S5, Ep. 24: Race, religion and citizenship

Hear insights from (pictured left to right): Rev. Dr. Christopher The, Rev. Dr. Najuma Smith-Pollard, and Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans

Apr 11, 2024

Hear excerpts from a special event we organized at the University of Southern California on race, religion and citizenship in this episode of Respecting Religion. The Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans and the Rev. Dr. Christopher The brought their unique experiences and expertise to a conversation on religious and racial identity, moderated by the Rev. Dr. Najuma Smith-Pollard. Hear their insights about a theology of democracy, their experiences with racism, how to identify authoritarianism, and what lessons Scripture has for our current climate.

Segment 1 (starting at 00:35): The event on race, religion and citizenship

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans and the Rev. Dr. Christopher The were the speakers for this year’s edition of our annual Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures, titled “Whose country is it anyway?” held April 2 on the campus of the University of Southern California. Their conversation was moderated by the Rev. Dr. Najuma Smith-Pollard. Click on each name to read more about them and their impressive credentials. 

Listen to the entire program at this link

The event was in partnership with USC’s Office of Religious & Spiritual Life, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and Berkeley School of Theology.

Learn more about BJC’s annual series at BJConline.org/ShurdenLectures.


Segment 2 (starting at 1:45): A theology of democracy, experiences of racism, and a new understanding of The New Colossus

Rev. Dr. The mentioned “warmth of other suns,” giving credit to how Isabel Wilkerson uses the phrase. She is the author of the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Rev. Dr. The mentioned “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. You can read it here.


Segment 3 (starting at 12:29): Authoritarianism and lessons from Scripture

Rev. Dr. Evans mentioned Walter Wink, a theologian who discussed how power structures resist our need for transformation. Learn more about him in his obituary from The New York Times.


Segment 4 (starting at 18:27): Politics and access to power

Dr. Catherine Brekus delivered the 2023 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lecture, which focused on the myth of American “chosenness.” Hear it in episode 23 of season 4, and listen to the panel that followed it on episode 24

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.


Transcript: Season 5, Episode 24: Race, religion and citizenship (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity) 

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) The gospel then is political, because to repent and believe the gospel is to be a part of deconstruction of empire, that is, to decolonize one’s mind.


Segment 1: The event on race, religion and citizenship (starting at 00:23)

HOLLY: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m BJC general counsel Holly Hollman. My co-host Amanda Tyler was in Los Angeles last week on the campus of the University of Southern California for a special event BJC organized in partnership with USC’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and Berkeley School of Theology. Today we’re bringing our listeners highlights from that event.

Amanda will be back next week, and we’ll discuss the challenge of teaching constitutional law given the current Supreme Court’s rapid reshaping of the law. I’ll share what it’s like to co-teach the church-state law seminar at Georgetown University Law Center as I approach the end of the spring semester.

For any of my students who are listening, I trust this is just a short break, and you are working to finish your papers and study for exams.

But on today’s episode of Respecting Religion, we are going to focus on this event at the University of Southern California. It addressed race, religion and citizenship in the United States today.

Segment 2: A theology of democracy, experiences of racism, and a new understanding of The New Colossus (starting at 1:45)

REV. DR. JOSEPH EVANS: (audio clip) The theology that I studied in seminary was good stuff, but it was very formal and, to be very honest with you, very European. And if we think about democracy as a theology, then that returns me to my original roots. I’m informed by the Black social gospel movement — that is to say, the Benjamin Mays, the Mordecai and Wyatt Johnsons, the Howard Thurmans, the Ella Bakers. This people group formed and shaped my understanding of religion as a democratic act.

HOLLY: That was Dr. Joseph Evans speaking. He’s the J. Alfred Smith, Sr. Endowed Professor and Chair of Theology in the Public Square and Director of the Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Restorative Justice Center at the Berkeley School of Theology. He was one of the two speakers at the event we held at USC.

The other was Dr. Christopher The, director of student research and initiative management for the Association of Theological Schools, and he’s also the secretary of the BJC Board of Directors. Let’s listen to part of Chris’s introductory remarks.

REV. DR. CHRISTOPHER THE: (audio clip) As a second generation Chinese Indonesian American, I enter this space acknowledging the complicated histories leading to this moment. And though the immigrant narrative of my family origin is something that’s perhaps personal to me, it’s something that I acknowledge — and through which I acknowledge being sustained by land that for centuries and millennia were under the care of others’ ancestors.


As the only son of economic migrants who wished to move past the ethnic and, to an extent, religious discrimination and political traumas of the land of their own births, I acknowledge the labor of so many peoples as we feel — my family, we feel in our flesh what is Isabel Wilkerson has called “the warmth of other suns.”


HOLLY: Dr. Evans also shared his personal perspective, describing his experience of racism in Berkeley, California.

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) The truth of the matter is for the majority of my life, regardless of the things that, you know, I’ve been involved in, I can walk out of one space where people say, Evans does this. I literally can walk out in the street — I’ll just being plain with you. I could go to Berkeley today and walk, and students — if I don’t have a suit and tie, whatever, and I’m walking in the street — literally students will walk on the other side of the street.


They cannot even discern that I already got what you’re trying to get. Right? I got what you’re trying to get. You don’t have a clue, but you have this sense of a person of my color and a person of whatever — they have bought into the dehumanization part of me. Right? Now, that’s absurd, that in 2024, people like me are still walking around, facing that. I’ll leave it at that.


But the American dream, however you come to it — I urge you to divorce yourself of materialism, because materialism is why — capitalism is why racism still exists and other social “-isms” and othering. It’s about this sense of controlling — economically, psychologically, socially, politically, et cetera, et cetera — people. If you and I can eradicate racism and abolish poverty, I think we can now destroy a lot of other “-isms.” I think a lot of them go immediately.

HOLLY: The conversation was moderated by Dr. Najuma Smith-Pollard, who’s the assistant director of community and public engagement with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. And it was structured around the provocative question of: Whose country is it anyway? Let’s listen to part of her response to Dr. Evans.

REV. DR. SMITH-POLLARD: (audio clip) The zero-sum game mindset would suggest that we both can’t be well and live well but in order for — only one of us can live well, and that’s it. It’s not We both can’t do that; We both can’t have that. Only one of us can do well, which then continues and perpetuates some of the other “-isms” and othering that we see when we’ve actually found out in other spaces that when we work together, then everyone lives well, everyone does better, and there’s actually not a loss of power but a multiplication of power. So that’s how energy works, by the way.



HOLLY: Here again is Dr. Christopher The, and we join the discussion as he describes the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

REV. DR. THE: (audio clip) The New Colossus is instead of a masculine figure of conquest, would be a maternal-type figure, a woman who is shining a lamp. And it seems idealistic to point to that as a symbol, but it’s not something I want to let go of. It’s something that, as absurd as it seems, I don’t want to jettison.


I think I’m informed slightly by some of my time as a youth pastor. It’s not the absence of doubt that defines faith, but sometimes it’s within the doubt that your faith is defined. The question goes back to: Whose country is it anyway?


I think one last comment before I hand the mic over. Right? This question about “whose,” not to get all grammatical with it — right? — but there’s a preposition there of ownership that also troubles me just slightly, because it presumes it’s something that can be and has literally been parceled out to the right kind of people who have the capacity as citizens — or not — of a certain lineage to have land that could support and feed.


And so that’s a bit of absurdity, too. If we could, from what I understand as someone who wants to learn but doesn’t have any indigenous roots in this land: What would caretaking look like? What would sharing this space look like? What would Land Back not as a metaphor be? What would abolition mean, if not just a cute phrase? What if this — I’m going to lean into the Christian side — What if this were gospel? And then, now how do we live?


So that “Whose country is it anyway?” is funny for a couple of reasons. I say, funny, because it’s serious, but there’s a humor about it. If we don’t laugh about it, I’m going to cry. That’s how I put it. Right?


But the “whose” — let’s not race, not try so much, let’s not strive for who can have a bigger slice of the pie, but fundamentally rethink the pie itself. Are all people being fed? I mean, this is the tired, your huddled masses.


This is the stuff about the immigrant story that I think is most provocative, even though I know, I know that that’s not everyone’s story and that there’s also lots of complications with the migratory experience. But for me personally, that’s how I see it.


HOLLY: Dr. Evans shared additional remarks about the demographic make-up of the country.

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) The anachronistic view of the United States as a homogenous — or for a homogenous — people group was absurd as early as 1619. And it is even more absurd in 2024. The notion of this “Make America Great Again” is absurd on face value. For somebody to say, Make America Great Again, there are people in my tradition who would ask another question: When was it great? We do not include all people at table. That would be a good definition for “great,” that everyone is welcome at table.


So this nostalgic view of a romantic period that is an anachronism of today is out of step and cannot help us, and frankly, it’s impossible. Now, on the other hand, what you don’t hear in “Make America Great Again” is perhaps a euphemism for full-throated authoritarianism. To make America great again is to usurp the democratic process. That is to say, as a matter of fact, we are those who support that type of perspective.


We have created God in our own image and likeness, and we are God. How dare you say that we are not? And to say that we are not is to push us to a place to where if we cannot be God, then we will usurp the process of democracy. Therefore, authoritarianism is how then, the only way that the old regime could possibly return to, quote/unquote, making America great again.



Segment 3: Authoritarianism and lessons from Scripture (starting at 12:29)

HOLLY: BJC, of course, is concerned about authoritarianism, including in the United States. Dr. Evans helpfully laid out how authoritarianism takes over a nation, including the religious elements at play.


REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) This is how an authoritarian takes over a nation. The first thing they do is they create economic — let me — they start with political manipulation. Walter Wink. It’s called the domination theory. So they’re starting with political manipulation.


Then secondly is economic exploitation, and then thirdly — and this is the one where we see our … friends on the evangelical right playing their role. It’s called religious legitimation. And so if you can get a segment of the population who buys into “Make America Great Again,” for whatever their selfish self-interest is, which I think we all know what it is — it’s the fear of being a minority.


And generally people on the right wing of religion in this country have been carrying the water for their social elites. They have to negotiate space. Right? Because if you take Black people out of the United States or if you take all minorities out of the United States, guess what. The people at the lower end of the realm will be the people who are now subjugated by the elites.


So let’s go over it one more time. First, political manipulation. We’ve had that forever in this country, whether it’s George Wallace and others, and clearly now, Donald Trump is very good [at] political manipulation.


But secondly it’s economic exploitation. One percent of the American public controls 40 percent of income and wealth, 1 percent. Five percent control 67 to 70 percent of income and wealth. So let us say it’s 70 percent for five people. That means 95 percent of us are wrestling over 30 percent of the country’s wealth. And so the prophetic preacher Bob Marley, “rat race, rat race is the human race,” becomes very evident and clear.


And then finally, religious legitimation. That’s Pat Robertson. That’s the Southern Baptist Convention and Charles Stanley and that crowd with the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell. By the way, all of them are from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Falwell, Stanley, and Robertson, all of whom grew up at the same time, and they attacked it in different ways to achieve results.


HOLLY: During the symposium, Dr. Evans also shared some reflections on various Christian scriptures that relate to what he calls “the theology of democracy.”

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) I started with a theology of democracy, which I think is a euphemism for King’s beloved community. I think that’s what King was talking about when he talked about beloved community. I honestly think that he was talking about a theology of democracy. That is to say that in order for democracy to work, everyone has to feel she or he has some stake in the outcome. And when you exclude people, regardless of their worldview, it’s very difficult to have a democracy.


Now, I’ve not talked a lot of theology here tonight, but I do make a demarcation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. It’s very nuanced in the New Testament. The kingdom of God — well, let me digress and say, the kingdom of heaven, I can’t do a lot about. I remember my pastor used to say when I was a kid, he had no heaven to give us nor a Hades to send us to. That’s up to the Lord.


But what we have is the kingdom of God, that is the Augustine-type city of God that’s here and now. And we have, I think, the obligation to try to create the best lives possible for people, regardless of their beliefs, whether it’s a religious belief or agnostic or atheist beliefs. I really do believe that. I have my own deep, deep convictions, and I’m not threatened by anyone else’s frankly. I know in whom I believe.


But the theology of democracy is something that I think is very important for us to grapple with. And if you are here with some religious worldview, one of the things you can do is to advocate for democracy. And, secondly, today it’s much easier than when I started out. You can literally write your own op-ed in wherever you want to write it, but don’t sit on the sidelines. Get in it, and defend people, and defend people that you really don’t have a lot in common with. I think that is the most important thing that you and I can do.


If someone is vulnerable to an oppressor, then you and I have, I believe, a responsibility to defend people. Whether you agree or disagree to me is personally irrelevant. What is relevant is — is that you see them as equally human as everyone else. That, I believe, is where we should make our stand.



Segment 4: Politics and access to power (starting at 18:27)

HOLLY: Let’s listen to more from Dr. Evans and his reflections on what Scripture teaches us.

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) In Mark’s Gospel — and this can be taught in a literature class, the narrative. Different than storylines. You need several storylines to make a narrative. Narrative points to pathology. Once we understand the narrative, we understand the pathology of a people, et cetera.


Jesus comes in to Capernaum, and he says, Repent … and believe the gospel. And then if you read it as the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of God, and then just the gospel, showing you a syntactical arrangement, how one sees the gospel.


But what we’re here talking about today is that the gospel is a disrupter of the regime, and the gospel then is political, because to repent and believe the gospel is to be a part of the deconstruction of empire, that is, to decolonize one’s mind, so to be born again or regenerated or whatever is a way of looking at the mind is decolonized. Right?


And so preaching by nature, if you’re really preaching, is political, period. They did not crucify Jesus because they thought he was the Son of God. That would have been a little obvious. They crucified him because they believed he wasn’t, but they further believed he was a political leader. So we know that Jesus, as a historical figure, was a political leader in most people’s minds, his approach. So we have to define politics or political theology or the church herself as a involved in politics, but to speak against empire. We’re not on the side of empire. Right?


I will make a commentary. I’ve heard a lot of churches preach on the Apostle Paul, and I dig the Apostle Paul. Did you know in Acts — I think it’s the 22nd chapter — he was mistaken for an Egyptian, so we know he was a brother. Paul was a brother — right? — as most people are brothers and sisters in the entire canon.


That aside, we can’t avoid politics, but we do not want to — how do I put this, Christopher? We are engaged in politics as far as theology, and we may be able to influence policy, but we can do that by not — we can do that as the church only because the nation protects us. I’ll let the attorneys talk about the Establishment Clause. But there is a space there, too, where we have the right to critique the state.

HOLLY: Now we return to more from Dr. Christopher The.

REV. DR. THE: (audio clip) This is the interesting thing about politics, if we break it down as the basis of sharing power or sharing access to power. I think that that’s why the earlier comment about finding coalitional strength, going farther together, is true, because if there are all of these interlocking oppressions, then why wouldn’t the salvation from them also be similarly interlocked? They would be in such ways that our destinies, again, are aligned.

HOLLY: And here, for the final segment of these highlights, is Dr. Evans.

REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) Your romanticism will fail if you don’t deal with the realism. If you have just a vertical notion of reality or a notion of religion or worship, then you’re missing the horizontal world you and I live in. You know, coming out of Holy Week, it says, And Jesus sang a hymn and went out into the Mount of Olives.


So he leaves the upper room. That’s romanticism. That’s worship. That’s recital of Passover, et cetera, et cetera. But when he goes into the Garden of Gethsemane, that’s reality. That’s where his religion must be more than just ritual.


And we are in that space now. As people, if we’re going to defend the rights of all people, then we have to be able to share with folks that this is not a romanticism we’re living in. We are literally on the edge of losing our democratic rights, and for Baptists, that’s good fighting stuff right there. We’d rather fight for that. You can’t tell somebody how they’re going to worship. You can’t tell somebody how they’re not going to worship.


There was an old story, saying that a deacon in a church had fought for years to put a chandelier in the church. Over and over again for years, they said, We don’t need a chandelier; most of us don’t know what a chandelier is. And over and over again, he fought for it. And finally at the end of this fight over years, they decided to put in the chandelier. And they took a vote in the church conference, and it was 99 percent of the people voted for it, and the man who had been advocating for it voted against it. And everybody said, You’ve been advocating for this for years. Why did you vote against it? He said, I’m Baptist; somebody ought to vote against it.


[General laughter.]


REV. DR. EVANS: (audio clip) That’s a good Baptist. We’re not going to let you tell us and we don’t want you to tell anyone else what she or he cannot do, and so we’ve got to get in the fight.


HOLLY: Dr. Evans is right about the diversity of views we have in Baptist life, and we are grateful for him and for Dr. The and the way they shared their thoughts and wisdom with us. We’ll share a link in show notes for the full audio of this event, which was our annual Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State.

We played audio from our 2023 lecture by Harvard Divinity School’s Dr. Catherine Brekus last season on Respecting Religion, which focused on the myth of American “chosenness.” You can hear that lecture and the discussion that followed on episodes 23 and 24 of season 4.

That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. For more information, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and transcripts. Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.

Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org. And we’d love to hear from you. You can send Amanda and me an email by writing to [email protected]. We’re also on social media at BJContheHill, and you can follow Amanda on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

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