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.
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.