CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.— “Okay, y’all bring the governor back up here.”
Dr. Alvin Edwards was addressing the crowd at the Sunday service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in downtown Charlottesville. But he was talking only partially to his congregation. The pastor was more directly addressing, jokingly, the scrum of reporters—bearing iPhones and voice recorders and bulky cameras—surrounding Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, as he walked through the center aisle of the church, first up the right side and then down the left, shaking hands and dispensing hugs. The hymn had concluded; the congregation was waiting; McAuliffe, however, was still going. And the media were going with him.
At Edwards’s reminder, though, they dispersed. This was a church service, after all. And before the governor had made his way down the aisle for all the hand-shaking, the service had gone, for the most part, according to script—not the script set by the politicians and the media, in the aftermath of the weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville, but by the agenda described in the morning’s Order of Worship. There were greetings and songs and announcements: about an upcoming fire drill, about plans related to the church building’s mortgage, about the celebrations set to mark the church’s big anniversary—150 years—this October. While the presence of McAuliffe, and with him the presence of several other local and state politicians, gave this particular service the air of a campaign rally, it was still decidedly—and determinedly—an occasion of worship.
The congregants were glad of that. “I’m supposed to be leaving for vacation today,” Lena Jones, 59, told me. But she went to Mt. Zion before she left Charlottesville. The events of the weekend had left her heartbroken, she said—on top of everything else, they had been one more suggestion that the country is returning to an earlier era of turbulence, and of hatred, and of bigotry that expresses no apology and feels no remorse. The events had also left her simply embarrassed, she said—for Charlottesville, and for Virginia, and for the nation. So “today,” she said, “I wanted to be with my church family.”
But Jones also appreciated the self-conscious politicking that was part of this particular church service. She appreciated that the governor came to deliver—and publicize—a message of resilience against hatred. She appreciated, even, all the glad-handing. “To me, it was uplifting,” she said. “It’s nice to know that we have some support.”
Support they did have—and not only from the governor. Several representatives of Charlottesville’s local and state governments (all of them men, all of them white) delivered brief addresses on Sunday, both to Mt. Zion’s congregation and to the cameras that for the most part clustered behind the pews. Michael Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, who seemed to be speaking at the church between appearances on nationwide Sunday shows, delivered a message of resilience: “We will get through this stronger than we were yesterday,” he said. Mark Herring, the attorney general of Virginia, reminded the crowd of the speech Thurgood Marshall had delivered in 1978 at the University of Virginia: “This is your democracy,” the justice had said. Ralph Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, cited his background as a pediatrician to echo the message Barack Obama had sent—itself a tribute to Nelson Mandela—that hatred is not innate in humans, but learned.
And then McAuliffe rose to the church’s lectern. He began by saying that he’d been invited to many TV shows, but wanted to be at Mt. Zion most of all. And then he talked about his anger, and his hope. He praised the law enforcement response to the protests. He talked about his personal connection to two of the deaths that had resulted from the weekend’s violence: The state troopers who had died in a helicopter crash on Saturday had been part of the governor’s security detail, he said. And McAuliffe reiterated the widely publicized speech he had delivered on Saturday evening, at a press conference—the one making clear that the bigotry on display over the weekend has no place in Charlottesville or Virginia or the United States of America.
And then the governor, from his perch at the lectern of the church, spoke directly to the bigots: “You pretend you’re patriots,” he said. “You’re not patriots.”
The congregation applauded.
“I thought it was on point,” Zan Allen, another member of the Mt. Zion congregation, told me afterward. Allen was especially gratified that the governor and the lieutenant governor with him had gone out of their way to put a name to the particular strain of hatred on display in the streets of Charlottesville. “This is not about politics,” the governor had said—except that, he added, it is very much about politics in the sense that “political rhetoric in this country today is breeding bigotry and hatred.” He had been echoing his lieutenant governor’s words: We “will not and do not condone white supremacy,” Ralph Northam had declared to the congregation. Each line was met with loud applause.
Allen didn’t see McAuliffe’s speech as overly political; nor did he see McAuliffe’s or his fellow politicians’ swift and vocal reaction to the events the way many national pundits have interpreted them: as self-interested or cynical. Instead, Allen said, the politicians “saw a community in need.” They simply responded to that need.
And, perhaps most importantly: They responded by accurately describing the events that caused the need in the first place. President Trump initially refused to call the torch-wielding protesters who descended on Charlottesville what they are: white supremacists. (On Sunday afternoon, the White House used that language, some 36 hours after the protests began—but it did so in an email sent to reporters in the president’s traveling press pool. The concession was attributed not to the president himself, but rather an unnamed spokesperson.)
In response to the unrest, in other words, the president rejected an opportunity to embrace that most foundational action of a leader in a democracy: to describe reality as it is. To lead through language—language that is shared, language that can spark conversation, language that allows for shared norms, if not shared politics. As Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out, Trump was “presented with the chance to denounce, in plain, direct language, individuals who could fairly be described as ‘white supremacist terrorists,’ or with some other equivalent formulation.” The president, instead, “resorted to euphemism and moral equivalence.”
In that way, because of the actions and inactions of the American president, the violence in Charlottesville came to represent another kind of failure: of facts. Of truths. Of democracy as a participatory project. If the president of the United States won’t personally condemn white supremacists, who will?
One answer—an answer both hopeful and unsettling—suggested itself as Terry McAuliffe and his fellow leaders spoke at the Mt. Zion church on Sunday morning. Here were local politicians and state politicians engaged in the psychic leadership that has traditionally been the province of the president. They were not President Obama in Charleston. They were, however, telling truths that the current president, in these crucial hours, has refused to tell. Jimmy Jackson, 69, who was born and raised in Charlottesville and sang in the choir during Sunday’s service, found himself gratified in particular by that simple gesture of respect the politicians offered: their willingness to give white supremacy a name. “Until it’s called what it is, just like the governor said, it’s going to continue,” Jackson told me.
Chareen Ibraheem, another member of the congregation, wasn’t as convinced. She appreciated that the governor and his entourage had come to Mt. Zion; she wasn’t sure, at the same time, that he really understood the stakes of the issue. And she wasn’t sure that politics need to have such a prominent place at the pulpit. At the end of his speech, McAuliffe had noted his success reducing juvenile detention rates in Virginia. He had trumpeted his restoration of voting rights to formerly disenfranchised Virginians. Terry McAuliffe had offered a message of hope and strength and reconciliation; he had also delivered a very compelling advertisement for Terry McAuliffe.
But the governor had done something else, too: He had offered a reminder, perhaps, of a new state of affairs in American politics. This is a time when mayors, acting against the policy of the federal government, are pledging their support for international treaties. It’s an age of powerful cities. It’s an age that is bringing a new relevance to the old adage that “all politics is local.” On Sunday, a city mayor and a state attorney general and a state lieutenant governor and a state governor rose to speak to a congregation—and a citizenry—that wanted to be reassured, and inspired, and perhaps above all understood. They were doing the work that, once upon a time, an American president might have done.