A note from the news editor: Mark Charles has been active in the Christian Reformed Church, having previously served Classis Red Mesa (regional group of Native American churches) with a licence to exhort and participating in the Task Force to study the Doctrine of Discovery, which Synod 2016 declared to be a heresy. In May 2019 he announced his candidacy in the U.S. 2020 presidential election, running as an independent. The following article from Religion News Service is published in accordance with The Banner's subscription to the service. It has been edited for length. The original article can be found here.
Mark Charles may be the only 2020 presidential candidate who can list working as a Christian preacher on his résumé. But when you ask him how his faith informs his politics, he doesn’t exactly preach.
“I’m a member of a community that has endured genocide, the horrors of (Native American) boarding schools and incredible oppression because some people thought their job was to legislate their theologies and make their nation Christian,” Charles, a Navajo citizen, told Religion News Service in a recent interview. “Read the teachings of Jesus—that was never his goal. I’m a Christian, yeah. But I am not trying to make my nation Christian. I’m not trying to legislate my theology.”
Indeed, Charles is loathe to pierce the boundary between church and state: “I’m deeply convinced both the church and the nation will be healthier when the two get out of bed with each other.”
Even so, the consultant, advocate and Washington, D.C., resident has a lot to say about religion. In fact, Charles’ critique of American history, particularly American religious history, is a big part of why he launched his campaign for president in the first place—and why he’s running as an independent.
Charles—who grew up in New Mexico, the son of an American-Dutch mother and a Navajo father—is not your average politician, and certainly not your average presidential candidate.
He does not appear overly concerned with the traditional hallmarks of campaigning since launching his bid for the Oval Office in May. When asked a complex question, he rarely resorts to sound bites, choosing instead to offer a complex answer over the course of several minutes (even his announcement video was nearly nine minutes long). For his (nearly two-hour) interview with RNS, he wore a T-shirt and sat in a busy dining spot in Washington, but not once did he stand up to shake hands or talk politics with any of the hundreds of people who meandered by, nor did any patrons outwardly express any knowledge of who he was or of his campaign for president.
However, Charles is absolutely serious about his campaign and very concerned about the plight of America’s poor and marginalized, particularly Native American communities. He explained that the decision to run for president came after he organized an event in Washington in December 2012 to draw attention to an apology to Native Americans written into the 2010 Defense Act.
Charles was frustrated by what he saw as poor attendance at the gathering, but he remained committed to highlighting issues important to Native American communities and other marginalized populations.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender and class,” he said. “It’s a conversation I would put on par with the Truth and Reconciliation commissions of South Africa, Rwanda and Canada. I’d call it truth and conciliation because reconciliation implies there was a previous harmony, which is inaccurate.”
Then came the 2016 election cycle. Charles found himself especially impressed with the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he credited with helping trigger a national awareness about economic inequality.
Suddenly, Charles had an idea.
“Every four years we have a dialogue about who we are and where we’re going—that’s our presidential election cycle,” Charles said.
His candidacy comes as indigenous activism in the United States is on the upswing, bolstered by major spirituality-infused protest movements such as the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Even so, Charles insists he is not a protest candidate. He said his independent status is a necessity, because he believes a candidate with his agenda would never win the primaries in either major political party.
“If I were running a protest campaign, I’d be running as a Democrat,” he said. “I could raise more money and I could maybe get into the debates. I could change the dialogue, but I would never be nominated.”
One of Charles’ core campaign issues is his fierce, long-standing criticism of the Doctrine of Discovery, which he addresses in his forthcoming book “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.” He said his fascination with the doctrine emerged out of his experience pastoring the Denver Christian Indian Center in Colorado, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, where the mostly Native American congregation pushed him to contextualize worship for indigenous cultures.
“The question we began asking as a church is: What does it mean to be Navajo and be Christian?” He said. “How does our language, our culture, our understanding (of) the sacred affect or even dictate the way we worship and follow Christ?”
This spiritual exploration eventually led him to confront the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept that dates back to the 15th century when a series of papal bills laid out the theological justification for European colonizers to conquer lands held by non-Christian indigenous populations and subjugate the inhabitants. Charles has lectured extensively on the subject and wrote about the concept at length for Red Letter Christians, a progressive Christian group and website.
Ultimately, Charles said, he understands his pursuit of the White House is, at best, a long shot. But he hopes to lean on the Native American vote, holding his initial campaign stops primarily on Native American reservations and indigenous sites. According to his campaign, if he organized every Native American over the age of 18 in the country, that alone would be enough to put him on the ballot in every state.
Charles insists, though, that his focus isn’t just on Native American issues, but also on building a nation that is more inclusive and more whole.
“We don’t have a common memory,” he said. “We have the white majority that remembers the mythological history of discovery, expansion, opportunities, and exceptionalism. Then you have communities of color, women, and LGBTQ people that have the lived history of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, sexism, exclusion, boarding schools, internment camps, and families separated (at) our borders. There’s no common memory, and because of that, community is almost nonexistent at a national level right now. We can’t even talk to each other.”
He added: “The theme of my campaign is, I want to build a nation … where for the very first time ‘We the people’ truly means all the people.”