Doubts and interpretations in US religions

GJ Boris Allan

One has to be very careful when talking about any religion in the USA, and especially careful when examining any of the multiple Christian religions.

This seems always to have been the case, and an early admonition advised against behaving badly in the eyes of the Christian God:

... for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

— John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1630)

[In the original vernacular: “... for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world,”]

In A Model of Christian Charity, though God moved in mysterious ways, Winthrop knew that “GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission”. God had so disposed, of course, that neither was Winthrop poor nor was he mean or in submission, and he became governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony for twelve out of the next nineteen years.

Though some colonists were in the New World to become richer, many had arrived hoping to escape religious persecution they had encountered in Europe, and some came both for religious and for financial reasons – so, in order to promote social solidarity in a testing environment, it was very important to establish what obligations the rich had towards the poor, when being rich or being poor was God’s gift to some individuals: “God still reserves the property of these gifts to Himself”. God and the world (well, at least England) were watching how the colonists behaved, laying a metaphorical siege to the colonists (as in a metaphorical city on a metaphorical hill). An important aspect of Jesus’s message was charity to those in need; so, to protect those in the city, Winthrop wanted to make sure that the colonists behaved in a charitable manner – to build walls of concern.

The notion that the USA was like a “city on a hill” was a favourite of Ronald Reagan, and in his farewell address to the nation (11 January 1989) he said:

I've thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill’. The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.

As we can read, Winthrop did not say that the city was shining, and he was not describing the country he imagined – the city was not “shining” but rather city was being scrutinized by the “eyes of all people”, and by God.

Good news about New England

In the early days of the colonies, high-pressure sales pitches justifying and glorifying the colonies were rife – influential people in England (usually London) had to be influenced in a positive (that is, pro-colonial) way.

The tract “GOOD NEWS FROM NEW ENGLAND: or A true Relation of things very remarkable at the Plantation of Plymouth in NEW ENGLAND” predated Winthrop’s epistle (“Showing the wondrous providence and goodness of GOD, in their preservation and continuance, being delivered from many apparent deaths and dangers”). In old England, the New England colonists’ reputation was not of the highest, and so the Good News set the record straight:

... because of a disorderly colony that are dispersed, and most of them returned, to the great prejudice and damage of him that set them forth; who as they were a stain to old England that bred them, in respect of their lives and manners amongst the Indians : so it is to be feared, will be no less to New England in their vile and clamourous reports, because she would not foster them in their desired idle courses.

— Edward Winslow, “To the Reader”, Good News from New England (1624)

Winslow complained about the quality of some people who been sent from old England: senior officials who had only wanted “to make themselves great”, individuals who were “the Image of men endued with bestial, yea, diabolical affections”, or “seeming Christians, have made Christ and Christianity stink in the nostrils of the poor infidels, and so laid a stumbling block before them”. Given Winslow’s assertions it seems that the city on the hill had more than a few devilish residents, so in talking of a model of Christian charity Winthrop was correctly concerned about reactions in old England, and whether the residents were dealing falsely with his God.

Another tract found in Governor Winthrop’s papers was entitled “Reasons for the Plantation in New England” and though its authorship is not known (possibly Winthrop in part), it was a well-known piece of propaganda for the Massachusetts Bay settlement. The first reason given for the plantation was:

It will be a service to the Church of great consequence to carry the Gospel into those parts of the world, to help on the fullness of the coming of the Gentiles, and to raise a bulwark against the kingdom of AnteChrist, which the Jesuits labor to rear up in those parts.

Reasons for the Plantation in New England (c1628)

Adverse views from England included were examined and answered, for example:

Objection I — We have no warrant to enter upon that land, which has been so long possessed by others.

Answer 1: ... God hath given to the sons of men a double right to the earth – there is a natural right and a civil right. ... the natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land by, and so have no other but a natural right to those countries. So if we leave them sufficient for their own use, we may lawfully take the rest, there being more than enough for them and for us.


Answer 3: God hath consumed the natives with a great plague in those parts, so as there be few inhabitants left.

Of course, given medical knowledge at the time, perhaps the colonists did not realize they were the cause of the plague, though Winthrop wrote in 1634 of the smallpox plague amongst the indigenous peoples: “So as God hath thereby cleared out title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection." An interesting assembly of reasons: Answer 2 basically claimed the colonists’ beneficent actions and mere presence more than balanced any harm arising from lands lost by the the indigenous peoples (sound familiar?).

[Winthrop is quoted in James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1996).]

This can be compared to another take on the same events:

In this five-hundredth-anniversary year of Columbus’s voyage, I'm tired of hearing him trashed. I don’t give a hoot that he gave some Indians [an illness] that they didn’t have immunity against. We can’t change that we’re here. We're the best country on earth and I’m sick and tired of people trying to change history so as to portray this country as an instrument of evil.

— Rush Limbaugh, The way things ought to be (1992)

Martin Luther King, however, noted of his country:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.

— Martin Luther King, Why we can’t wait (1964)

Slavery and the masters

Frederick Douglass had escaped from slavery in Baltimore (Maryland), had gained his freedom, and in 1845 had written a book about his life as a slave to support his campaign for the release of all slaves. Douglass is worth quoting at length on the subject of US Christian religions. In his book (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave, 1845) he had been critical of some Christian practices, and, in an appendix, he was careful to assure people that he was not anti-Christian, because he knew that he was likely to alienate some he did not wish to alienate:

I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation.

Once he had assured his readers he was not the Antichrist, Douglass went on to explain what he was opposed in some US religions:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.

He then gave examples:

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

— Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (1845)

About 200 years after Winthrop, Harriet Beecher Stowe agreed that people had to be true to their Christian ideals, or suffer the consequences:

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved, – but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among The Lowly (1853)

According to some accounts, a Biblical tract popular with white slave owners and their (probably slave-owning) Christian ministers was St Paul's admonition in the Epistles to the Ephesians (as remembered by Howard Thurman’s grandmother, who had been a slave): “Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters ... as unto Christ.” Often this would be accompanied by a demonstration to the congregation of slaves that it was God’s will that they were slaves, and – if they were good and happy slaves – God would bless them. Thurman’s grandmother vowed to herself that if freedom ever came (and she learnt to read) she would never read that part of the Bible.

[Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (1975).]

However, not everything is as clear as it seems at first. Consider the admonition for slaves to be obedient as it appears in different versions of the bible:

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ
— Ephesians 6:5, King James's Version of the Bible (1611)

Servants, be obedient unto them that according to the flesh are your masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
— Ephesians 6:5, Revised Version of the Bible (1885)

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ;
— Ephesians 6:5, Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1946)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ;
— Ephesians 6:5, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1989)

Note that the earliest bible, the King James’s Version (KJV), does not mention “slaves”, rather it mentions “servants”. This is the same King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) commemorated in Virginia’s eponymous Jamestown, founded in 1607 by Captain John Smith, who later moved to the Massachusetts Bay colony.

When the colonies started, and the KJV was being written, slaves were neither as visible nor as important in Britain as in the colonies. In August 1619, colonists in Virginia bought 20 Africans from a Dutch slave ship on its way from Angola to Mexico, as indentured servants, though there might have been African indentured servants earlier – in a 1619 census of Virginia, there were 32 Africans. Not all indentured servants (black and white) achieved freedom, and indenture was very common in Virginia – there were an estimated 300 African and 4000 European indentured servants in 1650.

It is often supposed that King James promoted a new translation because he wanted a version that honoured kings (and their divine right to rule), and thus slavery was not part of his concern. Indeed, slaves were few in England, Scotland, and Wales, and James was more concerned with keeping his troublesome citizens in their place than he was with dominating slaves. In the Revised Version we still read about servants, but after a war about slavery this might be expected. “Slaves” appear in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – one wonders why.

[The original Greek word doulos can be translated as “servant” (as in the KJV) but it has more than one interpretation – others are “slave” (as in the RSV), “bondsman”, or simply a man of servile condition.]

If Thurman's grandmother remembered correctly, then the white Christian ministers were using something other than a version of the KJV, or they had changed the language to support slavery. Based on work and writings of many earlier decades, a post-civil-war commentary on the Bible explained the KJV:

Servants - literally, “slaves”.
masters according to the flesh - in contrast to your true and heavenly Master. [In consolation] the mastership to which they were subject, was but for a time; and that their real liberty was still their own.
fear and trembling - not slavish terror, but an anxious eagerness to do your duty, and a fear of displeasing, as great as is produced in the ordinary slave by “threatenings”

— Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871)

The emphasis in white Christian churches was placed more on servants being slaves. The churches did not want to suggest that slaves should have real liberty, or that God expected masters to be responsible for the humane treatment of their servants/slaves:

And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

— Ephesians 6:9, King James’s Version of the Bible (1611)

As many slaves felt they were living hellish conditions, their afterlife had to be in heaven, as promised in the scriptures, and their masters must be the ones headed for hell: which explained some of the spirituality of slave spirituals (slave owners would be those who suffered damnation at God’s judgement). For example, slaves without shoes would sing:

I got shoes
You got shoes
All God’s children got shoes.
When we get to heaven
We’re goin’ to put on our shoes
An’ shout all over God's heaven,
Heaven! Heaven!

God, the US civil war, and other disasters

President Abraham Lincoln saw a problem with how the Christian God might be reacting to what was happening in the civil war:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.

— Abraham Lincoln, Meditation on the Divine Will (2 September 1862?)

Lincoln could not be sure which side had God’s blessings (and probably it was neither side), and he did not know which side had God’s damnation. In his second presidential inaugural address, Lincoln was now more confident that those responsible for slavery’s cruelties were damned, and Lincoln painted a very black picture of what might be happening in the civil war, with the likely outcome of God’s judgement of those who enslaved:

Each [side] looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. ... Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

— Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (4 March 1865) [My emphasis]

Lincoln worried that if God had any special place for the USA, God might judge the country by what had happened during slavery, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (both conservative evangelical Christians) also perceived damnation, God’s hand in a disaster – not a civil war this time, but the traumatic events of 11 September 2001:

JERRY FALWELL: And I agree totally with you that the Lord has protected us so wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we’ve been attacked on our soil ... what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact – if, in fact – God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.
PAT ROBERTSON: Jerry, that’s my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population.
JERRY FALWELL: ... The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen”.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, ...

700 Club with Pat Robertson, Christian Broadcasting Network (13 September 2001)

[The transcript was provided by People for the American Way (press release, 13 September 2001) and seems to reflect accurately what was broadcast.]

God had allowed the enemies of America to give its people what Falwell thought was probably deserved punishment – God had brought damnation on the country because of the actions of abortionist and all the other hated groups (feminists, ...). In what scarcely counts as an apology, Falwell said later to CNN (14 September 2001) that though only the hijackers and terrorists were responsible for the deadly attacks, he believed that the groups with whom he disagreed had “created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812”. Robertson is reported to have said he misheard Falwell – a bad audio link being the reason. Falwell and Robertson are far removed from Lincoln’s position of “let us judge not, that we be not judged”.

Without wishing to out-Bible Falwell and Robertson, consider Jesus’s comments about some unfortunate Galileans who suffered under Pontius Pilate. Did they suffer because they were sinners, he was asked: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3, KJV) The Galileans had not suffered because they were sinners, but, he said, unless the self-righteous questioners repented, they would suffer and perish – they were not specially protected from justice.

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and other southern states, John Hagee, another conservative/regressive Christian pastor (from a church in Texas), said that all hurricanes were acts of God because God controls the heavens (are the heavens above the sky, we might wonder?). Hagee seems to contradict Jesus’s views in Luke when he said “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that”. In other words, the licentious inhabitants of New Orleans were damned by God, and Katrina was part of that damnation – if you were not licentious, tough luck. Hagee also thinks the Catholic Church is the “Great Whore”, an “apostate church”, the “anti-Christ”, and a “false cult system” – you get the idea. When Hagee endorsed John McCain in the 2008 US presidential campaign, McCain said of Hagee “I think he's a fine leader” and McCain noted “He has been the staunchest leader of our Christian evangelical movement in many areas” (though not in the area of New Orleans?).

[“Pastor John Hagee on Christian Zionism”, Fresh Air from WHYY (National Public Radio, 18 September 2006). In another sermon, Hagee also characterized the Holocaust as God's encouragement to the Jews (via Hitler's actions) to move to Israel “God allowed it [the Holocaust] to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”]

An American religion

For those from outside the USA, one is often struck by how US Christianity is so important in public and private affairs. Underlying reasons for this importance seem to range from people’s beliefs about the USA’s relationship to God, to beliefs about people’s personal relationship to God – how people perceive the US American God or the US American Jesus, where the reasons are often commingled in people's thought. What is often surprising is just how bitter some conservative/regressive Christians are about the ways Christians from other traditions misread the Bible – the regressive Christians feel that they are the only people to have read the Bible in a correct manner. For example, a self-styled “conservative” self-styled “Christian” writes of Barack Obama, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008:

Obama now claims to be “Christian”, praying to Jesus daily. It is not the biblical Jesus or Obama would be convicted by the Holy Spirit to denounce abortion and sodomy, two of his chief endorsements. His Jesus is the Islam prophet Jesus, not the incarnate God of the Bible.
Yet do the love-crazed Obamamania groupies know anything of this? Not. They will then carry Obama into the White House for the Republic’s destruction unless God performs a miracle.

— J Grant Swank Jr, “Muslim Obama furthers Islam”, (web site, 30 March 2008)

My guess is that most people think Obama is a Christian, and most accept (with Lincoln) that Christians might differ about how to interpret biblical texts in specific cases. In the new civil war, Swank and his supporters might “read the same Bible and pray to the same God” as Obama and supporters, but Swank invokes God’s aid against the heretic Obama, claiming to act in accordance with the will of God. Swank does not follow the injunction in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (KJV) or “But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (RSV).

Conservatives and regressives seem to have problems accommodating to contrary views.

Following in a long tradition, many US Christians believe their country is specially favoured by God. Ronald Reagan was a vocal proponent of this belief, and when he gave a speech introducing himself because “I'm a candidate for the Republican nomination for president”, he claimed God had a special interest in the USA’s well-being:

Call it mysticism, if you will, but I believe God had a divine purpose in placing this land between the two great oceans to be found by those who had a special love of freedom and the courage to leave the countries of their birth.

— Ronald Reagan, To restore America (31 March 1976)

[Abraham Lincoln was also Republican, but a different sort of Republican.]

In Gallup polls, ninety percent of US Americans believe in God. Many believe that God has a special interest in their personal well-being. More believe in hell than believe in evolution, and one institution of “higher” (heavenly?) learning explicitly states:

Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being who acts as tempter and accuser, for whom Hell, the place of eternal punishment, was prepared, where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.
— Patrick Henry College, Virginia, Statement of Faith

Humans and each kind of organism resulted from God's distinct and supernatural creative intervention and did not result from a natural evolutionary process, nor from an evolutionary process that God secretly directed. In particular, God created man in a distinct and supernatural creative act, forming the specific man Adam from non-living material, and the specific woman Eve from Adam.
— Patrick Henry College, Virginia, Statement of Biblical Worldview (Attested to by all trustees, administrators, and faculty.)

[Established by proponents of conservative/regressive home schooling, Patrick Henry College (PCH) is a small private institution with a surprising influence in the contemporary Republican Party – of 100 interns working in the White House in 2004, seven were from PCH, and another PCH intern worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.]

The feeling of a special special relationship to God perhaps explains the following story:

In Greenwood, Mississippi, Martha Gabler had told me about her mother whose church refused to be integrated. Someone asked the old woman what Jesus would have done in a similar situation. “Wouldn't Jesus let those black people into his church?” she was asked. She thought for a good while. “Of course he would,” she said. Then she thought a little more. “But Jesus would have been wrong,” she said. That was the old old south, Martha told me. She wanted me to know things were changing.

— Eddy L Harris, South of Haunted Dreams (1993)

Martin Luther King believed that the Christian God favoured social justice, and he was very fond of Amos 5:21-24 – translated as “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (KJV) or as “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (NRSV), or similar. Frequently, regressive Christians concentrate less on social justice, and concentrate more on ideas reflected in slogans like “God bless America”, or self-serving statements like Reagan’s “God had a divine purpose in placing this land between the two great oceans”. Reagan was often biblical and, in his 1976 US presidential bid, he propagandized “we’re beginning to ignore the essential difference of this country, which is the sacredness of the individual” [my emphasis]. Ignoring history, he also claimed “The greatness of our country has been and must continue to be that you can stand alone against all of the other 211 million people. You have certain basic rights which they cannot take away from you, even by unanimous vote.”

[Charles D Hobbs, Ronald Reagan’s Call to Action (1976)]

We will never know how Reagan would have reacted to a story in the New York Times (26 April 2008) about an atheistic US Army soldier in Iraq, an individual standing almost alone against thousands of people in the US Army (not alone against 211 million). Raised a Baptist, Specialist Jeremy Hall reports “I thought going to Iraq was right because we had God on our side”, but later he began to doubt his faith though he did not become pacifist. Hall held a meeting for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq (July 2007), during which an officer and a Christian is reported to have said “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!”

[Neela Banerjee, “Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats”, New York Times (26 April 2008)]

Not totally alone, Hall and a religious-freedom advocacy group sued in federal court claiming his freedom to be atheist, and alleging that he had faced retaliation for his views – “he was sent home early from Iraq because of threats from fellow soldiers.” The religious-freedom advocacy group had been contacted by more than 5,500 service members and, occasionally, military families about incidents of religious discrimination since 2004 – 96 percent of those who complained to the group were Christian, and the majority were Protestant.

Conservative US versions of Christianity tend to concentrate less on the radical social gospel implied in the Bible and more on the nationalistic and individualistic aspects of what has been called “The American Religion”. Harold Bloom has good deal to say about this, for example:

To live in a country where the vast majority so enjoys God's affection is deeply moving, and perhaps an entire society can sustain being the object of so sublime a regard, which after all was granted only to King David in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

— Harold Bloom, The American Religion (1992)

Perhaps the American Religion is at play in the US armed forces.

God and injustice

Reflecting Stowe’s “injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!”, or Lincoln’s “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”, Jeremiah Wright gave a sermon in which he warned about idolatry – veneration of the USA:

When it came to putting the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters. Put them on auction blocks. Put them in cotton fields. Put them in inferior schools. Put them in substandard housing. Put them scientific experiments. Put them in the lower paying jobs. Put them outside the equal protection of the law. Kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. Naw, naw, naw. Not God Bless America. God Damn America! That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme.

— Jeremiah Wright, Confusing God and Government (Sermon, 13 April 2003) [My emphasis]

Wright used to be Barack Obama’s pastor, and Republican critics tended to concentrate on “God damn America” and not Wright’s accurate description of what had happened to people of African descent – a description that was kinder than Lincoln’s “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. Even though the North had little slavery, Stowe had opined that “Both North and South have been guilty before God” and the Union was not going to be saved by “combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin”, so she did not think God would bless America – God was not happy with the USA. In their different ways Stowe, Lincoln, King, and Wright think that society has to be held accountable for the actions of its people, and a just and fair God will take those actions into account in some final reckoning – “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”. Wright went from the illuminated side of accurate description to the dark side of self-aggrandisement, when he claimed that an attack on him was effectively an attack on the Black Church.

Falwell’s “abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked”, or Hagee’s “a level of sin that was offensive to God and they were recipients of the judgment of God” show that conservatives/regressives believe in God’s damnation. God damns groups of regressive-designated sinners, so the sinners are then responsible for the collateral damage wreaked on a wider society – “you helped this happen”. Falwell, Robertson, Hagee, and their ilk have a frightening message: God is so unjust, so unfair that he punishes innocents for the actions of the few, that he is likely to do so again, and that he right to do so again – “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve”.

[ Top of page]