This is a tricky time for the Christian Right. Immediately following the mass murder at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Thesome Christian Right leaders jumped onto the airwaves to claim the shooting was an example of the campaign against religious freedom in America. It turns out they were onto something, just not what they had thought it was.re has been an eerily-telling silence since then.
The horrific Charleston massacre in which nine people were killed has tended to derail the Christian Right’s narrative of how faith and Christianity are under attack in America. On its face, this would seem to be an unlikely consequence of the episode, since it happened at a Wednesday evening Bible study at the church. This is significant in part because the constellation of dubious claims about the persecution of Christians and the threat to religious liberty in America is at the center of the Christian Right’s approach to politics and public policy—and is increasingly the go-to gambit of conservative Republican politicians trying to demagogue their way into office – or out of a difficult issue of public policy.
Nevertheless, it would seem that this episode would fit the narrative: Christians killed right in their own church. Isn’t that in line with what the Christian Right is saying about Christianity being under a wide-ranging siege in America?
Several prominent Christian Right leaders have tried to cast the assassinations in these terms, but it was a hard case to make. The tragedy seemed to be so much more about race. Surviving witnesses reported that the young White supremacist Dylann Roof simply said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Rick Santorum, GOP presidential candidate and a vocal conservative Catholic said the mass murder was a “crime of hate” but that it was also part of a broader “assault on our religious liberty.”
Rev. E.W. Jackson, Senior Fellow for Church Ministries at the Family Research Council, the 2012 GOP candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia, and an African American, created a stir with his surprising reaction. He said that people shouldn’t “jump to conclusions” that the Charleston massacre was “some sort of racial hate crime.” He also suggested the murders are part of the “growing hostility and antipathy to Christianity and what this stands for, the biblical worldview about sexual morality and other things.”
Other Christian Right leaders were more careful. Their own hyperbole notwithstanding, they know conservative Christians are not being killed for their faith in the U.S. It is obvious that the mass murder of African American Christians in their own church makes their claims of persecution appear shallow.
But arguably the murders of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were indeed an attack on Christians for their faith, but not in a way that fits with the Christian Right narrative. The Charleston massacre is just the latest in a long line of White supremacist attacks on Black churches. Arsons and bombings punctuated the Civil Rights Movement, but such attacks stretch through much of the length of American history. The Black church has historically been an institution where African Americans could organize on behalf of their own interests in relative safely. That is part of why the churches also became targets. The Emanuel AME itself was burned to the ground in 1822 in the years before all Black churches were banned and driven underground.
This poses problems for the Christian Right. If they are going to say that this was an attack on Christianity, they have to say why this church and these particular Christians were attacked—just as they would if an evangelical or Catholic Church had been attacked. It was not random. In the explanatory manifesto he published on a web site created for the occasion, Dylann Roof wrote:
“I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
But the mostly-White leaders of the Christian Right can’t zero-in on the racist reasoning that led him to target the most prominent African American church in Charleston and its politically influential pastor – at least not without displacing themselves from the center of their own persecution narrative.
Clearly it was not just any Christian church, nor Christianity in general, that was under attack in Charleston. It was the Black church, African American Protestantism generally, and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, pastored by Rev. Clementa Pinckney in particular. This church was involved in a planned slave rebellion in 1822, and the institution it has come to be in Charleston has epitomized the African American story in the South for nearly 200 years. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously preached there during the Civil Rights movement.
The Mother Emanuel congregation (as it is known locally) is part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a member of the mainline National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC comprises 45 million people in 37 denominations, including, the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ. What’s worse, these African American Christians tend to vote Democratic and their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a prominent Democratic State Senator and a rising star in state politics. The assassination of Pinckney and fellow members of his Bible study group undermines much of the Christian Right’s narrative because the narrative discounts as non-Christian many of those with whom they religiously and politically disagree. The Christian Right’s list of infidels often includes Democrats, liberals, and even mainline Christians – such as the members of Emanuel AME.
Indeed, these are the kinds of Christians that the Christian Right would rather not have to acknowledge even exist; let alone come to define the story anti-Christian persecution in America.
That this was a carefully planned political assassination is hard to dispute. But it is also hard to dispute that this was an attack on Christianity of the kind that believes in the empowerment and equality of all people, and advancing social justice is at the core of this particular church’s mission. It is hard for the Christian Right to co-opt the legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement, as is currently the fashion, while ignoring the assassination of nine Black Christians who were killed both for their race and for their progressive faith.
And that is why after some initial claims that the Charleston massacre was part of a wide ranging attack on Christianity and a threat to religious liberty in America, we just aren’t hearing such claims anymore.