those endowed by Our Creator with the same rights that we hold dear. This is the moment for the evangelical church to help reenact the law so many unjustly opposed fifty years ago. This is a moment for action.
That is how we start to reconcile that segregated Sunday morning. And, who knows, we just might start worshiping together too.