Beginning Black History Month, President Trump met with a group of black leaders at the White House on Wednesday. During his remarks at this meeting, President Trump caused people pause when he explained, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Trump did continue to cite Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks as other influential and historic black Americans who “made America what it is today.” Even so, the language he used raises questions as to whether or not he knows Frederick Douglass was a prolific 19th-century black intellectual who escaped slavery and became a reformer, abolitionist and writer.
When asked to clarify President Trump’s comments, press secretary Sean Spicer offered an equally confusing response saying, “I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made, and I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
I commend President Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer for invoking the name of so great an American saint as Frederick Douglass, and I encourage them to read Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself.
Douglass had an amazingly insightful mind. On the topic of religion specifically, he struggled with American Christianity throughout his life. In the appendix to his Narrative he expressed:
“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”
From Douglass’ observations there was no reason for calling the religion of 19th-century America Christianity. It was a religion that had been so bastardized that it no longer resembled the person of Jesus Christ.
I wonder if Douglass would say the same thing about Christianity in America today. Does that Christianity line up with the Christianity of Christ?
When we support immigration bans on seven majority Muslim countries, are we loving the stranger in our midst? Are we remembering that we were once strangers too?
When we hear potential executive orders floated that may allow for religious people to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, are we loving our neighbor as ourselves?
When we allow the construction of oil pipelines across the United States that will inevitably leak and pollute our environment, are we taking care of and protecting God’s creation?
Frederick Douglass was someone who did amazing things during this lifetime, and he should be recognized more and more in our public schools and public discourses. For Christians, he reminds us the ways in which we stray from the “Christianity of Christ.” He calls us not only to be better, but to be wary and to actively fight and resist those who claim to bear the name Christian while being wholly other from the cause of Christ.