The idolatry of 'whiteness': Christians struggle to respond to Charlottesville

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Tom Perriello and his Aug. 17, 2017, tweet. (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Astrid Riecken for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
Tom Perriello and his Aug. 17, 2017, tweet. (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Astrid Riecken for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Five days after a white supremacist carried out a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, a Democratic politician in Virginia sent out a tweet rebuking “white evangelical leaders” for worshiping and idolizing their “whiteness,” calling it “blasphemy of God’s word.”

Tom Perriello, a devout Catholic who ran for governor but lost in the primary, sent a series of tweets over the next few days calling on white Christian leaders to forcefully denounce white supremacy as an affront to their faith. And he mocked one of President Trump’s most prominent evangelical supporters, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., by satirically tweeting that Falwell was under demonic possession.

“The devil has his grip so firmly around @JerryFalwellJr that I’m praying for his exorcism. #Repent,” Perriello tweeted on Aug. 19. He sent a tweet the following day, a Sunday, asking churchgoers to speak up in their congregations if their pastors did not say anything about white supremacy.

Perriello’s remarks were answered with an extraordinarily personal attack from the Virginia state Republican organization, which also took it upon itself this week to defend Confederate monuments from Democratic iconoclasm. And they illuminated an increasingly heated divide among Christians over how to respond to the wave of neo-Confederate symbolism that has been building in the days since Charlottesville.

The day after Perriello thumbed his fourth tweet in four days, on Monday, Aug. 21, someone at the Republican Party of Virginia evidently decided they had heard enough from Perriello. The state party’s Twitter account responded to Perriello in terms almost never seen from an official organ of a political party.

“Let’s not mince words: you are a Christian-hating bigot,” the RPV account said. “We were better off when you were out of the country #LeftWingBigot.” The reference to Perriello being out of the country was a nod to his time as a presidential envoy to the Congo during the Obama administration.

Virginia Republican state chair John Whitbeck responded to Perriello by tweeting, “Is this real? Did his account get hacked?”

The party also issued a press release condemning Perriello’s tweets, saying: “It is never acceptable to slander and smear a religious group. We demand that Tom Perriello immediately apologize to Jerry Falwell Jr. and Evangelical Christians.”

Falwell Jr. tweeted out the Republican press release, which also labeled Perriello’s comments as “bigoted.”

However, it’s hard to see bigotry in Perriello’s comments, which he intended as a fairly straightforward criticism of the failure of some Christians to condemn white supremacy after the public displays of racism and the murder in Charlottesville.

Perriello spoke as a Christian to others of the same faith, calling on them to follow its teachings. He told Yahoo News that his tweet about Falwell “was more metaphorical than theological.”

The Virginia GOP’s tweets, by contrast, were a far more significant theological judgment about an individual, Perriello, by a political party that as a constitutional matter does not define or organize itself theologically. By calling Perriello “anti-Christian,” a faceless political organization essentially judged his faith to be insincere. That was a far harsher statement than Perriello’s comment that Christian leaders were misapplying or not applying their faith to their actions.

Perriello added in an interview that the “bigotry” label was essentially meaningless.

“Some in the Republican Party want to water down the word bigot because they don’t want to answer for some of the things that the head of their party is doing,” he said.

“It’s very clear that I’m speaking from a theological position that is shared by Christians across the spectrum, which is that white supremacy is heretical to the Christian teaching of people being made in the image of god,” Perriello said.

A state GOP spokesman spoke with Yahoo News on the agreement he not be quoted, but executive director John Findlay did not respond to Yahoo News’ request through the spokesman for an interview.

The party followed the criticism of Perriello with an attack a few days later on the Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, all but accusing him of being a traitor to his race for supporting the removal of Confederate monuments.

The state party’s Twitter account wrote Thursday that Northam had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage in demanding monument removal.” Findlay told the Washington Post that the party made this comment “because [Northam’s] great-grandfather fought for the side of the Confederacy and was wounded during the Civil War.” That was implicit in the use of the word “heritage,” which is widely understood by all parties in the South to refer to secession and the Civil War. Northam presumably understood this, and if he turned his back on that aspect of his “heritage,” it was because he believes that in fighting to maintain slavery his great-grandfather chose the wrong side.

The party later deleted the tweet and said it had been misinterpreted.

Perriello spoke often and openly about his faith when he was elected to Congress in 2008, about how it motivated him to pursue a career in public service. But he mentioned faith less in his run for governor earlier this year.

He has remained politically active since losing the primary to Northam, who is running against Republican nominee Ed Gillespie.

And Perriello’s rhetoric in the wake of Charlottesville was especially charged with religious and moral language.

“Ponder Republican Party of VA calling preachers condemning white supremacy ‘Christian hating bigot(ry)’” Perriello tweeted after the RPV had criticized him, adding the hashtag “#JesusLoves.”

Perriello told Yahoo News he did not think he had been “silenced” about his faith during the gubernatorial primary by a Democratic electorate that is increasingly secular, but said that he was “putting an emphasis on this now” for a reason.

“As someone who has worked in war zones and post-conflict zones, there are moments where there is a particular importance of moral leadership, and that comes from the faith community, though not solely,” he said.

“This is a time that calls for prophetic witness,” Perriello said. “What we’re looking at now is bigger than partisanship. In a primary you’re trying to win an election. Right now we’re trying to hold the country together.”

Perriello’s talk of “prophetic witness” was similar in tone to a statement published Friday by a group of African-American faith leaders and activists from the Christian tradition, including the Rev. Dwight McKissic, the Texas pastor who mounted a campaign to pass a resolution condemning white supremacy at the Southern Baptist’s annual convention this year, which passed after overcoming initial resistance. The statement, called the “Charlottesville Declaration,” read in part:

“Judgment begins with the household of God, which has been particularly instrumental in the creation and maintenance of racial inequity. Because of this we do not need cheap grace, cheap peace, cheap reconciliation. We need a revival of spirit, a revolution of values, and the abundance of righteous justice in this land. Now is the time for the church to again be the moral compass for this nation.”

“We call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society,” the statement said, adding that condemnation should be not just “in words only, but also in deeds.”

The declaration was co-authored by Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African-American Network, and C.J. Rhodes, a pastor in Jackson, Miss., and religious life director at Alcorn State University.

Also on Friday, a group of over 90 “Christian scholars” from a wide variety of accredited colleges — including three from Falwell’s Liberty University — signed a statement stating that the events in Charlottesville “make it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.”

It went on: “We also recognize that white-majority churches and denominations have too often lagged in discussions of racial injustice and inequality, or have even been sources of the perpetuation of white cultural dominance and racial injustice. Because of that history, we pray that America’s churches and Christians will renew their commitment to practical, proactive steps of racial reconciliation and friendship in our cities and towns.”


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