JANUARY 9, 2003
Trent Lott's Roots?
Holly Lebowitz Rossi
With the media and the political world clamoring to understand why Trent Lott made comments that sent the national conversation about race into turmoil and led to his resignation as Senate majority leader, why is nobody talking about the Mississippi senator's religion?
When John Ashcroft became President Bush's nominee for Attorney General in 2000, almost immediately the conversation turned to Ashcroft's faith. Ashcroft happens to be a Pentecostal, a tradition that is theologically conservative, and critics and supporters alike immediately began arguing writ large that the man's faith would certainly impact his political actions, especially when it came to crucial issues like the death penalty and abortion.
In the Lott case, Southern cultural mores, his alcohol-abusing father, and the disorienting tidal wave of the civil rights movement of the 1960s have been explored in depth in the press since his fateful comments at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. But the shaping influence of Southern Baptist faith on the embattled Senator has barely been mentioned. Why the conspicuous absence of discussion about a subject that has emerged again and again throughout American history -- namely, what does religion have to say about race?
Faith is, by Lott's own emphasis, an important facet of his life and a grounding moral force. "I feel very strongly about my faith," he said at the December 13 news conference in which he offered an apology for his remarks. He continued, "And as I've grown older, I have come to realize more and more, if you feel strongly about that, you cannot in any way support discrimination or unfairness for anybody. It's just not consistent with the beliefs that I feel so strongly about."
But it was only in recent years that the Southern Baptist Convention launched an attempt to get out from under its past of religiously-sanctioned support for racial segregation, and the denomination is internally embattled over the issue. The cliche that Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour in America" is aptly applied to the Southern Baptist Convention: a 2000 study found that nine out of ten congregations were predominantly white. But despite Lott's statement that he now has a deeper understanding of Psalm 51, "a broken spirit, a contrite and humbled heart" the head of his own denomination's ethics department, Richard Land, publicly called for Lott's resignation.
And although the denomination has come under fire in the media in recent years for its positions on women and the conversion of Jews, its stance on race has largely fallen out of public consciousness since the group's 1995 "racial reconciliation" initiative.
If the Lott incident had not erupted, race would persist as a significant part of the national conversation right now. On December 10, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Virginia v. Black, the outcome of which will determine whether cross-burning is constitutionally-protected free speech. And while no one should equate Lott's comments with the act of burning a cross, the juxtaposition of the Lott quandary and the Supreme Court case underscores the potentially extreme results that come from failing to examine the impact that religious beliefs can have on public actions.
In recent cases, most notably Ashcroft's, where religion has been brought to bear on a politician's fitness to serve, people of good will have been able to disagree on the major issues at stake, like abortion and the death penalty. The same is not true of Lott's comments, which seemed to praise an era of discrimination, segregation and the denial of basic civil rights. Could it be that media and political pundits are purposefully avoiding analysis of the religious aspects of Lott's formative years for fear of coming off as suggesting that Christianity is a racist religion? Perhaps, although the media has been less than shy, particularly in the past year, about criticizing religion publicly. But any attentive participant in the public conversation on religion and race -- and any student of American history -- can view this unfortunate debacle as a moment to re-visit the important issue of race and consider all factors, including religion, when assessing a leader's beliefs.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and the co-editor of the book, "Religion, Race and Justice in a Changing America."