by Kevin Healey
Is the death of Trayvon Martin a religious issue? “Social justice” churches and leaders have placed the shooting at the center of attention. In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church held a “Hoodie Sunday,” with pastors and congregants donning the garment and holding signs that read, “We are not dangerous. Racism is.” In the Florida city where Martin died, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told a crowd that “the whole world is watching Sanford.” The Rev. Al Sharpton has drawn criticism and praise for leading rallies while highlighting the case on his MSNBC show. At Religion Dispatches, historian Anthea Butler argues that racism in the U.S. has long been buttressed by a religiously-infused vision of American exceptionalism. Sojourners picks up the thread, urging white Christians to “wake up” to their own prejudice. Yesterday, Congressman Bobby Rush appeared on the House floor wearing a hoodie, condemning racial profiling and quoting from the Bible.
Since the birth of fundamentalism early last century, conservatives have portrayed such social justice activism as contrary to “true” Christian values. Glenn Beck revitalized this rhetoric by railing against Sojourners' Jim Wallis and urging fans to “run as fast as you can” from churches that speak about social justice. But as Jewish Funds for Justice successfully argued, Beck's version of “authentic” Christianity is infused with racial prejudice. Not surprisingly, recent columns on Beck's website have portrayed Martin as an “aggressor” who was “possibly” guilty of homicide or sexual battery. No hoodies in Beck's church.
GOP candidates could dismiss the comments on Beck's website as “absurd” hyperbole—as Rick Santorum did in response to Rush Limbaugh's misogynist tirade against Sandra Fluke. But the racial element in conservatives' rhetoric of religious authenticity is as clear today as it was during the Jeremiah Wright hysteria of 2008 and the “Obama is Muslim” rumor-mongering that has only increased since the last presidential election. Shortly after warning that Obama's policies would hand over voters' hard-earned money to “blah people,” Santorum accused Obama of espousing a “phony theology” and condemned his contraception initiative as “a new low in this country's history of oppressing religious freedom.” Likewise, after describing Obama as the “food stamp president,” Newt Gingrich lambasted Obama's legislation as an “outrageous attack” on religious liberty. This rhetoric is noteworthy, considering that until Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church had framed religious “freedom” as a route to falsehood. As historian Samuel Moyn argues, the alliance between Catholics and evangelicals on this point is “as much a novel tactic as it is an eternal truth.” Indeed, it is part of a broader us-versus-them posturing in which race and religion are closely linked.
This link forms the backdrop for coverage of the Trayvon Martin case. While conservative sources covered the contraception debate extensively, they have remained relatively silent on the Martin shooting. A search for “Trayvon” on the Christianity Today and Charisma websites returns zero results as of this writing. Fox News' coverage of Martin's case has likewise been lacking, as illustrated by a chart of the day posted at Mother Jones. Mention of Martin from the GOP candidates came largely in response to Obama's comment that “if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” Santorum accused Obama of “trying to drive a wedge in America.” More pointedly, Gingrich read Obama's comments as meaning that “if it had been a white that had been shot, that would be okay.” On the heels of the “blah people” and “food stamp” comments, such accusations of divisiveness are ironic. Yet they are not surprising if, as Anthea Butler suggests, these candidates embody a long-standing vision of Christianity that is inseparable from white privilege.
The Pew Forum notes that as a whole, Americans are growing more wary of “god talk” in political campaigns. That may be a reflection of the type of religious rhetoric that dominates politics—namely, that which trades in prejudice and stereotypes. In rallying one's political base, such talk is still effective—which may explain why supporters of Rick Santorum are among the few groups that crave more, not less. But if Trayvon Martin's death reveals a nation in need of soul-searching and healing, we might ask whether Americans are wary of god talk per se, or are simply hungry for a different kind. That shift would require journalists to ask tougher questions of candidates who claim the mantle of religious authenticity. To start: If Trayvon Martin were alive today, would he be welcome in your church—with or without a hoodie?
Kevin Healey currently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship through the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kevin's research on media and religion appears in Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, and Symbolic Interaction. His co-edited volume on the “prophetic” critique of popular media is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2012.