Tolerance in America Grew. Now Racism is on the Rise. The Churches Have Responsibility.

by Bob Schwartz

I won’t repeat the news story this morning from a Richmond, Virginia middle school. You can find it. It is enough to say that it is one more story about white American kids and racial intolerance in 2017.

It’s easy to see the advances we’ve made. Many parents look at their children and see genuine color-blindness. Whether this is our doing (maybe a little) or just the social environment, it is heartening to see.

But these days have made clear that racism in America is not gone, at any level, at any age, and may be on the ascendance. Which brings me to institutional religion, the churches and the synagogues.

Institutional religion is by its nature conservative, not politically but philosophically and practically. Holding on is continuity and coherence, moving on can be a kind of letting go.

As the 1950s slid into the civil rights era of the 1960s, churches struggled to keep a balance between the drama of the most idealistic beliefs and the pragmatics of congregational support. It was, in some ways, a repeat of what had happened a century earlier in the fight against slavery. As it was back then, the response for many churches was a bland silence.

But that was not enough for some in the 1960s, as Christian and Jewish leaders took to the pulpits and the streets and almost shamed their congregants into standing up for right. In the long run, it worked, and we can see the progress that has been made.

Yet nothing is forever, especially in the social tides. Every day serves up another story, some very clear, some more subtle, all of them pointing to racists among us, even in Congress, even in middle schools.

Those politicians, those bureaucratic executives, those middle schoolers, many of them claim religious affiliation, many of them attending church or synagogue. Leaders and pastors are not to blame when messages and exhortations of tolerance don’t get through to hard-headed, hard-hearted faithful listeners. But when they don’t speak up at all—pointedly, regularly and loudly—then they are shirking their mission and responsibility. If they see something, they must say something.