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American Exceptionalism, Africentrism, and the Ability of Biblical Interpretation to Force or Discourage Political Change

July 1, 2008

One of the perils of a political campaign in this day and age is the inevitable fact that a candidate’s religious views — or lack of them — become a public issue. More recently, this has been evident in the press coverage of Barack Obama’s DNC Primary Campaign. Statements made by Jeremiah Wright that have come to light have caused many voters some ill ease, and forced Obama to cut ties with the Trinity United Church of Christ — the church he and his family attended for 20 years. At the root of the discussion, which has called into question not only the patriotism of Rev. Wright, but that of Senator Obama, is the Africentric interpretation of scripture that the Trinity UCC propagates. At the center of this discussion is also the public uproar to some of Rev. Wright’s comments regarding 9/11.  What I find most interesting, though, is that the public outcry about this not-so-recent revisionist theology has only come about because a black man —  a minister — had the audacity to suggest that past US behavior might have had some influence on current events, and that for the first time in our nation’s history, it’s a very real possibility  that our next President will be a person of color. Never mind that we assume that just because we function on a four or eight year political cycle, that the rest of the world does too.  Never mind that there is absolutely nothing new in revisionist theologies; in fact, some of our closest held historical perspectives — perspectives that I was taught in elementary school — are tied to one of the earliest versions of revisionist theology: Puritanism.

The first white settlers on this continent were Puritans: dissenters against the Church of England.  Their intention was to come to the New World and, in the words of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop establish a theocracy — a “city on a hill.” Howard Zinn has pointed out that this same statement was used by Ronald Regan to describe the United States.  This is an important connection. This suggests a deep-seated idea in the American psyche– the notion that the United States is somehow blessed by God, and is,therefore, the New Chosen People. Even many “mainstream” protestant churches continue to preach this form of American Exceptionalism — some of them going as far as rereading Old Testament prophesies and replacing the words “Jerusalem” and “Israel” with “America” and “The United States.”

But we are far less disturbed by this version of revisionist theology; after all, it has been the reason, and the justification for everything in our past that falls under the category of Manifest Destiny.  Dominionists — christians who interpret Biblical text to mean that humanity has dominion over the Earth )from a line in Genesis), and can use or destroy it as we see fit — tie this reinterpretation of scripture to the new covenant that, according to Christian ideology, was forged when Jesus ascended into Heaven. (The Gospels) Many critics of the Africentric perspective call it racist;  never mind that this interpretation was born out of policies — such as institutional slavery, and later segregation — developed by the white power structure. We sympathize — understandably — with the sufferings of Jews during World War II; but while we may giggle at Orthodox Jews with their hair curls, long black coats, and cloistered traditions, we would never, suggest that they behave in a racist way. This is because they aren’t behaving like racists. Africentric Theology was born out of the degradation of an entire people — not because they felt blessed but because, in order to survive the historical grievances and tragedies that they have survived, they developed a world view that corresponded to their experience.   This is nothing different than what every culture does when it comes into contact with christianity — cultures adapt it to fit in with what’s already present in the culture. (Consider the marriage of magic and Christianity in old Latin American Catholicism.)

What I think is funny about all of this is that the very people who accuse Jeremiah Wright of being a racist — the very same people who question Barack Obama’s patriotism and more or less accuse him of being a racist without using the word — are the very same people who have prospered under the notion that God is on our side; moreover, as long as we continue pointing fingers and using dirty little words at people, these very same people will continue to prosper.

One of my deepest held convictions is that someday, we might be able to have political discussions without feeling it necessary to label people based on their religious beliefs. Politics and religion have always intersected — and they intermingle more than I’d like — but we shouldn’t allow theology to distract us from real issues.  Issues of policy are more important, and influence our country as a whole for far longer than the sermons of one minister or the tenets of a theological perspective that may have outlived its original purpose.

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