On college campuses as liberal as Brown’s, post-election discussions about race, politics, and a nation deeply divided tend to be secular. But on Wednesday night, faith took center stage in the conversation.
Members of the Brown and greater Providence communities gathered to hear scholars Daniel Kim (Professor of English and American Studies at Brown) and Andra Gillespie (Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University) speak about their relationships with Christianity. Moderated by Françoise Hamlin (Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown), the event was hosted by the Veritas Forum, a Harvard-based nonprofit that works with Christian students on college campuses to “ask life’s hardest questions.”
Upon entering, audience members were asked to answer poll questions about the impact of their race and religion on their identity and daily lives. Themes of the personal in light of the political were present through the night. One statistic was consistently reiterated: African Americans are the most reliably religious group in the country, and almost all religious African Americans are Christian.
Gillespie traced her Christianity back to her childhood and Kim explained he is a secularist who has interacted with Christianity at various times in his life. The two found far more common ground than they did contention. They both strongly emphasized racial injustices as the primary source of anger in American politics, Gillespie calling racism “America’s original sin.”
The presenters highlighted the role of forgiveness in various forms. Remembering the 2015 shootings at a Charleston African Methodist Episcopal Church–in which white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black worshipers–Gillespie said she viewed the forgiveness for Roof shown by some mourning families as a necessary step in “maintaining their relationship with God.” However, she was clear that there is a difference between “what the family does and what the community does.” The broader American community, Gillespie said, has a responsibility not to forgive, but rather “to interrogate how this country created Dylann Roof.”
Kim related the notion of forgiveness to the recent election, noticing that many of his students had trouble with calls to “reach across the aisle.” Although he cited speaking to those unlike you or who voted for a different candidate than you as important to move forward, he maintained that “if you’re not ready to reach out then don’t. Maybe that desire to forgive can come at a later date.”
Noting the differences in their belief systems, Kim spoke to the ways Christians and secularists interact. He reminded the audience that Christians do not “have a monopoly on the virtues” that are valuable in Christianity. Kim also called on progressive Christians to speak out against racism, homophobia, and other issues present in the use of their religion. He then turned to secularists, arguing they have a responsibility to be less dismissive of religious Americans.
Hamlin pointed to the academic tendency to talk systematically and institutionally without suggestions for day-to-day ways to inspire hope. Gillespie responded by urging young people to arm themselves with history. Kim told them to find manageable battles to fight when the big ones are too demoralizing. “Find comfort where you can find it,” he said. “Turn to literature, turn to scripture.” His favorites? Huck Finn, Black Boy, and Eyes on the Prize.