Black America flipped the script on a racialized democratic state to make it more perfect. It is Black people’s fight that makes the United States exceptional.
—Randal Jelks (2022)
Many of us are profoundly worried about the health of American democracy. If so, we need to attend deeply to the deadly contradiction between structural racism and democracy. That contradiction has bedeviled our country from its origins. Our current crisis has very deep roots.
A sacred norm of democracy is citizen equality. Equal representation. One person, one vote. Rights for all.
But never has there been a time in our history when all of us believed in this vision. The United States, which views itself as a paragon of democracy, offers the most pronounced example in the entire world of a nation that never has been able to overcome its founding racism, and thus never has realized its impressively articulated democratic principles and aspirations.
Overall, the U.S. has enjoyed remarkable democratic stability, and many have envied the ingenious design of our governmental structures. Yet for 400 years we have been unable to arrive at a steady practice of fair, free and full democratic participation rights on the part of those deemed non-white in this land.
“Whenever steps of progress are made, white backlash is fierce. We are living in such a time of backlash.”
Neither the Christian nor the liberal principles that helped create modern democracy are capable of being realized in a nation committed to racial hierarchy. But the white population of the United States, as a whole, so far has not been persuaded to abandon it. Whenever steps of progress are made, white backlash is fierce. We are living in such a time of backlash.
Authoritarian reactionary Christianity
Authoritarian reactionary Christianity in the United States (sometimes called white Christian nationalism, although I prefer my term as the designation of both a U.S. and global problem) is deeply entangled with white racism. In the U.S., white people do not generally accept that this entanglement exists.
Many who do see the connection want little to do with Christianity. It is one of the reasons people are fleeing churches.
Some hard-core Christian reactionaries, on the other hand, with increasing openness define both America and Christianity in white ethno-nationalist terms. It’s like 1915 all over again.
Torrents of research from various fields today confirm that dangerous authoritarian, reactionary and anti-democratic trends in our politics are entwined with white racism, not just economic, moral and religious worries.
Robert Jones, in his important books The End of White Christian America and White Too Long, argues what is truly motivating the politics of many conservative white Christians, including but not limited to evangelicals, is white reaction. It is the end of the unquestioned political, cultural, economic and religious dominance of the U.S. by white Christian people that is distorting white Christian involvement in politics. Ferocious resistance to this diminution of white power is what opened the door to Donald Trump — that paragon of angry white cultural resentment who has been followed by numerous politicians of a similar spirit.
“This history goes back long before Donald Trump.”
But this history goes back long before Donald Trump. White U.S. Christians chose white tyranny over democracy in supporting slavery for 250 years, in opposing emancipation and equal political participation for African Americans in the period after the Civil War, in supporting or acquiescing quietly to white Christian terrorism during Jim Crow days, and by opposing voting rights protections for Black Americans during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
The illiberal and authoritarian threats to democracy so terrifying today have been the daily bread of non-white people through most of U.S. history. January 6, for example, was a revelation of the disenfranchisement that a certain kind of white reactionary always has been prepared to inflict on his neighbors. This time, however, not only his Black and brown and indigenous neighbors, but all non-Trump neighbors.
Whiteness is not a skin tone
The late James Cone, one of my seminary professors, claimed in 1970 that it was “whiteness” rather than democracy that rules America. This “whiteness” is not only anti-Black; it is anti-human, it is anti-Jesus, and it is certainly anti-democratic.
Whiteness in this sense is not a skin tone, but a sinful vision of the anthropological supremacy of “white” people among the world’s so-called “races,” creating belief in the moral legitimacy of dominative white power in society and legitimating immoral practices of destruction, enslavement and subordination to those considered non-white.
“Until whiteness, thus defined, is uprooted, defeated and repented, there can be no genuine democracy in the U.S.”
“Whiteness” is a name for an evil power that damages everything it touches, not just its non-white targets but also the souls of white people and the moral integrity of whiteness-damaged Christianity. Until whiteness, thus defined, is uprooted, defeated and repented, there can be no genuine democracy in the U.S. — and, for that matter, no genuine (white) Christianity.
This was Cone’s view in 1970, and he never really changed it. I now have come to share this view.
Democracy poisoned by racism
Black Americans have long understood that our democracy is poisoned by racism. For me, this makes the visible Black commitment to democratic activism in this country even more impressive. Historian Randal Jelks is right when he claims Black Americans are the true democrats in American history:
Black histories shred the mythology of the American Revolution, Lincoln freeing the slaves, Lost Causes, and landings on Plymouth Rock. Our histories are contrapuntal. They defy the idea that people of the United States are God-fearing. If anything, it is our (Black people’s) histories that are exceptional. We have been the ones that have demonstrated a commitment to being democratic.
White people rarely have had to risk their lives to participate in U.S. democracy. It has been easy for us to take for granted what was handed to us at birth. That never has been the case for Black Americans.
If we wish to understand what it takes to build, sustain and reform a democracy, it is to this tradition, and others like it, that we all must look. Democracy must be fought for. Those who have had to claw their way into political enfranchisement fully understand.
Jelks rightly argues that for Black Americans, at least, democracy never has been banal and has required profound faith and hope:
In my estimate this is what democracy is all about: the breath of self-respect and respect for others. This is the truth of all great faiths — and democracy is a faith, a belief system. This is why we must consider democracy as a matter of the spirit.
Black democrats have dreamed of an American past that never quite existed and a future yet to be born. Consider Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet
Black democrats offer an honest rendering of American history and a hard-won vision of a better American future. In a time when many white government leaders are attempting to ban even the most basic truth-telling about American history, what we truly need is close study not just of structural white racism but of the Black resistance tradition that has upheld democratic norms at great cost indeed.
This post is adapted from Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, forthcoming this fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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