“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”
As the United States staggers toward the dustbin of political history, we should remember that statement from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some will view the election of 2016 that produced the presidency of Donald Trump as “the wrong train.” The better view is to consider the current plight and future predicament of our nation from the much longer and deeper perspective expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. during his historic speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered.
Speaking at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, King called on the Johnson administration to “disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment” in Vietnam. That call was met with harsh responses from almost every quarter, including prominent black clergy and civil rights organizations. It also received much attention, and unfavorable editorial criticism, in media outlets.
But King’s critics paid scant attention to what was the burden of his speech. He did not stop at calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. Consider these words that followed that demand:
“There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit….
“In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution…. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their way on life’s journey. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring…. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” (emphases mine).
One searches in vain to find many instances where King’s words have been favorably quoted by politicians. That should not surprise anyone. The politics and political institutions of this nation were conceived, birthed and matured based on an imperial dream built on racism, capitalism and militarism.
During its earliest history as a nation, the U.S. took “the wrong train” of racism, capitalism and militarism. The Constitution ratified in 1787 by the original 13 states sanctioned slavery to accommodate Southern planters and Northern profiteers in ship building, banking, insurance and other business interests. Politics and politicians have disregarded racial inequalities in income, health, education, housing and everything else since that beginning. Those inequities are consequences of traveling on “the wrong train.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the wrongfulness of the train, but it doesn’t make the train travel where it is going.”
We should also admit that white religious leaders and their congregations were happy passengers on that train. I dare you to name five religious leaders who at the time challenged the accommodations to slavery written into the Constitution.
The reason we can’t name them is obvious. Most white religious leaders and congregations willfully disregarded the injustices associated with slavery. As long as a few white men could prosper and all white women and less affluent white men could claim racial privileges from that ill-gotten prosperity, white religious leaders and congregations didn’t care about Africans, just as they hadn’t cared about indigenous people.
Since 1787 every major white political and religious movement in the U.S. has been willfully present and more or less content to travel on the “wrong train” of racism, capitalism and militarism. White Baptists broke fellowship in 1845 on the issue of slavery, and the Southern Baptist Convention was born. Although American Baptists rejected the notion that owning people as slaves was consistent with the teachings of Jesus, American and Southern Baptists did not denounce the capitalist mindset from which slavery operated.
They still don’t. Most white Baptists have not viewed racial disparities in income, health, education, voting rights, housing and life expectancy as matters of moral and ethical concern.
Evangelist Billy Graham spent his career smiling and preaching to predominantly white audiences, cozying up to white political and business leaders and making televised appeals for white religious nationalism, capitalism and militarism. Meanwhile, Graham rejected appeals from radical black clergy and representatives from the Johnson administration (namely Bill Moyers and Samuel DeWitt Proctor) to confront racial inequality, poverty and access to healthcare. Graham’s ministry never involved a call to get off what was clearly “the wrong train.”
The so-called “evangelical Christian conservative” movement that emerged during the later years of Graham’s ministry and flourished in the region of the country where Graham’s religious outlook remains dominant has not merely tolerated racial inequality. In every national election since King’s death in 1968, white evangelicals have shown a marked voting preference for politicians whose policies advance racism, capitalism and militarism.
Granted, some “moderate” and “liberal” white Baptists left the SBC in the 1990s and created the Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. However, judging from CBF’s 2018 “Illumination Project” and the decision to practice employment discrimination against people who are LGBTQ, many in “moderate” Baptist life seem content, if not altogether comfortable, riding the wrong train.
After the 1960s (and decades before “moderate” and “liberal” white Baptists left the SBC), the “prosperity gospel” trend that validates capitalism and its greed merged with racism. White congregations with sufficient wealth and black congregations that blindly embraced the slaveholder theology associated with it began building “family life centers.” Ostensibly, the rationale for creating the centers was “Christian education.”
In fact, the family life center trend began among white congregations after racial segregation was outlawed in public education by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Congress outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Family life centers weren’t considered integral to Christian education during the Jim Crow era when YMCA and YWCA sites were racially segregated. As more black and brown children began attending and playing in formerly all-white public schools and YMCA and YWCA centers, white parents began voting in their churches to tax themselves to build “Christian education buildings” and “family life centers.”
“Most white Baptists have not viewed racial disparities in income, health, education, voting rights, housing and life expectancy as matters of moral and ethical concern.”
Ironically, many of those structures are now unused, underused or serve as sites for private schools where racism, capitalism and militarism are part of the academic, moral, ethical and religious curricula and pedagogy. Meanwhile, white evangelical Christian parents voted to defund social services, voted against financing capital improvements to public schools and voted to elect politicians who promised to nominate federal judges to oppose measures to remedy centuries of racial inequities.
In 2016, voters chose Donald Trump to engineer the nation’s “wrong train.” As in all other periods, white Christian evangelical conservatives backed Trump by wide margins. Almost four years later, the same people support Trump’s disregard for public health, disdain for workers and unvarnished racism and xenophobia.
Simply put, U.S. public policy has traveled the wrong train of racism, capitalism and militarism from the beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the wrongfulness of the train, but it doesn’t make the train travel where it is going.
Nobody should be surprised that the nation’s public health infrastructure lacks sufficient resources to respond to the pandemic. And we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians with “wrong train” views about public policy and public well-being are in cahoots with white religious nationalists, free market capitalism fundamentalists and militaristic imperialists.
Bonhoeffer was right. If you board the wrong train, running along the corridor in the opposite direction doesn’t solve your problem. White “Christians” need to get off the racism, capitalism and militarism train.
One wonders whether and when more white preachers will show up like Bonhoeffer did 80 years ago and say so. Beyond that, one wonders whether and when their hearers will heed appeals, from their church’s pulpits or elsewhere, to get off the train.
Sadly, neither of those prospects looks promising.