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|Jeremiah Wright, and Brigham Young, and Samuel the Lamanite, and Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Boyd K. Packer, and Isaiah|
Mar. 18th, 2008 at 6:18 pm
At the History News Network, Ralph Luker makes a valuable point.
Jeremiah Wright’s words, if read politically, are poison. They outrage Americans who are accustomed to thinking and reading first as citizens of a country with noble ideology and honorable commitments. American political language is about exhortation to higher things, reminding us of the beauty of our ideals and praising our heritage.
However, if read another way, Wright’s rhetoric is not political. It is religious. It belongs not to the incendiary drama of the campaign trail, but in the genre of prophecy. It is jeremiad: that form of preaching named for the prophet of fallen Jerusalem. It cries out against moral ills, locating in them the roots of communal weakness, and calls the members of that community to repentance.
Wight indeed called down the judgment of God upon the United States, for the sins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the sin of both facilitating and turning a blind eye the death of young black men. “God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme,” he said.
As long as she acts like she is God. This is the sin of pride; it is what Isaiah condemns Israel for, and he warns that the proud nations will be trampled under the foot of the Lord. And Samuel the Lamanite preaches a sort of future jeremiad, warning the Nephites of that magnificently eerie curse of “slipperiness” – that their wealth, their crops, their very land will become “slippery” and thus lost to them for their pride. Samuel also, knowing that prophets are never welcome, warns the Nephites against ignoring them. (This is the “Second Lament” of Samuel, in Helaman 13).
Historian Perry Miller found the jeremiad again at the birth of the United States among the Puritans, who revived the Israelite idea of the nation as a moral entity. As the years wore by, as the Puritan youth increasingly drifted from the covenant of their parents, desperate Puritan elders preached sin, and repentance, warning that the very soul of the nation was in jeopardy. Here Miller found the intermingling of religion with the nation’s conception of itself as a political entity; and he notes that the jeremiads were increasingly unpopular.
This is not to say, though, that they vanished. In the midst of the Civil War, Brigham Young said, “If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been; they had also a right to make a law that negroes should be used like human beings, and not worse than dumb brutes. For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.” He called for “the land to be cleansed of its filthiness” – the filthiness of persecution and discrimination against minority groups like slaves and Mormons.
The issue of race has always been a popular topic for the jeremiad. Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” And in the early 1950s, Martin Luther King cried out that God “stands up before the nations and said: ‘Be still and know that I’m God, that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power.’”
Perhaps the most eloquent example is, however, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural – which, using the terms I have here, is more a religious than a political document. Lincoln famously warned the nation that God’s favor could not be claimed by either side of the struggle, but that his wrath was due to each; that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Twentieth century Mormons cannot be said to be strangers to the jeremiad. Boyd K. Packer told the Saints that “Civilizations, like Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed themselves by disobedience to the laws of morality.” The Proclamation on the Family invokes upon “nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”
Barack Obama has distanced himself from Wright. This is, to me, an issue of church and state as much as it is anything else. We may argue over whether such distancing is proper; I believe that it’s naive to believe that a nation of religious people will not have religion in politics. However, it does not make sense to me to denounce Wright as un-American. This is a political and cultural term; politically, of course, Wright is using unpopular language. Culturally – a sphere which includes religion – however, he has prestigious ancestry among American heroes, and current kin among those who see danger in America’s sins. Thus, perhaps we should think first as heirs of the scriptural tradition, and second as American citizens, and attempt to engage with Wight on a religious rather than political basis.
The debate over what these sins might be strikes me as a theological, rather than political, issue, and is another topic entirely.