By Karen Hice Guzmán

Meaningful Engagement with the World: An Interview with Andra Gillespie

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We think the gospel calls us to serve God by doing justice, loving mercy, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. These are challenging days to figure out what that looks like, so we are thrilled to share this conversation with political science professor Andra Gillespie. Evangelicals often shy away from expressing political opinions, so we particularly appreciated Andra's candor in discussing our upcoming presidential election and the importance of talking about it together. We hope this conversation helps us all to consider our roles as citizens of the Kingdom of God and the world in which we live.

Karen Hice Guzmán: Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? How did you end up in political science? What drew you to that field?

Andra Gillespie: I grew up outside of Richmond, Virginia. I attended University of Virginia for my undergrad and did my PhD at Yale.

I attended a magnet school for high school that enabled me to take lots of social studies and foreign language which I loved. I attended UVa for undergrad assuming I was heading to be a lawyer, but in my first year I took a class in African American History and met with the professor during office hours who remarked, “I have three and a half years to make a professor out of you.”

That was significant in changing my plan from law school to pursuing a PhD. The competing mentoring of a history professor and a political science professor helped determine which program — the political science professor won out!

KHG: Tell us a bit about what you are doing today at Emory. What projects or research are you working on? What is of interest to you these days?

AG: My own research is on African American political leadership – how do African American politicians campaign, particularly when they have aspirations for statewide and/or national office? Specifically, how do they moderate their message? Do they seek to transcend race or engage conversations about it? And then how do African American voters respond? And I am interested in the class undertones in this messaging.

KHG: Between the pandemic, racial injustice, and the presidential election, our nation is experiencing a significant cultural moment. In light of all that is happening in the big picture, what do you have to say about the way Christians ought to think and behave in the world? It’s a big topic, but what is your response to phrases like, “We shouldn’t get tangled up in affairs of this world”? Or, “It’s really the gospel that is important”? Or, “Spiritual issues are more important than earthly ones”?

AG: I think we have a biblical obligation to be aware of what is going on in the world and while the Lord tarries, we are expected to be full citizens here and engaged in what is going on. It’s really easy to get super-spiritual when we want to avoid things we are uncomfortable with or if something is challenging our security.

In this moment, I think evangelicals need to acknowledge our blind spots, and this is a time to listen and learn. We have a hard time identifying structure – we like individualism and we don’t always realize what role we play in larger structures. We have a hard time understanding that certain rules and practices systematically disadvantage certain groups. We see a resistance to particular types of ideas, which means when people say certain things we are less likely to believe them or when they propose policy solutions there is a knee jerk or reactionary resistance because we cannot view it from another’s vantage point.

Finally, we have a romanticized view that we are on the right side of history. And given our history, I am not sure that evangelicals actually have the moral authority to be taken seriously as leaders in this moment or to contribute to a solution. I don’t think we are welcome at the table – not because we are being persecuted as Christians, but because people have seen examples of un-Christ-like behavior and we are seen to be more the problem than the solution. So, because we aren’t approaching this with humility, it’s making it hard for us to be important players in this moment and it has implications for our witness.

KHG: Let’s narrow the scope a bit. I’d like you to help us think about political engagement. First, can you give us a little history lesson? What are two or three important things we should know about the way our political system has functioned for people of color — particularly Black men and women? I am thinking about voting rights and access, district lines, etc.

AG: So, we can’t have this discussion without having a discussion about slavery which in this country became a race-based chattel system. And what that instituted within a generation of its beginning was that Blacks became slaves. This, in turn, created a chasm between Blacks and poor Whites. Once this system was solidified, it didn’t matter what poor Whites lacked, they knew they would never be enslaved because of the color of their skin.

What this did was create an economic system in this country built entirely on the back of slavery – whether you were living in the south and were part of a plantation economy and owned slaves yourself or you were in the north refining raw goods originating in the south and shipping them around the world. Or you used money generated from these things to create major institutions like banks or businesses or universities – nothing in our economy has not been touched by slavery.

Even with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and later the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, you can’t reverse all that. You can’t change peoples’ stereotypes immediately.

So, even though we are 150 years removed from slavery there are still ways we deal with this not just on an inter-personal level, but also on a societal and structural level. 

Post-slavery, we don’t see freedom actually being defended, so even the debates we are having today about Confederate monuments relate back to how our country chose to reconcile. While it may have been well-intentioned, the idea of a “just lost cause” that seceders were allowed to invent influenced all these monuments. It created a history or narrative that says the southern rebellion was not about slavery when the overwhelming number of historians agree it was about slavery. Let’s not pretend that the Civil War was about moonlight and magnolias, because that is not what it was about. And we see how these ideas get perpetuated in popular culture, so whether it’s looking at revered literature or film or elsewhere, we see all kinds of stereotypes that continue to today – like Blacks are prone to violence or oversexed or dumb. Thomas Jefferson was saying that stuff in Notes on the State of Virginia. We can’t escape it easily and we can’t pretend that these ideas haven’t morphed into new forms that might affect the way Blacks are seen and responded to today.

For example, Black boys are usually seen as older than they actually are. So, the older they are, the more threatening they are perceived to be, which is why a Tamir Rice can be shot though he was only 12 years old. Or how Black men are seen as bigger and more threatening even by large White men.

Being White in this country, regardless of when you arrived, means you were not subject to lynching, or having your voting rights taken away, or having to pass a literacy test in order to vote.

Other issues include wealth and housing. Eligibility for FHA loans which privileged housing in suburbs. Redlining is illegal, but still exists because many urban communities never appreciated in value like suburban ones did.

All of this means that life chances for a Black kid and a White kid — even when controlled for various factors — are different. That Black child is more likely to die younger, be suspended from school more often, be incarcerated, have a lower income and/or net worth. And these things matter. And we need to acknowledge that it isn’t because they didn’t work hard or follow the rules.

And the Church is going to have to own up to its own part in this and even its misuse of Scripture to support it.

KHG: I am curious, Andra. You talked a little bit earlier about Christians and the way we are seen, the way we may not be invited to the table because we are seen as irrelevant or even complicit. As I think about heading into another presidential election this fall, statistics show that about 80% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 which has led a number of folks to add to accusations of hypocrisy or irrelevance. So, are we in a different place today than in 2016? Are Christians thinking differently this time around?

AG: For White evangelicals in particular, no. There is more data to be collected, but his favorability rating among White evangelicals has stayed pretty steady. I don’t think we are going to see a change in their voting behavior. There are a number of reasons for that – some of it is a concern for conservative judicial appointments and some White evangelicals, frankly, harbor racially resentful points of view. There is racism in the Church that just hasn’t been dealt with.

In my own survey work and also in data collected with the James Weldon Johnson Institute, we see White evangelicals not only harbor more racially resentful views, they are also less likely to identify structural racism. There’s consensus on not using racial slurs or segregating or attacking someone physically because of their race, but when it comes to other things like recognizing certain communities are more likely to have their water supply endangered or that putting landfills in poor communities is a problem — this is where we see problems arise.

Whiteness matters. There are levels of racial resentment that need to be dealt with. We have to acknowledge this.

For people who were concerned about the courts and judicial appointments, if this session taught us anything it is that you can put someone on the bench, but they may not toe the party line. I think this is an important lesson to take away.

There are others who care about only a couple of issues. Your brothers and sisters of color care about voting rights, making sure people have full access to society, and these judges aren’t always the most hospitable to these things. We need to be mindful that there are lots of issues in American life and there are really good reasons why Christians of color may look like their secular counterparts because these things are a lot more existential to them. I really think it is important for White Christians who have been in positions of power and privilege for so long to understand that just because life worked out for you and those around you that it [doesn’t work] the same way for others that you share a common faith with.

Some of us Christians are having a hard time trusting Donald Trump as a leader. It’s not just his personal foibles. It’s starting out his campaign with racist rhetoric and then doubling down on it throughout his presidency. It is having a cadre of ministers around him who validate everything — or if they do challenge him, he gets rid of them. I am shocked by and concerned at the lack of self-awareness I am seeing among evangelicals — the willingness to be exploited in exchange for certain transactions, like we’ll get our judges or we’ll get someone who makes statements aligned with our interests or we get a VP who is an evangelical. Are White evangelicals giving up their birthright for a mess of pottage that is going to make them inept and ineffectual by their own doing in years to come? I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to stand up and say, “I see a lot of stuff here that is so problematic that there is no way I can be a part of this.” I wish there were more people who were willing to take that type of stand and tell him he is wrong. For instance, where the initial rebuke came from during the George Floyd protests when the president had his photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church — the most vociferous critique came from military leaders. Where were evangelical pastors?

We can respect the office and pray for the president — I think we all should be doing this — but we should not be blind or silent when Christianity is being exploited and used in such a pernicious way. This isn’t a partisan statement, but there needs to be courageous leadership that says, “Not in my name.”

I don’t understand how God is pleased with mounds and mounds of corruption and racism, but because some pro-life judges end up on the bench that somehow this is okay. I really have a hard time wrapping my head around that one.

KHG: Where are you finding hope these days as you think about all this?

AG: I am not a pessimistic person, but I am not sure where hope can be found. My hope is in the fact that God hasn’t changed. I am not sure of our trajectory and where we are. We are having important conversations and probably not all of the goals will be achieved, and I mourn thinking about who else might have to die before people wake up and see what is going on.

In terms of the polarization, I want to be part of the solution. I think God is calling me to that. And yet I see lots of evidence of places that suggest maybe we aren’t ready yet. It suggests to me that as a society we have not hit rock bottom yet. I take encouragement from Psalm 37. I trust God, but I am also braced, believing this is going to be a rough ride for a few more years.

KHG: As we think about the upcoming elections, the state of our nation, and evaluating candidates and platforms, what should inform our thinking? How should Christians approach them?

AG: First and foremost, you have to participate in the process. This is not an election to sit on the sidelines and not vote – that is not an option. If you aren’t registered, please make sure you do and plan to vote. If you plan to vote by mail, track your ballot and make sure it gets received.

Learn about all the candidates all the way down to local races.

Look for people who are righteous. Look for character traits. Is someone teachable? Humble? Selfless? Who learns from others? Fruit of the Spirit traits? Are they observable?

Understand structural issues and do not just vote based on personal preferences or individual self-interest. If you are in a privileged position, understand how your decisions affect others and maybe rethink them. In general, we see a lot of arrogance on overdrive on both sides of the aisle, people who have no intention of working well with others. Some may not be as well-thought-out on policy matters, but their humility and willingness to listen and learn and work with others is what is important when it comes to actually making policy. And competency matters.

KHG: In interviews, we often ask  our guests if there is a song, Scripture verse, quote, or other set of words that has been meaningful to them in recent days. Do you have something like that for us?

AG: My favorite book of the Bible is Proverbs and as a professor that probably makes sense, but I have known Proverbs 3:5 & 6 since I was a kid, memorizing it in the King James. Recently I read it in the New Living Translation and it really struck me:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
Do not depend on your own understanding
Seek his will in all you do
And he will show you the path to take.”

Because of this stage in my life, especially in some personal situations, I am not sure what to do and, “I don’t see the way here, God,” and “show you the path to take” — really jumped out at me and was encouraging.

It strikes me that even as we’ve been having this conversation about candidates and platforms and the direction our nation will go, that this verse has something to say about that as we struggle with the choices we have to make. I have prayed a lot about discernment for myself personally, but with regards to candidates, we need discernment. They sell us a bill of goods and the question is, “Can they deliver?” As a political scientist, I know there are a lot of things people say — smoke and mirrors — and they claim they will do certain things, but they really won’t have the power to do them. We need discernment to know when peoples’ emotions are being played to or it’s outright demagoguery. Whatever your political leanings are, there are political opportunists trying to take advantage and we need discernment from God about this.

 
Photo by Jackie Ramirez from Pixabay.
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About the Interviewee

Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science, specializes in political mobilization and race, as well as competition between minority groups. Her current research focuses on the political leadership of the post-civil rights generation. Gillespie's experience as a pollster and consultant has helped shape her research into what works — and what doesn't — in minority politics today as new leadership emerges.

She recently completed her forthcoming book, Race and the Obama Administration (Manchester University Press, 2019), which analyzes Barack Obama's performance on substantive and symbolic issues of importance to African Americans and compares his performance on racial issues to other recent presidents. She also was the editor of Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership (Routledge, 2009). The book features case studies of prominent Black elected officials largely born after 1960 and asks whether the advent of a new generation of Black political leadership will actually lead to substantive political changes in the Black community.

In addition, Gillespie is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012). This book examines the decade-long evolution of African American politics in New Jersey’s largest city and challenges students of Black politics to revise their understanding of the connection between racial solidarity, vote choice, and policy preferences. In addition, Gillespie also maintains secondary academic interests in political participation, inter-minority group competition and evangelical politics in the United States. See andragillespie.com for more information.

About the Interviewer

Karen is the National Director of InterVarsity's Women in the Academy and Professions, and lives in Marietta, Georgia, with her husband and three boys. Except for some years taken off to raise her sons, she has spent her adult life in and around InterVarsity — originally as a student and campus staff member in Michigan and currently in Atlanta. An entrepreneur at heart, she and some student leaders started the grad fellowship at Michigan State and the MBA fellowship at Georgia Tech. She loves to use her gifts of hospitality and teaching to create a welcoming place for people to connect with God and with each other. Although she rarely has time for it, you can find Karen at her sewing machine when ministry progress gets hard to measure and she needs to see tangible results from her efforts. She loves dark chocolate, good coffee, and British television.

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