Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Graduate Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her forthcoming book, The Gospel According to Sarah: How Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Are Galvanizing the Religious Right (The New Press), discusses the rise of Christian fundamentalists as a force in American politics. But, as she explains in the essay below, this right wing interpretation of Christian doctrine has provoked a similar response on the left, most notably what she calls the "prophetic" voices within the African American community who have defended and, at times, criticized the administration of Barack Obama. .
Jeremiads in the Age of Obama
With the re-election of President Barack Obama in November of 2012, now is a good time to visit one of the themes of the Republican campaign that found its origins in the 2008 electoral cycle. During that campaign, Candidate Obama's campaign was thrown into disarray in March of 2008 with the revelation of a taped sermon of his then pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, the leader of the 8,000 plus member Trinity United Church, and a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, preached a sermon back in April 13, 2003 entitled "God And Government". In that speech, Wright chastised the American government for its failures. Following a scathing indictment of American history, Rev. Wright closed a portion of his sermon with a memorable line:
God Damn America! That's in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
What was a longer exposition on the ills of America became reduced to a three-word refrain: "God Damn America". The ensuing media frenzy and endless punditry threatened to derail Obama's campaign. In a series of moves, candidate Obama would repudiate Wright with a speech on race in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center.
Wright's Sunday service back in 2003 became a consuming fire in the 2008 presidential election in the hands of a media who neither understood nor cared about the speech's context. It also placed then-candidate Obama's racial bona fides to the test. The onslaught from "God Damn America" continued throughout Obama's first tenure in office through the race in 2012. The theme "Taking Back America" became big on the Tea Party circuit, and this phrase has been used as a shorthand to mean taking back the Presidency from the first black President. All of this, plus the othering of the President has been breathtaking, and vile. Yet the voices of African Americans critiquing America—whether personally or with those they are affiliated with—are often the ones portrayed as disrespectful and dangerous.
It is this voice of dissent, however, that has pushed America's moral core, from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. How is it that America has forgotten the voice of dissent and discontent from African Americans? How is it that despite the great strides to have two persecuted groups represented in the Presidential Race—Mormons and African Americans—some Americans remain uncomfortable with prophetic African American voices?
Perhaps in part it is because we are not a post-racial society. According to the Washington Post, the Presidential race in 2012 was the most racially polarized, with President Obama lagging behind Mitt Romney with white voters by 21 points. The Post article takes into account only the polling, and does not account for all of the racialized discourse from Republican candidates surrogates such as Franklin Graham, who famously spouted that he did not know if President Obama was a Christian or not, and Donald Trump, who repeatedly called for President Obama to show his birth certificate, and even offered five million dollars for the President's university transcripts. Indeed, things have become so polarized that President Obama, like the slaves before, is continually being asked to "produce his papers."
One of the striking things about the Rev. Wright debate was the fact that the prophetic voice of African Americans had been all but forgotten. In an age of uncivil language and debate that we live in today, the voice of truth, critique, and what we term a jeremiad has been lost from our civil discourse. A jeremiad is a lament, a prophecy of doom aimed at the moral failures of a person, or a nation. Its purpose is to compel and propel the subject of the jeremiad to make a moral turn to the side of doing right. Why then does it seem to be a surprise to many that people of color, especially African Americans, have a side eye view of American History and claims of America's "exceptionalism"?
Leaders in the African American community have always critiqued the nation on its broken promises to African Americans and other persons of color on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and traditional religious doctrines, as well as the stated principles of the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. This kind of critique is often in response to a type of selective racial memory loss that has gripped the nation regarding slavery and Civil Rights in the 21st century. That memory loss has been induced in part by cheers of American exceptionalism, and often (but not exclusively) promulgated by right wing Christians and Republican politicos to whitewash the history of the nation. That history seeks to punish anyone who takes it upon themselves to remind citizens that things haven't always been equal. This was very apparent in the 2008 election when Michelle Obama said, "for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because hope is finally making a comeback." The criticism that was leveled her way came fast and furious. Yet that statement came from a place of deep historical pain and mistrust. And with good reason.
The history of the nation has always been a troubled one, even though many conservatives would like people to view it as a Normal Rockwell painting. But even Rockwell had an opportunity to critique this with one of his most important paintings. The Problem We All Live With is an image of Ruby Bridges, one of the first black children integrating the schools in New Orleans on November 14, 1960. The painting shows her walking alongside National Guard troops, with the word NIGGER prominently displayed on a nearby wall. For those who have talked about a "return to American values in this election cycle," those American values of which they speak are also values that excluded and denied African American citizens due process and equal rights. Jeremiads like Wright's do not evolve from mere ill will. So the jeremiad against American exceptionalism comes not as a simple critique, but a complex one born in blood and pain to birth equality.
Consider one of the more famous African American jeremiads, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro", delivered in 1852 by Frederick Douglass, the former slave, orator, and abolitionist. Most in the audience were abolitionist, but Douglass did not spare his distaste, criticizing what he called white "Slaveholding Christianity", their understanding of the constitution, and the notion of America:
America is False to the Past, false to the Present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future: I will not equivocate, I will not excuse…
Fellow Citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of Slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense and your Christianity as a lie. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a by word to a mocking earth.1
Even Chris Rock would invoke the spirit of Douglass in a tweet from July 4 of 2012, in which he said "Happy white peoples independence day- the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks."
Another reason why jeremiads are important is that they confront hegemonic ideals and erroneous history about America. On the one hand African Americans are Americans, but the racial history and animosity that continues to be promulgated by certain groups makes it difficult to feel united with those who clearly feel differently. Consider the words of Bob VanderPlaats, an Iowa right wing Christian political operative who in the summer of 2011 asked Republican candidates to sign a pledge that contained the following statement:
Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.
No wonder then, that it is hard for many people to buy into this sort of revisionist American history. When a prominent political and religious leader can say that slavery is better for a black family than living under a black President, there is a real disconnect from the truth of history.
Jeremiads, coupled with a prophetic Christianity or religious fervor, make for a very different historical narrative about how African Americans view America, the Founders, and the foundational documents. God, not the nation, is the ultimate Judge, according to these sermons. The nation can and did sin, and holding the nation to account for the promises laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is essential. In many ways, the jeremiad reflects Malcolm X's famous quote: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock Landed on us!"
Jeremiads were also invoked to show the participation of African Americans in the building of the nation. David Walker in his An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, published in 1829 firmly states his position on the matter:
Let no man of us budge one step, and let slave-holders come to beat us from our country. America is more our country, than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears: —and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood? They must look sharp or this very thing will bring swift destruction upon them. The Americans have got so fat on our blood and groans, that they have almost forgotten the God of armies.
For Walker, ownership of the nation through the shedding of black blood is a sacrifice, a sacrifice that whites have no right to impinge upon. The undercurrent of religious fervor is revealed when Walker boldly states that Americans have forgotten that God will fight for those who have been wronged.
Jeremiads often arose from religious stories in Christian scripture, and the prophetic tradition of the Black Church. The church provided a space in which the concerns of the race could be heard in an environment that was geared to the community, and often focused on calling out injustices. Biblical stories such as Israel's flight from Egypt and the punishment of the Pharaoh suggested that God would intervene in unjust situations. For all of the religious framing of jeremiads, many did not originate from within the church. Some came from academics. In 1956, for example, John Hope Franklin would critique Americans for calling the African American fight for equality communism.
When one calls our attention to the fact that the inability of the people of the United States to extend equality and justice to all its citizens is losing friends for the United States around the world, we frequently shout that this is a communist line. People who have cautioned this country that its relations were hurting an effective and constructive foreign politic have frequently been criticized as having fallen under some foreign un American Spell. But outrage or Disgust with the criticism cannot wash it away. Nor can the sins of this country be expiated by the search for racial discrimination in the Soviet Union.2
Jeremiads are meant to be uncomfortable reminders to those in power. But what happens when the jeremiad is launched against the first African American President? Professor Cornel West, author of Prophesy Deliverance!, has been pointedly critical of President Obama. He, along with Tavis Smiley, have bemoaned the President's lack of policies regarding poverty in the African American Community. Their critiques have spawned a furious debate amongst African Americans. Many disagree with West about the language he has used to speak out against the President's policies. Whether West is right or wrong, one thing is certain: West's voice of lament is being heard, even if the African American community disagrees.
It remains to be seen if President Obama will address race directly in his second term in office. What would be appropriate, and perhaps much needed, is a discussion of the prophetic voices of jeremiad that call the nation to rise to its fullest potential. Words like Wrights and Douglass are a stark reminder of the other history of America, the America that has not been exceptional to all who have come to her shores, yet have desired to take full part in the process of democracy. Only when we have the voices of lament and dissent, then seek an engaged dialogue can we hope to have more harmonious voices that can shape our nation.
1Duffy Bernard K., and Richard W. Leeman. The Will of a People: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012, p. 66.
2Foley, Michael S., O' Malley, Brendan P. Homefronts: A Wartime America Reader. The New Press, 2008, p. 299.