Adam Russell Taylor is the president of Sojourners, a faith-based organization exploring the Christian call for social justice. I interviewed Adam at the Sojourner’s office in Washington D.C. on the eve of the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral March on Washington, where I joined Adam and tens of thousands of others in a call for moral revival in America.
“My origin story has to start with my parents, and my mother who is black and my father who is white made the controversial decision to get married in 1968, just a year after interracial marriage was legalized around the country in the case of Loving versus the state of Virginia. And they started a life together in Washington state, in part because they felt like it was one of the few places in the country where racism wouldn’t be the dominant force in their lives, and they could start a family. So that’s what they did. And they instilled in me this really deep and abiding belief that my diversity as a biracial person, but in a deeper sense, our nation’s diversity, was a strength and not a weakness.
I like to think of it as a superpower for our country. Not everyone sees it that way, unfortunately.
They also instilled in me this really strong belief that my generation—Generation X—inherited the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and that baton was passed to us to carry on that struggle.
It’s not so much that my parents were huge activists in the civil rights struggle, but in many ways, they embodied those same commitments and those values. My mom in particular was definitely a trailblazer. She became the first Black woman to become a vice president of a university in Washington called Western Washington University, and then later at the University of Arizona.
So I really internalized that sense that we had to carry forward that unfinished business. And for me, that was both about fighting poverty and economic justice, because I quickly learned that Dr. King was fighting for those things at the end of his life and was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign on the eve of his assassination.
But it also was this commitment to building the Beloved Community, this kind of moral vision of what our nation could be if we truly lived into the full meaning of our creed of liberty and justice for all. And if we started to embrace all of our diversity—our racial diversity, our religious diversity, our ethnic diversity, I would even argue our gender identity diversity—as a real gift and a real strength and something that should be valued and celebrated.
I think part of what brings me to this moment today is that I still see this tug of war going on in the soul of our nation. Between this kind of multiracial, inclusive, just democracy, which I think is in line with Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community, and this very strong and pernicious racialized, zero sum America where white Americans are the true Americans and this kind of fear-based struggle that we’re still embroiled in.
It’s taken a different form now in some ways than the past, but it’s all built on so much of our racialized history and the injustice of that history. While on the one hand there’s been some reckoning and coming to terms with some of that, there’s also been a huge backlash and we’re seeing that happen in real time with the Make America Great Again movement. Certainly January 6th and the attempted coup and insurrection and this pushback against voting rights and the kind of assault on our democracy that is increasingly getting stronger, not weaker.
So I’m pretty anguished and worried in one sense about this kind of counter movement against the Beloved Community. But I also deeply believe in that moral vision, and ultimately believe there’s enough people of faith, in particular, that believe in that kind of vision rooted both in our best civic values, as well as our best religious values.
The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass has a famous quote that “There’s no progress without struggle.” And I think in this ebb and flow of American history, we’ve had these moments where we’ve had the potential to conquer the—I would call it in religious language—the sin, the idolatry of white supremacy, and then it kind of comes back in a new mutated form. So certainly after the Civil War and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and then the period of Reconstruction, we had a moment where we could have recreated a new America. But because of white fear and white backlash, particularly in the South, there was a compromise made in 1877 that took us on a whole different trajectory. Because of a contested election, Hayes ended up making a deal with Southern Democrats and promised to remove Union troops from the South.
That enabled southerners to basically put in place a new system of slavery, not called slavery, but essentially called sharecropping and it ultimately led to the Jim Crow era. So, we’ve had these moments—and this is certainly how Rev. Barber describes it—the moment of a first reconstruction, we had a second reconstruction after the civil rights victories with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And then there was a backlash after that as well. And part of that backlash was a real exodus of white southerners in particular from the Democratic party to the Republican party, because the Republican party started to become much more of a party that was willing to use dog whistles and appeal to fear and anxiety about essentially white Americans losing their privileged status and losing some of their power and some of their way of life.
You saw that in Nixon’s strategy, which is often referred to as a Southern Strategy, that literally tried to tap into a lot of that fear. You saw it in the war on drugs, the war on crime, which again, tried to ratchet up white fears of black crime. And then in conjunction with that, you had the birth of the Religious Right movement. A lot of people had this misnomer that the Religious Right came about because of its opposition to abortion, when the reality is that the movement really started as a political deal between a conservative operative named Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, where they basically formed a kind of union. And the initial galvanizing issue was to try to oppose the desegregation of Christian colleges and schools. In particular, Bob Jones University was one of the flash points.
And so ironically it was under President Nixon that some of this forced desegregation was happening after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And then ultimately, some of those cases were resolved under President Carter. So you had this movement that started, that had very racist origins or undertones to it, that then grew and morphed and added other issues including abortion later. But you had this kind of Religious Right movement that I think played a key role in reinforcing this sense of white Christian nationalism that I think has been a real perversion of the Christian faith. And that became kind of the dominant Christian voice in American politics, even though certainly there were lots of other voices, including the voice of Sojourners that were quite active during that time as well.
One of the things that I’ve argued in my most recent book, A More Perfect Union, A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community, is that narrative matters. Our lives are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell of our history, the stories we tell about who we are. And there’s been this ongoing struggle of expanding the “we” of America to expand the promises of liberty and justice to all Americans.
You can’t overcome or counteract a kind of negative, pernicious narrative without having a more hopeful, inspiring and unifying narrative. And that’s why I still believe that this narrative of the Beloved Community really could be that narrative. That is kind of the counterforce to the historical, racialized, Make America Great Again narrative that ignores so many of these painful parts of our history and how so much of our past continues to show up in our present.
We have this opportunity to not only reckon with that past, but to co-create an America that truly lives into its full promise. That’s the kind of work that’s in front of us. Unfortunately we’ve got one political party right now that has been kind of taken over by this very strong reactionary force and has kind of sworn allegiance to the former president. Not all Republicans are necessarily in that category, but enough of them, that it’s really been crippling to our political system right now.
I’m really hopeful that we can convince enough Americans and enough Christians to side with the Beloved Community side, with the constitution of the United States side, with a multiracial democracy where there really is a place for all of us to thrive. That is the kind of America that I believe most of us would want to be a part of and is certainly more in line with—from a religious perspective—that kind of heaven that I imagine we’ll be going to where we’re going to see people of all stripes and backgrounds and colors worshiping God and experiencing incredible joy.
If you look at the cover of my book, the [word] “more”—it probably should be in purple—but it’s in blue. It wasn’t intentional in that sense, but there’s emphasis on the striving to become “more” of a perfect union. I think another impulse that we have to resist and overcome is this impulse of exceptionalism or perfectionism, that America started as this exceptional nation, as a perfect nation.
While there’s many things about our contributions to the world and the strength of our democratic system that are worth celebrating, there’s ways in which we’ve absolutized a number of myths that have kind of shaped the, the DNA of the country. So this myth that we are a chosen nation by God, that’s dangerous in a lot of ways, because if you’re chosen, you can ignore so many of your shortcomings and your faults. That contributes to another myth that we’re an innocent nation that we can do no wrong. Another myth is that we’re a Christian nation. We were founded as a nation based on the principle of the separation of church and state, celebrating religious pluralism. And that is part of the reason why religion was able to flourish in this country, because there was no established church.
Dr. King had a great quote that I love to share, which is that the church—at its best—is called not to be the master or the servant of the state, but to be the conscience of the state. And I think that is the model that Sojourners tries to follow and that I try to follow as a Christian and as someone who’s in ordained ministry. The best of the church, and I would argue the best of the synagogue and the mosque and the temple is not to try to take over our political system or one political party, but to try to hold all politicians and parties accountable to our core values. And we can disagree about what those values are and how we apply them to the messiness of politics. But at least in the Christian tradition, it’s pretty crystal clear that Jesus showed a particular concern for the most marginalized and vulnerable in our midst.
The biblical prophets constantly sought to protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the people living in poverty and Jesus showed a similar concern for those same people. So who are those people today? That’s who our politics should be prioritizing. And that’s who we should be advocating around and supporting.
One of the reasons why I’m a fan of the Poor People’s Campaign—the modern one and the original one—is because it’s trying to put their voices at the center of our political discourse and really shine a spotlight on all the ways that we have abdicated our responsibility to create an economy and to create communities in which they are able to thrive. And so, I really think that this is a moment where a kind of spiritual, moral revival is absolutely essential, but it’s a moral revival that is an inclusive one.
It’s about a moral vision that I think can resonate with people who are deeply Christian, Jewish, but also people who are atheist or people that are spiritual, but not religious. I think all of us yearn for a kind of wholeness and kind of connection. It’s just a part of the human condition. And so I’m hopeful that through the work of Sojourners, we’re able to cast some of that vision in a particular way for an ecumenical Christian audience, but to always do it in concert with broader movements that are helping to unite us as a whole country.
The Beloved Community was coined by a minister named Josiah Royce in 1915. He helped co-found the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which still exists today and Dr. King was a member of it. Dr. King really helped to popularize the vision of the beloved community when he won his first major victory in the Civil Rights Movement. After the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King gave a speech and he said that the end goal of the movement was reconciliation. The end goal was the creation or the building of the Beloved Community. So King really understood that the Civil Rights Movement was not just about civil rights victories and narrow wins. It was about this bold, big vision.
For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was centered in a commitment to nonviolence. It was about agape love. A selfless, unconditional love, which is at the very heart of our faith traditions, including the Christian faith. It was a commitment to equality, which again is rooted in our constitution and our best civic values. So I’ve tried to build on Dr. King’s vision and contemporize it. Remix it in my own ways for, for some of the struggles we’re in now.
My most succinct definition of the Beloved Community is building and creating a society, a nation where neither punishment nor privilege is viciously tied to skin color, to race, to ethnicity, to gender, to ableness, to sexual orientation, and to create a society where everyone is seen as valued. Everyone is enabled to thrive.
That’s obviously a big vision, but you really can measure whether punishment or privilege is attached or assigned to any of these parts. And I think almost all Americans would agree that that’s not the country they want to live in. They may not be fully aware or fully see the degree to which, tragically, punishment is still tied to race in this country. You can see that in policing and the number of African Americans that are either arrested or sentenced disproportionately for the same crime. Let alone, the ongoing crisis of police violence. You certainly saw that in the summer 2020 with very horrific high profile cases like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But, you know, obviously that is a part of a long standing trend in policing that absolutely has to be addressed and changed.
The part that I think is sometimes even harder to address is the degree to which privilege is so often tied to these core parts of our identity. And that’s in part, because we’ve done a lot of work—and when I say we—some parts of our politics have done a lot of work to try to erase and whitewash our history and not be willing to really examine how so much of our past continues to show up in the present. Let alone that our present, it’s not exactly an equal playing field either. And so I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here, but this provides kind of a shared measuring stick, if you will, that we could evaluate pretty much any public policy around whether punishment or privilege is tied to these core parts of who we are.
I would argue that if we don’t make concrete steps, bold ones to help ensure that this vision can be realized and become a reality, we are going to continue to slip into what I describe as a toxic form of polarization in this country, that is extremely racialized, where we are literally going to continue to fall off a cliff, where our politics are essentially crippled by this “us versus them” mentality. And we’re going to see politicians continue to see politics as a zero sum game. And we’re going to see our society continue to be pulled apart by these divisions.
And I’m not saying that they’re only racial divisions. There’s also rural-urban divisions and there’s cultural divisions, but I would argue that the biggest fault line in American life and politics continues to be race.
The Pew Foundation did polling recently where they found that people’s views on whether racial injustice is still a significant challenge in American life was more explanatory of their politics—in which party they vote for—than the issue of abortion. It’s something that we’ve had a long struggle to fully come to terms with. And, in religious terms, this could be a kairos moment, where we have the opportunity to turn a corner. But if we don’t, I would argue that we could fall further into the danger of civil war. Maybe not civil war in the way that we understood it from the early part of our history, but open civil conflict, riots, et cetera. And a lot of this danger and threat is tied to our election system, which is being compromised and undermined right now.
The thing that worries me the most is you’ve got the majority of Republicans still believing that the last election was stolen. The Big Lie has been weaponized and has permeated a big part of the country. And you’ve got a number of states, over 14 and counting, that have passed laws that make it easier for state legislators to overturn election results. You’ve got a number of things that are happening that can make it easier for the next election, particularly the presidential election, to be stolen, particularly if Trump manages to run again and decides to run again, or someone like him decides to run, and you could have a country that does not accept the results because we’ve so damaged trust in our electoral system. We put in place a lot of laws that really undermine the integrity of our election.
So the price—to just put it bluntly—is we could lose our democracy. We could literally become a kind of racialized fascist country. And that might sound like hyperbole, but let’s look at the evidence that is being presented right now through the January 6th select committee that shows there was a seven point systematic plan to overturn the election results and keep Trump in power. You’ve got a lot of people that are in denial that that’s the case, and still believing that he was the rightful winner. And many of those people, sadly, could resort to violence or resort to foul play, based on that conviction.
James Baldwin, the great African American writer and activist, once said those who refused to acknowledge their history remain captive to it. And one of the things that just pains me is that as a country, we have been unwilling to not only apologize for essentially the genocide that was conducted against the Indigenous population in this country. We’ve never truly apologized for slavery, let alone the era of lynching that took place after, the end of reconstruction. And I think that has really corrupted the soul of the country, and has led to a lot of what I would describe is internalized oppression. And so there is this desperate need for healing. One of the things that has been a real weakness, theologically, in some parts of the Christian community, is this very superficial understanding of reconciliation, that reconciliation is just about forgiveness.
Now that is a part of it, but at its core, reconciliation is about repair. It is about confessing wrongdoing, asking for forgiveness and then seeking to create repair. And oftentimes repair requires not just words, but also actions. And so two of the things that I think are really important, there’s actually some real forward momentum on both of them. So one is, there’s a growing movement that’s focused on truth, racial healing and transformation. In some parts of the country, you’ve had commissions that have come together to try to unearth the truth about what’s happened in our past, whether it’s racial injustice or racial terror, et cetera. This happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, for example, to really discuss what would repair look like. I think probably it should lead in the direction of reparations, but that’s not the only kind of direction it could go.
Some of it is about the kind of catharsis that can happen when you reveal the truth. I learned a lot about the power of this through my experience in South Africa. I had a chance to study in South Africa in 1996, just two years after Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black president of a new multiracial nation. I had a chance to experience the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when I was there. And while it had its flaws, it was a remarkable moment for South Africa because they literally could have gone the direction of violence and ongoing retribution instead. And they realized that if they didn’t tell the truth, the country would be blind and there wouldn’t be an opportunity for some of that healing to happen.
Now where it fell short is, I think there was a hope and expectation that the truth telling would lead the government to put in place more constitutional measures, some that could even include reparations. But they were willing to tell the truth. They were willing to make it clear what happened so that it could never be repeated and so that the country could be unified around a shared truth.
Well, look what we’ve done in this country after the Civil War. You had many parts of the South that basically started believing a false narrative or started spinning a false narrative about the Civil War. It’s called the Lost Cause Doctrine. [Saying that] the Civil War was not actually fought over slavery and that it was really about protecting Southern heritage and it was a war for other other reasons.
We’re seeing this in real time with January six. You had the Republican National Committee vote on a resolution that said the protestors—the insurrectionists—who we can see were violent based on the footage, were actually just engaged in civil political discourse. I mean, we have the images. We experienced that together in real time and already you’ve got this kind of whitewashing and revisionism that has taken hold of a big part of a political party. I’m saying that because I think there a desperate need in this moment for courageous truth telling even if that comes with political risk. That’s my biggest disappointment in many Republicans, is they’ve just capitulated to this Big Lie out of political expediency. I don’t think most of them believe it. And when you talk to them behind the scenes, many of them will even admit that, but they’re afraid of at least a part of the base of the Republican party that has believed this lie.
So one part is a kind of national effort to put in place a commission. Ideally, this is something that we’ve been pushing the Biden administration to do. There’s actually a resolution in Congress that hasn’t passed yet, but is growing in support that would create a formal commission to really examine and unearth the truth about our racialized history and do that in a way that helps to lead to healing and transformation. And then there’s a parallel effort, a kind of linked effort that’s been going on for for many years. And it’s again, gaining momentum, that would create a formal study of what reparations could look like.
That’s a bill that former member John Conyers initially led and others have picked up including a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They were really close to actually building enough support to pass that out of the house. Unfortunately, given the political realities in the Senate, it wouldn’t pass.
Why are we so afraid to even take the step of studying reparations? This isn’t yet getting to the point of actually delivering reparations, but studying it. Because by studying it, we can really understand the degree to which—and I hate to just keep repeating this refrain—the past continues to show up in the present. And yet we can’t understand why African American families have one six of the wealth of the average white family and that the Black unemployment rate is two or three times higher than the white unemployment rate, without understanding redlining and without understanding how Blacks were excluded from the GI Bill, without understanding so many different factors that have contributed to the current racial terrain that we live in.
That’s not to mention some of the existing discrimination and injustice that continues to haunt Black life in America. I’m really hopeful that both of these efforts are going to continue to grow and build momentum.
To be honest, we need a lot more white champions. In particular, a lot more white Christians to be a champion of these efforts. That that’s certainly something Sojourners is going to continue to push for and try to make happen.
This is a moment where we have to be crystal clear. You have to embrace that a commitment to anti-racism is part and parcel to Christian discipleship. That it’s a core part of Christian discipleship and that politicians or others that try to stoke racism, appeal to racism, that are in denial about the realities of systemic racism…that issue should really be a deal breaker for those of us that profess to follow Christ.
And I think that’s why I was so heartbroken and anguished after the 2016 election. It wasn’t because a conservative won or someone that’s a Republican won. I was disappointed by that. But that wasn’t why I just felt crushed in my spirit. I felt crushed because for 81% of white Evangelicals, the fact that Trump ran in a way that stoked the worst impulses of racism in our nation was not a deal breaker. That wasn’t enough to get them to maybe think a little harder about whether they could support this candidate. Sojourners has long resisted single-issue voting. So I’m not saying that we should just be single issue voters, but there are some issues that are so antithetical to our faith—certainly racism is at the top of that chart—that that has got to become a real litmus test for how we prioritize our votes and what we do with our voices in the future.
Jesus said we should be seeking the truth and that the truth will set us free. We as Americans—and this pains me—are captive to lies and mistruth. And social media is super charging that. It really is corrupting and dangerous to our democracy and to the future of the country.
But I believe that within our faith traditions, we have some of the most powerful antidotes. I mean, Jesus called us to love our enemies. How much loving is happening within our political system right now? We can’t—and shouldn’t—castigate those who are on the other side. [We shouldn’t] have this politics of blame. The Great Commandment calls us to love our God with all of our heart, our mind and our soul, but also to love our neighbors. This love ethic that you mentioned earlier, is at the heart of our faith. Sometimes I think people view love as this kind of anemic thing or this squishy thing. But love is powerful. And it is a force that can turn an enemy into a friend. That’s borrowing from some words from Dr. King. It is a force that can bind us together. It is a force that can help us see beyond some of the differences that pull us apart.
One of the other parts of our history and concepts that I referenced in my book is this notion of e pluribus unum. Out of many, one. And unfortunately that used to be the motto of the United States, but in 1956, it got changed to, In God We Trust and, In God We Trust is good in many ways, but I also think e pluribus unum is also really needed. And the reason why it’s so important is that the strength of our country is not in some kind of conforming uniformity or having to assimilate into one version of America.
The strength of our country is in the strength of its diversity. And out of that diversity, we then become one. You don’t have to relinquish the beauty of what makes us different. And when we are able to embrace and respect those differences and see the strength in them, I think that is when we can become the more exceptional country that we have the potential of becoming, and have been in some ways throughout our history.
But again, we’ve had this push and pull between these two very different versions of America, definitions of America, about who’s included and who isn’t. About who is valued and who isn’t valued. And this hierarchy of human value that has been tied to race has to be conquered. We’ve got to use every tool at our disposal, including our theological and religious tools.
To me, the pursuit of the Beloved Community is not just about a destination. It’s about the journey itself. I know that there’s a lot of struggle ahead of us, but I ultimately believe in the power of faith to move mountains. I believe in the ideals that make America—I hate to use the word sometimes—great. [The ideals] that really do make America an exceptional democracy. And I am hopeful that we’ll be able to pave the way for the next generation.
Literally my kids who right now are nine and 11 years old, that they will be able to help us move into the promised land if you will, of a true multiracial, inclusive democracy. We’ve only been a true democracy for a little over 50 years. Before 1965, we were not really a democracy. We were a democracy in which—from the founding—white men can vote and own property. And then that started to expand and expand and expand until 1965. We finally declared that all American citizens, regardless of their skin color, would be able to vote.
And so, I think in that sense, we are relatively young democracy. It’s these couple of years that are going to help push us over that threshold. Of course it could go either way, but I’m hopeful that by all of us taking this threat seriously—but also understanding how much power we have—that we’ll get there.”
-Talk about your ideas of reconciliation. What does it look like and what does it require?
-Adam talks about the Third Reconstruction for our country. Share your thoughts about the work that is not yet done in the United States.
-When have you seen a good example of Beloved Community?
-What is the obstacle that stands in our way for talking about reparations.
-What is the church’s role in government?
-Adam talks about two different views of America. How do we find a shared path forward?
-Did you know the history of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign?
-What would Beloved Community look like in our society?