Earlier this month, the media proved once again how tone-deaf it can be when reporting on evangelical Christians. Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore referenced an old children’s song, and media outlets interpreted his remarks as racist. On the eve of the Alabama runoff election this evening, the polling website FiveThirtyEight continued to brand the remarks racist, mocking Moore’s assertion that they were a reference to the gospel.
“We were torn apart in the Civil War — brother against brother, North against South, party against party. What changed?” Moore asked in a speech earlier this month. “Now we have blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting.”
“What’s going to unite us? What’s going to bring us back together? A president? A Congress?” the candidate asked further. He answered his own question, “No. It’s going to be God.”
To a media conditioned to sniff out any outrage and to find race as the reason behind every phenomenon, these remarks sounded like damnable prejudice.
The Washington Post‘s Eugene Scott and Amber Phillips went so far as to painstakingly explain why the terms might be offensive. “‘Red’ has historically been a slang term for Native Americans that has increasingly gone out of favor. Some view it as offensive….” Meanwhile, “‘Yellow’ is a derogatory term for East Asians that was common in the late 1800s among the white working class in California.”
Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley went quite a bit beyond that. “Ironically, one way God could improve white Americans’ relationships with Native Americans and Americans of Asian ancestry is by coming down hard on people like Roy Moore who still refer to Native Americans and Americans of Asian ancestry by using racial terms that were already considered insulting and antiquated 50 years ago,” he wrote.
“Please smite Roy Moore, God! Do it!” Mathis-Lilley mockingly prayed.
FiveThirtyEight’s Claire Malone upbraided Moore for using “racial slurs.” She then acknowledged his tweet explaining the remarks.
“Red, yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. This is the Gospel,” Moore tweeted.
Malone saw fit to “gospel-splain” the evangelical Christian. “It is not the Gospel that he quoted, but in fact an old-fashioned children’s hymn,” the FiveThirtyEight writer declared. (Naturally, Malone was incorrect to refer to the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “the Gospel” anyway. For Christians, “the Gospel” is the entire message of salvation in Jesus, and it emphatically includes racial reconciliation.)
“Misattribution aside, it raises the question: Is it possible for Moore to say something so offensive — either on the campaign trail or in emergent remarks from his past — that political allies would abandon him and he could lose to a Democrat?”
One again, Malone showed her utter inability to see things from a different perspective. Yes, these racial terms are considered offensive now. But they live on from a popular children’s song with a powerful message.
As New York Magazine‘s Ed Kilgore explained, “If Roy Moore is elected to the U.S. Senate, he will instantly become a cultural ambassador from the deepest of Deep South states, the veritable Heart of Dixie (the old state slogan still featured on many license tags), to a country that is evolving in a very different direction.”
Tactfully, Kilgore suggested “sometimes national observers listening to Judge Roy mostly need a translator.”
Kilgore, not some back-country racist rube, fully admitted that “like most pre-civil-rights racial references, the terms ‘red and yellow, black and white’ aren’t considered appropriate or even acceptable today.” Even so, he insisted that “for many millions of people, the song, mostly remembered from the Vacation Bible Schools that most Evangelical and many mainline Christians of every race sent their children to each summer, is a paean to racial unity and the opposite of ‘insensitive.'”
The message? Jesus loves children of every race. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world,” the lyrics run. (By the way, this is a clear reference to Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Racial, status, and even sexual divisions are not to divide the Church of God.)
Far from being offensive, divisive, or insulting, the song actually called for racial unity — in an era far more racist than today. Indeed, the very fact that these terms have since become anathema suggests the song had a powerful impact in teaching children that whatever their race, they are “precious in his sight.”
Evangelical and cultural Christians are a huge — if shrinking — presence in America, and it is tragic that the media cannot comprehend their worldview.
Indeed, The Atlantic‘s talented black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently attributed Donald Trump’s election victory to racism and the fear of “Good Negro Government,” entirely overlooking the (rational) fear among Christians that their religious freedom to live by their own consciences is under threat. (Hillary Clinton had compared religious opposition to the LGBT agenda to honor killings, for instance.)
Many evangelicals pulled the lever for Trump reluctantly, hoping for a Supreme Court that would defend their religious liberties. Coates’ emphasis on race entirely blinded him to this aspect of last November, and to the fact that Hillary Clinton was utterly distrusted and unpopular. (Barack Obama would likely have defeated Trump.)
But Coates is by no means the most egregious example. In 2015, the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof admitted his surprise that evangelical “rubes” would help the poor. Last June, the Times ran a story asserting that a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans called for the “execution of gays.” Last September, Kristof asked what religion Jesus would be and asserted that Jesus would be a leftist (Note: Jesus actually had a lot to say about religion and a lot less to say about politics…). Just this past May, Kristof claimed that Christianity’s opposition to abortion “is relatively new in historical terms.” (Sure, the first century A.D. was just yesterday.)
Last December, the Times‘ executive editor, Dean Baquet, had a brief moment of clarity. “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion,” Baquet admitted. “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”
This misunderstanding is actually dangerous for freedom and comity in the United States. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) actually applied a religious test to a Trump nominee earlier this year. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) compared a religious freedom legal organization to the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has itself inspired an act of terrorism against a Christian non-profit organization, has been taken seriously by media outlets (and influential companies like Google and Amazon) as it brands mainstream Christian, conservative, and even liberal groups as “hateful.”
Baquet made his confession in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, but it seems many in the media are quick to forget their own blindspots. It speaks volumes that a brilliant man like Coates is utterly unaware of evangelicals’ rightful fear of Hillary Clinton, so much so that he would boil down all the issues in the election to race. Tragically, it seems rather likely that liberals will listen to Coates rather than Baquet, and that is a real shame.
If Roy Moore wins Tuesday and wins the general election in November (Update: Moore won), it is likely the media will remain quite blind to the meaning of his words and the true significance of his political base.