Members of the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) mid-Atlantic conference voted to boycott the Washington Redskins football team this weekend, the latest in a series of efforts by local faith communities to pressure the club to change its controversial name.
The vote occurred during the annual meeting of the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference, which claims 180 congregations and roughly 40,000 members in the Washington, D.C. area and nearby states. Attendees unanimously supported a resolution asking church members to abstain from attending Redskins games or wearing team paraphernalia until the club changes its name, which is widely considered to be a racial slur.
“I hope this debate will continue to draw attention to an unhealed wound in our cultural fabric,” Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister, told USA Today. “Changing the name of the Washington NFL team will not solve the problems of our country’s many trails of broken promises and discriminatory isolation of our Native American communities. However, a change in the nation’s capital can send a strong message.”
The UCC’s sentiment is shared by a growing number of churches and religious groups who are joining politicians, former team members, and the Native American community in a campaign to change the name of the Washington football team. Faith groups have voiced opposition to the name for decades, but recent months have seen a rapid uptick in faith-based activism around the issue. Last October, a group of more than 100 black clergy agreed to deliver sermons to their congregations opposing the name. A month later, 61 religious leaders from a variety of faith traditions sent a letter to team NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder calling the debate “a moral issue” and decrying the mascot as “offensive and inappropriate.”
UCC minister Rev. Graylan Hagler, who has been fighting the Redskins name for 20 years and was one of the main organizers of the letter and this weekend’s vote, said he considers the debate an extension of the larger struggle for civil rights.
“This is about the dignity and respect that God has afforded to every single human being,” Hagler said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “They can show us on a survey how many people like the name, but it doesn’t have anything to do with that. This name should go out the window, just as Al Jolson went out the window for wearing black face.”
Faith-based social justice groups are joining the fight as well. Sojourners, an evangelical Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., launched a petition drive last month wherein Peggy Flanagan, a Native American person of faith, asked fellow believers to help her “sack the ‘Skins.” In addition, Rev. Jim Wallis, the organization’s president, has publicly blasted the name as “a racial slur, a racist epithet.”
“It’s about respect,” Wallis told ThinkProgress. “Dan Snyder is looking at the bottom line, but for people of faith, the bottom line is always a moral one. This will become a business decision for Dan Snyder — when people of faith from around the country make it morally expensive for him not to change the name.”
Indeed, although faith communities don’t have the star-power of politicians or celebrities, they do hold substantial sway among churchgoers in Washington, D.C., and their moral voice is beginning to concern team officials who would prefer the name remain unchanged. In the lead up to this weekend’s vote by the UCC, the Redskins’ chief financial officer, Karl Schreiber, reportedly called Deckenback in an attempt to dissuade him from supporting the UCC resolution. In what Dreckenback described as a “very unusual interchange,” Schreiber had the minister speak with three Native Americans who supported the team’s name. Dreckenback, however, was unmoved, saying that the conversation failed to address how “a pro sports team that receives substantial public financial support” could use a name that “others find demeaning.”
Still, not all faith communities endorse the name change. When delegates from the Southern Baptist Convention met for their annual meeting in Baltimore last week, they declined to take up a formal resolution to denounce the football mascot as “racially insensitive.” When a delegate asked the governing committee why they had refused to address the issue, a representative from Washington, D.C., took to the microphone to defend the church’s position, saying, “There is a diversity of opinions regarding mascots and team names.” When he finished his comments, the room erupted in applause.
Similarly, the official Redskins chaplain, Rev. Brett Fuller, has thus far been silent on the issue. He also declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Nevertheless, many faith leaders in Washington remain confident that, with enough pressure — particularly from the religious community — the name will change.
“It will change,” Wallis said. “Dan Snyder needs to hear that not only is the Native American community not going to go away, but neither is the faith community.”