David Kline

Perhaps no two words capture the drama of American history better than “religion” and “race.”

Questions and conflicts over what constitutes proper or authentic American identity have always included claims about religious truth and racial difference. The early English colonial settlers understood their presence in America as commissioned by the Protestant Christian God, and it was in contrast to others that their faithfulness would be evident.

John Winthrop, the founding governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, imagined America as a “city on a hill” in the midst of a great wilderness, one that would model for the rest of the world the highest standards of Christianity, love and justice. Such a community of piety would forge their identity in contrast to both heretical Christians and non-Christian others. The latter, which were represented by the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the African slaves forcefully imported into the colonies, provided the colonizers the human objects around which religion and race would come together as the most important markers of both “true” and “untrue” American identity.

Though in certain controlled contexts the indigenous peoples of the Americas were treated with generosity, they were typically feared and viewed as religious idolaters who posed a profound threat to the security and sovereignty of the English colonies. African slaves were viewed in similar ways, described as “barbarians” and sub-human animals whose domestication required brutal disciplining by white Christian masters as well as instruction in the Christian faith.

Fear of non-Christian and non-white others was the linchpin of an emerging American identity unable to conceive the inclusion of difference outside the controlled or forced assimilation into white Christian truth. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Edwards described an America filled with indigenous peoples and African slaves as a mission field, one that before the arrival of the English Christians had been “nothing but the grossest heathen darkness.”[1]

Edwards's assumption of Protestant Christian supremacy and the corrupted alterity of non-Christian “heathens” and “negroes” was typical of the colonizing imagination of white Christian Europeans. The boundary lines of identity were clear: Being Christian and white meant being American, while being non-Christian and non-white meant being on the outside.

The religious and racial imagination of Anglo-European Christian colonialism set the stage for the founding of the United States in 1776, as what religious studies scholar Sylvester Johnson calls the U.S. “racial state.” The United States, Johnson notes, “was the product of white settler colonialism” and was “created as an Anglo-American republic of White-only citizens.”[2] This racial state of white supremacism was also one of Christian supremacism. Though the constitution separates church and state and not all the founding fathers considered themselves Orthodox Christians, the constituted political order of white supremacy worked in concert with a Christian supremacist culture in which white identity and Christian identity were considered one and the same.

Though centuries of hard fought cultural and political battles against slavery, the legal structure of Jim Crow and civil rights has opened American identity to non-whites and non-Christians, America still has yet to fully reckon with its foundation of Christian and white supremacism. The ongoing legacy of the settler-colonial imagination is found across contemporary America’s social, political and economic landscape.

In American presidential politics, for example, it is nearly inconceivable to imagine the election of a president that is not either a white male, Christian or at least affirmative of Christianity as normative. To be sure, there is only one definite example of a president who was not all three at once. The fact remains that white Christianity still disproportionately influences the distribution of political power in the United States.

The racial violence produced through this influence is a definitive feature of the American criminal justice system, economy and social imagination. To name just a few examples, this includes the well-documented war on drugs that overwhelmingly targets and disparagingly affects non-white communities, the directly-related mass incarceration of African Americans, the massive disparities in wealth and economic opportunity between white and black American families, draconian and inhumane immigration policies and the accompanying racial profiling of Hispanic communities and the racially and religiously charged stereotyping of Muslim-Americans and/or Americans of Middle Eastern descent as terrorists.

While there are certainly white Christians devoted to resisting and fighting such injustices, there is much sociological data supporting the idea that white Christians in America are largely indifferent to these realities. For example, sociologist Michael O. Emerson’s study on race and white evangelical Christians, Divided by Faith, shows that the theological and cultural worldviews of white evangelicalism, which makes up a very powerful political demographic, largely support and help preserve the reality of a racially segregated American society rather than mitigate it.[3]

All of this elicits the question of what it would mean to construct a different imagination of American identity not tied to the colonizing logic of the racial state. Though there is no simple answer to this question, one important place to begin is study. This is particularly important - although by no means exclusively so - for those of us fortunate enough to be part of a university community.

This semester I have been privileged to engage in such study with some excellent UTK students. In my classes “Christianity and Race” (REST/AMST 355) and “American Religious History” (REST/AMST/HIUS 359), we have critically thought through the history of colonialism in the Americas, the emergence of the category of race in modernity, the relationship between Christian theology and the construction of racial hierarchies, the landscape of religious and racial difference and various forms of resistance to white and Christian supremacy throughout U.S. history.

By critically engaging these themes and issues, and by connecting them to our own life experiences, we are confronted with knowledge of how very complex histories, concepts of human difference, religious beliefs, economic realities, political imaginations and other structures of power construct, shape and inform our own senses of identity.

Getting to such a place of self-knowledge requires much fortitude. For many people, understanding that all identities—national, racial, religious, political, gendered and so on—are human constructions which are therefore deconstructable can be a disorienting experience. Disorientation, however, is often the very thing that enables us to see how our own senses of identity have closed us off from a whole world of potentially surprising and enriching relationships. By accepting this we open ourselves to the knowledge that a different reality is possible in which the constructed lines that separate one human being from another can be crossed without fear.

David Kline is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and can be reached at dkline@utk.edu.


[1] Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, (Banner of Truth, 1972), 600.

[2] Sylvester Johnson, “What is ‘American’ in American Religion?”

https://ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=soc_facpubs

[3] Michael O. Emerson. Divided by Faith:Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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