Each year I teach a Lillian E. Smith Studies Course, and each course, while using Smith as the center or the class, is extremely different. Since the course has a small enrollment, I let the students dictate what we will focus on in the course. One semester, the students wanted to look at mass incarceration and the legal system, so we read Michelle Alexander, watched Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and did legal cases alongside Smith. In another course, we looked at white women’s responses to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. This semester, we will look at Lillian Smith in relation to Christian nationalism, reading authors such as Anthea Butler, Bradley Onisihi, and others alongside Smith. Below, you will find the syllabus for this course.
Course Description and Objectives:
We’ve got the American Jesus
See him on the interstate
We’ve got the American Jesus
He helped build the president’s estate.
“American Jesus” Bad Religion (1993)
Lillian E. Smith begins her essay “The White Christian and His Conscience” by highlighting the interconnectedness between what she termed the sex-sin-segregation triptych. She writes, “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black man, the conscience of American has been hurting.”
Smith was a key figure on the forefront of the movement to end racial segregation in the United States. A writer from the South, she used her work as a platform to advocate on behalf of social justice, diversity, and equality. In this course, we explore Smith’s work and others in connection with Christian nationalism, examining how mid-twentieth century activists such as Smith, Marting Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin confronted Christian nationalism within their work and looking at the history of Christian nationalism in the United States through the work of scholars such as Anthea Butler, Danté Stewart, Chris Hedges, Bradley Onishi, and Robert Jones.
Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, define Christian nationalism as “an ideology that idealizes a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture,” and Jemar Tisby calls it “the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States.” Christian nationalism has many facets, but one of the most obvious is the wrapping together of Christianity and patriotism, as James Luter Adams noted to his students, those who inherited Nazi fascism in American “found a mask for fascism in patriotism and the pages of the bible. This interweaving of religion and nation leads to white supremacy, oppression of LGBTQ individuals, women, immigrants, and more, and to a push for a system of government that benefits a few at the expense of the majority. This move, as Paul Tillich wrote in Dynamics of Faith (1956), “demands that all other concerns, economic wellbeing, health and life, family, aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice, and humanity, be sacrificed.”
Smith noted that Christian nationalism is not new. It has been around for centuries, and it carries on from generation to generation, as Smith points out, through constant instruction and surveillance. In Killers of the Dream, Smith writes about her own upbringing, “I do not remember when, but by the time I had learned that God is love, that Jesus is His Son and came to give us more abundant life, that all men are brothers with a common Father, I also knew that I was better than a Negro, that all black folks have their place and must keep in it, that sex has its place and must be kept in it, that a terrifying disaster would befall the South if I ever treated a Negro as my social equal and as terrifying a disaster would befall my family if ever I were to have a baby outside of marriage.”
She knew that individuals’ beliefs, fears, joys, and culture serve as “invisible traveling companions” as one goes through their life. Throughout Smith’s life, she examined the beliefs that she had learned growing up in the South. She pushed back against the mythological, compartmentalized religious beliefs that others inculcated within her. She, essentially, held a mirror up to herself, examining every aspect of her life, and determined that the systems that supported her and her family did not support everyone. That those systems needed to change. That in order for that change to occur she must come face to face with her own beliefs and fears.
For Smith, the intersections of sex-sin-segregation worked in unison to maintain white supremacy, and she, along with her partner Paula Snelling, pointed this out throughout her work in texts such as Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream, and various essays. Using Smith as a fulcrum, we will examine the history of Christian nationalism in the United States, the ways it uses religion to maintain social systems, and the impact of Christian nationalism on the present moment. Each of the authors in the course call out the ways that Christian nationalism influences the systems we live within, how those systems affect all of us, and ways to extricate ourselves and our society from these systems.
In this course, you will engage with thinking critically about Christian nationalism in relation to calls for social justice and equality. You will gain understanding of the intersections between Christian nationalism and structural systems that privilege groups while oppressing others. You will encounter works that cause you to examine yourself and think about your position within these systems, and this examination will help us work towards developing empathy and understanding for others. Finally, you will think about the question, “What can we do?” This question will help you to think about your own position and how we can take the material we explored to create a more just and equitable society for all.
- A Lillian Smith Reader, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney and Lisa Hodgens.
- Baldwin, James. “Negroes are Anti-Semitic because They’re Anti-White”
- Baldwin, James. “To Crush a Serpent”
- Butler, Anthea. White Evangelical Racism.
- Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
- Hedges, Chris. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America
- Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
- King Jr., Martin Luther. “The Drum Major Instinct” (1968)
- King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
- King Jr., Martin Luther. “A Testament of Hope” (1968)
- Onishi, Bradley. Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—And What Comes Next
- Smith, Lillian. Selections from Strange Fruit
- Smith, Lillian. Selections from Killers of the Dream
- Smith, Lillian. “The White Christian and His Conscience”
- Smith, Lillian and Paula Snelling. “The Church and Men’s Needs,” South Today, Winter 1944-45.
- Stewart, Danté. Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle
- I will provide secondary readings as needed.
The course will be organized around discussions and projects centered on social justice and the work of Lillian E. Smith. Classes will vary in what we do each day. Some days we will discuss readings. Some days we will work on projects. Since this is a directed study, the schedule will be semi-fluid.
Course Requirements and Explanation of Grading
- Attendance and Participation 10%
- Reflection Journal 30%
- Conference Proposal 30%
- Co-Authored Paper 30%
Attendance and In-Class Participation— Although I believe that as adults you should have control over your own education, attendance is vital to your success in this course. Much of your learning and work will take place in class, and you will be involved in discussing the readings in class. To fully comprehend and hopefully appreciate the texts, you should come to class fully prepared. This means you should have read the homework and completed any assignments for class.
You will be held accountable to the following attendance policy: 4 or more unexcused absences will result in a grade of FA (failure due to absences). If you have an excused absence—e.g., university-sponsored trip, doctor’s visit—you must provide verification to the course instructor, in writing, no later than one week after the absence occurs. Tardiness is disruptive and disrespectful to your peers and to the teacher. Every two instances of tardiness (defined as 5 minutes late or more) will be counted as one absence.
Daily attendance is not sufficient to guarantee you a passing participation grade. Any activities taking place during class time contribute to your in-class participation grade. This includes note-taking during lectures, actively participating during discussion, and otherwise participating in class activities. There will be small group discussions during classes and other activities that will be part of this grade.
Reflection Journal—Every three weeks, you will find a news article that relates to a topic we have been discussing during the course of the semester. You will write a 500-750 journal entry talking about the ways that the article/event highlights the systems we discuss, and you will provide a brief discussion answering the question, “What can we do?” Overall, there will be five reflections.
Conference Proposal—This assignment will require you to write a proposal for an academic conference and paper to present at the conference. The hope is that you will write a proposal for this conference and submit it. The proposal will focus on one of the themes and texts that we discuss in class.
Co-Authored Academic Paper—For this assignment, we will collaborate on writing an article for submission to an academic journal. We will determine possible journals to submit to and base our essay on their submission requirements. This assignment is meant to help you see that writing is a collaborative exercise and to assist you in acquiring the skills needed to continue your academic path in graduate school.
Students should conduct themselves in a manner respectful of themselves, their classmates, and me. While we may discuss controversial or potentially offensive issues, and class discussions may well involve differences of opinion, students are to conduct themselves in a professional manner.
Discussion will be a key part of our class. As an open classroom, we will listen to the ideas of all students with thoughtfulness. You are encouraged to challenge ideas, but not each other. In this classroom, we are equal. We will adhere to a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination of any kind.
Tentative Readings for LES Studies Course
(This schedule is subject to change)
|January 10||Intro to Course and Syllabus|
|January 12||Strange Fruit chapters 6, 18, & 23|
|January 17||Smith and Snelling “The Church and Men’s Needs” pp. 4-36|
|January 19||Smith and Snelling “The Church and Men’s Needs” pp. 37-63, 74|
|January 24||Smith “When I Was a Child” and “Custom and Conscience” in Killers of the Dream|
|January 26||Smith “Trembling Earth” Killers of the Dream 1:00 PM in Student Commons: “Jim Crow, The Holocaust, and Today” panel|
|January 31||Smith “The White Christian and His Conscience”|
|February 2||King “Letter from Birmingham Jail”|
|February 7||King “The Drum Major Instinct”|
|February 9||King “A Testament of Hope”|
|February 14||Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”|
|February 16||Baldwin “Negroes are Anti-Semitic because They’re Anti-White” and “To Crush a Serpent”|
|February 21||Hedges American Fascists pp. 1-49|
|February 23||Hedges American Fascists pp. 50-112|
|February 28||Hedges American Fascists pp. 113-163|
|March 2||Hedges American Fascists pp. 164-207|
|March 7||Spring Break!|
|March 9||Spring Break!|
|March 14||Butler White Evangelical Racism pp.1-56|
|March 16||Butler White Evangelical Racism pp. 57-148|
|March 21||Stewart Shoutin’ in the Fire pp. 3-77|
|March 23||Stewart Shoutin’ in the Fire pp. 78-168|
|March 28||Stewart Shoutin’ in the Fire pp. 169-254|
|March 30||Jones White Too Long pp. 1-72|
|April 4||Jones White Too Long pp. 73-154|
|April 6||Jones White Too Long pp. 155-242|
|April 11||Onishi Preparing for War pp. 1-62|
|April 13||Onishi Preparing for War pp. 63-118|
|April 18||Onishi Preparing for War pp. 119-178|
|April 20||Onishi Preparing for War pp. 179-222|
|May 4||Final Exam Period|