Fort Worth

Fort Worth religious leaders ‘bracing for a car crash’ with Bannon role

Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of right-wing Breitbart News, served as President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign strategist and has been appointed to Trump’s Cabinet as Chief Strategist and Senior Counsel.
Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of right-wing Breitbart News, served as President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign strategist and has been appointed to Trump’s Cabinet as Chief Strategist and Senior Counsel. AP

The days after the election have been tense and wracked with uncertainty for some minority communities, including those in the Fort Worth area, which have kept a wary eye on an unnerving spike in racial and anti-Semitic-inspired incidents around the country.

Hate group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center has collected almost 450 reports of “hateful intimidation and harassment” incidents across the nation between Nov. 9 and Nov. 14.

The instances of retaliation come from supporters of both President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but a diverse group of religious leaders in Fort Worth are especially concerned about the appointment of Steve Bannon, a media mogul and leader in the alt-right movement, as Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsel.

They are lock-step in taking Bannon’s job title literally, and they expect the self-described “Leninist” to steer Trump toward anti-immigrant and anti-minority policies. These religious leaders said they believe Bannon can be a danger to civility, that his influence inside the White House could silently empower the alt-right’s rising clan of white nationalists to incite a racial upheaval that threatens to induce Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, LGBTQ and all minorities into a life of fear in their own communities.

Aside from issuing a quick, “stop it,” during his 60 Minutes interview last Sunday, Trump has not condemned the rise in hate-fueled behavior.

“There is bracing, like you’re bracing for a car crash, and that’s really what it is,” said Michael Bell, the longtime Fort Worth pastor at Greater Saint Stephen First Church, describing a “nervous lull” consuming his African-American congregants during this presidential transitional period.

The term alternative right — or alt right — was coined by Dallas native Richard Spencer, 38, a leader of the movement, who told the Dallas Morning News that Trump’s election was “one of the greatest moments of my life.” He says the radical movement is defined by “white nationalism and a fervent resistance to multiculturalism and globalism,” and that Trump ran for President “to protect his people.”

Bannon was the Breitbart News chief before joining Trump’s campaign as lead strategist in August. He provided a glimpse behind the curtain in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. ... Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.”

Religious leaders in Tarrant County are quick to differentiate the majority of Trump supporters — who they believe downplayed the racial underpinnings of the campaign for issues such as the Supreme Court, taxes or job creation — from a deviant minority bent on turning back America’s cultural clock.

But they also say they fear a future of racial intimidation, especially with the appointment of Bannon to a Cabinet position equal to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

For religious leaders of mostly minority congregations, they say speaking out against Bannon is an act of self-preservation.

The Bannon issue, however, is not as cut-and-dried inside the walls of mostly mainstream evangelical churches; Trump won the nation’s evangelical vote by more than 81 percent, and won 58 percent of the white vote.

‘Pretty much on edge’

Many local church leaders who preside over mostly white or exclusively white congregations declined requests to discuss Bannon, or responded by email that the church had no statement or opinion on the appointment. One local pastor who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the election within his congregation, said it is an emotional time for pastors and their members: “Things are pretty much on edge and every little thing becomes a potential deal-breaker between members and the congregation they serve, and clergy and the congregations they serve; just lots of disagreement and difficulty really talking about it in a healthy way.”

Another pastor who requested anonymity for the same reason said he believes many white church leaders are withholding judgment of Bannon to give him an opportunity to distance from, the sharp-tongued website that espouses alternative views and is denounced by critics for pushing over-the-top populism and race-baiting.

The pastor said piling on Bannon now is unfair and incendiary.

Senior Minister Tom Plumbley of First Christian Church, an old Fort Worth church that predates the Civil War, disagrees. He’s digested enough of Bannon’s past to publicly rebuke his high-level appointment.

“Most of what we’ve heard about him has been about the website he made his fame off is really one that caters to some of the baser instincts within us, and doesn’t seem to try very hard to help us to rise above some of those parts of ourselves,” Plumbley said. “Usually we have internal filters that keep us from just spewing the kinds of things that our impulses lead us to say or to write about other people, and I think what has been pretty plan about Breitbart is it is a place that kind of appeals to those impulses, and is OK with that, and doesn’t try to filter any of that, and doesn’t try to rise above any of that.

“Putting Bannon in this position,” Plumbley continued, “brings what we have thought was a real fringe element and a fringe philosophy into the mainstream, and indeed into the halls of the White House itself. It seems that doesn’t bode well for the decisions that the new President is going to make if he has this kind of voice in his ear all of the time.”

Bob Roberts, pastor of Northwood Church in Keller, a Southern Baptist congregation that has reached out in the past to other faiths, including Muslims, called on Trump to promote hope over fear.

“We have real racial and religious challenges in the U.S.,” Roberts said. “Trump says he wants to heal it. It’s critical that his appointees reflect people who are known as connectors and reconcilers, not those that would further divide us.”

Mike Lowry, Bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes Tarrant County, said: “We share a concern and a hope that all officials in the incoming Trump administration would reject racism, misogyny and hatred of others in any form. The appointment of Steve Bannon gives me cause for deep concern.”

As of Thursday, 169 of 188 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on Trump to remove Bannon. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and hate-group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center have also called for Bannon’s removal. Trump’s transition team is defending Bannon, including Preibus, who has questioned the validity of criticism being lobbed at him.

Individuals identifying with the alt-right, meanwhile, celebrated the installation of an advocate within earshot of the Oval Office. Some right-churning corners overseas cheered as well. Marion Marechal-Le Pen, the French anti-immigrant politician running for president on France’s right-wing National Front ticket, tweeted that she had accepted Bannon’s invitation to “work together.” Bloomberg, however, reported that Bannon has not reached out to her.

“Bannon will answer directly to Trump and focus on the big picture, and not get lost in the weeds,” Spencer, the alt-right leader, wrote on his Twitter account following the election. On Wednesday, Twitter suspended Spencer’s account and those of other alt-right advocates.

‘Do not be afraid’

“If Mr. Trump truly wants to unify this country and serve as President to all Americans, then he should do as the ADL recommends,” said Rabbi Jordan Ottenstein of Beth-El Congregation, one of two Jewish congregations in Fort Worth. “By placing someone with such extreme views in a position with that much access to the Oval Office, there is a danger that any policies proposed by Mr. Bannon, or the fear of policies proposed by him, could further drive this country into deeper division.”

Imam Moujahed Bakhach, a Fort Worth resident of more than 30 years and the former head of the Islamic Association of Tarrant County, said Muslims are coming to him increasingly concerned that they will be targets of right-wing violence.

“They have asked, should I change my name, should I take my scarf off?” Bakhach said. “I have encouraged Muslims to be proud of your faith, to be proud of your family. You are American and this is a nation of justice and fairness; do not be afraid.”

Bell said his phone has not stopped ringing. African-Americans, he said, are afraid of what’s to come. He said he expects Trump to make more hard-line conservative Cabinet appointments such as Friday’s announcement of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General.

“In our community there’s a nervousness. I’ve heard people say they can’t eat, can’t sleep,” Bell said. “There’s that kind of sense as if everything is moving in slow motion, but toward something that’s even worse. And Steve Bannon’s appointment is consistent with everything we’ve seen. The expectation is hoping for the best, but really preparing for the worst.”

Bell recalled last week’s Saturday Night Live skit with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock hanging out at an election-watching party with several white friends. Chappelle and Rock kept laughing, feigning disbelief with each TV update of Hillary Clinton’s implausible demise that sent their incredulous white friends scurrying for Xanax. Chappelle and Rock weren’t surprised. Nor was Bell, he said.

“Someone said that I laugh really to keep from dealing with the weightiness of all of this, because this weighs heavy,” Bell said. “Just like it’s weighing heavy on the Jewish community, it’s weighing heavy on the African-American community, and the Latino community and others. Right now I think we’re in the cross-hairs, and that’s unfortunate.”

Plumbley also fears that “we’re in for some rough waters,” and he said it’s why he chose to speak out. He said when church leaders sit silently at moments such as this, their silence also serves as a political statement.

“(I’m) standing up for these values because I think on these things we can say, thus said the Lord, thou shalt not be a racist and so forth,” Plumbley said. “We can stand up for that and still not be saying that everybody who voted for Trump is a racist, or everybody who voted for Trump is a misogynist. There were tons of reasons for people to vote the way they did.

“But we can’t just run away from anything that might be controversial.”

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan