Through a sermon series and other means, my congregation recently has been focusing on matters of race in the United States, including how to help people understand that what we think of as race is a social construct and that it has no basis in biology.
You might be tempted (especially if you are white) to think that more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and the resultant destruction of slavery and that almost 65 years after the start of the Civil Rights Movement, we'd be done talking about racial divisions, bigotry and systemic racism. But, in fact, the religious lessons about how God views each of us as of inestimable value, no matter what color we are, seem to be as important as ever, if not more so.
Parts of the nation and the world, after all, are aflame with violence rooted in racist thinking -- from Charlottesville to New Zealand. And unless we Americans -- white, black, red, yellow and multi-racial -- know our own disgusting history and the patterns of twisted thinking that have led us to where we are today, we never will be able to create what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the "Beloved Community."
Yes, it's important for each of us to examine our own hearts and practices to see whether and how we might be perpetuating racist systems and engaging in bigoted individual thinking and behavior. (The book to read is White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DeAngelo.) But it's also important for us to see and acknowledge our own national history and how that has helped to create the systems that perpetuate racist thinking and action today.
For instance, are you aware of the highly influential book (not just then, but also today) published just over 100 years ago by Madison Grant? It was called The Passing of the Great Race. (A 2017 reprint of it still sells pretty well on Amazon.) And this article in the current issue of The Atlantic describes how Grant's white supremacist thinking changed American government policy in the early 20th Century and then and now infected the thinking of many Americans, including some of our current politicians.
Grant, a Yale graduate and Wall Street lawyer, argued that immigration and race mixing were killing off the white race, which he asserted was the supreme race that was meant to rule.
As he wrote in his 1916 book, "We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America 'an asylum for the oppressed,' are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all 'distinctions of race, creed or color,' the type of native Americans of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo." (His term "native American" did not refer to the original residents of our continent but, rather, to the white immigrants who began to arrive with Columbus.)
As the Atlantic piece notes, American presidents climbed on board Grant's misguided, xenophobic train and kept it rolling toward today. Teddy Roosevelt praised Grant's racist thinking. Warren G. Harding declared that there is "a fundamental, eternal, inescapable difference" between the races and declared this: "Racial amalgamation there cannot be." And Calvin Coolidge wrote that "Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.”
Where did they get this junk? Grant was a primary source. It was Grant, after all, who, in his book, wrote this:
". . .the view that the Negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization, played no small part with the sentimentalists of the Civil War period, and it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes and going to school and to church do not transform a Negro into a white man."
In some ways, misplaced nostalgia for the time when whites conclusively dominated all of life in the U.S. was at least partly behind Donald J. Trump's 2016 campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again." His brutal rhetoric about "s. . .hole" countries, his efforts to create immigration bans and the adoption of white nationalist stands by some of his supporters is evidence of that.
One of the results of Grant's book and its concern about racial suicide by whites was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic piece, Grant's thinking, adopted by some members of the U.S. Senate and House, helped to "preserve the notion that fair-haired and -skinned people are responsible for all the world's great achievements." Once the bill was passed, Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania declared that "The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent." (Sometimes permanent conditions don't last very long.)
This kind of Grant-based thinking also found its way to Adolf Hitler, who noted approvingly that the U.S. "simply excludes the immigration of certain races." It was a model Hitler would follow, and the Nazis gave various awards to Americans who had promulgated this thinking.
And Grant's thinking, Serwer writes, is still evident today "in the corridors of American power."
What recognizing the deep American roots of this racist nonsense does (the U.S. is, after all, a nation founded on white supremacy), he says, "is to call attention to certain disturbing assumptions that have come to define the current immigration debate in America -- in particular, that intrinsic human worth is rooted in national origin, and that a certain ethnic group has a legitimate claim to permanent political hegemony in the United States." In other words, whites are superior and should rule.
So Grantism lives. And faith communities whose primary message is about the requirement to love all of humanity because all of humanity is precious in God's sight need to be about the task of destroying Grantism's simplistic, erroneous, monochromatic and destructive message.
(The photo you see here today is one I took a few years ago in Macon, Ga., where an old public transportation building and its racially discriminatory sign has been preserved so everyone can witness this appalling aspect of American history.)
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A THREAT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?
A little-noticed court case in Washington, D.C., may affect religious liberty for all of us, the author of this RNS column asserts. This is why we need good journalists covering religion, including court cases. This one might have slipped through without much notice.
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THE BOOK CORNER
The book I'm introducing you to today is related (in a quite Christian evangelical way) to the main topic above. Author Jonathan Walton, who works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has written Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free. What Walton calls lies are commonly heard statements that in many ways reinforce the dominance of whiteness in the U.S. but that contradict his understanding of Christianity. Among his list of lies: "We are a Christian nation," "We are a melting pot" and "All men are created equal." In effect, Walton is urging readers to resist making America an idol: "The dream so profoundly called for by Martin Luther King Jr. was not the American dream but a longing for the kingdom of God." He then confesses that for quite a long time, "I was willing, like so many other Christians, to receive America in exchange for the kingdom of God." Too often, he writes, what he and others in the U.S. were being offered what was he calls "White American Folk Religion," rooted in a white supremacy absolutely at odds with the Christian gospel. Even if you don't buy Walton's thinking about the centrality of Christianity, his analysis of his "twelve lies" is worth reading and responding to.
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P.S.: My congregation, Second Presbyterian, has created a team to do the annual AIDS Walk KC this year (April 27). I'd love it if you could help the AIDS Service Foundation by making a donation here. And if you choose Second as the team you want to support, well, double thanks. And, yes, I plan to walk that day.