By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Last week I wrote that America was born a slave-holding nation of self-proclaimed Christians, and I received a response that took exception to that ugly reality: “Are you kidding me??? Attempting to demean the entire history of America with these garbage allegations is ripping us apart.” We are a divided nation, but is a recognition of our history ripping us apart?
No. It’s just the opposite. George Santayana observed, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” Slavery was a terrible thing that ripped America apart, but many of our Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were from the antebellum South and deserve the monuments that some are now trying to remove.
Thomas Jefferson was a deist and a slaveholder with a slave mistress. As an advocate for freedom, he was a hypocrite; but his Declaration of Independence set the tone for America’s libertarian democracy, and his belief that the teachings of Jesus were “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man” made Jefferson more “Christian” than most Americans today.
Accepting the ugly realities of slavery in America doesn’t mean that “America is solely about slavery and racism” and that accepting those ugly realities of our history “demands dumping the Constitution we swore to defend.” The opposite is true. We are a divided nation and we need to accept the ugly realities of our history to avoid repeating them.
In antebellum South Carolina poor white farmers outnumbered the wealthy and powerful aristocrats who oppressed them and were ready to revolt; but the aristocratic slave holders used fear to convince poor whites that if they didn't support secession and take up arms to preserve slavery, a new majority of freed slaves would deny them their white political supremacy.
Trump and his Republicans are using a variation of the fire-eaters racist strategy to promote their partisan politics today. Ironically, the party of Lincoln is using fear and racist hatred to promote divisive partisan politics at the expense of the common good. It can only lead to a new threat to our Union based on increasing political division and hostility.
Slavery is no longer a real issue, but the expansion of Black Lives Matter protests from opposing police brutality to emphasizing racial justice and slavery as the cause of systemic racism is a dog whistle for racial conflict. Violence at Black Lives Matter protests between the radical right and left have escalated racial tensions to a boiling point just before the elections.
Racism is not the only issue dividing Americans. Economic issues caused by the pandemic and Increasing disparities in wealth fostered by Fed policies that have subsidized megacorporations on Wall Street at the expense of small businesses on Main Street also divide Americans. Like racism, greed and disparities in wealth exacerbate polarized partisan politics that threaten the demise of American democracy. It’s deja vu, all over again.
Thomas Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders. Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379. While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) The Jefferson Bible illustrates the moral dimension of religion and its role in shaping legitimacy in US culture. Jon Meacham affirmed Jefferson’s role in shaping American values that are at the heart of legitimacy in American Gospel, Random House, New York, 2006 (see pp 56-58, 72-77, 80-86, 104, 105, 247-250, 263, 264; reference to Jefferson’s Bible at p 389); see also Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random House, New York, 2012, pp 471-473. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar have affirmed Thomas Jefferson as “‘a son of the Enlightenment’ who scrutinized the gospels with a similar intent (of the scholar of the Jesus Seminar) to separate the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christrian doctrine. He gathered his findings to The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek. Latin, French and English, a little volume that was first published in 1904 and is still in print. See The Five Gospels, The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993, pp 2-3.
The critic of my commentary last week acknowledged that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was “light years beyond anything in the world at the time for freedom and protection of basic human rights.” He was right about that, but wrong about denying the evils of slavery and the hypocrisy of Christians that led to the Civil War.
Robin Wright has asked, Is America a Myth? “‘The idea that America has a shared past going back into the colonial period is a myth, said Colin Woodard, the author of Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. ‘We are very different Americas, each with different origin stories and value sets, many of which are incompatible. They led to a Civil War in the past and are a potentially incendiary force in the future.’ The crisis today reflects the nation’s history. Not much, it turns out, has changed. The cultural divide and cleavages are still deep. Three hundred and thirty million people may identify as Americans, but they define what that means—and what rights and responsibilities are involved—in vastly different ways. The American promise has not delivered for many Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, myriad immigrant groups, and even some whites as well. Hate crimes—acts of violence against people or property based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender identity—are a growing problem. A bipartisan group in the House warned in August that, “as uncertainty rises, we have seen hatred unleashed.’
Wright noted the rise of separatist movements across the U.S. that resemble the secessionist movement in the antebellum South, and cited Richard Kreitner in Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union : ”At different times in America’s history, the Union’s survival was produced as much by “chance and contingency” as by flag-waving and political will. “At nearly every step it required morally indefensible compromises that only pushed problems further into the future. The attempt to reckon with our unjust past has produced more questions—and new divisions—about our future. In Washington, D.C., last week, a group commissioned by the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, recommended, in a report, that her office ask the federal government to “remove, relocate, or contextualize” the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and statues to Benjamin Franklin and Christopher Columbus, among others. The committee compiled a list of people who should not have public works named after them, including Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem. After a deluge of criticism, Bowser said on Friday that the report was being misinterpreted and that the city would not do anything about the monuments and memorials. But a question remains, not just because we live in the era of Black Lives Matter: What is America about today? And is it any different from its deeply flawed past?
Kreitner argues that, with its politics irrevocably broken, America is running out of time. The potential for physical and political separation is now real, even though the polarization of America does not have neat geographic borders. No red state is entirely red; no blue state is entirely blue. “The twenty-first century has seen an unmistakable resurgence of the idea of leaving or breaking up the United States—a kaleidoscopic array of separatist movements shaped by the conflicts and divisions of the past but manifested in new and potentially destabilizing ways,” he writes. Unlike in the past, the current separatist impulses have emerged in multiple places at the same time. “Often dismissed as unserious or quixotic, a throwback to the Confederacy, the new secessionism reveals divisions in American life possibly no less intractable than the ones that led to the first Civil War,” Kreitner warns.
In the years to come, the appeal of pulling the plug on the American experiment is likely to grow, even among faithful adherents to the idea of federal power. And, if the Union dissolves again, Kreitner writes, it will not be along a clean line but “everywhere and all at once.” In some ways, the election, now only eight weeks away, will be a temporary relief, at least in ending the current agonizing uncertainty. But it will play only one part in deciding what ultimately will happen to our nation.
‘Are we a myth? Well, yes, in the deep sense. Always have been,’ The Yale historian David Blight said. To survive, America must move beyond the myth.” See https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/is-america-a-myth.
Ethnic antagonism, or racism, is the strongest motivating factor in Republican partisan politics, and according to Larry Bartels it has produced anti-democratic tendencies. “In a January 2020 survey most Republicans agreed that ‘the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ More than 40% agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” (In both cases, most of the rest said they were unsure; only one in four or five disagreed.) ...The strongest predictor by far, for the Republican rank-and-file ...is ethnic antagonism, especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The corrosive impact of ethnic antagonism [racism] on Republicans’ commitment to democracy underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.” Larry M. Bartels, Ethnic Antagonism erodes Republicans’ Commitment to Democracy, at https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/08/26/2007747117.