Same pew, different churches
Finding a racial, political and religious divide in Selma
By Rick Holmes
March 10, 2017
SELMA, Ala. – A funny thing happened on the way to church last week.
My search for American unity had brought us to central Alabama, to a campground on the banks of the Alabama River. We planned to attend a march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, marking the 52nd anniversary of a historic protest for voting rights.
It was Sunday, so we decided to go to church. Considering the occasion, I looked for one of the churches that had been the centers of activism back in 1965. First Baptist Church, which had served as a headquarters for protest leaders, seemed to fit the bill.
I Googled First Baptist Church of Selma and got information on their 10:45 service and the address on Lauderdale Street, which I fed into my phone as we headed out in what served as our Sunday best.
We got to church as people were entering, but something was wrong. The church was in a nice part of town, an impressive edifice in a neighborhood of stately churches. It was First Baptist Church of Selma, but it didn’t look like the one on the Wikipedia page. And the people who smiled and greeted us were all... white.
We were greeted warmly by the Baptists, then discreetly slipped out of First Baptist on Lauderdale Street and did some frantic Googling. Turns out there was another First Baptist Church of Selma. It’s in a sturdy old building of red brick, about six blocks away – on Martin Luther King Street. We got there in plenty of time for the 11 a.m. service.
I’ve recently been going to African-American churches when I feel the spirit, drawn by the passion of the preaching and the power of the music. This service was especially moving, and the people were as nice and welcoming as can be.
I have no doubt the folks over in the other First Baptist Church are just as nice. I grew up going to church every Sunday in a church like that. I like churches, and I like church people.
It shouldn’t be surprising to find two First Baptist Churches in Selma, one white and one black. A half-century ago, Selma was the symbol of segregation in America. Not long ago it was one of the most segregated cities in America.
But racial separation in church isn’t unique to Selma. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led nightly meetings at First Baptist in 1965, once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." Fully integrated congregations remain the exception almost everywhere.
Our churches are also separated by politics. I’d say Donald Trump won almost all of the votes from the people at First Baptist on Lauderdale, while Hillary Clinton, who won more than 68 percent of the vote in the county around Selma, was surely the choice of nearly everyone in First Baptist on MLK Street. In Alabama, the political divide matches the racial divide almost to the percentage point.
Religion ought to unite people, not divide them. Christians of all denominations and all congregations cherish the same values. They take charity seriously, supporting missions around the world and neighbors in need. They practice humility before the Lord, seeing themselves as small parts of a far grander universe. They ask forgiveness for their sins. They have Bible study groups, where they discuss serious questions of scripture, ethics and morality.
The same can be said for Jews, Muslims, Hindus and just about anyone who takes their religion seriously.
I’m not advertising religion here. But there’s a lot to be said for any institution that encourages thoughtfulness, generosity, moral behavior, self-improvement and community service. And it’s been my experience that church people – whatever their politics, race or religion – are about the nicest people out there.
I don’t know what it means that America has just elected the least traditionally religious president in history. Donald Trump is not a church person. Raised a nominal Presbyterian, he’s a member of no church. He’s incapable of humility. There’s little evidence that he gives to charity. He seems to know little about the Bible and can’t speak the language of religion without a teleprompter. He’s said several times that he never asks God for forgiveness. As he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if [I’m] not making mistakes?”
Maybe an increasingly secular America doesn’t need a religious president. But in this moment of national division, it wouldn’t hurt for us to spend a little time in church, especially visiting each other’s churches. That includes you, Mr. President.