It may seem that the Republican Party is willing to condone racism. After all, Donald Trump still has the GOP very much in his thrall, despite his penchant for blowing racist yacht horns—like calling Democratic lawmakers “savages” when he was attacking a Latina, two Black people, a Palestinian, and two Jews. But the GOP is okay with people of color—just as long as they’re line-drawing conservatives. Take the word of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is of the mind that people of color “can go anywhere”—but “you just need to be conservative, not liberal.”
While Graham was referring specifically to people of color in his state of South Carolina, I suspect that the kind of Black politician he has in mind is Leon Benjamin, a Black pastor from Richmond, Virginia. Two years ago, Benjamin challenged incumbent Democrat Don McEachin in the commonwealth’s Fourth Congressional District—and got his head handed to him, 61-38. He’s back for a rematch in 2022 even though he’s running in territory that is even bluer than its predecessor. But that hasn’t dissuaded Benjamin from going full-on deplorable. How deplorable, you ask?
He’s openly bragging about doling out religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
I first noticed Benjamin late last month. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch caught him speaking at the Phoenix edition of the Reawaken America Tour, a right-wing conference organized by podcaster Clay Clark and co-sponsored by Charisma magazine. At that gathering, Benjamin took a swipe at pastors who guide their flocks to wear masks and get vaccinated, calling them “false prophets” and more.
I did a little more digging, and discovered that his full speech was even worse. Benjamin revealed that his church, New Life Harvest Church in Richmond—where he is founder and “bishop”—is offering forms for religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. In my book, this makes Benjamin no different from a drug dealer. But to do so when he almost certainly knows that hospitals are gasping under the weight of the omicron surge?
Well, it turns out that such considerations haven’t mattered to Benjamin for some time. His Twitter account features this pinned tweet:
At first glance, this is a typical treatise of why Benjamin identifies as a line-drawing Black conservative. He claims, with a straight face, that the Democrats have strayed from the vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, people whom he considered role models as a kid. And now he has have prostrated himself before a guy who is basically a Dixiecrat, a guy who has spent his political life trampling on JFK and Dr. King’s vision?
At around the two-minute mark, Benjamin goes from mere deplorable to dangerous. He openly brags that he has written over 17,000 religious exemptions against vaccine mandates. He frames this as protecting “religious liberty” and “freedom of choice.”
The video had me close to screaming and cursing—a reaction that is normally reserved for outrages from Donald Trump. Benjamin has to know that hospitals in the Richmond area, and in the nation as a whole, are being stretched close to their breaking point due to unvaccinated people filling up beds with severe cases of COVID-19. He has to know that one of the biggest reasons that we’re in the third year of this pandemic is that not enough people are vaccinated to protect the elderly, the high-risk, the immunocompromised, and those who can’t (rather than won’t) be vaccinated.
For instance, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and former Secretary of State Colin Powell died of COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. Why? He had multiple myeloma, which attacked his white blood cells and left his immune system weakened, even while vaccinated. Powell was thus dependent on those around him to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, people like Benjamin are making that task more difficult. Benjamin, according to his campaign biography, is a Navy veteran. It's a safe bet that he considers Powell a role model, as do a lot of Black servicemen of his generation. Has he considered, even for a minute, that exemptions like these may have left Powell exposed?
And if you’re worried about freedom, “Pastor,” what about the right of people to not get sick from a deadly virus? Or the rights of hospital workers and other people on the front lines of this virus? Moreover, would you rather see us in a repeat of the stay-at-home orders of the spring of 2020? If you got your self-absorbed head out of your self-absorbed ass, you’d realize that. You’re certainly smart enough to realize it, with your engineering degrees from Virginia Union University and the University of Virginia.
Benjamin is up against nearly impossible odds in November. As a result of redistricting, he’s now running in a district with a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of D+16; the old VA-04 had a PVI of D+10. Even if he wasn’t running as a full-on deplorable, he would need literally everything to break right for him in order to win. Taking his current line, he’s on a death mission. Moreover, a recent poll from Public Policy Polling shows that newly inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s rollback of COVID-19 restrictions is backfiring—and bigly. Virginians actually favor mask and vaccine mandates by double-digit margins.
So why sound the alarm about a guy who is basically a sacrificial lamb? Well, Benjamin is positioning himself to be something of a voice for Black Trumpkins. That makes it all the more important to turn the hot lights on him.
It’s also personal for me, since I came close to sounding a lot like him. Many of you know that in my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I was suckered into joining a hypercharismatic and borderline cultish campus ministry. While it was the only even remotely racially integrated Christian group on campus at the time, the Black folks in that bunch made Clarence Thomas sound socialist—just like Benjamin does now. I look back on this a quarter-century later, and realize that had I not been able to hold out, I probably would have sounded a lot like this guy. Just thinking that I might have been joining Benjamin in his COVID foolishness—despite how much this virus has ravaged people of color—makes me shudder.