Last Thursday the nation awoke to the tragic news out of Charleston, S.C., that a white gunman shot and killed nine black parishioners during a weeknight Bible study. The avowed racist deliberately targeted these black Christians, driving over 100 miles from his home to murder the six women and three men who had congregated in the most historic black church in the state’s most historic city.
Just as the news spread throughout the country, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority annual conference convened in Washington, D.C. Several Republican Party presidential candidates were in attendance and delivered speeches in an attempt to make inroads with the influential evangelical branch of the party.
What was absent, however, was any serious discussion and consideration of the shootings in Charleston. The event organizers and most of the presidential candidates—Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was the notable exception—acknowledged the horrific event and encouraged everyone to pray for the city and the families of the victims. But they all tiptoed around, if not completely ignored, the racial aspect of this domestic-terrorism event.
Once again the Republican Party has blown an opportunity to connect with black Americans and show that it is courageous enough to talk honestly and openly about the ugly shadow that racism continues to cast over the country.
Instead, in an odd move, some candidates attributed the killings to an attack on Christian believers and religious liberty. Others feigned ignorance of the obvious motives or blamed it on mental illness instead of focused, destructive racism. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went so far as to fault President Barack Obama for talking about gun violence and then claimed that the term “African American” was divisive and inappropriate.
It is understandable that these candidates wanted to deliver messages tailored to this audience. After all, politics is about building coalitions to win elections. And it is a political truism that black Americans overwhelmingly vote for Democratic congressional and presidential candidates, and white evangelicals are a Republican stronghold. Perhaps the candidates felt that it would be politically damaging to call the Charleston tragedy by its proper name: racist terrorism.
But this logic is faulty for a number of reasons, two of which stand out. The first is that Republicans have been hammering President Obama for playing politics with his word choice, yet that is exactly what they have chosen to do with Charleston. For example, in the 2012 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney blamed the president for not labeling the Benghazi, Libya, attacks terrorism but instead using the less politically charged term “act of terror.” More recently, Republicans have blasted the president for refusing to use the words “radical Islam” or “Islamic terrorism” when describing the fight against violent extremist groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS.
They should heed their own criticisms. In describing Charleston, Republican presidential hopeful and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called it a “crime of hate” in order to avoid calling it a hate crime, which carries an implicit admission that racism was the cause. Fellow candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stated that he wasn’t sure of the shooter’s motive, before tepidly admitting that race may have played a role. Despite explicit statements from the gunman that he is a white supremacist who killed black people to incite a race war, the candidates continue to mince words for what appears to be the very same game of political triangulation for which they’ve criticized the president.
Second, the Faith and Freedom Coalition says that it’s founded on the principles of “respect for the sanctity and dignity of life” and “victory in the struggle with terrorism and tyranny.” One of its goals is to “protest bigotry and discrimination against people of faith.” If these are genuine positions, the bold Republican presidential candidate would have been helped, not hurt, by labeling the Charleston shootings domestic terrorism motivated by bigotry against black people of faith. He or she would have stood out as strong on these issues and set him- or herself apart from the crowded field.
But the words “race” and “racism” appear to be so toxic in the Republican Party that any admission of race’s importance or racism’s active role in our society is considered a death knell for a political campaign. The same party that was quick to call U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan’s 2009 shooting on the Fort Hood, Texas, military base domestic terrorism at the hands of a radical Muslim terrorist seems allergic to labeling a violent white supremacist’s shooting of a black church domestic terrorism.
The party and its presidential candidates, at a nationally televised conference centered on faith and liberty, failed to live up to the principles it extols in more convenient times. Before taking the stage, they would have done well to ask themselves a question befitting the evangelical crowd: What would Jesus do? Speaking the inconvenient truth would have been a good place to start.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.