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On the eve of the big vote, Susan Glasser’s “dark certainty” piece in the New Yorker said it well, as did (in a different way) David Blight’s Times op-ed on the continuing relevance of Frederick Douglass. The deep and still-unacknowledged stain of white supremacy persists; the very long and strong grip of the Slave Power persists. The midterm result portends only more hand-to-hand struggle ahead in a civil war that never really ended.
A modestly empowered Democratic opposition in just one chamber of Congress counts for something only if the leadership there can be respected as the loyal opposition, which they won’t be by Trump-enthralled Republicans. The thuggery and blatant racism of GOP voter suppression tactics in this round show pretty clearly that they take their blood-and-soil ideology seriously. Don’t expect Charles Schumer to be beaten and bloodied unconscious on the Senate floor, as was Charles Sumner, but virulent white tribalism is still on the march.
The white nationalism of the Tea Party and now of Trump Time represents an enormous and “authentic” expression of the main spiritual current in American history, which (pace the wonderful rhetoric of a couple of brilliant moderate Illini named Lincoln and Obama) is about subjugation and supremacy and greed—and not, in fact, about hope and change. White domination has always been, and still is, America’s middle name.
Much as religious liberals wish to pretend otherwise, the “enlightened” current in this history has almost always been on the defensive. The exceptions (Abolition/Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the 20th century Black Freedom Struggle) inspire us, as they should, but they should never deceive us about the reality of where we live.
As to the apparently deathless meme of the still-redeemable evangelical white Christians: I don’t want to hear any more apologias for how evangelicalism is really, truly changing and how younger white evangelicals will yet rise up to save the Republic. Exit polls thus far show more of the same, with white evangelicals overwhelmingly supporting House Republicans over Democrats, 75 percent to 22 percent.
I spend a lot of time absorbed in 19th century U.S. history, and (yes) I do experience a slight sectarian thrill whenever I read of instances of Bible-thumping white Christians standing up boldly against race and class oppression. Those thrills are few and far between. The majority of this country’s washed-in-the-blood/now-whiter-than-snow Christians supported the Peculiar Institution and Jim Crow and Segregation Forever. Even now the born-agains can’t disentangle “Christian” from “white” in the depths of their psyches. Some of their young may be abandoning the ship, but they have neither the will nor the resources to sink it.
And the other Christians—the “enlightened” among the white faithful? The more you know about abolitionists like Theodore Weld, Lyman Beecher, and Wendell Phillips, the less you will like them: Their contempt for the enslavers vastly exceeded their love for the enslaved. The same can be said about white Christian allies in the Black Freedom Struggle: with the exception of a few all-but-forgotten saints (e.g., Robert Graetz, Viola Liuzzo) who really put their lives on the line, the Big Men of 20th century Christianity were mainly there for the TV cameras. Like their 19th century forebears, they hated segregation more than they loved the segregated. When the focus shifted to Northern racism and Northern segregation, they scattered to the winds.
Could this change? Could both conservative and liberal white Christians finally be born again into a radical awareness of this nation’s anti-Black constitution (a constitution running deeper in the bloodstream than our explicitly anti-Black but oh-so-discreet-about-it Constitution)?
Stay tuned. It’s said that God’s patience with sinners knows no bounds. It’s impossible not to draw hope from the outspoken evangelicals of color who can’t and won’t abide the colonized and whitewashed Christianity they inherited. And we must never fail to give thanks for the many Christian scholars and theologians, including many whites, who know what’s up and who invite us to take and eat.
But our national salvation will not arise from this quarter. It will come, if it comes at all, from outraged and fired-up younger people, proudly colorful and often queer and often with their own hard-won spiritual grounding, who have very little use for the ancient creeds, let alone for the faith leaders who have ghosted the place of real engagement.