To mark the anniversary of Juneteenth, when enslaved people in Texas finally learned about the Emancipation Proclamation in June of 1865, the House Judiciary Committee held a special hearing on reparations for slavery this week. When asked about the idea of addressing the generational inequalities created by centuries of governmentally sanctioned white supremacy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded that America fought a civil war, passed landmark civil rights legislation and elected its first Black President to address the “original sin” of slavery. As far as he is concerned, the sins of the past can be forgotten.
During his testimony at the hearing on Wednesday, Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to McConnell’s comment by pointing out how white supremacy reasserted itself in American history after the end of Reconstruction. Though not a religious man himself, Coates framed his rebuttal in theological terms.
“The God of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs,” he said, before outlining the ways systemic racism continued to disadvantage African-Americans after the Redemption movement overthrew Reconstruction in the South.
On both sides of the reparations debate, God-talk echoed through the halls of Congress this week, suggesting that the theological debates that split every major Christian denomination in the 19thcentury continue to impact our public life. When abolitionists mounted a moral movement against human bondage in the 1830s, theologians and preachers in the South developed a slaveholder religion that not only defended the status quo, but also insisted that God had ordained white supremacy.
After slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment, slaveholder religion did not go away. Many of its assumptions became mainstream and spread far beyond the South. Perhaps its most enduring legacy is the belief that God does not hold societies responsible for righting the wrongs of social sins.
This vestige of slaveholder religion was also evident in the House Budget Committee’s hearing on poverty, where representatives of the Poor People’s Campaign testified about how current policies intersect to keep almost half of Americans poor or low income. Black, white, and brown people who are experiencing poverty insisted that the government has a responsibility to establish justice in situations of extreme inequality. This isn’t an issue of left and right, they insisted, but of right and wrong.
In response, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) talked about his own experience growing up poor, then thanked God that he lives in country that provides opportunities for people like himself.
“I don’t find anywhere in the Scriptures where Jesus said that it was Caesar’s job to feed the poor, and to clothe the widows, and take care of orphans” Johnson said, invoking God to explain why he would not support the budget proposals that members of the Poor People’s Campaign had presented.
The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, was quick to note in the question and answer period that Johnson had willingly associated himself with Caesar, a character in the New Testament who is consistently framed as an adversary of Christ's followers. But beyond that, Rev. Barber noted, Johnson’s inability to participate in a meaningful conversation about the root causes of poverty was the result of a distorted moral narrative that makes him feel spiritual while ignoring the cries of poor and hurting people.
“It is bothersome that in the 21stcentury we still have these weak, tired old mythologies,” Barber said.
Whether in the words of Coates or Barber, moral clarity that dispels the enduring myths of slaveholder religion is critical to the work of pursuing a more perfect union in America. Though the fastest growing religious group in America is those who do not identify with any religious tradition, conversations about the most pressing issues in our common life are still shaped by convictions born out of theological reflection.
How we think about what is right is shaped by our understanding of what is good and righteous. If white supremacy distorted our moral reflection for much of American history, a prophetic call for equal justice also finds a through line from the abolitionist struggle to today’s cries for reparations and economic justice. Whether framed by the words of Jesus or the moral commitments of the Constitution, this moral narrative is also part of our heritage. We would do well to reclaim it, study its best voices throughout history, and heed the call of its prophets today.