In my 7th-grade history class, I was taught that American slaves were treated well by their masters and that most of them preferred life on the plantation to freedom. This obvious lie was among several that were perpetuated throughout the American educational system for decades. And now as Bethany Bell points out in an article for The Washington Post, these lies were part of an intentional effort to romanticize the American South and quite literally whitewash its defense of institutional slavery.
Bell writes that in 1897, The United Daughters of the Confederacy “formed a textbook committee in which they stamped their approval on textbooks that were consistent with Lost Cause ideology” An ideology that erected statues to honor Confederate generals and “successfully lobbied to ban textbooks it deemed ‘unfair’ to the South.” As Bell points out, “In 1920, the Daughters adopted criteria to determine whether a history book could be used in Southern schools, colleges and libraries. Their standards stipulated secession was not rebellion, enslaved people had been treated well and the ‘War between the States’ was not fought over slavery. Books that failed to affirm these standards were blacklisted.”
Given this long history of attempts to whitewash the harsh realities of The United States, it should come as no surprise that emerging as a central issue in Republican politics is a renewed desire to edit the narratives of American atrocities, or in some instances outright deny they ever happened. A number of GOP-led States have moved to make illegal the teaching of subjects that lay bare the ugly truths about our shared story. Most recently Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 Presidential candidate, announced that his state would outlaw a new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies. DeSantis argues that the curriculum is motivated by a “political agenda” and on the “wrong side of the line” for Florida.
This renewed conversation about what should and should not be taught in American schools reminded me of a recent online exchange that I had with a Florida pastor about which side of this debate Christians should take. He argued that there is indeed a liberal, socialist, anti-Christ agenda that is infiltrating the American educational system, and he lamented that not enough Christians were “voting the right way” to keep this agenda at bay. This prompted me to ask, “What exactly should be the agenda of Christians in America?” If we see ourselves as a means to an end in ushering in some sort of theocratic government that is based on Christian Nationalism, then who, exactly, is qualified to lead this government? And what will happen to one of our most treasured freedoms codified in our First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion? I ended my online exchange by suggesting to the pastor that until Jesus returns and establishes His kingdom, I remain in favor of a pluralistic society that values the separation of Church and State.
But the example of Ron DeSantis in Florida, Kevin Stitt in Oklahoma, or Donald Trump in the White House, demonstrates that there is any number of less-than-honest politicians that will seek to pander to the hoi polloi of nominal Christians in America who have conflated patriotism with genuine Christianity. Worse yet, it seems that now Lost Cause ideology is being conflated with Christianity to the point that being honest about our own nation’s history or the histories of our various Christian denominations, when it comes to how Black people have been treated in America is considered anathema.
My own denominational heritage of Pentecostalism often downplays the truths of our origins. While denying that most of what passes as Pentecostal worship styles was appropriated from African American spirituality, many mega-churches with charismatic beginnings have built their brand on this kind of emotional enthusiasm while their leadership teams remain mostly comprised of white people. Stories told from Pentecostal pulpits rarely tell of the mistreatment of William J. Seymour, the leader of the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles that gave birth to the global Pentecostal movement. Absent are the reflections about the damage white supremacy did to Seymour, and what it so often does in America. White supremacy robs talented and faithful leaders of their innovations and attempts to pass them off as their own mediocre imitations while the excellence of Black leaders is segregated to the margins. This is the story of America and this is the story of American Christianity in so many of its iterations. But until we are willing to come to terms with our history and view it in all of its reprehensible ugliness, we are doomed to continue to see only through the lens of the whitewashed, rose-colored glasses of romanticized Lost Cause ideologies.
Like The United States of America, the nation of Israel in the biblical narratives often became enamored with a past that was less than truthful. As they were wandering in the wilderness, they lamented to Moses that they had it far better back in Egypt. Later, their leaders were quick to boast to Jesus that “We have Abraham as our Father!” A claim that Jesus soundly dismissed, calling them in essence “illegitimate children” and in John 8:44 going further by saying, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
In the coming days, collectively as a nation, we will continue to be called to a reckoning over the shameful aspects of our past. If we as Christians are reluctant to do so, then who will lead the way? The words that we speak reveal the contents of our hearts, and if our words are less than truthful when it comes to our histories, then why should anyone believe us when we speak of a desired future to come?
When I was in 7th grade and the lies of the romanticized Lost Cause ideology were repeated by my teacher, something within me protested. I didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to fully understand the racist magnitude of what existed beneath my teacher’s claim that slaves enjoyed their life on the plantation and found it preferable to freedom as they didn’t have to worry about housing, clothing, food or shelter, but I did have a question. I raised my hand and simply asked, “But they were still slaves, right? Why would anyone want to be a slave?” At this point my teacher made me go sit in the hallway for “being obnoxious.”
When governments, churches, politicians, or preachers, seek to whitewash the truth, they deny their constituents an opportunity to repent, reconcile, and offer reparations for the shameful acts of the past. To cover up these events, not to speak of them, or tell only one side of the story is tantamount to perpetuating and promoting the native language of Hell. At the very least we must be willing to find the courage to honestly examine our problematic histories and tell the truth about what happened. To do otherwise is to deceive ourselves into thinking that anything of lasting value will be erected on a foundation of lies.
Lies, it seems, no matter how well they are packaged will always find questions to be obnoxious. And this is exactly why we must continue to ask them.
Image Credit: Pamela Reynoso