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“God Damn America” in Black and White

Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright are in hot water. Newspapers and news stations across the world have been reporting on Wright’s “inflammatory rhetoric” (as Obama’s campaign is calling it) in 2003 when he called upon his Chicago congregation to reject the hymn “God Bless America” and instead shout “God Damn America.” Wright denounced the United States for historically advocating terrorism for its own purposes, for refusing to offer help to the hopeless, and for oppressing minorities. “God damn American for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” The re-surfacing of these comments has led Obama and his camp to scramble. They are now distancing themselves from Wright and, in reaction, some African Americans feel betrayed by Obama.

What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. It seems that each year, at least a handful of books come out trying to discern whether the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most recently, this can be seen in Steven Waldman’s Liberating the Founders. But so often historians have approached the topic from the perspective of elite whites, and not the people who were building the nation from its foundation, hoeing the fields and raising the cotton, washing the clothes and preparing the meals. (One exception to this is David Howard-Pitney’s wonderful The African-American Jeremiad.) If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.

For hundreds of years, African American leaders have taken the idea of America’s Christian nationalism seriously and turned it against racial discrimination, violence, and imperialism. The tradition goes back at least to the eighteenth century, when Massachusetts slaves called for freedom in the name of Christian teachings that all men are made of one blood. It continued into the antebellum era through the preaching of Richard Allen, the antislavery speeches and writings of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and the militant prose of David Walker in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

Throughout American history, many African Americans have forged and wielded Christian ideologies and rhetorics to condemn the United States. Prejudice and exploitation proved that America did not deserve God’s blessings; it deserved God’s wrath. They created an oppositional discourse that turned the trope of American “Christian nationhood” around on whites. This tradition continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Depicting civil rights as a sacred obligation, denouncing Jim Crow as anti-Christian, railing against the silence of white Protestant leaders over racial injustice, condemning lynching as immoral, and asserting the virtuousness and holiness of blacks, African Americans claimed that the nation would be truly “Christian” when racism ceased.

Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African Americans denounced discrimination with the rhetoric of Christianity and American Christian nationalism. After revivalist Dwight Moody segregated his evangelical crusades in the 1870s and 1880s, one delegate to the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Annual Conference blasted the evangelist: “His conduct toward the Negroes during his Southern tour has been shameless, and I would not have him preach in a barroom, let alone a church.” Another minister fumed that Moody had “placed caste above Christianity.” Frederick Douglass voiced the dejection and anger felt by many African Americans over revival segregation by contrasting the evangelist’s conventions with those of the agnostic and popular lecturer Robert Ingersoll: “Infidel though Mr. Ingersoll may be called, he never turned his back upon his colored brothers, as did the evangelical Christians of this city [Philadelphia] on the occasion of the late visit of Mr. Moody. Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus.”

Ida B. Wells too attacked Moody, and then turned her sights on lynching. In pamphlets and public addresses against mob murder, she turned the trope of Christian nationhood against whites: “Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation?” she bluntly asked delegates to the National Negro Convention in 1909. To her, the sin of racial murder stained the national identity, for it was not just a southern problem; it was a national evil: “Time was when lynching appeared to be sectional, but now it is national [it is] a blight upon our nation, mocking our laws and disgracing our Christianity.” “Christianity is to be the test,” she told a reporter for Britain’s Westminster Gazette: and I am “prouder to belong to the dark race that is the most practically Christian known to history, than to the white race that in its dealings with us has for centuries shown every quality that is savage, treacherous, and unChristian.”

Frederick Douglass had the same confrontation with racial violence. Lynching confirmed the religious bankruptcy of white America, but he implored African Americans to maintain faith that God would one day bring justice. In a letter to Wells, he attacked America as a sinful and barbarous land for permitting racial violence. “If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.” But alas, true Christianity and morality had, up to this point, failed to change the hearts of white men and women. God, however, had not deserted people of color, and they must not lose heart: “It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven,” Douglass concluded, “yet we must still think, speak and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.”

By the 1890s, after Douglass had seen his vision of a racially egalitarian and integrated United States disappear and a dark cloud of violence and bloodshed descend upon the land, he called down the wrath of God on the nation. Preaching in the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., only one year before his death in 1895, he decried American assertions of Christian nationhood: “We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South.”

The use of Christian nationalism as a critique of white supremacy was widespread. In her 1893 novel Iola Leroy, Frances Harper regularly used her characters to impeach the Christianity of whites and the nation. After the heroine of the tale, Iola Leroy, learns that a southern judge had overturned her mother’s manumission and her parents’ marriage, thus making both Iola and her mother slaves, she cried out, “are these people Christians who made these laws which are robbing us of our inheritance and reducing us to slavery? If this is Christianity I hate and despise it. Would the most cruel heathen do worse?” On another occasion, a northern school principal comments that racism in America proves that it is a “Christian” nation “in name,” but not in spirit. Some African Americans even critiqued the religion of whites unto death. In 1912, while being lynched, Dan Davis implored his assailants to kill him quickly by appealing, perhaps sarcastically, to their faith: “I wish some of you gentlemen would be Christian enough to cut my throat.”

At the turn of the century, W. E. B. Du Bois carried on the tradition of these earlier African American leaders by using religious ideologies, metaphors, idioms, and imagery to challenge white Americans’ beliefs in the sanctity of the nation. Racism, he told students at the Philadelphia Divinity School in 1907, “is a problem not simply of political expediency, [or] of economic success, but a problem above all of religious and social life; and it carries with it not simply a demand for its own solution, but beneath it lies the whole question of the real intent of our civilization: Is this civilization of the United States Christian?” On another occasion, Du Bois recorded praying that the nation could some day become “a civilized Christian state, such as we wish our land to be.”

He also constructed white Americans who sought to hold African Americans down as demons: “I believe in the Devil and his angels, who wantonly work to narrow the opportunity of struggling human beings, especially if they be black, who spit in the faces of the fallen, strike them that cannot strike again, believe the worst and work to prove it, hating the image which their Maker stamped on a brother’s soul.” Du Bois was not the only turn-of-the-century African American to depict whites as demonic. After the lynching of George White in 1906, African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Montrose Thornton attacked whites in the United States: “The white man, in the face of his boasted civilization, stands before my eyes tonight the demon of the world’s races, a monster incarnate,… The white is a heathen, a fiend, a monstrosity before God.”

In 1906, after white mobs in Atlanta attacked African Americans and left a trail of bloodshed throughout the city, Du Bois cried out to God in his “A Litany at Atlanta.” “Listen to us, thy children,” he wrote: “our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in Thy Sanctuary.” He rejected “turn-the-other-cheek” Christian teachings and beseeched God to smite whites for their evil acts: “When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed – curse them as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.” Throughout the poem, Du Bois prayed that God would not be silent as so many white Christians had been: “Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb suffering./ Surely Thou, too, art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing!” Du Bois concluded by denouncing America as a land without true faith:

Our voices sink in silence and in night.
Hear us, good Lord!
In night, O God of a godless land!

And obviously, the call for the United States to live up to its so-called Christian nationalism rang in the words of the Civil Rights movement. In Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeao-Christian heritage.”

So when Reverend Wright declared “God Damn America,” he was merely invoking a long tradition of African American criticism. As long as many white Americans claim their nation to be a Christian one, they will continually leave themselves open to this type of reverse critique.