Right Ethnicity

Inadequate attention to the varieties of civil religion in America creates the most glaring weakness in the literature—the ways in which civil religion deals with the intertwined roles of race and African American religion. Thus the fourth path to understanding is right race consciousness. The encounter between Euro- and African Americans, as David W. Wills has often pointed out, must be understood as a central theme of the subfields of American and African American religious history.

(One could also add American history in general.) Despite occasional claims that civil religion is a Eurocentric concept that renders the black presence invisible, there is strong evidence that African Americans have addressed questions of national chosenness, both for themselves and for the larger American nation.
Throughout the nineteenth century, black leaders expressed nationalistic sentiments both about their color and capabilities and about the superiority of American ideals. During the Civil War, the Christian Recorder, the official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, held that America’s providential role was to “be the great field of training for the development of the human mind, the display of genius, and solving the great problem of a universal brotherhood, the unity of the race of mankind, and the eternal principles of intellectual, moral, and spiritual development” (quoted in Walker, Rock in a Weary Land). Within this task, many black leaders argued, African Americans were also called to test out America’s fidelity to its central values.
Two recent studies bear this out. David Howard-Pitney’s study The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America focuses on black appeals to the white American conscience for racial justice from Frederick Douglass to Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes. The very category of the jeremiad—a sermon calling on a people to change their ways or else face divine judgment—presupposes a chosen people’s covenant with God and their failure to keep it. Similarly, Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America argues that the idea of chosenness provided a religious base for America’s political ideology and its national identity. While noting whites’ and blacks’ contrasting uses of the Exodus motif, nation language among African Americans expressed their ambivalence toward America. It emerged from the “collective humiliation caused by a violently racist nation.” This tradition chose America as its own, despite black America’s parallel focus on racial solidarity. From what might be called a prophetic civil religion, African Americans chose America not as it was, but as they hoped it might become.
Of course, the respective Euro- and African American ideas of chosenness and destiny clash rather directly in the civil rights movement, which certainly can be understood as a conflict of civil religions. The role of testing whether America would “live out the true meaning of its creed” carried over from Douglass and other nineteenth-century spokespersons to the twentieth-century prophetic legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other black minister–civil rights leaders. The South became a battlefield of civil faiths, the one racially inclusive and the other racially exclusive, each violating the sacred values of the other. Mid-twentieth-century civ- il rights battles blend into civil religious conflict, both of which eventually meld into the larger “culture wars” of the past twenty years or so. Through them all, race consciousness remains central to the American story.
Two recent studies draw out the role of race in the shaping of late-nineteenth- century American nationalism. Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic:

Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865–1898, critiques northern Protestants for using whiteness and nationalism to repair sectional discord at the expense of racial justice. By accepting racial separation in intrasectional denominational agencies, in the revivals of Dwight L. Moody, and in the reforms of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the North sold out the post–Civil War possibilities for racial justice in exchange for reconciliation with the white South. Reconciling with former Confederates in support of the Spanish-American War, northern white Protestants nourished segregation and supported imperialism, linking race, religion, and nationalism in the process.
This path underscores the reality that the task of interpreting America’s rise to the status of world power requires some reference to race consciousness. The racial context of the Spanish-American War should be recalled. Launched just two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld Jim Crow in the South, the war had a racial edge to it. Teddy Roosevelt judged President William McKinley to have the backbone of a chocolate éclair for his reluctance in declaring war on Spain. Roosevelt believed that fighting “sav- ages” (Indians) on the American frontier had welded disparate European colonists into Americans. Fighting “savages” in Cuba, and especially in the Philip- pines, would do the same for northerners and southerners still in the process of reconciliation. Later, while the U.S. Senate debated American policy toward the Philippines, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana touted “the mission of our race: trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.” Senator Orville Platt, from Connecticut, hailed every American ship in the Philippines as “a new Mayflower . . . the harbinger and agent of a new civilization.”
In this connection, Daniel B. Lee discusses the war as part of “a great racial commission,” whereby white Americans used religion to help create an Anglo- Saxon America. He argues that “from the Jews . . . white Americans inherited the status of a chosen people living in a New Israel. As Christians, they accepted a great commission to ‘enlighten the world.’ From the Anglo-Saxons . . . white Americans purportedly inherited the manifest destiny of civilizing the world by planting the seeds of democracy” (“Great Racial Commission,” 107). The “Chosen Nation” ’s late-nineteenth-century departure from isolationism to begin the process of becoming the leader of the family of nations is certainly a pivotal moment in American civil religion and a moment directly related to race.

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