Faith is built on defining moments – moments and miracles that in turn teach followers how to live a just life. For Issac J. Bailey, the award-winning journalist and author, being classified as a race-baiter and subsequently banned from teaching Sunday school was a teaching moment.
After nearly two decades attending and raising his children in a majority-white Christian church in South Carolina, Bailey was invited over for dinner with the minister to discuss his long-time role teaching youth Sunday School. The minister told him, “Some people are talking, and they are uncomfortable with you teaching the children” due to views about race he had expressed elsewhere.
“It was like I was being tossed out with the trash,” Bailey told me in an interview by Zoom from his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “I could not understand this idea that I had been seen as a threat to kids in the church… That is not like some kind of normal level of criticism of stuff that I have written or said.”
This is one of many situations Bailey narrates in his latest book, “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland,” which hit shelves October 7th, just weeks before the nation casts ballots to decide who will hold the most powerful political office in the world for the next four years. The timely first-person narrative illuminates what it means to be a Black man in regions of the country where Trump’s base supports him unconditionally — what Bailey has dubbed “Trumpland”.
Bailey’s infusion of personal experience and historical context doesn’t shy away from addressing internalized racism, inequality in the criminal justice system, and the media’s struggle with the illusion of objectivity. And just as Trump’s presidency has exposed his voters’ hierarchy of priorities, so do Bailey's experiences reveal the role that white Christianity played in electing Donald J. Trump to the highest office in the United States.
“Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency exposed an ugly truth,” Bailey’s chapter on the Christian Knights of the Klu Klux Klan begins. “There has never been a period in America’s history during which white Christians unequivocally rejected racism.” Born and raised in that region of the US where crosses and Confederate flags are not uncommon to see, Bailey responds to that mixture of politics and religious rhetoric the Bible Belt does so well.
White Christians who sat next to him on Sundays and listened to messages of empathy and sacrifice voted for a president who could not condemn white supremacy in front of the nation. “Here, of course, we don’t have the luxury of just saying that our white neighbors and friends are only one thing,” Bailey says about the frustration he and his fellow Black Christians feel. “We often feel torn at least between that really ugly thing that they are supporting, but also our love for them.”
While Trump’s election in 2016 was a loss for so many marginalized Americans, it was a win for many white Christian voters. In the 2016 election, 81 percent of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, while 16 percent voted for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps surprisingly, the numbers from the 2012 election — when 78 percent of that voting group voted for the Republican candidate and 21 percent voted for the Democratic candidate — show that the Evangelical vote swung more Republican under Trump, despite his various controversies.
Despite making openly racist and sexist remarks, President Trump has maintained support by appealing to “pro-life” single-issue voters, economic hardship, and the fear that a shifting population might change power dynamics in the country. The 2016 election proved to Black Christians like Bailey that their white brothers and sisters were willing to prioritize economic stability before racial equality.
The demeaning language Trump has used to describe immigrants and refugees became part of the vocabulary for white Evangelicals in Bailey’s town. “They were waiting to follow anyone who would take the first step,” Bailey writes. “They began ignoring Jesus’s admonition to treat the foreigner with kindness and compassion.”
Bailey’s experiences in Trumpland have forced him to reconsider what it means to be a Chrisitian: “Even if [Trump] loses in November, his effect on race is going to be with us for a long time,” he says. “It has really disturbed me greatly that other Christians can look at this and say that this is OK.”
However, he has not lost all faith in religion’s ability to play a significant role in creating racial equality someday. “I firmly believe that if white Christians as a whole actually decided that all of this deeply rooted racism must be uprooted and must end, then it would happen,” Bailey says. For now, he is exploring churches in his community, like the Bahá’í Faith, that prioritize equality and oneness, while allowing his two teenage kids to pursue their own faith journeys.
As November 3rd edges closer, polls demonstrate that Trump maintains a firm grip on many religiously affiliated white voters. According to a Pew survey, 82 percent of white Evangelical registered voters prefer Trump over Biden, and 58 percent of white Protestants overall intend to vote the same way, while 88 percent of Black Protestant registered voters plan to support Biden.
For Bailey, the first step in healing from the “‘Bless your heart’, ‘Jesus-loves-you’ kind of white supremacy” is to be radically honest, even when it is disturbing.
As voters in the United States will demonstrate their priorities in just a few weeks, Bailey’s point that “Christianity as practiced in America has never been incompatible with racism” may be proven once again. And whichever way it swings, the 2020 presidential election will force the nation to decide what “one nation, under God” truly looks like for the next four years and beyond.