At the end of Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010), he yearns “for a vision of Christian intellectual identity that is compelling and attractive, embodying not simply the cunning of reason but the power of love that constantly gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace” (291).
Jennings laments the theological academy, where as a student he saw “fundamentally the resistance of theologians to think theologically about their identities” (7). He seeks to provide something missing in Christian theological discourse, namely that “Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination” (6).
Jennings’ corrective analyzes Christian theological motivations inspiring imperialism and colonialism at varying moments, beginning with the displacement of black bodies in a Portuguese slave auction in 1444 and a chronicler’s tears at sufferings of Africans being chained and torn away from families and kin: “[t]he auction will draw ritual power from Christianity itself while mangling the narratives it evokes, establishing a distorted pattern of displacement” (22).
In Jennings’ view, it is Christianity’s assimilation of this pattern of displaced and commodified black bodies that persists in the theology. The racial othering is part of the definition of Christian “religion” and identity in its early modern incarnation, and if we pair this view with scholarship such as Nongbri’s Before Religion (2015) and Chidester’s Empire of Religion (2014), which argue that the concept of religion is itself a modern construction, we can see just how intimate the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘religion’ remain.
At the end of Jennings’ book, he argues:
…whiteness must be analyzed not simply as substantiation of European hegemonic gestures but more precisely in its identity-facilitating characteristics, its judgment constituting features, and its global deployments of embodied visions of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To analyze whiteness requires nothing less than a theological consideration. (290)
In agreement with Jennings, I want to connect the exigence of his call to the ongoing drama around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Donald Trump’s announcement to end the policy earlier this month. Christianity Today reported that Trump and Jeff Sessions were urged by evangelicals to keep DACA in place, citing:
Two-thirds of American evangelicals favor giving work permits to Dreamers (66%) while far fewer oppose the permits (22%), according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Tuesday evening. Almost 6 in 10 US evangelicals (57%) believe DACA recipients should be allowed to become citizens, while almost 2 in 10 (19%) believe they should be deported.
Minerva G. Carcaño, writing in Time, called the removal decision un-Christian. Matthew A. Shadle, in a piece on this blog, criticized Steve Bannon’s dismissal of U.S. Catholic Bishops who criticized Trump’s decision. So, it would appear that Christian leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, are generally united in wanting to defend DACA. Well, not exactly, since The Christian Post reports that the appropriate Christian response is to “pray for law and order” and support the current administration.
A political theological analysis with Willie James Jennings’ calls would ask us to dig deeper into the historical role of Christianity’s underwriting of imperialism. “Colonialism,” writes Linda Tuhiwa Smith in Decolonizing Methodologies, “is but one expression of imperialism,” which operates on a variety of levels, most importantly as economic expansion (22).
It is difficult to separate the plight of Dreamers from the historical conditions of racism and white supremacy that underwrite American exceptionalism. But that exceptionalism, as the persistently entrenched “city upon a Hill” metaphor moves from John Winthrop in 1630 to Ronald Reagan’s “Election Eve Address” in 1980 continues to attest, Christianity is deeply tied to American Empire.
As Reagan said in his rhetorically brilliant (if amazingly contradictory) address, “Many of us are unhappy about our worsening economic problems, about the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security that jeopardizes world peace, about our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.”
Reagan opens his speech concerned with American hostages in Iran. After lamenting his friend John Wayne’s passing, Reagan says, “Since her beginning America has held fast to this hope of divine providence, this vision of “man with God.”
Reagan references “city on a hill” twice: First with an impulse toward universalism: “These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill.” This is the language of whiteness.
Reagan ends his speech: “Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act “worthy of ourselves;” that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.”
This rhetoric persists for Christians pray for “law and order,” the audience of The Christian Post. But I would also say that even Christians opposed to the removal of DACA have not, by in large, dealt with the imbrication of Christianity in the white supremacist impulses that continue to fuel the U.S. – and these impulses are not merely the ideological stances of the current administration.
Ta-Nehisi Coates recently called Trump America’s first white president. As Coates writes, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself.”
But liberals too sanctimoniously sneer at both Trump and his supporters as a ‘dysconscious’ tactic that allows them to feel good about their own continued investment in white supremacist exceptionalism. Joyce E. King notes “[d]ysconscious racism is a form of racism that tacitly accepts dominant White norms and privileges. It is not the absence of consciousness (that is, not unconsciousness) but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race” (in Condon & Young 4). This would be another way of phrasing the absence Willie James Jennings perceives among Christian theologians.
One way of getting at these issues in terms of religion must be an overcoming of the divide between personalist, individual religiosity and sociological, collective or ‘functionalist’ views of religion. Jennings attempts this via Foucault’s descriptions of knowledge/power.
For Jennings, “processes of Christian cultivation not only join easily to those of production, but also signal a comprehensive oversight of the body, especially the native body.” Native bodies and displaced black bodies must remain subordinate so that their souls might be redeemed by becoming Christian. This potential justifies the inhumane treatment of them, and Jennings describes this as “pastoral power”:
Pastoral power is a form of power not localized in one position, here the parish priest; rather this power disperses through a network of relations that include the priest, his actions – communicative and symbolic – his response to native actions, and his activity in relation to the actions of others upon native bodies.” (107)
In other words, when we are thinking about race, religion, and power we cannot merely rely on good intentions, especially the good intentions of those in power. As Foucault’s work on subjectivation attests, it is power powering the formation of the self or subject. Citizenship, in its modern formation, is the enactment of power powering.
When we claim that children (Dreamers), who have been subjectivated through such governmentality as “Americanism,” are in excess of citizenship or as Agamben says of Guantanamo detainees, homo sacer, we are enacting a ritual sacrifice of youth. DACA appears to have been a cleansing ritual for the coming sacrifice. Of course, the Abrahamic moment would be to forestall that sacrifice. Faith would be the persistence of attention to the divine without the need for sacrifice, or in the Christian paradigm because the ultimate child sacrifice has already occurred so that there need be no more sacrifice.
I will admit that there is a hint of René Girard in such thinking, and I need to be careful because of the smug cultural snobbery that infected his thinking around Islam. But Girard’s readings of myth do push us to think beyond the intent of individual subjects. So does Affect Theory.
In Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Donovan O. Schaefer attempts to bring Affect Theory into Religious Studies. Donavan suggests:
at the emotional and preemotional levels, affects are the flexible architecture of our animal lifeways, the experiential shapes that herd together and carry religion on their backs. Affect theory makes available a set of approaches to religion that work through animality by probing the thick forms moving outside of the narrow lighted circle of language.” (24)
Affect theory, as Lauren Berlant describes in Cruel Optimism (2011), offers a counter discourse to that of sovereignty. For her, sovereignty “masks in a discourse of ‘control’ the wide variety of processes and procedures involved historically in the administration of law and of bodies, even during periods when sovereign rulers exerted their wills by fiat” (96). I believe there is potential here but it is ill-formed for those in religious studies at the moment, despite Schaefer’s attempts.
Certainly, Dreamers are victims of sovereign decisions. First, Obama’s executive order appeared because of hindrances within Congress about getting legislation passed. Dreamers were “exceptional.” When Jeff Sessions calls DACA an abuse of executive power, his rhetoric is that of a return to “law and order.”
Plenty of Christians buy into an idea of “Christian civilization” that gives birth to the secular nation-state. Committed secularists are amnesiacs when it comes to such history, that universal human rights language comes out of a Christian universalizing language, as does the modern notion of “universal religion” or Deism that informed Enlightenment thought.
Because of this, even committed secularists are unaware of the Christian foundations for the “zero degree” of liberal-democratic, religiously neutral secular public space. Because of the forces of neoliberalism, many in the U.S. revert to “identity statements” to frame public discourse: “As a Christian…” In doing so, they bow down to the idolatry of neoliberalism. This is not at all to say identity doesn’t matter. As Jennings says concerning whiteness, interrogating identity is very important.
What Christians in the U.S. need to do is, as Jennings suggests, interrogate the rhetorical history of Christianity within the U.S. legal system, which is never as secular as it seems. It is not about having a properly “enchanted” Christian critique of the Trump administration’s moves to end DACA. That buys into the false idea that Christianity – at the very least since Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) and before as well – was not already informing the foundation of the Union, that white exceptionalism was not imbricated into American life with the decision to keep slavery’s peculiar institution in the face of universalist Enlightenment language.
Unfortunately for left-leaning Christians, their conservative counterparts are correct to see a version of Christianity as establishing the white supremacy they seek to preserve. And from that admittedly racist standpoint, brown immigrants can never have access to American exceptionalism because then they would lose their status.
This is not only a U.S. phenomenon. The rightwing shift over the past forty years is global, and it’s about people feeling they need to protect what’s theirs against those who would take away what they “worked so hard for.” That “work” was imperialism and genocide, motivated by an entitlement to conquer non-Christians. Even if we keep DACA, we are dooming our children to a citizenship based on white supremacy until we historically unpack Christianity’s role in imperialism and colonialism.
Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian”in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue”in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature. He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.