Last August, a few hundred evangelicals packed into the pews at a suburban church in Arlington, Virginia, to hear two men—one black, one white—discuss what they termed “healing racism in America.” African American minister Will Ford shared about racial discrimination in the Dallas area, where he lived in the 1980s and 90s.
“I remember being 13 years old,” Ford began. “Coming out of a convenience store, a carload full of white guys chased myself and three of my preteen friends. Pursuing us for an hour and a half, joyriding, they called us the n-word and said they were going to shoot and kill us. Later, at age 19, I was followed by a plainclothes cop and falsely accused of shoplifting. When he couldn’t find anything on me, he began to call me ugly names to provoke me into a fight.” Ford underlined the double standard black men face in the United States. “Later, in my 30s, living in a neighborhood, I bought a new house,” Ford said. “For the first three months, the same police officer would stop me at least twice a week for no reason at all—just for driving while black.”
The majority-white congregation listened intently. Last fall, Ford related his story dozens of times including in churches, during several interviews—notably on a national TV show hosted by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—and at an open-air August prayer assembly at Stone Mountain near Atlanta.
Such honest admission of current race problems flies in the face of narratives often espoused on the right. While Ford shares biblical literalism, pro-life views, and other conservative stances with his “God and country” Republican brethren, his close reading of Martin Luther King, Jr., and black Americans’ history provide a different lens to see present-day prejudice. (The civil rights icon shows up on the cover of Ford’s co-authored book.) Ford is among several voices on the religious right urging Protestant Christians to recognize and act against race-based injustice.
Many Americans today recognize a resurgence in the attitudes and actions King fought against, including the August 2017 rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia—about which President Donald Trump later said there were “very fine people, on both sides.” A recent Pew Research study shows 71 percent of black Americans state they have personally experienced racially motivated prejudice. A 2017 study reveals 92 percent of black Americans say whites benefit from advantages they do not have; for respondents of any race who self-identified as Republican, only 27 percent affirmed this view.
Joyce Ranson, a 90-year-old conservative white woman in Richmond, Virginia, rejects the Republican party line when she defines white supremacy. “White people, for some reason, always feel like they are a much higher degree of human being,” she said. “It’s awful to say, but I believe that’s it. White people think they’re just better than the Japanese, better than American Indians—Lord, look what we did to the Indians.” In some ways, she’s echoing what King said in his 1968 speech, “The Other America” about the problem of racism. “It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior,” the civil rights leader said. “And the ultimate logic of racism is genocide.”
Though Ranson may seem obscure, her influence on a current national figure is not. In the late 1960s, Ranson met a young African American woman who became a close friend—and today is one of the nation’s top policy leaders.
A PROMINENT PRESENCE in Republican politics since the Reagan era, Kay Coles James, 69, today regularly advises White House officials. It is only natural considering how many of them used to work for the think tank she now leads. In December 2017, the Heritage Foundation board of directors—on which she served for a decade—appointed her president. James became only the sixth president in their 45-year history, the first woman and first African American to take on the role. (Disclosure: I worked in a marketing and communications role at Heritage from 2010 to 2014.) More than 50 former Heritage staff serve in various Trump administration roles.
During President George W. Bush’s first term, James served as director of the Office of Personnel Management. This position followed several state and federal roles she held focused on welfare and health care, particularly contentious topics in limited government, free-market circles. In a recent interview, she expressed ire at how Republican politicians voice their policy views about government’s role in providing people a hand-up.
“Very often, you will hear a conservative politician talk about ‘reining in the out-of-control spending on entitlement programs,’” James said. “That was never my motivation—to balance federal, state, or local budgets on the backs of poor people. I wanted to reform welfare and return it to its original intent, which was to be a helping hand on a temporary basis for those in our culture and society who needed it most. [Then] it would not become a lifestyle and sap the initiative from generations of marginalized people.”
James knows firsthand the shame of marginalization. She grew up living in public housing in Richmond, Virginia, with five brothers and her mother, after her alcoholic father abandoned the family. As a middle school student in 1961, she joined two dozen black students in being the first to integrate a local all-white public school; they were bullied for months. Then James attended Hampton University, a prestigious historically black college in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region. Civil rights leaders visited often to rally for their causes. It was during this time that James first met the then-middle-aged Joyce Ranson, who approached the energetic student after James gave a public talk about her faith at a local church.
Born in Alabama to a father whom she admits was “racist in the worst sort of way,” Ranson progressed in her views on race issues thanks in large part to the bonds forged with James. “Where Kay and I were concerned, age was never a factor,” said Ranson. “I’ve always felt on the same level with Kay, intellectually and spiritually, and she’s often given me wise advice.”
Their friendship was grounded in shared evangelical beliefs. “Joyce loved me past my anger and grief when I was trying to figure it all out,” James said. “Her passion for expressing the love of Christ sharpened my voice to other believers like her, many of whom are skeptical of dealing with race issues.” James found that her friend’s past racist cultural baggage need not define her posture towards Ranson. She began to reevaluate the values she learned from her mother and grandmother. In time, she deemed those principles—such as achieving prosperity through self-determination and a strong work ethic—addressed some concerns raised by the civil rights movement. Only later in life did James realize this made her essentially a conservative. Yet some views clashed with her peers.
“I have spent a great deal of my time translating and helping my white evangelical friends to understand discrimination,” James said. “I still experience it, both as a woman and a minority. It just is what it is—I’m not bitter or angry about it. I pray for people like that. As Christians, we can’t put our head in the sand and say it doesn’t exist.” Yet some did, and still do. Combating racial injustice was not a priority of the religious right emerging during the 1980s, when James held policy positions in D.C. at the National Right to Life Committee and, later, the Family Research Council. Starting in 1996, she served for three years as dean of the school of government at Regent University, which was founded by controversial televangelist Pat Robertson. James still found allies, even when knowledge of race issues was lacking. She notes that those who cared about perceived injustice on the abortion issue, for instance, were open to her views on how African Americans had been wronged over centuries.
In articles published by Heritage, James has elevated concerns about black poverty, education inequality, and the need for conservatives to have “sensitivity to symbols”—a reference to the raging Confederate memorials debate. “For some, the statue of a Confederate general may mean heritage, not hate,” James said. “For African Americans, it means something else. One must have sensitivity to these differences to avoid offending local communities dealing with these issues.”
In 2005, James and her husband Charles raised funds to purchase an abandoned property near Hampton University known as Holly Knoll. Once a civil rights movement hub for King and other leaders, today it houses the Gloucester Institute. The nonprofit school has trained hundreds of black students in government and public policy issues.
James contrasts the relatively small group with the Heritage Foundation, a flagship of the conservative movement. “For those of us who are black conservatives, there was no organization specifically for African Americans to make sure those values are not lost to our community,” she said. “That’s why my husband and I launched the Gloucester Institute. It is strictly non-political but espouses the traditional and quintessential American values that propelled us from slavery to the great heights that we have been able to accomplish in this country today. We wanted to make sure these principles had a home that was credible within the African American community.” Since her transition to Heritage, James remains board chair of the nonprofit while others have taken on its leadership.
Operating in different spheres of public policy and the church, James and Ford are hardly alone in seeking to change how the right grapples with race issues. Neither shies away from discussing the persistence of racism, from slavery to the Lost Cause narrative to dehumanizing rhetoric. However, even those who address long-standing issues can lean so heavily on conservative assumptions that the net effect is to reinforce a neutral stance on racial equality, one that critics interpret as indifference.
TWO WHITE, CONSERVATIVE evangelical figures, both household names on the religious right, recently co-authored This Precarious Moment, which directly, if imperfectly, addresses race and racism. Longtime San Diego megachurch pastor Jim Garlow has served on the Trump White House faith advisors council since its inception. He partnered on the book with controversial commentator David Barton, widely read on the right yet dismissed by leading historians for writing highly selective and factually distorted narratives of U.S. history.
“Many whites are highly dismissive of the challenges some blacks face,” said Garlow in an interview. “They’ll say, ‘The Civil War was over 150 years ago. I was never a slaveowner and you were never a slave, so get over it.’ That does not take into account the cumulative impact of wounding that can come across multiple generations and have manifestations in present-day culture.” The Wesleyan minister recently stepped down from his senior pastor role to lead the California church’s nascent ministries to political leaders in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Barton has long been criticized for work that professional historians say exaggerates the Christian faith of American founders. His 2012 book on Thomas Jefferson was pulled from stores after outcry from historians. Now, Garlow and Barton’s 304-page tome states the U.S. stands on “the brink of disaster” unless six concerns are addressed—and they begin with 50 pages on what is termed racial healing. Considering that the two white men vocally support the Trump administration, the emphasis on race issues is curious. On closer inspection, the book’s opening chapters slant decidedly right.
Initially, they back up their stated intent of addressing racism in church and society. The co-authors condemn historic proslavery advocates as “reprehensible and spiritually deceived.” They admit white Christians, notably pastors, used the Bible to defend brutal torture of African Americans, and they chide those denying current racial inequalities as having a “lack of awareness.”
Then the book takes a turn, devoting space to side issues that seem to defend the status quo. The authors spend a few pages criticizing the National Museum of African American History and Culture for not highlighting pre-Civil War abolitionists. A chapter delves into the history of Muslims and other non-white groups who have been slaveholders. Significant space is devoted to statistics of “black-on-black violence” and family instability among African Americans, without connecting these trends to systemic criminal justice and Jim Crow policies that have significantly contributed to such social concerns.
In 2017, Garlow stood alongside African American minister and fellow Trump faith advisor Harry Jackson when Jackson called racism the nation’s “original sin.” Yet readers of This Precarious Moment could take away a different impression. Evangelical culpability and present-day responsibility for perpetuating racial injustice are addressed only in passing. Notwithstanding these gaps, the authors do call for action. They close the section on race and racism calling for reforms in incarceration practices—noting their alignment with the broad-based Right On Crime coalition.
An initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Right On Crime scored a major victory on December 21 when President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. It culminated years of bipartisan outreach and education on reforming mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black Americans. The law, which incentivizes those exiting prisons to participate in programs such as substance abuse counseling and job training before reentering society, takes cues from state reforms that have concurrently reduced crime and recidivism rates.
The unlikely coalition that formed around the FIRST STEP Act, notably including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, evangelical leader Mike Huckabee, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, persisted despite strident criticism from left and right. Vital to their success was backing from the Heritage Foundation and evangelical nonprofit Prison Fellowship, the latter involved for decades in assisting prisoners. Conservative groups emphasized the policies as cost-saving and reducing government, while liberal allies touted the same bill as righting a system viewed as brutal, racist, and unjust.
“This has been a team effort that has spanned the political spectrum; and for that, we should all celebrate,” stated Senator Tim Scott, a key driver of the bill. “Meaningful criminal justice reform is just one step in ensuring that the scales of justice are balanced for every American—a core principle of our nation.” Against the backdrop of a now-divided Congress and a White House known for its polarizing rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the broad coalition will hold together to address further criminal justice concerns.
WHEN RACE AND POLITICS are discussed across the nation, the conversation usually begins—and, unfortunately, ends—with a question Senator Scott often fields. The only black Republican in the Senate, Scott of South Carolina has repeatedly been asked whether or not he views President Donald Trump as a racist. “Is he racially insensitive? Yes,” Scott said to Politico last March. “But is he a racist? No.” This past week, Scott excoriated Iowa Representative Steve King, a fellow Republican who had questioned in a recent New York Times interview why white supremacy is considered offensive. “King’s comments are not conservative views but separate views that should be ridiculed at every turn possible,” wrote Scott in The Washington Post.
Other conservative leaders have hesitated to criticize Trump in the same way, despite the president’s record of blatantly racist rhetoric. After substantial behind-the-scenes interaction with the White House on bills like the FIRST STEP Act, Kay Coles James gives an upbeat assessment. “This administration has done a phenomenal job on substance,” James said. “Whether you look at how the economy is doing, or if you look at our stature in foreign policy, or at unemployment rates among some of the most disadvantaged portions of our country, by almost any measure we are doing so much better. I sometimes cringe at [Trump’s] tone—but I think I would take substance over tone any day.”
Considering that 92 percent of black evangelicals did not vote for President Trump in 2016, differing principles and views of history drive ongoing African American skepticism of the administration. Reports of minorities who’ve taken a break from evangelical churches are not merely outliers, as the New York Times and other sources have reported.
Sociologist Jacqueline Rivers spoke last fall at a George Washington University public forum on issues of race and evangelicalism in the context of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. She told of a friend from West Africa now living in New York. “When she traveled, she left her children with members of her white church,” said Rivers. “Yet when Trump came to office, the way the church reacted, she actually left the church. She did go back because she felt she had such deep roots [and] was going to try to salvage the relationships. That is really profound, because I would have thought that long-standing relationship would sensitize people.”
Rivers, who often addresses diverse policy and religious circles, said at the forum that she has never backed Trump. Still, black Protestants like herself saw some promise on the campaign trail. “What was hopeful to me was that there was going to be some kind of policy agenda that would serve the needs of the working class,” Rivers said at the forum. “That would serve black people, white people, Hispanics—it was going to serve all people who were disadvantaged. But what the administration has demonstrated is: that is good rhetoric, but it doesn’t drive policy. The policies are really driven by what serves big business, with a trickle-down argument.”
A vast ideological chasm separates how left and right view economics, the role of government, and a host of policy issues. Even if it cannot be overcome, conservative evangelicals adopting an open, listening stance on concerns about racial disparities and racism have often found common ground—and unlikely alliances to right injustice such as the FIRST STEP Act. Leaders say such compassion is birthed from personal relationships. Kay Coles James’ friend Ranson ponders whether such bonds spur believers to fight for justice. “We have to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers,” she said. “How many white people are willing to move even one bit in that direction? Some did during the civil rights movement. But to live what we say we believe—isn’t that the hardest thing in the world?”
For her part, as the head of the Heritage Foundation, James continues to reach out to unlikely allies. She can often be seen having lunch on Capitol Hill with such liberal figures as former DNC chair Donna Brazile and Democratic Representative Bobby Scott, who just won another term in Virginia. “We start by demonstrating to the rest of the world what forgiveness looks like and what real relationship looks like,” James said. “We do what we can and start where we are.”
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Federalist and The Stream. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C., area.