Based on the recent New York Times poll of tea partiers, you are likely to find them sitting in your church pews. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Should pastors or church leaders encourage, discourage or ignore tea party advocates among their members or visitors on Sunday morning? Let’s take a look at what the New York Times poll found.

  • 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as tea party supporters.
  • They tend to be Republican, white, male, married, and older than 45.
  • They are better off financially than most of the country.
  • They are no more or less anxious about losing socioeconomic status than others.
  • They classify themselves as “very conservative.”
  • They don’t like the recently passed healthcare bill, government spending and the feeling their voice is not being heard in Washington.
  • They do not believe President Obama shares the values most Americans live by, and that he does not understand their problems.
  • More than 50 percent of them think government favors the poor, and 25 percent believe government favors blacks over whites (vs. 11 percent of the general public that thinks so).
  • They are angry.

What, if anything, should churches do to acknowledge this issue? Certainly many of the characteristics of tea partiers are not controversial. There is nothing wrong with being a white, male Republican, for instance, or in being “very conservative” on issues like government spending.

Interestingly, while tea partiers are unhappy with the recent healthcare overhaul, they think Social Security and Medicare – government programs many of them will benefit from – are worth the money. And, tea partiers are not in economic danger because they are better off than most other Americans.

However, the elements that concern me have racial overtones. First, tea partiers do not believe President Obama, the first black president, shares their values or understands their problems. In other words, he’s not like them. Second, 50 percent of them believe the present administration favors the poor, and 25 percent believe it favors blacks specifically. That attitude carries a subtle undertone of racism. Then, there are the depictions of Barack Obama as the Joker (meaning sinister villain – black man – not like me), or as a monkey, which is a historic racially derogatory image.

In his provocative book, “Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race and American Politics,” Professor Peter Goodwin Heltzel connects Southern white male “honor” with fear of the black male presence, which eventually led to the lynching of more than 5,000 black males after the Civil War. While Heltzel’s argument is both complicated and controversial, it’s hard to miss the comparison of white males versus black males in the 19th-century South, with the white male tea partiers and the first black president in the 21st century.

Some tea partiers exhibit a level of anger at this president that I have not observed expressed toward other presidents – Democratic or Republican. One commentator noted that at 18 percent of the U. S. population, tea partiers almost equal the 19 percent that were Ross Perot supporters in 1992. So this may be just another failed “third party” attempt.

But my concern is the level of anger, particularly among those who brandish handguns and rifles. Recently, 50 self-styled “militiamen” made an appearance in Washington, D.C. The threat of violence implicit in the public display of weapons has the same flavor as the threat of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists in their attempts to intimidate African-Americans in the South in the 1950s and ’60s.

Most tea partiers are letting off the built-up steam of their frustrations, particularly the frustrations of the beleaguered over-45, white, middle-class male in America. But I think churches and church leaders must become the voices of reasoned calm in this overheated political atmosphere. There are too many similarities to the racial divide of the Civil War South, with all of its potential for racial polarization and targeted violence for us to do otherwise.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” in which he expressed “disappointment with the Christian church that appears to be more white than Christian, and with many white clergymen who prefer to remain silent behind the security of stained-glass windows.”

For the most part, the white church of the 1950s and ’60s missed the opportunity to join African-Americans in their struggle for freedom. We cannot keep silent now when the specter of Old South racism and the intimidating potential of violence rears its head again. Legitimate political expression should be encouraged, but we as church leaders should also sound the gospel note of peace and reconciliation.

I was born in the South and have lived here all my life. My great-great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. I grew up going to segregated public schools. As a child during the era of the civil rights struggle, I heard many Southern Baptist preachers and church members express their anger at the federal government for forcing our state to integrate its schools, and our businesses to serve all people regardless of race. The images of white tea party protestors are eerily similar to anti-integration protestors in the 1960s. The subtext of racism is still there, even in our churches.

Sometimes, especially in our churches.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

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