There may not be any two Mississippi politicians more different from one another than United States Congressman Bennie Thompson and Governor Phil Bryant. Thompson is a black liberal Democrat and Bryant is a white Tea Party conservative. They are on separate pages on everything from abortion to the expansion of Medicaid. During the Obama years, Thompson has proudly and vocally supported our first black President’s agenda, while Bryant has protested much in the name of states’ rights, a term that unsettles blacks who endured de jure Jim Crow. In many ways they iconize the persistent racial divide in Mississippi’s modern body politic—a divide that is cavernous, deep, and seemingly irreconcilable. Most voting blacks are Democrats; most voting whites are Republicans. And most black Democrats and white Republicans in Mississippi would say they are both Bible-believing Christians.
Maybe that’s why Mission Mississippi, a racial and denominational reconciliation movement, asked both gentlemen to share the stage at their 14th Annual Governor’s Prayer Luncheon. I worked for Mission Mississippi after returning to my native land following my graduation from Duke University’s Divinity School. It was there that I immersed myself in the layered and complicated worlds of our state’s Christian culture. To be sure, I long knew that there were white churches and black churches, divided more by race than by doctrine, but I hadn’t gotten up close and personal in the interracial dialogs led by Baby Boomers seeking to know each other beyond conjecture and caricature before working with Mission Mississippi. At times these conversations were frustrating because they seemed to evade the weightier matters of pervasive injustices that continue to maintain a “two Mississippis” reality. But much good has come out of Mission Mississippi’s work. One of them was creating a context where Thompson and Bryant could sit together for a while and share their stories and their religiously inspired political visions.
The Congressman and the Governor made it plain in body language (they seldom spoke to each other, but to the audience) and divergent visions that they both loved Mississippi but hoped different things for its future. One could assume that though they were cordial (aren’t we Mississippians hospitable like that?) they saw each other’s visions as threats to the common good. Thompson, unapologetically liberal, talked about why it is necessary for full state support—both financial and moral—for our public schools, supporting the expansion of Medicaid, and why the Affordable Care Act were all good things to do in the name of God and government. Bryant, a Christian conservative, appealed more to a Pollyannaish version of the past and how deep cultural values about family, hard work, and God could help Mississippi rise from last to first.
Both men were clear that these very distinct political visions emerged out of their faith stories, their testimonies. A lifelong Methodist, Thompson talked about how during offering time his pastor exhorted the congregation to dig deep and give cheerfully and liberally. “If I could be a liberal in my giving on Sunday,” Thompson maintained, “why couldn’t I be a liberal Monday through Saturday?” Thompson was matter of fact, not rhetorically inspiring, but defiant and assertive in a way that alone can inspire the dejected.
Though Thompson intimated how his experiences in segregated Hinds County colored his way of life and vocation, Governor Bryant, a Baptist who became Methodist by “marrying in,” made clear that love of God and family and country were the bedrocks of his political vision. He averred that we should not overlook the horrors of Jim Crow but we should nevertheless praise the Lord for how far we’ve come from those dark days. Bryant has a certain evangelical eloquence that dances between preaching and stump speech, a kind of oratory that suggests he is a man of a deep and public faith that can motivate others to act in kind.
As I listened to both men, men I have met on different occasions, I thought about how complicated faith and politics are, especially in a state where white and black, for the most part, still live in segregated worlds.
And I thought about how I wished another politician of statewide impact could glean from both of them a cast a refreshing vision for Mississippi for younger generations. Both men may be at the pinnacles of their political aspirations. Who are the leaders of today and tomorrow who, shaped by their own stories, can move the state forward?
I appreciate the unapologetic and convictional way Governor Bryant shares his Christian faith and how that influences his political decisions; I just wish that faith would lead him to different conclusions more times than not. And there were moments when I hoped that Congressman Thompson would speak more personally about the nexus of his faith and leadership. But I also liked the way he attempted to shatter the myth that to be a Christian is to be a conservative Republican, a sentiment shared by too many of Mission Mississippi’s ardent financial supporters. Alas, in doing so, Thompson also seemed to fallaciously suggest that to follow Jesus meant you had to always side with Democrats. Both men, as sincere as they were, left me wondering if they have supplanted something truly prophetic and transformative about our Christian faith in order to speak with one mind and one voice on behalf of their chosen political party affiliations. If this is true, we need a remnant who will emerge in Mississippi and who will disabuse us of our cultural captivity to partisan idols, be they on the Christian Right or the Christian Left.
Maybe the most hopeful thing Governor Bryant shared was that we have to move away from thinking someone’s Christianity is measured by the totality of the political decisions they make. I’m hopeful that this means that my Christianity won’t be called into question by him or others who follow him if and when I disagree with our Governor about political decisions that have moral import on masses of Mississippians. As a convictional Christian, I have the freedom to disagree with our Governor and other conservatives on things that matter to me when I think they’re bigoted and misguided, as a matter of faith.
And how hopeful it is to hear the opinionated Congressman say that we don’t have to agree in order to love the Lord. “We are equal before God and the Law, but we can have different opinions.” It’s good to know that my blackness or my being “for the people” isn’t challenged if I ever disagree with his and his followers’ strategies or politics. As a free thinking black man, I can question liberals when I think they’re wrong or duplicitous.
I’m not sure if Mission Mississippi changed anyone’s mind with the conversation between these two politicos. But I’m glad I was in the room. And I’m glad they were too.
*Photo is from the Clarion Ledger online.