#ScholarStrike: Anti-Black Racism and Internal Diversity in American Christianity

By Lauren Kerby

Lauren R. Kerby is the RLP’s Education Specialist and a lecturer on religious studies at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Extension School.

Author’s note: On September 8-9, 2020, academics across the country, including faculty and staff at the Religious Literacy Project, are participating in teach-ins for racial justice known as the #ScholarStrike. As part of our contribution, we offer this lesson plan as a resource for teachers seeking ways to connect religion and race in their discussions of current events. 

Protesters holding signs saying No Justice, No Peace, and Black Lives Matter
Protesters in Denver speak out against the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police while in custody. The death of Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, sparked outrage and uprisings across the country in the weeks and months that followed. One such protest took place in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. One week after Floyd’s death, President Trump responded to the protests by ordering the park cleared of protestors (a process that included the use of tear gas) so that he could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sits on the edge of the park. There, he posed for photos with a copy of the Bible.

In subsequent media coverage of Trump’s Bible photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, reporters have taken the opportunity to discuss how American Christians have responded to the photo-op itself and the protests in response to police killing George Floyd in custody. In some cases, reports and interviews have included attention to the history of racism in American Christianity. These readings provide clear examples of the internal diversity of American Christians’ responses that students and teachers could use to start discussion. On a deeper level, these readings also reveal how deeply embedded Christianity is in American culture.

Students should be familiar with taking a nondevotional approach to religion, and we recommend reviewing the basics of that approach before engaging in such a potentially fraught discussion. We offer these readings not to endorse any position they include, but to demonstrate some of the ways in which we can ask and answer the religion question in our current moment.

President Donald Trump holds a copy of the Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church just north of Lafayette Square.
President Donald Trump poses in front of St John’s Church on June 1, 2020, holding a Bible. Photo by the White House.

Possible discussion questions:

  1. Before reading one (or more) of these articles, reflect on how you would expect American Christians to respond to the protests of George Floyd’s death. Why do you think they would respond that way? Who would you ask in order to find out if you’re right?
  2. Choose one article and identify the examples (if any) it contains of internal diversity in Christianity. What do these voices have in common? Why would reporters choose them to be representative? Whose voices are left out?
  3. Choose one side of this debate and analyze why the Christians quoted take that position. What rationale do they offer? How does the reporter explain it? What else do you know about Christianity in the United States that might be relevant to understanding their position?
  4. You may notice that many of these articles focus on white evangelicals, despite the racial diversity of American Christianity. What justification do the articles themselves offer for this choice? What other aspects of American politics and culture do you think feed into it? What is gained or lost from this perspective?
  5. What does it say about American culture that the president would stage a photo-op with a Bible during a period of unrest? What do you think he was trying to accomplish?
  6. What do the principles of religious literacy (internal diversity, change over time, and cultural embeddedness) help you see about this situation? What are the most important things you would point out to a friend or family member who hasn’t taken a religion class?
  7. What examples of direct, structural, and cultural violence do you observe in these readings? Try to identify at least one of each.
  8. What would direct, structural, or cultural peace look like in this situation? Can you find an example in one of the articles, or propose one of your own?

Selected Readings

William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Trump’s Use of the Bible was Obscene. He Should Try Reading It,” Opinion, Washington Post, June 2, 2020.

Michelle Boorstein and Rachel Weiner, “Historic D.C. Church Where Trump Stood with His Bible Becomes a Symbol for His Religious Foes,” Washington Post, June 3, 2020.

Jill Colvin and Elana Schor, “Trump Tries Religious Gestures to Hike Support Amid Protests,” Washington Post, June 3, 2020.

McKay Coppins, “The Christians Who Loved Trump’s Stunt,” The Atlantic, June 2, 2020.

Gini Gerbasi, “I’m a Priest. The Police Forced Me Off Church Grounds for Trump’s Photo Op,” Opinion, Washington Post, June 3, 2020.

Emma Green, “Trump Does Not Speak for These Christians,” The Atlantic, June 2, 2020.

Morgan Lee, “Do White Evangelicals Love Police More Than Their Neighbor?” Christianity Today, June 3, 2020.

Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller, “White House: Trump Church Visit Akin to Churchill WWII Role,” Washington Post, June 3, 2020.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein, “ ‘I Find It Baffling and Reprehensible’: Catholic Archbishop of Washington Slams Trump’s Visit to John Paul II Shrine,” Washington Post, June 2, 2020.

Matthew Teague, “Trump’s Bible Photo Op Splits White Evangelical Loyalists into Two Camps,” The Guardian, June 4, 2020.