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Culture Q&A

Justin Giboney

Christian and Democrat

A political strategist talks social justice, tribalism, and the Bible

Christian and Democrat

Justin Giboney (Handout)

Justin Giboney is an attorney and political strategist in Atlanta. He grew up in Colorado and attended Vanderbilt, where he was a defensive back on the football team. He was a Democratic National Convention delegate in 2012 and 2016 and is co-founder of the And Campaign. Here’s some of our discussion before a student audience, edited for space and flow.

How did football prepare you for politics? After I stopped playing football, I was looking for the rush of competition. Politics gave me the competition back.

You’ve spoken about sports tribalism. Tribalism means we join a group and develop a mob mentality. That’s not so bad in sports, but it’s bad in politics.

How do we have real political discussions rather than Twitter fights? Go to local meetings: city council, county commission. Listen to what the issues really are. You can have an impact on the local level a lot quicker than on the federal level, and you can see the changes. If a group of five people regularly attends city council meetings, they’re going to start listening to you because they know you pay attention, and they don’t want to be troubled with people who are actually paying attention.

‘The Bible is full of stories of unjust imprisonment and prosecution. People shouldn’t suffer more, or be in jail longer, because they are poor.’

How does the And Campaign try to focus our attention? Our goal should be love and truth, compassion and conviction, justice and righteousness.

Let’s get specific about some “ands.” We hear the term “social justice”—what does that mean when most folks use it? What should it mean when Christians use it? A lot of people criticize the term “social justice,” but everyone wants social justice for the people they care about. If your kid goes to school and is mistreated, you’re going to do something about it. That’s social justice. If you have a family member who is unjustly imprisoned, you’re going to do something about it. If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you don’t just do it for your family member. You do it for the person across the tracks. That’s really what we mean by social justice.

What does social justice mean in predominantly black churches? It may mean a sermon about how the Bible applies to mass incarceration and police brutality—or how Jesus cared for people who are marginalized in society. That doesn’t mean social justice is our No. 1 goal. Our No. 1 goal is to profess the gospel and carry that out, the fruit of faith.

When we hear “black lives matter,” lots of white folks ask, “Are you saying white lives don’t matter? Other lives don’t matter?” You can’t carry on a conversation well from a posture of self-defense. If you hear “black lives matter,” it’s better to be in a posture of self-examination, of humility. Then you may ask, “What do you mean by that?” Of course, every life matters, but when you’re in a society where certain groups are victims of crime and police brutality more often, it’s important to understand that those lives matter, too. I don’t agree with everything that comes from the group Black Lives Matter, but they’ve done a good job of bringing the conversation to bear and saying, “Make sure you care about these people as much as you care about your own.”

Avoid the defensive crouch? Too often on both sides, we try to come out of conversations about culture and race with a perfect narrative. Nobody left a conversation with Jesus with a perfect narrative. We have to be honest and ready for self-examination, not ready to say we’re angels and they’re demons.

How do you respond to people saying, “You’re a Democrat. How can you follow Nancy Pelosi?” I might say, “Why don’t we make this a little more sophisticated and talk about the hard questions and not just the characters on the other side?” I don’t see the Democratic Party as part of my identity. I see it as a tool to be used to promote human flourishing and to defend human dignity. I’m a Christian first.

But the party has moved to the left on abortion, right? The Democratic donor class became a lot more strident and aggressive when it came to abortion. You go from legal, safe, and rare, to in 2016 a celebration of this deadly procedure.

How do you fight back against that? You count the costs and worry about the consequences later. As Christians, we are called to speak the truth, to protect people, to look to the marginalized and their interests as well. When people with power don’t want to do that, you simply have to oppose them. One thing I learned from reading about Fannie Lou Hamer and folks like that: You don’t do it because it’s easy. You do it because God told you to do it.

Conventions bring out the tribalism. What happened at the Democratic convention in 2012 when some folks wanted to remove from the party platform the phrase “God-given rights” and just leave “rights”? The far left was trying to take out “God-given,” and they were louder than the folks who wanted it in. Part of the impetus for the And Campaign was to let people know that every Democrat isn’t necessarily in agreement with this adversarial posture toward religion.

Is that difficult to do when so much of the money seems to come from the hard left, from people who do not want “God-given” in there? You hit on it. The far left of the donor class controls the reward and punishment mechanism. You are punished if you don’t do what they want. You’re rewarded if you do. I need to understand there’s nothing I want that will make me give up my convictions. Christians need to be able to say, “I’m doing this because it’s right, not because I have some reward here on earth.”

More and more kids are growing up without dads or functioning dads, and that’s especially happening in the black community. It’s heartbreaking. It needs more than a policy fix. While it does affect the African American community, it’s affecting working-class people in general, and our permissive culture plays into that.

How do predominantly white churches build credibility with black neighbors? Show you care about people and are willing to lose political capital to help them, instead of just looking like you’re out to protect yourselves.

African Americans have told me, “We’re with you on abortion, but that seems to be so much a single issue for you.” What else should we be majoring in besides abortion? Criminal justice, and not leaving the poor to survive by what trickles down to them.

How does your Bible reading inform your call for reform in the justice system? The Bible is full of stories of unjust imprisonment and prosecution. People shouldn’t suffer more, or be in jail longer, because they are poor. You see people who have committed white-collar crimes walking the streets, and those who steal something from a store are still in jail, not with their families, not able to work, not able to be productive citizens.

White Christians who react negatively to the term “social justice,” but want to be loving to our neighbor, should start by … Being informed. Maybe crossing the tracks, maybe going to the African American church across town, seeing what problems they may be having. A good place to start for some churches, because this is a problem nationwide, is the cash bail system. I’ve never heard a good reason why somebody with money should be out of jail before somebody without money. That’s particularly true because the longer a person without money stays in jail, the worse become the consequences. You lose your job. You can’t take your kids where you need to take them.