Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson on the themes and issues explored in her groundbreaking new book.
Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson on the themes and issues explored in her groundbreaking new book.
By Sikivu Hutchinson
It’s a good time to be Christian in America. The dark dirty era of persecution has receded and being Christian, shouting it loud and balls to the breeze proud without the possibility of rebuke, is sexy. Ads from Internet dating sites like Christian Singles beckon during prime time, the Christian catch phrase “I’m blessed” has become a national bromide, and pop culture serves up Americana holiness in one big 14 carat crucifix. The hippest chicest celebs don’t leave home without megawatt crucifix bling, network TV dramas crown wayward white women “Good Christian Bitches,” and superstar mega preachers command 24-7 branding platforms on slick cable TV shows that hawk their latest motivational pap. Of course, there is nothing new about the latter; in the 1980s prosperity pimps like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson parlayed TV evangelism into a multi-billion dollar industry. But twenty first century pimping is distinguished by its ubiquity, fueled by the Internet and a glut of religious cable stations that are more accessible to mainstream viewers. In the age of Barack Obama, the brute force revivalism of the Religious Right has made once benign issues like birth control partisan and even gotten the yellow-bellied mass media shrieking about the right’s “war on women.”
Still, the Religious Right has been practically virtuosic in its 2+2=5 mass doublespeak; convincing mainstream America that Christians are the new minority and that commie pinko “secular progressives” (Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly’s preferred “smear”) are at the helm of a socialist conspiracy. During the 2012 presidential race GOP candidate Rick Perry repeatedly played the Christian victim card in a desperate bid to remain relevant with the very same white evangelicals that courted him in the early stages of his candidacy. After flubbing the presidential debates his numbers plummeted and white evangelicals ditched him for Rick Santorum. Prior to the Iowa Caucuses Perry ran a series of ads boldly declaring that he was not “ashamed” to say he was a Christian. The most campy one was entitled “Strong” and featured Perry striding through the grass in full blown alpha male mode, inviting viewers to admire his impeccably feathered seventies soap star helmet hair and Iron John jaw. Perry blasts Obama’s “war” on religion, the indecency of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and the prohibition on prayer in schools. Tellingly, the narrative that Christianity and Christian values are under siege by the first Black president is one of white evangelicals’ favorite fairy tales. Because of his blackness Barack Obama could no more be a legitimate Christian than Fidel Castro. During the campaign Rick Santorum even went so far as to vilify Obama as a suspect Christian touting a “phony theology not based on the Bible.” None of this vitriol accompanied Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton could be as raunchy a philandering cracker as he wanted to be and still be God’s child, a good Southern Baptist with only a symbolic connection to his faith.
When it comes to religion and faith, white outsider status can’t compete with the black Other. I was reminded of this legacy when an African American and a white teacher got into an argument about whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation during one of my teacher training sessions. The school where the workshop was being held is predominantly black and Latino, with a high dropout rate and a low four-year college going rate. After a high profile incident in which a gun in a student’s backpack accidentally went off in a classroom, the school was widely stereotyped by the local media as a dead end repository of lawless black and brown youth. Nonetheless, there are many students at the school who are achieving and showing leadership, contrary to the stereotype. During the discussion, the African American teacher staunchly defended the notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation. The white teacher, who is notorious for making racist paternalistic comments about students (as well as homophobic slurs about a colleague), swaggeringly proclaimed his non-belief and declared that the U.S. has always been defined by the separation of church and state. It was clear that the “outsider” white man had no fear about being ostracized for his renegade views in a fight with a preachy black teacher. The reality is that even the most abject disreputable white non-believer doesn’t suffer any racial consequences for his non-belief. There might be political consequences; but even disreputable white men don’t surrender their universal subject status over a little matter of heathenism. You might be a Godless “freedom-hating” flag burning pinko commie infidel but you were still human and still a citizen until proven otherwise. And this has been the paradox for African American non-believers. Historically, being Christian has been a de facto pathway to becoming moral, to becoming American, and to becoming a provisional citizen.
“I just finished reading your book “Moral Combat” and I wanted to thank you for writing it. I am an atheist college professor teaching sociology (mostly criminology and globalization) and while I enjoy reading “New Atheist” folks like Dawkins and Hitchens I was always disappointed in their lack of context (you wrote about that beautifully). There is virtually no sociology in their writing, and you brilliantly argue that humanists should be more concerned with racial, gender and other forms of social justice; and that other secular voices need to be (genuinely) heard.”
Dr. Nathan Pino, Department of Sociology, Texas State University
“So much conversation regarding atheism and humanism gains no traction, and does little to push beyond areas of comfort and well worn arguments. Sikivu Hutchinson’s work offers an important corrective to this. With clear and sharp insights, Hutchinson pushes readers to recognize and tackle the patterns of thought and action that limit any real ability to respond to issues of race, gender, and sexuality from a transformative and humanist perspective. Read her work, but fasten your seat belt first!”
– Anthony Pinn, author African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology
Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s popularity amongst conservative women highlights the gender nuances of America’s Jim Crow era nostalgia. God’s body has both religious and secular overtones in the pop culture fixation on and battle over women’s fertility. Over the past decade there has been an explosion of super mom reality TV shows featuring tabloid ready teenage mothers, white suburban mothers of multiples, alpha nannies and mega breeders like the ultra Christian fundamentalist Duggar family. The vast majority of these programs spotlight white families and traditional straight two-parent households.
The intersection of voyeurism, fertility innovations, and reactionary family values has kept these shows profitable. Similarly, tabloid obsession with the pregnancies, babies and reproductive dramas of (generally) white celebrities have also become an integral part of mainstream discourse. Littering the Internet, the first titillating pictures of celebrity baby bumps have become the prenatal equivalent of porn money shots. Despite all the mainstream media’s chest-beating post-feminist rhetoric, it is implied that having a child is still the pinnacle of femininity. Tabloid validation of fertility becomes a female celebrity’s most coveted honor as websites breathlessly chart the progress of Beyonce, Britney, Mariah, Tori, Celine, ad nauseum. This theme is amply borne out in the train wreck appeal of popular reality shows like Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, whose young white “stars” are regularly featured in the pages of People, In Touch, and US magazines. Lauren Dolgen, mastermind of both Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant claims that both shows are supposed to be cautionary. The audience becomes absorbed with the experiences of young girls confronting the life challenges and hardships of premature parenthood. Many of my students confess that watching these shows has become a guilty pleasure. But as young black and Latina women they are quite clear that none of their friends will ever be spotlighted as sexy baby-to-bling Horatio Alger success stories in the tabloids ala teen mother and GOP evangelical poster child for illegitimacy Bristol Palin.
Northerners are trained to revile the “primitivism” of the South. It’s a reflex borne of the legacy of slavery as well as an American gothic of trailer parks, inbred cousins, moonshine swilling troglodytes, toothless Klansmen wielding Confederate flags, redneck police brandishing fire hoses. In the newsreel of the unconscious, the South becomes the face of drooling unvarnished Bible-drenched racism, the North’s demonic double. It is envisioned as the site of racism’s “original sin,” even though one of the first and largest slave strongholds was in 17th century Manhattan.
But the Black Northerner has a complex, ambivalent relationship to this narrative of opposites. In the early-to-mid 20th century Southern terrorism and economic inequity spurred the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities of “opportunity.” The Northern drive was the stuff of legend and lore, firing the prose of writers as generationally diverse as Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. Black church denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church played a big role in helping African Americans transition to deeply segregated Northern black communities that were often hostile to Southern transplants. Yet kin and communal ties kept black migrants spiritually and emotionally wedded to the South. As much as the South was the primal scene for black slavery it was also a source of close knit black community, culture, and linguistic traditions. It was a space where African Americans were segregated yet provisionally self-sufficient, forced by necessity to establish their own businesses, schools, banks, medical practices, and cultural centers.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston notoriously rejected the antidote of “Northern” integration. In much of her work she extolled the virtues of black self-sufficiency and rugged individualism. For Hurston, these values were best embodied by her adopted hometown Eatonville, Florida. Reflecting on the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision Hurston wryly noted that “it is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.” Southern black cultural traditions were an example of that venerable heritage of self-association. Hurston disdained what she perceived as blacks’ tendency to grovel for white moral and social validation. Not only was integration a smokescreen but it falsely absolved whites of their complicity in the institutionalization of white supremacy. Contemporary bromides about the increase of multiracial relationships, expanded U.S. Census categories for multiracial people, and the alleged decline of racial identification amongst the “Millennial” generation only disguise the folly of post-racialism. Indeed, according to a 2011 survey by Colorlines Applied Research Center, the claim that Millennials believe racism has magically receded in the age of Obama is invalid. Race and racism are very much relevant to so-called Millennials, especially when it comes to issues of over-incarceration and employment discrimination.
From where many of us living in areas that have been demonized as ghettoes, inner cities or urban jungles sit, the social construction of the black and brown other is still a vital part of white Christian nationalist solidarity. Poll after poll has shown that the Tea Party and white evangelicals speak with the same voice. Historically, much of this sentiment emerges from the kind of deep white supremacist and class-based resentment exemplified by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The Tea Party’s antipathy toward the recent Occupy Movement demonstrated that it is not really interested in upending the status quo but in exploiting anti-establishment rhetoric to maintain white supremacy and capitalist disparities in wealth and power. Most of the top Republican presidential candidates have heeded this clarion call to Manifest Destiny. From former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s entreaty to shiftless black folks on food stamps to Senator Ron Paul’s reputed warning about a black driven “race war,” the politics of black-baiting will never become out of date or unprofitable when it comes to appeals to white nationalism. In trying to shore up its Midwestern and Southern base the GOP has engaged in a particularly fantastical brand of doubletalk, framing the tepid Obama administration as the architect of a war against Christians. It is tempting to attribute this smear to Obama’s specious reputation as a liberal Democrat. Yet there was no such culture war propaganda during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a good Southern Baptist who could quote scripture and hold forth on biblical truths with the best evangelicals. But Obama’s oft-displayed ties to the Black Church have done little to raise his stock with white evangelicals. Apparently no amount of mugging with megachurch pastors or weaving scripture into his presidential addresses will alter the right’s view of Obama as a rabid secularist. For the right, Obama’s fireside God bless America’s have about as much purchase as Phyllis Wheatley’s paeans to the moral purity of Africans did for Virginia slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson. All God’s children may have wings, but in the post-racial U.S. a “nigger” with a bible, a Harvard degree and the biggest seat on Air Force One is still just that.