In Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
There is a time to unite and a time to purge.
I was reminded of this fact recently when Breitbart, the conservative news and punditry site, ran a story exposing voter registration booths in Ferguson, Missouri, at the site of Michael Brown’s death. In response to the tragedy and violence of that city, some organizations had set up booths to encourage people to vote to create change. The article even quotes Rev. Sharpton who called the black residents of the town to vote, criticizing them for their absurdly low 12% voter turnout. In response to this, Breitbart interviewed Matt Wills, the executive director at Missouri Republican National Convention, who described the voter drives as “disgusting”:
“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
“Disgusting”—that is an actual word a GOP official used to describe efforts to encourage a black community to vote.
And this wasn’t just the opinion of the official. The entire Breitbart article is presented as if they were exposing some secret, malicious attempt to usurp our country through, uh, democracy? The premise is so ludicrous that it would be hysterical if it weren’t incredibly racist and fomenting racism, as can easily be evidenced in the comments.
Of all the responses to Brown’s death and the chaos that has followed, encouraging a community to vote so that they better represent themselves in local government—that has got to be the most helpful civic response possible.
Wills’s argument that voter registration at the crime scene is somehow politicizing Brown’s death and “injecting race” into the issue ignores the fact that for this community it is inherently a local political and racial issue. That’s why there were immediate protests. The concern is with how black Americans are treated by their government.
There are many more things I would like to say about this, but CaPC’s editorial stance against profanity prevents me. So, instead, I’d like to talk about the conservative imagination.
Why was this GOP so afraid of black people voting? Presumably, because they would vote democrat. This is a perfectly logical explanation for his comments, and I’m confident that liberals are not any more enthusiastic about voter drives in conservative communities.
A problem with this line of reasoning is that it is unloving to our neighbors. It assumes that the people of Ferguson would register to vote democrat without giving them a compelling reason not to. I think this reveals a failure of conservatism, one which may doom the movement if it is not addressed: If the poor, oppressed, and minorities won’t vote for conservatives, it must be in part because conservatives haven’t offered a compelling alternative to liberalism. Conservative pundits are too often busy seeing the poor and minorities as a threat to care about their real, serious needs as our neighbors.
Consider the conservative response to the violence in Ferguson. Are we offering an alternative political vision? Is it one which is beautiful, good, and true? Is it one which we articulate to the poor amongst us?
There are good conservative responses too.
-Broad participation in and promotion of strong, local government that is concerned about the needs of its specific community.
-Accountability for police in order to prevent abuses of State power.
-Undoing the militarization of the police.
-Advocating and supporting local charities, ministries, and churches that can work toward racial reconciliation, help to channel protests into positive and nonviolent methods, protecting the rights of protesters and journalists, creating anti-poverty programs that focus on early childhood education.
And there are many other responses. Regrettably, to my knowledge, the only one which conservative leaders have strongly advocated for is the reduction of police militarization.
Instead of calling voter registration booths “disgusting,” the RNC should have brought in their own booths, encouraging everyone to register, regardless of party affiliation, demonstrating to the black community that we want them to vote, that we believe in local representation through elections as a model for caring for local communities.
In place of an active, compelling, and imaginative conservative response, we have a major conservative publication and conservative official condemning an attempt by a suffering community to improve their community through civic engagement.
Here is where I make the point I’ve made several times in the past (here, here, and here): Conservative politics will not be effective unless it distances itself from radical, racist, conspiratorial, destructive, and deceptive voices.
I understand that there are all kinds of political and economic pressures at work which make it very difficult for politicians to say “no” to an interview on the radio show of some insanely popular but terribly deceptive talk show host. These are the same economic realities that lead political conventions to invite hacks, demagogues, and conspiracy theorists as speakers alongside thoughtful politicians. The fact is that there are many toxic conservative figures that are popular. Ann Coulter, for example, is a terrible and dangerous pundit, but she has an audience. And that audience is just large enough to persuade some politician or otherwise sane conservative figure to get on stage with her at an event, which gives them access to her audience and validates Coulter’s authority. There’s a cycle at work here in which there are distinct and sizable incentives for political movements to tolerate and work with some influential fringe figures or groups.
Here I am at the end of my column, and I haven’t even mentioned Christ, yet. This seems like a lot of conservative navel-gazing, but it’s really not. The dynamic I’ve described here is also true of evangelical movements and other political movements. It involves two parts: First, a failure to try to persuade people of your position, which is really a failure to love your neighbor and to imagine. Second is the reciprocal incentive to perpetuate toxic figures and groups.
The response is to love your neighbor enough to reach out with an imaginative and other-focused vision and to purge toxic elements from our conventions, donations, websites, and newsfeeds. When we are more concerned about defending what we perceive to be our political identity than with honoring God and loving our neighbor, we have gone astray.
Alan Noble, Ph.D., (Co-Founder and Managing Editor) is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC.