Religion and the Legacy of Slavery

This is an older post that never got posted for some reason.


You won’t hear the word “nigger” on broadcast TV anymore. It means you won’t hear “sand nigger” or “kike” or “gook” either. The lack of degrading names is the great victory of “liberal” media. The reality is that race, and constructions of racial power, constitute one of the most important subtexts in American public discourse. Racist language persists in most parts of mainstream media, but it is now heavily coded. Dave Neiwert does an admirable job of trying to decode that language on his blog Orcinus (read this post to get a good idea of what he does).

Ultimately, the language that we find unacceptable today is rooted in legacy of slavery, when blacks were considered nothing more than property. For most of us it is a reprehensible time in American history, when we fell short of our ideals. For others, it represents an ideal time, when they imagine that they were the people in control. I call these people our Reactionary Pundit Class (RPC), and even though they are the most frequent contributors to opinion pages across the country, they rail against a “liberal” media because they can’t directly address what they consider their property by any name they choose. The RPC is a section of the conservative movement that believes it has been denied its proper role as keeper of women and people of color, and by people who want to be subjects of the RPC. It has had generations to polish its coded language on race, and that code is becoming normative. Control over slaves was exerted by exercising power over the most intimate details of a person’s life, including the family and religion. In addition to race, we see a sophisticated language of sexism emerge as well. However, it is only recently that the legacy of slavery is becoming obvious in American religious discourse.

Slavery in the US revolved around race, but religion ultimately became part of the equation as well. Over a third of all slaves brought to the US were Muslim, and as early at 1670 there were laws that spoke directly to Muslims as slaves. After independence we continued on with many of these laws regarding slavery. On one hand, these Muslim slaves were prized because they were literate, which is more than most slave owners could say. On the other hand, their faith was proof that they were not truly civilized and slavery was a great blessing to them as it offered them all the pleasures of civilization, including being introduced to Christianity, for only the price of their freedom. However, the Christianity that was offered to slaves was of a particular type. This Christianity justified slavery and taught turning the other cheek if you were weak and disenfranchised. Obeying the master was the emphasis of this faith.

The rise of what we call the “religious right” is embedded in this tradition of using religion as a tool of domination. Much like their counterparts in various other religious traditions, like the Taliban, they hold that only they have access to religious truth and all others must be subservient to them. Their movement, at one level, is about exerting control over other Christians by attempting to define what Christianity is. In the last several years the emergence of a more vocal, if not more organized, “religious left” has caused a shift in tactics and an evolution in the use of language. The new great enemy is the same great enemy of the slave era, Islam. Anyone who is a Muslim is not truly civilized and must be “brought into the fold” of civilization. However, the Christianity that is acceptable is only of a particular variety; the one that allows some to be “owners” and most to be “owned.”

We see this language of control through religion being exercised through the political sphere, because for the RPC, everything is rendered to both God and Caeser as the distinction between the two is never made. When Rep. Keith Ellison was elected to office in 2006, he was criticized as a traitor because he was Muslim. In fact, on CNN, a supposedly liberal network, he was asked to prove he was not working with terrorists. If the host of the show saw him as a full, true human being, the question would never have been asked. No one thinks of asking Glenn Beck to prove he’s not a pedophile. This type of discourse is not one that happens between peers, Interestingly, as it relates to power, Rep. Ellison, as a sitting member of the House, is in a greater position of power than Beck, but because he is black and Muslim he is treated as inferior. Rep. Ellison was able to diffuse some of the political animosity about his religion by being sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, but the stage was now set for once more using religion to control other people and to define who was in power.

Rep. Andre Card, the second Muslim to enter the House, did not face the same scrutiny as Rep. Ellison because there was a more visible black man who needed to be controlled, Sen. Barack Hussein Obama. Over a year ago when the question of Sen. Obama’s faith became an issue, I felt he inadequately addressed the question of his being Muslim, and I was not alone. My immediate response would have been that to call him a Muslim is insulting to Muslims and to Christians, and those who suggest he is a Muslim are ignorant of both traditions. Sen. Obama makes a terrible Muslim because he doesn’t believe in the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) and he believes in the divinity of Jesus (PBUH). However, both of these beliefs make him a good Christian. To imply that he dons the garb of a Christian insults the idea of Christianity as a faith of conviction, and demeans the sacrifices Christians make to practice their faith. Finally, Sen. Obama did come out, through surrogates, and say to call him a Muslim is really an insult to Muslims, and more importantly, even if he is a Muslim, so what? (see also Snopes and Kristof)

Now Sen. Obama is being attacked for his Christian church. His Christianity is being challenged as not being truly Christian. His faith is clearly not one of subservience; it is a faith that challenges the believer to make the world a better place. That challenge requires action, not quietude. Action is the wrong type of faith for a slave. Ultimately, that is what the discourse about Sen. Obama’s faith is about: slavery.

I don’t believe Sen. Obama’s speech on race directly addressed this point. He spoke of the legacy of slavery on blacks, but not on whites. He spoke of the victims of racism, but not of racists. I agree that not every white person is a racist, and there are complex reasons behind community breakdown that manifests as racial discord. However, slavery is the most direct manifestation of racism in this country, and while obvious racist language is no longer acceptable in the mainstream, the thought and language of slavery as a metonym for racism persists. The reason people of color have a memory of, and are subject to racism, is because there are racists. These racists can no longer be openly racist, but a thin veneer of religious chauvinism is still perfectly acceptable. But we have to realize that their God cannot love; their God can only hate.

This language of slavery is becoming the norm. Jeff Jacoby asks why Sen. Obama did not challenge Rev. Wright (via Dave Weinberger). However, he does not seem to challenge Sen. McCain’s embrace of Rev. Hagee, a hateful speaker if there was one. Black Christians are treated different than white Christians. The key difference is that language of slavery does not have space for positivist vision of America. Rev. Wright’s comments are poorly chosen, but they are embedded in a tradition of hope that sees something wrong and wants to fix it. The reactionary class sees something wrong with this country and says its because they don’t have complete control, and this need to be rectified by tearing down all that has been built in this country.

As long as the echo of slavery reverberates in our public discourse we will always find a dehumanize the other and stop ourselves from becoming “a more perfect Union.” However, as racism becomes more obvious our religion talk, there is still hope that we can stop drown out the echo before its everywhere as the background noise of our existence.