Speaking at the White House Conference on American History, Trump stated, “On this very day in 1787, our Founding Fathers signed the Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.” In this statement, and throughout the entire event, speakers railed against the the destruction of the “true” history of America’s founding and growth. They spoke about the radical left rewriting the stories of the Founding Fathers and erasing the history of our past. They invoked writers and activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass in their argument for American exceptionalism.
In his remarks, Trump even stated, “We embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” What he left out, of course, were earlier parts of King’s famous 1963 speech where he stated ” that American has defaulted on this promissory note [of equality] so far as her citizens of color are concerned” and “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
Throughout the conference, the speakers who preceded Trump spoke about figures such as King, Douglass, Jefferson, and more. One pointed out Douglass’ thoughts on the Constitution from his 1852 speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” There, Douglass called the Constitution “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” as he spoke about those who used it to support slavery. What the speakers did not mention, and which Robert Jackson only mentioned in passing, was Douglass’ scathing critique of America throughout the speech, rhetorically using “you” and “your” throughout to indicate that he was not, as a Black man, considered a citizen.
As well, he spoke about the ways that the church sanctioned slavery. In this manner, he both challenged the history of America and it’s supposed divine blessing and Christian founding. He writes, “But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.”
The use of the Bible and the church in upholding the institution of slavery in America and elsewhere has been well documented, and Douglass, in his Narrative, even points out that the cruelest master he had was a “Christian.” John Marrant, in his 1785 narrative, he held an evening school for enslaved men and women on the plantation where he taught them the Bible. When the mistress found out about the school, she shut it down, and as Marrant writes,
They caught them, and tied them together with cords, till the next morning, when all they caught, men, women, and children were strip’d naked and tied, their feet to a stake, their hands to the arms of a tree, and so severely flogg’d that the blood ran from their backs and sides to the floor, to make them promise they would leave off praying, &c. though several of them fainted away with the pain and loss of blood, and lay upon the ground as dead for a considerable time after they were untied.
The mistress could not do anything to Marrant because he was a free man, but she made sure the enslaved men, women, and children did not learn about God and the Bible. As punishment, she had them beaten mercilessly and ran Marrant off of the plantation. Laws, of course, were put in place in slave-holding states that prohibited teaching enslaved individuals reading and writing, thus limiting their access to the Bible and relying on what the enslaver told them.
Introducing Trump, Mike Pence wrapped the nation and the Constitution in the robes of civil religion when he said, “And I know these great principles will prevail because like our president I have faith in the American people. And I have faith that He who guided our founders on this day 233 years ago guides us still.” He then quoted James Madison who stated, “It is impossible for the man of Pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”
Pence was not the only person to link the birth of America to Christianity and the divine. This is a narrative that has been replayed over and over and over again. In essence, what this narrative does, as the authors of White Jesus: The Architecture of Racism and Religion and Education point out, is link Christianity to Empire, entangling the two so intricately that they become subsumed by one another. Pence’s linking, joined with the message of the conference that, as he put it, seeks to to change the fact that “we live in a time when too many are forgetting history today,” defines America as a “Christian” nation. This is dangerous because what this does it it essentially turns Christianity into a “civil religion” that, as the authors of White Jesus put it, “perpetuate[s] a patriotism that can devolve into ethnocentrism and nationalism.”
We have to remember that the founders were not as “Christian” as we have made them out to be. Benjamin Franklin was a deist which means he believed that a higher being placed on earth then let us live our lives without interference. For all of the praise heaped on Jefferson and other early Presidents for being “Christian” founding fathers, he had a project that undertook which would become the Jefferson Bible. For this bible, Jefferson cut up the Bible “to create a revision of the Gospels that was consistent with human reason and enlightenment.” He excluded Jesus’ miracles, the Devil, and Jesus’ resurrection. This, in essence, erases the divinity of Jesus and negates the Christian faith, right?
We have to remember, as well, that America, from the outset, was not “Christian.” Not all of the colonists who arrived in the colonies were “Christian,” even though we focus on the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. We must remember that Indigenous religions flourished here. We must remember that Muslims were in early America. Omar ibn Said is a prime example of the latter. Brought to America and enslaved, he wrote his narrative in Arabic and used the Quran and his faith to subvert the conversion narrative veneer of his text pointing out the incongruities of chattel slavery with Islam and by extension Christianity.
In the next post, I will finish this discussion by looking at some of the ways that early American writers directly confronted the myth making of American exceptionalism and the Founding Fathers. The point being that what we are experiencing is not an erasing of history but rather a doubling down on the myths that have existed in America since its very inception. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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