Alana Massey, New Republic, May 26, 2015
“The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi, is a fresco of the first president of the United States ascending to the heavens. The goddesses of Victory and Liberty, along with 13 maidens who represent America’s original colonies, flank George Washington; here, he’s elevated to the status of a god (and it’s worth noting that “apotheosis” actually means “deification”). In the 150 years since Brumidi’s last brushstroke, the painting’s characters have borne silent witness to the machinations of the U.S. Congress from the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. When the fresco was completed, four million black people called the United States home but were only that year able to enjoy even the most limited experience of citizenship when the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation began the process of ending slavery. Of course, Brumidi’s fresco only features white faces.
His painting illustrates the complexities of a nation inextricably informed by the religious ethics of its founders and those who continue to wield power today: Religious white men, ascending to fame on the strength of their ideals. Even those founding fathers–who identified primarily as deists–shared views that aligned with Christian theologies. American society is heavily informed by this religious foundation, specifically in terms of racial injustice, even as religious identification declines.
A recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute on police brutality showed that between December 2014 and April 2015 the percentage of white Americans who believed that police killings of black Americans were part of a broader pattern jumped from 35 percent to 43 percent. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, see the recent homicides as isolated incidents–62 percent of them said that police treat blacks and whites equally. This isn’t an accident of demographics; it springs from the religious framework that undergirds American societal values. To deny the ongoing influence of Protestant ethics is to be willfully ignorant.
The “Protestant work ethic” is a term coined by sociologist Max Weber, whose seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, delineated how links made by theologians between religion, work, and capital laid the groundwork for capitalism. Calvinist theology holds that only an elect few are predestined for salvation from birth, while the rest are damned. The anxiety this produced compelled people to look for hints or signs that they were members of the elect; they believed that material success was among the most notable indicators of God’s favor. Doing the hard work of creating God’s kingdom on Earth through a secular vocation was considered a pathway to God’s grace. The opposite also held true: Just as material success indicated God’s grace, poverty was a sign that you’d been denied God’s grace. In this context, slaves could be both blamed for their own plight and have the legitimacy of their labor erased.
Dr. Ray Winbush is the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, and he said that his work in Baltimore has recently increased his exposure to racial conceptions of work and goodness. “White people will say, ‘Why don’t you black people pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. This is America, everyone is free to do what they want,’” Winbush told me. “But what was the civil rights struggle of the 1960s if not the greatest self-help movement in American history?” Through the old lens of work as an act that contributes to building God’s kingdom on Earth in a very physical way, the work of political organizing can’t be recognized as a legitimate form of labor. Denying the labor of black Americans reinforces white supremacy.
As we abandon our explicit ties to religion, religious ethics still inform our views of race, prosperity, and even personhood. It’s easy to blame older white Protestant evangelicals for the country’s residual racial strife, even as it represents white America’s refusal to interrogate the source of our worldviews and our tremendous social and political capital.