Intentional Amnesia

I recently saw a cartoon that asked a very telling question: “If ignorance is bliss, why are so many Americans unhappy?”

Good question. Given the extent of Americans’ ignorance–of civics, of science, of history–if ignorance really was bliss, we’d all be on cloud nine….

Ignorance defined as a lack of knowledge is one thing; intentional ignorance is something darker. A lot of what Americans “know” simply isn’t so, and that isn’t due to inadvertence.

It’s intentional.

Jennifer Rubin recently interviewed Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute. The interview  focused on one of the causes of American “amnesia” about episodes in our national history–and the fact that the perpetuation of  amnesia about the atrocities committed against Black people and Native Americans has been intentional.

Jones began by recounting the omissions in his own Southern Baptist education.

My formative education was in the Jackson Public School system and at my local Baptist church and Mississippi College, both institutions affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. I graduated at the top of my class in both educational institutions and attended Sunday school every week. While I learned at church about the pious lives of early Baptist leaders, I was never taught that the word “Southern” in our denomination’s name was a reference to our forebears’ commitment to making chattel slavery compatible with the gospel. While I learned about Confederate General Robert E. Lee at my high school, home of “the rebels,” I was taught virtually nothing about important civil rights activists such as Medgar Evers, who lived and was gunned down by a White, churchgoing Episcopalian just 9 miles from my childhood home.

My college’s mascot was “the Choctaws,” yet, I was taught nothing about the genocide and forced removal of members of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek tribes from the land on which the college sits. It is a testimony to the power of white supremacy that such histories could remain suppressed with the evidence of the crimes kept so close at hand.

Jones notes that America has struggled with a “fundamental contradiction.” Our philosophical framework is that of a democratic society, but the country was built on a foundation of mass racial violence. The conflict between our ideals and our actions has been “papered over” with what he terms “an audacious religious claim”– the Doctrine of Discovery, the claim “that this nation was intended by God to be a promised land for European Christians.”

When social movements and other voices threaten to expose these contradictions, White Americans have acted powerfully in their defense. After the Civil War, for example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy organized to build their version of American history into granite, bronze and into public school textbooks. More recently, we’ve seen similar reactions following the retreat of White students into Christian segregation academies following school desegregation. And in the wake of the election of our first African American president and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re experiencing another desperate wave of willful amnesia and historical denial.

Jones insists that confronting this history is in the self-interest of contemporary White Christian churches–churches he characterizes as unhealthy.

Centuries of complicity in violence and oppression, followed by denial and repression, have taken their toll. Across the board, attendance is dramatically declining, seminaries are closing or merging, Christian colleges are struggling, and churches are facing widespread sexual abuse scandals.

Jones counts himself among the Christians who are struggling to keep their faith despite what they recognize as their co-religionists intentional refusal to confront the past.  When Rubin asks him how he is reconciling his current understandings with the church of his youth, he responds:

I’m still thinking, writing, and struggling to hang onto my Christian faith. But it was, ironically, the experience of going to a Southern Baptist seminary that confirmed — for me and many others — that it was not going to be possible to live a life of integrity within the denominational boundaries of my childhood. During those years, it became clear to me that most White evangelical denominations were already in bed with Christian right politics. Even before this led to White evangelicals’ devastating marriage to Donald Trump and the MAGA movement, I knew that was a union I couldn’t be a part of.

I’d never heard of the “Doctrine of Discovery,” but it has clearly influenced a significant part of the culture–and not for the better.

America could use more Christians like Jones and a lot fewer MAGA Christian Nationalists.


  1. Good post today. Regarding the practice of ignoring historical events, I was raised about 40 miles from Tulsa, OK, and had never heard about the Tulsa Massacre until a few years ago. There was a similar event a few years before Tulsa but on a smaller scale, in the town of Dewey, OK, just 4 miles from my house, where about a dozen or so black folks were murdered and their homes and section of town were burned to the ground. I lived close to Pawhuska, OK, and had never heard about the events there until reading about them in the book “Killers of the Flower Moon”.
    Much history does not get the attention it should because it is shameful and horrifying. But it happened.
    In the words of Kate Blair, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those who prevent history from being taught fully intend to repeat it.”

  2. My first thought about this essay is that ignorance is NOT bliss. Imagine, if you will, what it takes to maintain that ignorance. The anxiety and fear of maybe being found out and having to defend that ignorance. The efforts to stay away from those who might expose that ignorance. The isolation, the smallness of one’s world. How restrictive and smothering! No, that is not bliss…it is a prison of self-repression.
    My second thought on this is that the United States is not alone in its denial of history. Just this morning I read that the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius in particular, knew about the holocaust while it was happening although for decades they denied such knowledge. And such denials can be found throughout the world as nations and societies, like individuals themselves, try to keep the sins of their history from being known, less they lose power and position.

  3. My initial introduction to Baptist religion was the First Southern Baptist Church in New Whiteland, IN, a very appropriate name for that town. Moved back to the big city of Indianapolis and began attending Birge Terrace Baptist Church; friendly people who welcomed me, I joined the Bible lessons with the preacher’s wife and when I questioned the 12th Chapter of Numbers her response was that Moses’ Ethiopian wife didn’t mean she was black, not all Ethiopians were at that time. Then came the demands for the 10% tithe from my husband who never set foot in that church and had no intention of ever doing so. Well; I sluffed it all off till I asked the Supervisor of their Sunday School, who had a hauling business, to give me an estimate to remove the junk left by previous owners in the basement of the home we had just bought. He tried to rape me in my basement; had me down on the bottom landing in the basement when fortunately my children came in the side door from school. That ended my attendance at their church; I left them to themselves.

    The churches, whatever their title, are made up of the congregants within the buildings and not all are practicing Christians of any denomination. The leaders spout their understanding and lack of understanding of the meaning of Scripture as being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just as Trump and his White Nationalist, MAGA, Freedom Caucus deliberately spout as political truth, sans democracy, Rule of Law and discounting the Constitution of the UNITED States of American. When it gets down the where the cheese binds, they ARE united even with their discord, infighting, lies and variations of their versions of truth, justice and the American way when they go to the polls. It is “Intentional Amnesia” and deliberate actions to gain and maintain money and power. Their “amnesia” is a deliberate convenience which is tearing this nation apart more destructive than the Civil War which obviously hasn’t ended as they carry it on today from their elevated positions in government.

  4. It is always ‘Christians’ who drive people from the church. For me, for many. Those who have a need for rigid, feel-good, superiority can certainly find a home in some of the churches. I wonder at times if it will change; but then I see posts on social media and I realize it probably will not.

  5. I asked my friend Bard for a bit of help this morning because I’d never heard of the doctrine of discovery either. It came up with the following. Notice it’s more than a religious belief — it’s treated as law by the Oligarchs to steal land from indigenous peoples:

    “The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal and religious principle that was used by European powers to justify their colonization and seizure of lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The doctrine was based on the idea that Christian nations had a God-given right to claim any lands that were not already inhabited by Christians.

    The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century, beginning with Pope Nicholas V’s Dum Diversas in 1452. This bull granted Portugal the exclusive right to trade with and explore all lands south of Cape Bojador on the coast of Africa. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a series of bulls, including Inter Caetera, which granted Spain the exclusive right to trade with and explore all lands west of a line drawn 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands.

    The Doctrine of Discovery was used by European powers to justify their colonization of the Americas, Australia, and other parts of the world. It was also used to justify the enslavement of Indigenous peoples. The doctrine was based on the belief that Indigenous peoples were inferior to Christians and that their lands were terra nullius, or empty land.

    The Doctrine of Discovery has had a devastating impact on Indigenous peoples around the world. It has been used to justify the theft of their land, the destruction of their cultures, and the oppression of their peoples. The doctrine continues to have a negative impact on Indigenous peoples today.

    The Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated by many Christian churches and organizations, including the Vatican. However, it continues to be cited in legal cases and by government officials. Indigenous peoples and their allies are working to have the Doctrine of Discovery abolished and to achieve justice for the harms that have been inflicted upon them.”

  6. How can this country move forward without paying reparations to those harmed in the past? Also, if religious organizations can justify the theft and killing of indigenous people, they can certainly justify a marriage with the scumbag Trump.

    No wonder their numbers are dwindling…they deserve to suffer.

  7. Todd, Thanks for your concise overview of the Doctrine of Discovery! I had hazy memories from a long ago college history class and todays blog post was about to send me to Wikipedia.

  8. Ends are tough on humans because they lead to transitions. That’s a biggie of ours. Change. UGH. Let’s deny it as long as possible. Politicians offer to help us deny. That’s what we pay them for.

    Of course, they can give us denial as in pretending we don’t have to change.

    Change is coming.

  9. Paying reparations may be a part of moving the country forward, but more is needed than that. Without acknowledging the wrong done, asking for forgiveness, and granting that forgiveness by those harmed AND by the offenders of themselves to themselves, there will be no moving forward. We all must reconcile with those we have harmed and reconcile with ourselves.
    The very idea of forgiveness may be the only true thing that religions can and should teach.

  10. Isn’t it amazing that, throughout our history, the peoples we repressed have been able to put aside the horror of what they suffered and come to the aid of their country? I’m thinking about the Buffalo Soldiers, the Navajo Code Talkers, the “Fighting 442nd” (a Brigade of Japanese Americans in WWII), the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Devil’s Brigade in WWII. These are just a few of the thousands of repressed who gave us so much, in the hope that one day the idea of America would include and embrace them.

  11. Scapegoating is as old as time and (apparently) a flaw in our genetics. What we need are RR (“real reparations”. It could start as simply as teaching the truth about our country’s prejudicial past and applying social justice programs by wealth/income rather than by color/creed. You can’t change genetics….

  12. Doctrine of discovery: “… the claim ‘that this nation was intended by God to be a promised land for European Christians.’” Well, just how convenient is that??!!
    Pope Pius and the Holocaust, a timely reminder, as Theresa just found out about it, about the impact of hiding unhappy history.
    It is sad that these human beings, known as Popes, had the kind of clout to make these odious claims, that they were venerated in the way that they were; that the western mythology had, and still has, the kind of power over the minds of people that it has.
    Yes, Pete, change is coming, because for nothing to change, things will have to change. Change is.

  13. Mitch, until this report of a letter sent to Pius during the war there was no proof that he knew. My own studies of WWII brought this up repeatedly, but there was no proof. Now there is.

  14. if the church,any,would remain neutral in opinion,,or, keep it to themselves,would it make better practice of said religion? in America,we have freedom of religion. seems the exception is where a handfull decide they, should be a pinicle or a forebear of some move to put themselves either as a leader of all, or some sort of concieved notion they are under some alien attack. take it out of the power scheme and leave as a private institution,,,where it belongs. the idea this country was settled was to be far from kingdom and pope. the church of England used it to enforce, say forced, goverment tyranny over the peope via church doctrin. that included torture,burnings etc..those who believe in god have a service to uphold its end of the church,synagogue, temple etc. but they do not have the right in America to demand i submit to thier sevitude in any i see mega churches in the pockets of their flock, and reasons to be rich as some act of god,really, lets open those bank books, and lets see how they pander to affect. if religion is a moral staple, as read in any Good book, support and nourishing the world is foremost. seems its now a fight to control and buy a goverment for itself in America and other near and full blown authortarian regimes. follow the money and swaggarts jets, and see just what they really want as they anoint trump as some sort of god. sickest pic i ever saw was the mega pastures in a group touching trump and praying for vasts amounts of money and status..seems the devil himself has won..

  15. Mitch:
    I studied WW2 abit, when i was young in the mid 60s, (at the age of 10-12) and my grandfolks all devout catholic, and aunt who was a nun. reading about the holocaust wasnt easy, but listening to the war vets at the park who served in euro. Pius kept his peace by keeping his mouth shut. otherwise when hitler found moussolini dead, (if not for the move by allies and the people of Italy)he would have trounced on the Vatican. either way if hitler survived, he would have ransacked the Vatican. mouth shut of course. denial, of course. Ike knew of the concentration camps, intelligence from euro and England was ongoing ,and it was known about the genocide. what wasnt said, was held by our country. you cant move millions of people and not have a reason why they just disappear. im sure many besides Pius knew and never said a thing.

  16. The colonization of all continents by Europeans (except Antarctica) and enslavement of some of their people followed the welcome end of the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, a religious/political arrangement where the emperors of such “empires” were appointed by popes. This did not signal the end of papal interference in political affairs: it was a pope who later settled the Portuguese/Spanish brawl over the division of South America, and explains why Brazil’s language today is Portuguese in a largely Spanish-speaking continent. The Doctrine of Discovery, as settled dogma, was only involved in such “settlement” insofar as the territorial claims of the “discoverers” were measured. So much for the amalgmation of church and state. . . Those who lived there were not parties to the “settlement.” Perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella should have refused to finance Columbus’s venture in our round world.

    And you don’t want to hear how the Spaniards enslaved the locals to mine gold and silver in Peru and other venues, the creation of the “Spanish main” with its shiploads of precious metals targets of English privateers etc. etc. etc. Europeans not only transported slaves elsewhere; they also enslaved them in their own countries, so if we are to pay reparations to the descendants of African slaves I think an argument can be made that Europeans who participated in such inhumanity should pay reparations to the descendants of Peruvian and those in any other venue where such a horror was exercised. Fair’s fair.

  17. To return to today’s topic, I am most concerned with the intentional amnesia demonstrated by Ivy Leaguers such as Cruz and Hawley, who cheerlead Trump and Maga propaganda when they have to know better – and think they are not only playing gutter politics but are also engaging in distraction from their own aiding and abetting of Trump’s 1/6 treasonous endeavor and thus their possible exposure to criminal liability as rumored by a report I read last week that Jack Smith is looking at such a possibility. What’s next among Republican senators, a medal for the distinguished senator and former football coach from Alabama?

  18. Excellent post. This, among many other “you just have to take ___insert contradictory statement here __ on faith” that led me to leave the Baptist, and all Evangelical faiths.

  19. Copied from this blog post –

    “Centuries of complicity in violence and oppression, followed by denial and repression, have taken their toll. Across the board, attendance is dramatically declining, seminaries are closing or merging, Christian colleges are struggling, and churches are facing widespread sexual abuse scandals.”

    The white Christian Nationalists have created a resolution to their problems. Force the taxpayers to financially support the churches via school vouchers. We are being forced to fund the religious indoctrination of K-12 students along with providing funds to the churches for much needed building maintenance. With specific regards to the catholic denomination, our tax funding of their religious schools and buildings has enabled them to use more money for child sexual abuse lawsuits.

    These fake Christians have managed to devise a very evil way to keep their power.

  20. Their is a very interesting documentary series on Netflix called “The Family” about a very powerful religious group that is not only embedded in Washington DC politics, but has tentacles all around the world.

  21. The doctrine of Discovery was put forth by the Church of Rome anyway, so the Vatican was extremely complicit in slave trade and the murder of indigenous peoples.

    The Nazis embraced this very issue, when they were conquering their neighbors, they said it was there innate right so Germans would have room to grow.

    The doctrine of discovery also had a huge influence on manifest destiny, which the United States used to promote its continuing colonization of the weaker. They envisioned manifest destiny to usher in an all-powerful agrarian society based in the United States which would cover the western hemisphere.

    Look up the papal bull
    1452. By Pope Nicholas the 5th

  22. Sounds like the script ascribed by the Israeli government toward the Palestinian people.

    We should have learned the destructive nature of supremacist thinking,we have not. There’s an underlying shadow of supremacist thought within the current administration wrt its response to Maui.

    If only the island’s residents were as lillywhite as the residents of Ukraine.

    Slava Maui!

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