Religion & Liberty Online

Can This Man—and the Black Church—Save America?

Justin Giboney speaks onstage during T.I.'s 14th Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway For Atlanta Seniors In Need in Atlanta, Georgia. (Image credit: Getty Images)

How do we identify the lies that serve us? A conversation with Justin Giboney.

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America is facing the political rerun from hell: a seemingly inevitable rematch between two of the most divisive presidential candidates in recent memory. We’re once again headed for the partisan trenches in this most beloved of quadrennial fiascos: the battle to see which very senior citizen will have access to nuclear codes (and the presidential X account) for the next four years. Yet, amid the chaos of primaries, indictments, and dishonesty, are we losing our self-awareness? In our quests to destroy the lies that offend us, are we overlooking the equal-but-subtle influence of the lies that serve us?

Justin Giboney has spent decades of his life trying to separate the two. “No lie can serve the church,” he tells audiences. “Jesus, after all, was the truth.” An attorney and ordained minister in Atlanta, Georgia, Giboney helped found the AND Campaign, a civic organization trying to get Christians to rethink the way they do politics. He’s spoken to audiences ranging from hardcore progressives to staunch Republicans, from black churches to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Giboney got his start in community political organization, even serving as the co-chair of the Gen44-Atlanta initiative during the Obama era. I sat down with him for a conversation on politics, race, and the future of American Christianity.

IW: Who is Justin Giboney? How does a football player at Vanderbilt become someone involved in the intersection of law, community organizing, and political activism in the way that you have?

JG: When I came to Atlanta, I was working at a law firm but always very interested in politics. I came together with some friends, including guys over at Howard [University] and Morehouse [College], to talk about politics and decided to actually get into the game instead of talking about it. We were all transplants, we researched the races, found a candidate, then a state senator [Kasim Reed], and door-knocked in southwest Atlanta. He ended up winning the mayoral race—I ended up working in the mayor’s office and running campaigns.

Being in a very progressive space, I felt like there were certain issues that progressives were having to push aside, and conservatives were having to push away a lot of compassion to be politically active. I realized we needed a new framework, and started thinking about how Christians maintain a pluralist space while maintaining their values, and that was the genesis of the AND campaign, meeting with pastors and young artists from the community to get answers to some of these questions.

In both 2012 and 2016, you were a DNC delegate. Tell me about that experience—did you feel like you fit in or was there a disconnect there? Did it change from the Obama era moving into the Trump era?

This was the other part that helped create the AND campaign. There were things that came up there that made me feel distinctly out of place in the DNC. The rhetoric around abortion and family was starting to change. There were some votes where African American Christians were completely ignored, and things that were happening that made me want to distance myself from the Republican Party. In 2016, I ran on a protest campaign to be a delegate—it was John Lewis’ district—and I talked about pro-life issues and things that Dems don’t normally talk about, but we were talking to the community, so we still won. I can’t be a leader or a Christian and deny that part of my witness.

Since that delegation, it seems to many people that both political parties have significantly radicalized. From your vantage point, how much of that polarization is the result of legitimate ideological change and how much of it is just making explicit a lot of the hate and tribalism that’s always swirled under the surface?

It didn’t come out of nowhere. You have the culture war brewing, but at that point there was some consensus. That’s changed, but you do have the left moving outside of that general consensus on a lot of social issues. Particularly as the economy shifts, the trust in social institutions declines.

There are a lot of modern writers, I’m thinking of Rod Dreher in particular, who are arguing that the current moment is one of the worst times in the church’s history. As a pastor, how do you go about responding to these kinds of claims. How much of what we’re experiencing is truly unprecedented?

The first thing I try to do is understand—why, to someone like Dreher, would it seem this way? We’re so polarized to the point where we can’t have conversations; we don’t even have the same facts. It’s really hard, as an African American, to look at the history of the church and say that this is the worst thing that’s happened—no. From a civic-discourse perspective, though, I don’t want to downplay the current moment. It can be.

The AND campaign’s website asserts that “urban Christians have a unique and powerful sociopolitical perspective.” What do you think primarily differentiates the urban Christian perspective, and is “urban” an indirect term for “minority” in this context, or is it something broader?

I don’t use the term “urban” too much anymore—the semantics of that are very different now than it otherwise would have been. The AND campaign is rooted in the black church and its focus on community action. When we talk about social justice, especially to progressives, we can talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, we can talk about moral order in a way that wouldn’t fit into these political binaries.

The AND campaign is heavily critical of the political right for avoiding the topic of racial justice. When you’re sitting in front of largely right audiences, I imagine you’re having to compete with a general “anything-racial-is-woke” sensibility. How do you confront and dismantle that?

I try to start with undeniable historical facts: we’re all good-faith actors, and we have to agree on some things. Jim Crow ended 15 years before I was born; it wasn’t that long ago. If we think that the Revolutionary War has carryovers into the modern day, so do our sins. How do people on both sides recognize what’s inconvenient to our side? There’s a lot of things that I say, coming from the black church, that go against the two-party narrative. No community can grow if we only stick with our binaries.

On the other side, the support of the Democratic Party, the things we’ve allowed secular progressives to get away with—we allowed it, and we shouldn’t have allowed it. Political tribes come up with all kinds of epithets for people who step outside the binary, and you have to suffer through it as a leader, otherwise you’ll never make progress. That’s all part of the process.

You’re also pretty unsparing to the progressive left for what you describe as the ceding of moral order. Do you see the right’s neglect of social justice and the left’s neglect of moral order as equally significant? Why/why not?

They’re both very significant—it’s about getting the right to change their narrative that romanticizes everything about this country. Even if DEI has its excesses, did it all come out of nowhere? Would it have all happened naturally, even though we had racially exclusionary laws 50 years ago? It’s deeper than that—we need to get past these narratives—the past doesn’t fade away and float into nowhere. Both sides have a lot to be humble [about]. American conservatives got slavery and civil rights wrong. What I’m asking people to do is come to the table and say there’s something wrong with getting those two things wrong. I acknowledge the excesses of the left, but there’s something that needs to be admitted here—what I see now is hubris.

Stepping out of that right-left paradigm, you’ve also written that “Christians cannot promote a culture where self-restraint is understood as inauthentic. … Self-respect demands adherence to standards & values.” It seems like you’re talking about that in the context of anti-racism. It also sounds like a criticism of a lot of the messages spread to young men by people like Andrew Tate—hedonistic ladder-climbing as the ultimate form of masculinity. Do you think there’s a parallel there?

Whether you’re talking about identitarianism or what Andrew Tate speaks about, there’s a lack of humility there. It’s an attempt to build up one group at the expense of others. My faith tells me that’s wrong—it can’t all be about self-building. On the racial side, it’s a really pernicious idea that when you’ve been violated and oppressed, nothing you do matters and there’s always some explanation beyond your choices. It’s not good to tell people that, because you’re not respecting our humanity. Enslaved peoples’ choices still mattered, even though I have no desire to romanticize slavery.

Choices matter, no matter who you are. Agency—you take away people’s agency. Your decisions matter. There are a lot of people who’ve had circumstances forced on them—and Republicans need to do a better job of understanding that. But it’s a distorted form of compassion to act like [our] choices don’t matter.

Do you think all these problems will get worse before they get better? How will we know when we’ve made progress?

It’s going to get worse before it gets better unless we have leaders on both sides willing to build bridges. Ideological tribes don’t let you build bridges—it’s something you have to be willing to put your reputation on the line to do. What credible leaders on the left are standing up and saying they’ve gone too far on abortion and social issues? The New Left, the democratic socialists, have thrown out people like Obama, in part fairly for the economic stuff he espoused in 2008, but if you look at the backbone of the Democrat Party, where are they? What leaders on the right are willing to stand up and tell Trump he’s gone too far and that our democracy is more important than the things he’s currently choosing to talk about?

What gives you hope?

The leaders I see around me give me hope, [who] stand up even if it breaks the narrative and steps outside the ideological binary. That’s what gets me fired up and keeps me going. People like Charlie Dates, Esau McCalley, Tish Warren—that’s where the hope comes from for me.

What’s next for Justin Giboney, and what’s next for the AND Campaign?

This year, I have a book coming out about the culture war. We’re hosting what we call cultural revivals—we want to make sure we’re equipping Christians to enter and exit the culture war properly. There’s a high probability that people on both sides won’t accept political results without violence. It seems probable, but not unavoidable.

There’s a lot that you can do to invest in your community at the local level, and no community, church or otherwise, is monolithic. The black church isn’t monolithic. A lot of people buy into the Flight 93 stuff, and a lot of people don’t—they’re resourceful and looking into other spaces besides the electoral system to create progress.

I’d like to think our faith tradition would lead us away from that, but it doesn’t always go that way.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.