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Opinion: Sen. Mike Braun's comments on interracial marriage reveal classic White Catholic racism

Legal expert Gunnar Gundersen explains the connection between "states' rights" discourse, the pro-life movement, and White Catholic capitulation on anti-Blackness.

Senator Mike Braun (R) of Indiana.

My existence and my family have always been under constant threat.

In 1986, the KKK showed up to the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration at the San Jacinto Monument to protest—what else?—interracial couples. (Apparently, Willie Nelson was there, and he was too encouraging of such things as miscegenation.)

I was there too, a small Black child, and the product of an interracial marriage. Fast-forward 36 years, and my existence as such is still under attack. Instead of a KKK terrorist, though, it’s a US Senator and my own co-religionist: Mike Braun of Indiana.

Now, my wife and I are the targets, and my children have to experience what seemed so far in my past. But this is more than a personal story. It is one deep-seated in the consciousness of many White Americans’ ideas of citizenship and anti-Blackness. And this incident with Braun is just one chapter in this American saga—where, sadly, the Church has been and continues to be complicit.

So: what exactly did he say?

In a news interview discussing his views on the Constitution and the Supreme Court, Braun offered his opinion that Roe v. Wade should be overturned not because fetuses are persons, but because abortion is not a federal matter and should be handled at the state level.

Afterward, a reporter asked about other issues that had been traditionally considered state issues, like interracial marriage. His response?

“Yes, I think that’s something that if you’re not wanting the Supreme Court to weigh in on issues like that, you’re not going to be able to have your cake and eat it too. I think that’s hypocritical.”

In other words, once Roe is overturned, a principle would be set in place that there are state-level issues over which the federal government has no say. One of these issues would be marriage—including interracial marriage. Braun makes his point clear: if you want to overturn Roe, you’d be a hypocrite if you try to stop bans on interracial marriage.

Let that sink in. I certainly did.

Braun is a Catholic. Yet, unlike in 2020 when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—another Catholic—criticized Saint Damien of Molokai, no emergency response videos to Braun’s comments were forthcoming this month from prominent bishops like Robert Barron.

Indeed, no statements were made by any Catholic clergy with a national profile or office. But here I was—a Black Catholic, the product of an interracial marriage, now in my own interracial marriage—targeted by a “pro-life” champion. (Braun has an A+ rating from the Susan B Anthony List.)

As Alessandra Harris has said, there is a clear connection between the pro-life movement and White Supremacy. There were openly racist guests invited to the podium of this year’s March for Life. A year earlier, the USCCB’s Catholic University of America allowed one of them, Abby Johnson, to headline an event on campus. And now, in the name of overturning Roe, a White Catholic US Senator is implying it is not possible to overturn Roe and preserve Loving v. Virginia (the case ruling that said interracial marriage bans are unconstitutional).

At what point will the Catholic Church realize that its current political posture is demanding that Black people co-sign their self-destruction in order to be considered orthodox members of the community? In what world can they expect us to stay for that? Are the statistics, which show Black Catholics have the highest attrition rate, any surprise given these developments?

Some have pointed out that Braun “clarified” his statement and made important concessions against discrimination. But there is a problem with that narrative: in reality, from a legal perspective, Braun has not walked anything back. He has essentially said: ‘Can we just go back to discussing Roe and pretend that I didn’t tell you exactly how that would overturn Loving? I don’t think the states should ban interracial marriage, but I’ll refuse to say the Supreme Court can stop them if they do.’

First, he has not acknowledged that he said something racist. Second, he said he misunderstood the question. But as you can see from the transcript, the reporter was quite clear about the topic being discussed. Braun’s efforts to massage the fiasco into a “misunderstanding” is such an obvious distortion of reality that it brings his honesty into question. Again, none of his clarifications have addressed the legal reasoning he offered in his original interview.

The simplest way to walk it back would have been for Baun to say: “Loving is a good law, and it would be good law even if Roe is overturned for x, y, z reasons.” His refusal to do so speaks volumes. Rather than affirm a case he brought into doubt, his office said this:

“Let me be clear on that issue—there is no question the Constitution prohibits discrimination of any kind based on race, that is not something that is even up for debate, and I condemn racism in any form, at all levels and by any states, entities, or individuals."

This artfully ignores key constitutional questions raised by Braun in his earlier statement. He may believe that the Constitution “prohibits discrimination of any kind based on race,” but he never explains: 1) what he thinks constitutes discrimination, 2) in what areas of life the Constitution can prevent discrimination, or 3) whether litigants could seek redress for that prohibited discrimination in federal courts.

We cannot assume Braun has the same definition of “discrimination” as we do. For example, the Supreme Court held that separate could be equal in Plessy v. Ferguson. Even in the famous desegregation case Brown v. The Board of Education, the Court only reversed Plessy to the extent that it applied to education. In the tax-exemption case Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), it was argued that the school’s interracial dating ban was not discriminatory, because it was applied to all races equally.

The Court rejected that reasoning, but Braun has not stated whether he agrees with that logic within his understanding of “discrimination.” Given that he has expressed support for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, it’s unclear where his sympathies lie with respect to the legal meaning of discrimination.

In other words, it’s one thing to say the discrimination is prohibited, but it’s another to say you have an individual right to enforce that prohibition before the Supreme Court.

Ironically, Braun is trying to avoid accountability for his statements on Loving and Roe, without offering any explanation for how or why his constitutional reasoning has changed. And the reason is clear: because he can't. He is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Where does that leave families like mine? And speaking of food, what spiritual nourishment is left for us to eat in a Church that counts Braun as a member in good standing? To cheer me up, some have pointed out that people like Braun are not “real Catholics”, but we will not be able to move forward until we as a Church accept that the Brauns in the Church are the ones with the power to shape it and its national politics. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help.

I refuse to further the “beautiful lie” that the Church as an institution has always been anti-racist in the Americas. The Gospel is anti-racist. Saints have witnessed to this truth. Black and Indigenous Catholics have witnessed it with their lives. White allies do exist. But bishops, priests, schools, and Catholics in good standing have profited from and pushed White Supremacy, colonization, genocide, exclusion, degradation, oppression, sexual exploitation, and many other crimes against humanity—all in the name of the Church and God.

We need to understand who has had and continues to wield power in the Church and shape it. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney—who wrote, in his Supreme Court capacity, that Black people could not be citizens—was a Catholic in good standing. Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore owned and sold enslaved Black people.

Simply put, this kind of behavior is not an aberration in the Church, and I don’t see enough humility or repentance about it. The failure of the Church to make reparations is clear from the witness of people like Braun. How can someone from our Church reach his level of social standing in our community, if we were as antiracist as we claim?

White Catholics need to grapple with the fact that, as a group, they have usually responded to anti-Catholic bigotry by advocating for and showing how they could be strong allies in supporting White Supremacy, seeking assimilation on those grounds.

In fact, there is evidence that even the pro-life movement is not only presently linked to White Supremacy, but historically built upon it. Indeed, many of the evangelical communities that partner with Catholic groups against abortion only rejected Roe after a legal argument was crafted that would exclude segregation—like that at Bob Jones University—from federal judicial review. Once that legal logic was put in place, the movement became, in earnest, an evangelical one.

Tellingly, in 1967, Ronald Reagan himself, then the governor of California, signed the country’s most liberal abortion law up to that point. But when he ran for president, he ran on an anti-abortion agenda—and promised to help Bob Jones University get its tax-exempt status back. These issues were not unconnected. It was all part of the GOP’s new Southern Strategy developed by Lee Atwater (a future Catholic convert). Atwater famously explained that strategy this way:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

This, of course, echoes Braun’s words that “we’re better off having states manifest their points of view, rather than homogenizing it across the country as Roe v. Wade did”. As Edwin Meese III—who advised Reagan to sign the California abortion law—explained in 2021, the legal issue that concerns most conservatives is not the personhood of the fetus, but the idea that “Roe [is] the prime example of disrespect to our Constitution’s allocation of power and the proper judicial role”.

But this focus is not race-neutral. The 14th Amendment was originally thought to support rather than restrict segregation when it was first passed. So the idea of winding back the interpretative clock and restricting the Court’s power to review non-explicit rights—as the means of reversing Roe—cannot be separated from the ongoing Civil Rights struggle.

This is something Braun clearly understands and carefully explained. In the words of Meese:

“Reversing Roe and Casey will not ban abortion. States and the people will be free, as they are in many other areas, to decide such matters of personal morality.”

Indeed, racism is viewed by many conservatives as an attitude or as a matter of “personal morality”—since structural and system racism is a reality they do not accept. Even Reagan argued that racist discrimination was a matter of personal morality:

“If an individual wants to discriminate against Negros or others in selling or renting his house he has a right to do so, even if such prejudice is morally wrong.”

Thus, it cannot be denied that within the current political coalition formed to reverse Roe, Catholics are functionally working for a political regime in which states will be able to allow (or even mandate) discrimination under the guise of states’ rights.

With this in mind, it becomes clear why White Supremacists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Abby Johnson are on the March for Life platform. It becomes obvious why Bishop Joseph Strickland championed Fr James Altman—who defended lynching during a homily. And it becomes evident why Braun would view upholding Loving as hypocritical if Roe is overturned.

Am I saying that the Church’s teaching on abortion is rooted in White Supremacy? No. But how teaching is implemented through concrete political action in a pluralistic society is not a straightforward issue. The Church has engaged in building a political coalition that will effectively gut the 14th Amendment, Substantive Due Process, and the Equal Protection Clause—all of which undergird most of the rights of minorities in America.

And, significantly, it is a coalition whose most influential members are seeking to avoid establishing the personhood of the fetus, which is what Church teaching actually hinges on. Rather, its goal is to stop what it views as judicial overreach, which will allow states to reimpose explicit White Supremacy—as many are on the cusp of doing now.

I am not sure how we can move forward together as Church. That is my reality as a Black Catholic, one who is in an interracial marriage and is the product of one. That is the reality of too many Catholics on a whole host of human rights issues, including racism.

I didn’t bring my interracial marriage into the Catholic Church and raise my children in the faith just to see my coreligionists hand racists the victory they wanted in 1986: the denial of my identity, as well as my family’s, as children of God. I cannot and will not accept that my Jesus wants that.

In the spirit of Servant of God Thea Bowman, whose feast we celebrate today, I ask: “Do you hear me, Church?”

Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.

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