Cuthbert, Ga.—Over the past two years, President Donald Trump has made a mockery of Christianity. His white evangelical supporters have aided and abetted him every step of the way. Though the God many of us have grown to know as kind, generous and forgiving, a different God has been erected by Trump and his supporters: a God who supports the persecution of gay people, stands in silence as politicians suppress the votes of African Americans, and denies the most-needy communities better access to life-saving and life-altering health care access, such as the expansion of Medicaid.
That, as Rev. William Barber, a recent “genius grant” winner from North Carolina, explained Saturday evening at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, sums up the pseudo-Christianity Trump and those he endorses for political office have come to embrace as the word of God. Referencing Bible verses in Luke, Barber said Jesus told us what his political agenda was. Many sitting in the pews were wearing Stacey Abrams pins and other campaign gear supporting Democratic candidates. Abrams is vying to become the first black woman in U.S. history to become governor of a state.
“You don’t have to ask Brian Kemp,” said Barber, to responses of “Hm-mm” and “Say it,” about Abrams’ Republican opponent. “You don’t even have to ask Stacey (Abrams) what Jesus’s political agenda was. When Jesus began his gospel, he was talking about the poor, the brokenhearted, the blind, the sick and the unacceptable.”
Any politician who claims to live by the word of God should be able to answer any of these questions in the affirmative, Barber explained.
“When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick, did you care for me? And when I was undocumented, when I was a stranger and I was a foreigner, did you welcome me in?”
While Barber has been reminding voters of a higher calling, above any particular candidate, and that Jesus never declared a political party, this year’s midterms have featured white evangelicals who claim Trump is the protectorate of Christianity.
“The world is attacking Christians because they hate the name of Christ,” Franklin Graham told Fox News earlier this year. “And President Trump has been defending Christians. I find this refreshing to have a president who’s not afraid to say Jesus; he’s not afraid to have prayers where people end in the name of Jesus.”
Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, said evangelicals gave Trump a “mulligan” when it comes to his well-documented allegations of abuse against women. That list is long: one of Trump’s ex-wives accused him of rape, before softening the claim a bit; several women have accused Trump of various levels of sexual assault or misconduct; he was caught on video bragging about casually sexually assaulting women; and shortly before the 2016 election, he paid at least one porn actress to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
Meanwhile, Trump’s religious supporters had little or nothing to say about the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., and the aggressive voter suppression tactics across the nation, particularly here in Georgia. Just a few months ago, the county struck down a recommendation that seven polling places be closed. Kemp is pushing the voter suppression tactics in the open. Not only has Kemp’s office purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the voter rolls over the years, he used Georgia’s “exact match” law to disqualify some 50,000 voter registration applications of mostly black people for discrepancies as simple as missing hyphens on a last name. A federal judge ruled against the stringent requirements on Friday and forced the state to relax its restrictions. Kemp has recently gone further even, accusing Democrats of voting mischief—without providing a shred of evidence.
Many of the people I spoke with in Cuthbert felt white evangelicals have co-opted Christianity while remaining silent about the attacks against their voting rights. Moreover, they are dismayed those white evangelicals have said nothing about Trump’s racism, which signals to folks in Cuthbert those evangelicals do not see black people’s rights as part of their theology.
“[Trump]’ll say almost anything,” Jacqueline Martin, 62, who grew up in Cuthbert said before the service. “It’s almost like a circus. I just don’t see how he calls himself a Christian, and I do not see how people who are Christians can go along with the things he is saying.”
Sandra Willis, also from Cuthbert, agreed.
“A true Christian has a heart that can see and feel the things that other people feel, and they are not self-centered,” Willis, 66, said. “God says love one another as he loves us. I think that Trump believers are either ignorant to what God stands for or they’re the devil themselves.”
Right across the street from where Martin and I were speaking is a home that’s leaning to the left and is well beyond repair. The family who lives there still pays rent, Donny D.Green Sr., pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, told me after the service. You can stand at the front door and see directly into the backyard. If you look through the floorboards, you can see the dirt ground. It’s the kind of poverty that pervades this mostly-black county, a county that struggles to attract new business investment. If voter suppression doesn’t discourage people from voting, economic depression can break their resolve to believe their voice matters. It’s a mindset Green says his church is trying to change in the community.
“We have to stop talking about, ‘They gon’ do what they wanna do anyhow,’” Green said. “We have to change that mentality. We have to do our part.”
As Barber preached, he alluded to Lester Maddox, a racist former governor and restaurateur from the late 1960s who once brandished a revolver to keep three black people from dining at one of his establishments.
One of Maddox’s favorite songs, Barber says, was “God Bless America.” When Maddox would sing that song, Maddox would cry—before going out to work against the things God loved.
“He loved division and discrimination,” Barber said of Maddox. “So Georgia has already had a governor that wanted to divide you, and it didn’t work. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand. So division doesn’t work.”
Indeed, it doesn’t. But if chaos is your goal, Trump’s tactics of divide and conquer are succeeding—at least for now. He came down to stump for Kemp in Macon, Ga., Sunday night when the gubernatorial candidate was supposed to be debating Abrams. Many critics saw Kemp’s last-minute debate dropout as a sign he did not want to lock horns with Abrams over the issues. Others saw it as a slap in the face to Georgians still deciding on how they will vote Tuesday, Nov. 6. More critically, though, Trump’s support of those who violate voter rights—while some of America’s most powerful Christian leaders say nothing—signals how he is using faith to justify his racism.
“This attack by the Trump administration on all of our values is an attack on our faith,” said Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life. Butler was accompanying Barber Saturday. “It’s also undermining our democracy, but it is also an attack on our faith that we need to address. I think we can build a movement that shifts this country forward rather than going back to an era that we saw in the ‘50s and ‘60s Jim Crow Era. We don’t need to go back there.”
The midterms will be won by the righteous, not just in Atlanta, but in the backwoods and the farms, Barber said as he closed out his sermon. “You’ve got to organize,” he said. “Y’all remember how we used to organize when you didn’t have nothing. And say, ‘Chile, you got some sugar? I got some flour.’”
We must draw from our ancestors to win this election, Barber told the congregation. If we are to truly honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, we must recognize that they are not to be celebrated, he said. Martyrs aren’t celebrated; they’re imitated. Jesus doesn’t need cheerleaders; he needs disciples, folks who will pick up the cross and take the next mile. You don’t celebrate the folks who died; you go to the place where they died, you reach down in the blood, take the baton, and say you’ve been baptized in the blood.
“There is power in the blood,” Barber said as people rose to their feet. “The blood ought to make us vote. The blood ought to make us stand up. The blood ought to make us organize. The blood ought to make us take our children, even if they can’t vote, take ‘em with you.
“The bloooooood!” Barber thundered.
“The bloooooood!” Barber thundered again.
“There is power in the blood.”