Evangelicals using religion for political gain is nothing new. It is a US traditionRoundup
tags: political history, religious history
William J Barber, II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is mobilizing poor people and their allies for a mass assembly and march on Washington in June 2020.
This misuse of religion is, sadly, an American tradition. Colonists who cheated Native Americans out of land and forced enslaved Africans to build a new nation worshiped a God whose demand for justice troubled their conscience. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, acknowledging the basic moral contradiction between the principle of liberty he had appealed to in the Declaration of Independence and the practice of bondage that his plantation and the economy surrounding it depended upon. This conflict did not only exist within Jefferson’s soul. It divided every major denomination of the American church in the 19th century.
When abolitionists insisted on pointing out the immorality of human bondage, plantation owners responded by paying preachers and theologians to write justifications of race-based chattel slavery. They imagined a world in which the bodies and souls of black Africans were dependent on the paternalistic supervision of white civilization. Slavery was not simply a justifiable evil. It was, according to America’s slaveholder religion, a positive good. Just as they would argue in the 20th century that segregation was best for black and white people, evangelicals for Jefferson Davis contended that slavery was as good for the souls of black Africans as it was for the pocketbook of the plantation owner.
No one who has read American history can be surprised by the hypocrisy of Evangelicals for Trump. But we can learn from the history how their undoing will inevitably come from their public arrogance. While Davis and Wallace had power, they did not have to listen to the cries of those who suffered from the injustice they used the Bible to justify. They found religious leaders who were willing to tell them lies in order to have access to their power. But the ignorance they intentionally cultivated led them to misjudge the political realities of their day. The Confederate States of America could not last. Wallace’s 1968 run for president revealed the limits of his political imagination.
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