In the aftermath of a mass shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church that killed nine people, most elected officials and political pundits are carefully expressing their condolences in a way that avoids mentioning race.
Instead, many right-wing commentators are seizing on the location of the massacre — a Wednesday night Bible study in a church whose history dates back more than 200 years — as evidence that Christians are under attack in the United States.
Fox News was quick to declare that the Charleston shooting was an “attack on faith.” On Thursday’s Fox and Friends, panel members discussed the “rising hostility against Christians in this country because of our biblical views.” GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum followed suit, calling the shooting part of a broader assault on “religious liberty” in this country.
Focusing on the religion of the nine victims, however, obscures the larger reality of race-based hate crimes at houses of worship. The tragedy at Emanuel A.M.E. represents just the latest in a long line of violent attacks on black churches — targeted not for their “biblical views,” but because of the color of their parishioners’ skin.
White Americans have long been wary of the black church establishment for reasons that are far removed from religious beliefs. In the 1800s, when freed blacks started organizing an autonomous denomination where they wouldn’t be subjected to segregation in the pews — the African Methodist Episcopal Church — their white neighbors were nervous that an all-black space would give slaves the opportunity to organize and rebel. Indeed, the early leaders of black churches preached a theology of liberation. One of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E. attempted to organize a slave revolt in 1822, and the church was burned to the ground in punishment. White slaveowners were so wary of future attempts that laws prohibiting all-black congregations were enacted throughout much of the South and remained in place until after the Civil War.
During the modern Civil Rights movement, black liberation theology was forged in the context of the oppressive laws propping up institutional racism. Black churches taught their parishioners that, in a white-dominated society, the Gospel was relevant to them because it proved that God is invested in the struggle for justice and freedom. It’s not hard to see why houses of worship became hubs of activism in the black community in the 1960s — but, just as in the 19th century, they were punished for it.
In what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama killed four young girls and injured 22 others. A year later, KKK members beat churchgoers leaving Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Mississippi, and eventually burned the building to the ground. White supremacists continued targeting black churches well in the 1990s, as racially motivated arson attacks swept the South.
These crimes weren’t about the fact that parishioners were reading the Bible or praying to Jesus (and, in fact, they were largely perpetrated by a racist group that identifies as a Christian organization). They were about the fact that African Americans were drawing power from all-black spaces, organizing in their own communities, and standing up to racial oppression. In other words, black Christian churches aren’t attacked for being Christian; they’re attacked for being black.
The current pivot to “religious liberty” is particularly ironic in light of the fact that this talking point is typically deployed against legislative efforts to crack down on racially motivated crimes.
South Carolina is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t have a hate crime law. For years, local legislators have been attempting to add a state statute to allow for harsher penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of a certain group. But those efforts have repeatedly failed — partly because conservatives like Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator and current Heritage Foundation president, have argued that hate crime laws are “dangerous step” toward persecuting people for their religious views.
Many leaders in the Christian community, meanwhile, are comfortable drawing the connections that politicians are avoiding. Rather than raising the alarm about religious liberty, many pastors are placing an emphasis on issues of racial injustice.
“Virtually every week we see yet another incident pointing to the sin of racism in American society, from unarmed African-American men and children killed in the streets to worshippers gunned down in their pews,” reads a letter penned by several Southern Baptist leaders in response to the shooting. “This must end. And the church of Jesus Christ must lead the way.”