At Values Voters Summit, Racist Revisionism the Order of the Day

About Tope Fadiran Charlton

Conservative pundit Dr. Ben Carson (left), Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece Alveda King (center), and American Values president Gary Bauer

Conservative pundit Dr. Ben Carson (left), Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda King (center), and American Values president Gary Bauer (right)

There were many disturbing takeaways from the first day of Values Voters Summit (VVS) sessions. The one that struck me most forcefully is that the cognitive dissonance and historical revisionism of the white supremacist Religious Right on the issues of race and racism is very much here to stay. In fact, they’re digging their heels in—and they’re using Black conservatives and other conservatives of color to do it. From the 7:00 am breakfast session – “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition! (The 2nd Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms)” – to the final panel on “The Future of Marriage,” omissions, half truths, and breathtaking equivocations on America’s racist history, and present, were the rule of the day.

In the breakfast session, Black former Cincinnati mayor Ken Blackwell claimed that we have the Second Amendment to thank for America being the most diverse and free nation in the world—citing as an example the Deacons for Defense, a 1960s Black Power group who advocated armed self-defense against white supremacist violence. He framed gun-ownership as crucial to resisting and defending oneself against government tyranny and giving the ludicrous implication that all it took to end Jim Crow was for Black Americans to own guns.

How to square this with the reality that the Deacons and similar groups were violently targeted by the white Right and the U.S. government in the 60s—or with the present-day reality that the Right Wing routinely smears unarmed Black men like Trayvon Martin or Ramarley Graham as dangerous thugs who deserve to be shot and killed—I cannot tell you. Yet Blackwell’s comments about the heroism of armed Black men were applauded by the (at least) 90% white audience.

The parade of Black speakers at VVS seemed at least partially calculated to absolve the white Religious Right of its ongoing racism and rewrite its supremacist past. To hear them tell it, conservatives are the true champions of civil rights, liberals are the real racists, and Black communities are sad, ignorant dupes of the Democrats.

This has, of course, become fairly standard rhetoric from Black and white conservative leaders, but it was taken to extremes at the Summit that I literally breathtaking. There were three moments where I gasped out loud at racist or racialized comments from speakers:

  • Dr. Ben Carson called “Obamacare…the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery”
  • MLK’s niece Dr. Alveda King declared that “white people didn’t kill [her] uncle, the Devil did”
  • Gary Bauer, president of American Values and former head of the Family Research Council, asserted that “because of Judeo-Christian civilization, the slaves were freed.”

King’s and Bauer’s statements where met with applause. From the surprised murmur that swept the crowd after Dr. Carson’s comment, it seemed that even the Values Voters crowd was slightly stunned by the comparison—or perhaps that a Black man was the one who made it. A conservative blogger who struck up a conversation with me later in the day volunteered that Carson’s speech was easily the most surprising and controversial of what he’d heard so far.

In any case, the common thread between all three statements is how thoroughly they rewrite the legacy of white supremacy in American evangelicalism. I was particularly struck by Alveda King’s speech, when she called the ideas of racial reconciliation and interracial unity a “confession” – including an admission that she once “blamed…all white people” for the assassination of her uncle.

Taken with the reframing of evangelical “Judeo-Christian” culture as freeing the slaves – rather than the reality that white evangelicals were financially, theologically, and violently invested in the institution of slavery and perpetuating white supremacy—it adds up to a disturbing picture. White conservative Christians, in the narrative of VVS, are and always have been champions of racial equality, while Black people who name white racism are not only irrationally hateful, but in fact sinning against white people. As PRA’s own Rachel Tabachnick and others have noted, this claim that the Religious Right is working for “racial reconciliation” is a ruse for concealing “proselytizing – for both charismatic evangelical belief and right wing politics.” Judging from the first day of Values Voters, it’s a strategy that this crowd is committed to for some time to come.

Tope Fadiran Charlton is an associate fellow, working on issues of religious liberty and racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice. She is the founder and editor of Are Women Human?, a space for queer feminist and critical race analysis of religion and media. As a freelance writer she has contributed to The Guardian, Salon, Religion Dispatches, R.H. Reality Check, Ebony.com, and other outlets. Charlton was a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Department at Harvard.