In the coming weeks I hope to write several posts applying explicitly theological categories to our “national conversation” on race. But as we approach the Fourth of July, I thought it would be worthwhile to first post this piece as a reflection on our national history and identity.

What should we think of America?

In an important sense, that’s not a question I can answer as a pastor. The Bible won’t settle any debates about the meaning of the Constitution or the failure of Reconstruction or the legacy of the New Deal. It’s important to say that up front, lest we make a particular interpretation of American history—either one that sparkles sunshine or one that sees little more than a long list of atrocities—a de facto standard for friendship and fellowship. No American history test is required for entrance into the church universal, and hopefully none is required for our local churches either.

And yet, the issue of race in America—so much in the news these days—is inescapably historical. Anytime we talk about these matters we have in our head some outline of who we are as a country, some sense of where we have been and how far we have (or have not) come. So even though there is no single Christian response, most of us have an answer in our heads already, so we ought to talk about how that answer shapes our thinking and how some answers are better than others. We can be humble about our interpretations without being historical relativists.

So what is my view of America?

Well, it’s complicated. The more you look deeply into any person, any time period, or any nation, the more you realize that the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are usually more of a mixture than we’d like to admit. History on the cheap goes digging through the past with the goal of bringing some weapon of judgment back to the present. A better approach, in the Quentin Skinner school of intellectual history, is to try to “see things their way.” As Christians we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means our dead neighbors too, even the ones we think we wouldn’t have liked very much.

If earlier generations were guilty of telling the American story as nothing but a mighty tale of noble triumph moving from strength to strength, I fear we are in danger of trading one reductionist interpretation for another. To be sure, we need to look injustice squarely in the eye. The slave ships, the beatings, the lynchings, the fire hoses, the Trail of Tears, the internment camps, the dehumanizing treatment that Native Americans and blacks and other minorities (sometimes white) have been made to endure in this country cannot be ignored. This is our history as Americans. We need to own it and grieve over it.

There is also more that must be said. The history of God and race in America is, as Mark Noll puts it, a “tangled history” filled with “moral complexity” (181). On the one hand, the Christian faith has been a prominent feature in American history and has often been a beneficent force at home and abroad. “Christian altruism, Christian philanthropy, Christian consolation, and Christian responsibility are not the only forces for good in American history, but they loom very large and have had very positive effects” (177). And yet, Noll admits that “the American political system and the American practice of Christianity, which have provided so much good for so many people for so many years, have never been able to overcome race” (178). If we are honest about ourselves and honest about our faith, we must conclude that Christianity in America has done much at times to promote racism, while offering hints of redemption as well (181).

Slavery at the American Founding

History is rarely simple, and it is rarely static either. The American experiment is not the story of steady moral uplift and courage nor the story of constant declension and depravity. We must not be ignorant of the contours of our own history, lest we forget, for example, that by the time the Constitution was ratified—effectively the beginning of the United States as truly united states—slavery had been abolished in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and in all the future states north of the Ohio River in the Northwest Ordinance.

As for the Constitution itself, while it was undoubtedly a compromise document that mollified the concerns of Southern slave-holding states, it also held the line—thanks to James Madison—that there would be “no property in man.” At the time of the drafting of the Constitution, Northerners who opposed slavery assumed (wrongly) that slavery would fade away. They did not know that slavery in the South would be revolutionized and re-energized by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793.

To be sure, none of the Founding Fathers got the race question right in the way we wish they would have. They were men of their age, in ways that made them better and worse than our leading thinkers and statesmen today. Nevertheless, it is important to see how the Founding generation was viewed in their own age. The Constitutional provision allowing for the abolition of the slave trade in twenty years was greeted by many free blacks as a great triumph. Two generations later, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, lamented the fact that the American Founders had believed in the equality of the races, a mistake (as Stephens saw it) that the Southern states would not repeat:

The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.” Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.

Granted, Stephens was no unbiased interpreter of history. He is surely giving the Founders too much credit, if not in terms of their loftiest ideals, then certainly in terms of their actual practice. But still, his reading of America should not be quickly dismissed. Stephens believed the Confederacy stood for something profoundly different than the vision laid out in the Declaration of Independence. For Stephens, the idea of the Confederacy was fundamentally about the subordination of blacks to whites and the enduring good of slavery, whereas the fundamental idea of the United States was that all men were created equal and that the disagreeable institution of slavery would eventually disappear.

In Frederick Douglass’ powerful Fourth of July address from 1852, he castigated his fellow citizens, and especially the churches, for their failure to mount up with zeal for abolition. “The existence of slavery in this country,” he said, “brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie.” Douglass did not spare his country the verbal chastisement it deserved. And yet, these moral evils were not an indictment of America’s ideals but of its “national inconsistencies.” Although five years earlier in London, Douglass denounced the duplicity of the Founders and the Constitution’s failure to deal honestly with slavery, in his 1852 address he lauded “the fathers of this republic” and “the signers of the Declaration of Independence” as “brave men” and “great men too.” “They were statesmen,” he opined, “patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” Douglass’ complaint was not with the Fourth of July and what it stood for, but with the brutal reality that it was not his Indepedence Day and that the “great principles of political freedom and of natural justice” had not been extended to all.

In hindsight, the compromises made at the founding of our country were tragic, but in the 1780s they made sense to most free Americans as necessary provisions for political Union and national unity. Take the mainline Presbyterian church, for example. A resolution from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia (May 16, 1787) approved of “the general principles in favor of universal liberty that prevail in America; and the interest which many of the states have taken in promoting the abolition of slavery.” Although the Synod did not try to dis-fellowship slaveholding churchmen and did not advocate for immediate abolition, it did encourage educating slaves, giving them a share of property, and teaching them to be self-sufficient so that they might be useful freemen someday. Moreover, the Synod went on to “recommend it to all the people under their care to use the most prudent measures, consistent with the interest and the state of civil society, in the parts where they live, to procure, eventually, the final abolition of slavery in America” (emphasis in original).

A More Perfect Union

Obviously, the racial views of many Presbyterians, especially in the South, would get worse instead of better in the nineteenth century. The point is not to exonerate Presbyterians, but to dispute the telling of American history that reads the worst aspects of Southern slavery into our national story from start to finish. In his famous campaign speech on race, then-Senator Barak Obama rejected “the profoundly distorted view of this country” that “sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” The speech, with a nod to the Constitution, was fittingly entitled “A More Perfect Union.” While America at its worst has been brutally far from perfect, that doesn’t mean that in our imperfect Union there is nothing worth celebrating, even when it comes to race.

If we are not careful, we can reinforce racial stereotypes by telling American history as the story of what white people have done to black people in the past and what white people can do to help them in the present. As Shelby Steele argues, blacks have often been rendered a “contingent people” without personal agency in the story of America, a people first oppressed by whites and now dependent upon the goodwill of whites for their success. “Thus it relegated us to the sidelines of our own aspirations” (179). Feelings of white guilt should not obscure the fact that “as a group, black Americans have made the greatest gains, over some of the highest hurdles, and in a shorter span of time than any other racial group in history. . . As such, it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people. Just as important, it speaks to the greatness of a nation in which such gains were possible.”

Land of Liberty

The founding documents of this country were based, in part, on a Judeo-Christian understanding of the fallenness of man. That’s why Hamilton believed in checks and balances, and why Madison insisted that ambition must be made to counteract ambition. They did not trust men with too much power. Unfortunately, as is the case with all nations, we have our examples of those in power acting unjustly toward those without power. But that doesn’t make the promise of the Declaration that “all men are created equal” a lie. It makes our national sins more painful.

We do not have to believe we are as bad as we’ve ever been to acknowledge that we aren’t what we can be. There has been racial progress in this country that few whites or blacks would have imagined sixty years ago. Yes, there is still racism and injustice. Yes, there are self-deceptions in every human heart. But there are also declarations in our history that can still inspire. The ideals of liberty and justice for all are not less noble or less indicative of the American story because we have so often failed to live up to them.

The genius of Lincoln and MLK is that they appealed to the best of America instead of the worst. They understood that a relentless focus on America’s original sin without a surpassing hope in America’s original ideals would not move any of us closer to the better angels of our nature or to the dream of being judged by the content of our character instead of the color of our skin. Shame can arouse the conscience, but for the long-haul people need better motivation than disgust and despair. A people cannot long endure without some sense of shared identity and purpose, some sense of mutual striving together, some sense of an idea that defines them. In other words, being an American must mean something, and I still think “We hold these truths” and “We the people” can be that something.