During Tuesday night’s election coverage on Fox News, commentator Bill O’Reilly was asked how the race became so tight. This was his answer:
“Because it’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things…The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things…”
One has come to expect outrageous and inflammatory comments from polarizing figures like O’Reilly. Such shocking drivel draws viewers. What hurts and offends much more deeply is to hear such things on the lips one’s fellow Christians.
Yet this, too, should not surprise us. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have often found themselves on the wrong side of history. Tragically, the very movement the Almighty intended for the uplifting of a downtrodden world has frequently proved to be a veritable millstone around the neck of human progress. History will not let us forget that Hitler was swept to power with the aid of German Christians. Slavery could not have continued to exist in the American South (and indeed elsewhere) without the assistance of the pulpit (just as Abolitionism could not have spread without the same). The Civil Rights Movement finds its roots in Christian theology; yet the church also nursed some of Dr. King’s fiercest opponents. Too often the church has sacrificed itself on the altar of the status quo, instead of on the altar of justice.
O’Reilly’s comments go beyond mere partisan politics. They are elitist, racist, and sexist to the core, designed to appeal to a broad section of white society that has always feared the advancement of women and people of color. O’Reilly would like to portray half of America as lazy, dependent, on the dole, taking and contributing nothing, expecting government to meet all their needs. His whining makes him the poster child of privileged white victimhood, which continues to shut its ears to the cries around it, as if we didn’t have 400 years of oppression and violence against people of color in this country, as if we’ve always had a level playing field. It reminds us of Pharaoh’s rebuke of Moses: “Lazy! That’s what you are! Lazy! You have too much time on your hands. That’s why you’re asking for these things! Now, go back to your bricks.”
What is it that this so-called “50%” really want? It’s true, they do want “stuff.” Stuff like the right to vote without being harassed. Stuff like equal pay for equal work. A living wage. A chance at getting a college education. And a fair shot at the American dream. Stuff like the rich and corporations paying their fair share of taxes. Being able to walk down the street without being stopped and frisked.
It is doubtful that they will get much, if any, of these things out of this particular president, who over the past four years has demonstrated little concern for the poor and marginalized, and little interest in taking on issues of race and inequality. This election was more about what they don’t want.
It is normal for people to feel disappointment, even resentment when their side loses an election. My concern is that if the Religious Right finds balm in voices like O’Reilly’s and learns nothing from this experience, if they become recalcitrant and even more firmly entrenched in their fading world view, if they continue to ally themselves with the forces of racism, sexism, and economic inequality, they will find themselves increasingly marginalized and irrelevant. It is honorable to be marginalized because one follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It is foolish to become irrelevant because one has allied oneself with an elite and selfish power structure bent on preserving its privileges.
American Christians are generous people; they do an admirable job at giving things to the poor. Yet they frequently neglect something just as important: to speak on behalf of the poor, to speak prophetically against corrupt power structures and systemic injustice. Christians have no excuse for not knowing that their calling is to champion the poor and weak, that the kingdom of God is very good news for the oppressed, but bad news for the rich and powerful, that as Dr. King quoted, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”
“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Ps. 12:4-6)
“…He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:51,53)
O’Reilly is right about one thing: this country is changing. In the very near future, white Americans (whom O’Reilly equates with “traditional America”) will be the minority. This is an indisputable and unavoidable fact. A preliminary tremor warning of this silent but inevitable shift is the fact that no presidential candidate can now win election without capturing the Hispanic vote. We saw that on Tuesday night.
It is ironic, even pathetic, that the “traditional America” we speak about so glowingly was, in fact, built upon tremendous inequality and injustice. White Christians now have an imperative opportunity to stop lecturing the poor and start listening to them, to cease whining for a past that really never existed, except in our selective memory, and to pull up a chair and realize we are no longer a dominant force, but one of many voices in an increasingly diverse nation.