By now, you’ve probably heard about the comments Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) posted on Facebook.
Facebook post made by Rep. Sheila Butt.
Butt was responding to an open letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Jan. 26 memo called for the 2016 presidential candidates to cast aside fears of Islamophobia in their platforms.
The majority floor leader made two posts. First, she wrote that “it is time for a council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this country.” She later wrote that we need more groups advocating for Western cultures.
Since then, several groups have called out Butt. CAIR released a statement denouncing the representative. A spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville said the Republican party should be embarrassed. Democrats have used the opportunity to criticize Butt, saying she spend more time focusing on real issues instead of Facebook.
Butt said down with me yesterday for an interview. Please find below the first part of that interview. (Our server went down at midnight last night, so Part 2 will come soon.)
Alanna Autler: First off, what do you want to say about these accusations that you had made racist comments on Facebook? What did you mean?
Sheila Butt: For you to ask me that, it might be wise if I just read you a comment that I have sent out to everyone because this is genuinely how I feel about this. (Reading) It really saddens me that we’ve come to a place in society where every comment by a conservative is automatically scrutinized as being racist. Instead of realizing my post was actually about making sure that every race, religion and culture had a seat at the table, liberal groups have once again incorrectly and falsely said this is something about race, and it certainly was never intended to be that. It seems like if we could take jumping at race out of the situation and look at comments like that for what they’re worth, we would have a better chance of fixing the problems that face every single one of us as women, as Christians, as every group in the United States. And my comment was to say, yes, CAIR has a seat at the table. The Christian Coalition could have a seat at the table. The Western culture could have a seat at the table. We all need a seat at the table when we’re discussing what’s best for everyone in the United States of America.
AA: You made a reference to a group known as the NAAWP. It has some historical connotations. The former KKK leader used it and tried to advocate for the advancement of white people.
SB: I know, I think that’s so funny because I had no clue about that. That was an acronym that at that morning, I simply made up to say, ‘National Association for the Advancement of Western Peoples’. I had no idea that had ever been used for that before. So that’s something that just came out of nowhere, actually.
AA: But in general, don’t we assume when we say, “Western people,” we think “Christian, white”? Isn’t that the stereotype that goes along with Western people?
SB: I don’t think that anymore when we look at our culture and we look at all the people and the immigrants that have come from all the years and have become a part of our Western culture. I don’t think that’s how a majority of us see that anymore. I certainly don’t. I mean, America is genuinely the melting pot and our Western culture is made up of many, many types of people and cultures. But my point was, and it’s amazing that it seems to make it more narrow, when the point was all these people, not just one organization, should have a seat at the table.
AA: Can it be argued, considering the history here in the South, especially of slavery and other sort of institutions here, can it be argued that Western cultures do have a seat at the table, as whites have been historically privileged in society?
SB: You know, I don’t feel that way. I came from Rockford, Illinois, so racism was never a part of my culture, has never been a part of my culture. So racism is something that as I, as a Christian, and as someone from Rockford, Illinois, is something I do not identify with.
AA: If you don’t identify with it, can you realize that it does exist here?
SB: Historically, I think….certainly, I don’t feel like it does now, as what I’ve learned in history, historically. I think we’ve made great strides in that. And I as a Christian, and all of my Christians friends, we understand that God doesn’t see color. That color has nothing to do with us. So I don’t feel that.
AA: Religion is also something I think a lot of people feel passionately about, especially CAIR because they’re one of the biggest American-Islamic associations in the country. Were those comments made to repudiate the strides CAIR is trying to make?
SB: And if you looked at my second comment, my second comment said, we need a coalition for Christians to be at the table, also. We need a coalition for all religions. If we are going to have one religion at the table, we should have all the religions at the table. I think that’s the way America was built – for every organization to have a seat at the table.
AA: What’s being done in the Tennessee legislature to make sure there is a seat for everybody at the table? Are there any sort of subcommittees or any sort of organizations here that do truly represent every religion?
SB: I think we hear from them every day. We have people from all organizations coming in and talking to us. This particular post was talking about the Department of Homeland Security and saying that we all need a seat at that table. As far as a woman here in the House of Representatives, I have not felt any kind…anything like that. I hope our that black caucus doesn’t feel anything like that. Certainly, they know we respect them. I mean they were brought here like every single one of us, and we respect them and admire their accomplishments, too. I will tell you John DeBerry is one of my dearest friends in the world.
*Note: Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is the former chairman of the Tennessee black caucus.
AA: Obviously, this is on social media and we know how things can appear on social media without context. For people who may believe you were referencing the NAAWP, what do you have to say to them? Because that is an organization that’s been referenced in history before.
SB: And I can say it like I said in my statement. I am so disappointed that we look at everything through that lens right now because that was certainly not anything I was looking when I made that comment. So I’m sorry that we looked through that lens and I really believe we can’t solve our problems until we all look through that lens together and solve our problems together as people in the United States of America and solve our problems in the state of Tennessee and as Americans together, collectively. And I don’t think race, gender, color, religion plays a part in that. We all should have a seat at the table. That’s genuinely what the whole thing was about.
AA: There are some organizations who have cried out for an apology. And I know you said you are sorry for the way this was viewed through a lens and the way it was interpreted. Will you issue an apology on what you said?
SB: I stand by my statements completely: that every person should have a seat at the table and every group. I think most Americans agree with that.
AA: Did you see the statement put out by CAIR today?
SB: I have heard about it. No, I have not seen it.
AA: They are asking for Republican leaders to reject Islamophobia. What’s your reaction to that?
SB: (Laughs) I don’t know much about Islamophobia, so I don’t know about that. And I don’t think Republicans ever have had Islamophobia. Just because of this comment doesn’t mean they should be accused of that whatsoever.
AA: It appears as if the comment, at least one comment has been deleted [the post referring to NAAWP]. What was the reasoning behind that?
SB: If someone were to look at the second comment, they would have certainly understood that because the first comment – someone immediately, probably within five minutes called me and said, “Sheila, that could be construed as racist.” And I said, “Well, certainly, my intention is not to be racist, so I will delete that comment and make my point that I am talking about Western people and other organizations, a Christian coalition, having a seat at the table.”
AA: So you were telling me before that you were unaware that acronym stood for what we thought for white people —
SB: Totally unaware.
AA: Who brought that up to you? And when? Of what it actually stood for?
SB: Someone in Maury County mentioned to me that day and called me. No. No, I had no idea of that, of what you are asking me until today. Never even knew that until today.
AA: Until today.
SB: Until someone mentioned to me that that was on their website, that it used to stand for something else, other than what I have put it on there for.
AA: And when did you delete the comment, again?
SB: I deleted the comment within five minutes after it was up there.
AA: But someone told you today [what it meant]. And what was your reaction?
SB: I really thought it was funny because I honestly never knew that that was out there for any other reason whatsoever. I mean, I was very surprised and it was a little bit humorous because I had no clue.
AA: Is this politics? Is this politicking? You talk about how liberals have misconstrued some of this. Do you believe people are actually concerned, or do you think you’re being attacked?
SB: I think people are going to…look, my comment had nothing to do with racism. People are looking at that as a way, looking through that lens, saying this Christian conservative is a racist. And I’m as far as a racist as anyone you could find. Born in Rockford, Illinois, have sisters in Christ all over the world that I’ve been to visit in every country. This is absurd. And it saddens me we’ve come to this point.
To be continued….