Church Vandalism Exposes Divisions Over Faith and Politics

December 15, 2020

WASHINGTON — Vandalism at four downtown Washington churches after rallies in support of President Donald Trump are exposing rifts among people of faith as the nation confronts bitter post-election political divisions.

Among the damaged houses of worship were two historically Black churches where people ripped down Black Lives Matter banners, with video posted to social media showing one banner being burned. Those defacements – which are being investigated as possible hate crimes, according to the police – raised questions among some clergy and churchgoers about why more fellow Christians were not speaking out against the incidents.

The Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills, senior pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church, issued a statement Sunday likening the torched banner to a cross burning and said Monday that she hopes more evangelical Christians condemn the destruction.

Mills also underscored that she didn't "want to make this into a political statement" and said her intention was to "move us all to greater healing and to more of a commitment to building a beloved community where all are welcome." The church plans a Thursday prayer service to help foster unity and healing, she said.

The nearby Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church reported that vandals slashed a banner printed with colors supporting LGBTQ rights and rejecting "acts of hate or violence" against others, pastor Donna Claycomb Sokol said. 

She added that the episode at her church was "incredibly minor compared with what happened to our neighbors" and urged that attention be paid to the damage at Asbury and Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, both historically Black institutions.

"People need to denounce it and call it an act of racial violence," Claycomb Sokol said. "People who have been really quick to be silent need to wrestle with what actually took place on our streets on Saturday, and how silence can actually be a sign of support, of complicity."

The tearing down of Black Lives Matter signs came after pro-Trump demonstrations in the capital that attracted a sizable number of Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group prone to violent encounters. The protests were planned to bolster the president's claims of election irregularities, although the absence of widespread election fraud has been confirmed by a range of officials nationwide, including Attorney General William Barr. 

Police in Washington are seeking public help in identifying suspects in the defacements, with the FBI's Washington field office also offering a reward for those who aid the investigation.

Some members of the affected churches noted the contrast between the vocal Christian response to property destruction during protests against racial injustice this summer and the comparatively quieter pushback now. 

"When evangelicals can speak on behalf of unborn babies, can speak on behalf of law and order when it comes to white people and white property, but are silent when it comes to banners that proclaim 'Black lives matter,' the moral silence is stupefying," said Cornell William Brooks, former president of the NAACP and a member of Metropolitan A.M.E.

"We've gone from having to say 'Black lives matter' to now having to say 'Black churches matter,'" added Brooks, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School graduate program.

The Episcopal bishop of Washington, who criticized Trump during the summer's racial inequality protests after protesters were forcibly cleared in order for him to stage a visit to a fire-damaged church, issued a statement Monday with the dean of the Washington National Cathedral decrying the recent church vandalism as well as "the racist and religious overtones surrounding the effort to discredit the presidential election." One pro-Trump rally on Saturday counted several religious conservatives as headliners.

Some pro-Trump conservative evangelicals criticized the church vandalism, while describing it as part of a broader trend that has marked a year of heightened political tensions. 

Johnnie Moore, president of The Congress of Christian Leaders and an evangelical adviser to the administration, said that "we must put extremists on the far right and the far left on notice that these acts stop now." 

"Whether it's synagogues in Portland, Los Angeles, or Kenosha, a Catholic shrine in Southern California, or historic — especially historically Black — churches in Washington, D.C. — America's places of worship must never be targeted in any form, whatsoever, by violent extremists," Moore said by email. 

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical leader who has advised Trump, said in a statement that "there is quite a difference between a movement driven by righteousness and justice, truth and love, and a movement driven by chaos, describing attacks on houses of worship as "a clear, unbridled depiction of the true agenda behind many of these so-called 'movements.'"

While stopping short of fully acknowledging Trump's election loss, several top evangelical conservatives have refrained from echoing the harsh rhetoric that the president directed toward President-elect Joe Biden during the hard-fought campaign.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said by email that "President Trump condemns violence in all forms and any group that expounds hate and bigotry."

Cameron French, a Biden-Harris transition official said in a statement that places of worship are sacred spaces and protected under the law and "acts that target these places because of their views, are unacceptable and undermine our work to build a more perfect union." 


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