At an event Friday evening sponsored by Immanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott discussed issues of faith and race with Governor Hutchinson and D.A. Horton, the pastor of a church in Long Beach, California. Steven Smith, a pastor at Immanuel Baptist, moderated the panel.
When the event was announced last month, Scott faced criticism from LGBT advocates and others for his decision to share a stage with Horton. The website of the pastor’s ministry, Reach Fellowship, states that Christians should oppose “all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography,” along with “racism … greed, selfishness, and vice.”
Scott, who was elected mayor in December on a message of inclusion and unity, addressed the controversy in February with a statement on social media. Scott said he had “fundamental disagreements” with some of Horton’s beliefs but defended his decision to participate in the event. “I will never be able to deliver on my promise to unify our city if I only talk to people who agree with me,” he wrote at the time.
On Friday night, Scott made a point to reaffirm a commitment to inclusion for LGBT people. “I know we’re here to talk about race, but we have to make certain that as we continue to move in this 21st century, there’s more than just race,” he said. “It’s about socioeconomic status, it’s about sexual orientation, it’s about gender identity — and again, that may not be something everyone wants to hear, but that’s the way of life in our current era.”
“We have to understand intersectionality,” the mayor said at another point, adding that Little Rock should “make certain that everyone feels welcome and affirmed to be themselves, irrespective of their religious capacity.”
Most of the discussion, as expected, centered on race. Horton himself barely touched on issues of sexuality or gender. The pastor told the assembled audience — which was largely white — that Christians in the U.S. have a responsibility to address the needs of the marginalized and come to terms with the nation’s history of systemic racism.
“I take issue with the idea of [racial] reconciliation,” Horton said, explaining that the term implied to him that American race relations had once been in a conciliatory state.
“I can’t ever see a time in American history … when there has ever been the nations, en masse, conciled, without any animosity, distrust or hatred. … So that’s why I say Jesus has done the work of conciling us, by making Jew and Gentile into … the family of God.” Christians must do the work of “confessing the sins of the structures we have in our society,” he said.
Horton criticized a “false dichotomy” in American Christianity between liberals concerned with social inequality and conservatives who emphasize theology. The latter category “would say ‘Just preach the gospel, it’s all going to work out in the end. Preach this otherworldly faith.’ Well, that’s what the slaveholders preached to the slaves: ‘You can have Jesus, but you better be out picking cotton in the morning.’ They saw no integration of what faith and humanity looked like,” he said.
In contrast, Horton said, Jesus demanded that his followers pursue a more just social order. “He deconstructed the cultural moorings of his day so that people could see truly what the heart of the Father really was,” he said.
The governor spoke about the importance of building greater diversity in government and other institutions. “If you’re going to have diversity in administration … you have to do it intentionally. You have to work towards that,” he said. He also highlighted the legislature’s decision in 2017 to separate official recognition of the birthdays of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day, a move that Hutchinson had endorsed. The governor obliquely acknowledged the recent, unsuccessful push by state Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock), who was present in the crowd, to remove a star from the state flag that symbolizes the Confederacy.
Scott also offered limited praise for the governor. Though he said he “actively campaigned against” Hutchinson during his first successful gubernatorial run in 2014, Scott said he’s found him willing to communicate in the years since. “Do we agree all the time? No. But we pick up the phone and have a conversation,” he said.
The event, which was held in a ballroom at the Robinson Center, was part of a series sponsored by Immanuel Baptist called “City Center Conversations: Conversations About God, Life, and Faith in the City.” Tickets were $10; door proceeds were donated to Immerse Arkansas, a local nonprofit.