WASHINGTON: George Floyd's death has triggered a groundswell of outrage and activism by religious leaders and faith-based groups across the United States, reminiscent of what occurred during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Conservative and mainstream religious leaders are joining with black churches, progressive Catholics and Protestants, Jewish synagogues and other faith groups in calling for police reforms and efforts to dismantle racism.
Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. The officer has been fired and charged with second-degree murder, but protesters and activists around the world are pushing for deeper change.
"We're seeing it at the grassroots level. We're seeing rabbis walking alongside Muslim leaders, walking alongside Catholic priests and religious sisters," said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice group. "We are seeing that race cuts across all religious denominations."
More than 1,000 rabbis, pastors, imams and other religious leaders held an online conference last week to brainstorm ways to address systemic violence against African Americans.
There is a new "breadth and depth" in the faith-based response, said one participant, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, citing a great hunger for connection after months of social distancing and lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Folks are just so angry. They're angry about enduring racism, they're angry about the incompetent response to COVID, they're angry about bigotry and racism, about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and white supremacy," he said.
Progressive religious groups had an important role in shaping the emerging movement, much as they did in the civil rights movement, but today's actions are attracting a more diverse set of participants, Pesner said.
Republican Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with strong support from evangelical Christians and Catholics. But Floyd's death and Trump's criticism of protesters may be a factor when members of those religious groups go to the polls in November.
While federal tax rules prevent houses of worship from taking an overt partisan stance, clergy are not banned from expressing their personal opinions.
Trump was sharply criticised by mainstream Catholic and Episcopal leaders after protesters were forcibly cleared for a staged photo of him last week in front of Washington's historic St John's Episcopal Church across from the White House.
Some right-leaning religious leaders have since called him out or joined protests, unlike in the 1960s when some white evangelical leaders, including the Reverend Billy Graham, did not take part in the civil rights movement.
Televangelist Pat Robertson chided the president last week for threatening to send in military troops if governors did not quell violent protests: "He spoke of them as being jerks. You just don't do that, Mr President. It isn't cool!"
Joel Osteen, the senior pastor from Texas megachurch Lakewood, marched with protesters last week in Houston. "We need to stand against injustice and stand with our black brothers and sisters," said Osteen.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a Mormon, joined hundreds of Christian evangelicals at a march in Washington on Sunday, and tweeted out "Black Lives Matter".
Some churches have also stepped up efforts to boost voter registration in recent weeks, much as churches did in the 1960s.
Data collected after Floyd's death from the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute showed 37 per cent of white Catholics held favourable views of Trump, down from 49 per cent in 2019, and a drop from the 60 per cent who voted for Trump in 2016.