Americans don’t do nuance. The basic dictionary definition of nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound,” and boy does this ever go against the American predilection for dualistic thinking in absolutely everything. From the highest level political “masterminds,” to the status-anxiety wracked petite bourgeoisie, to the common blue-collar Bubba, Americans prefer simplistic approaches to a very complicated world. They therefore derive thought-free comfort in the notions that black and white long ago teamed up to gag the numerous shades of grey with a balled-up American flag; that there is only good (America) and evil (everything that isn’t America), and that might ALWAYS equals right — at lease when America uses might.
And no U.S. subculture better exemplifies this inoculation-proof allergy to nuance better than the conservative hive-mind. Yes, if Americans in general prefer simple answers to complex problems, the Right Wing goes a step further: they deny that complex problems even exist. Thus, we have the dunder-headed conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s invocation at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. In this speech, the President had the (no-doubt Bolshevik-inspired) gall to be both historically accurate and intellectually nuanced. He condemned Islamic terrorism as the product of barbarians who betray their own faith, and singled out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” while “claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.” So far, so good. But the POTUS wasn’t done yet.
Indeed, his “offending” remarks constituted the intellectually benign observation that America mustn’t claim to be at war with the religion of Islam, but rather its radical Jihadist factions (after all, how exactly do you go about waging war against 1.6 billion people?). The President then summoned his inner Pontius Pilate in order to remind Americans that no religion, including Christianity, is immune from being employed for nefarious purposes. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place,” he observed while rigging up a fresh crucifixion cross and dropping a bag of silver into Judas’ lap, “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” As expected, the Right Wing exploded, variously accusing the President of being a Muslim apologist, a fake Christian, anti-American, and other dumb stuff.
Now, if Barack Obama stated that the ocean was wet, conservative media would pounce, claiming that the ocean is, in fact, dry. This “fact” would then filter through the right-wing cultural bowel-system and eventually excrete itself in the form of Daily Caller and Drudge Report headlines and Facebook memes shared relentlessly by your paranoid conservative relatives. In one respect, then, the right-wing reaction to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech was entirely expected because it fits the standard conservative operating procedure. Repeating an obvious falsehood long enough for it to become accepted “truth” is how the right-wing Borg media complex controls its millions of Republican-voting drones by sparing them the stress involved in having to think for themselves.
But there’s also another issue at work here: the American inability to simultaneously appreciate the many virtuous aspects of American culture while also recognizing how often America has failed to live up to those virtues via its history of religiously motivated violence. Violence is inherent to the human condition, and throughout history, every system of human creation, including religion, has been used to justify brutality. President Obama understands this fact, and he recognizes that an essential aspect of the three Abrahamic faith traditions is humility: having the courage and humbleness to recognize and repent for the times humans have fallen woefully short of their faiths’ most noble callings. Obama chose to invoke the Crusades as a concrete historical example of a period when faith divided people into good and evil factions, and why such a period must not be repeated.
This is a nuanced approach to history and religion, one that understands that the sins of the past can only be overcome through outward examination and inward reflection. It matters little which faith was “right” or “wrong” in these instances; rather, what matters it that we, as a single human society, recognize the times when our faiths have stoked violence, bigotry, prejudice, and suffering — and that we are humbled to be better than we have been in the past.
Those who criticize Islam’s wars of conquest would do well to remember that another great crusade, spanning the Age of Colonialism from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, conquered the Americas in the name of various Christian faith traditions and resulted in the mass slaughter, relocation, and subjugation of millions of allegedly “heathen” native peoples. Americans played a major role in this process, especially during the nineteenth century, when they conquered their own continent and violently subjugated non-Christians (and some Christians) who stood in their way.
No less a hallowed figure than President Andrew Jackson, the patron-saint of American expansionism, invoked the “civilizing” influence of Christianity to justify the near-genocidal removal of Native tribes from the American southeast — what lives on in memory as the Trail of Tears. In his 1830 speech to Congress, Jackson laid bare the religious underpinning for Indian Removal: “It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites…and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community,” Old Hickory stated. He then asked rhetorically, “is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?” But the supposed blessing of Christian civilization were likely lost on the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes who endured freezing, starvation, alcoholism, depression, and suicide on the 500 mile journey west across the Mississippi. An estimated 4,000 people died thanks to the “good counsels” of American Christian civilization.
But the Trail of Tears was just one event in a centuries-long process, during which white Christian Americans committed truly savage acts against native peoples. Among the most notorious events in this clash of civilizations occurred in Colorado on the barren, agriculturally sterile piece of land known as the Sand Creek Reservation, the home of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians forced from their ancestral lands by white settlement.
At dawn on November 29, 1864, a 700 man force of U.S. militia acting under the direct order of Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans, and commanded by militia leader Colonel John Chivington attacked the sleeping Sand Creek Camp, supposedly in response to Indian raids against white settlers. The camp was filled with mostly women, children, and the elderly. After launching volleys of cannon and rifle fire, the militia ran off the camp’s horses to prevent escape, then they overran the camp. The brutality of the attack was staggering. The Militia castrated Indian men with swords and sliced open pregnant women’s abdomens, leaving their unborn infants to die. To save money on bullets, soldiers bayoneted children and caved infants’ heads in with their boot heals. They also sliced off body parts for trophies. When the dust settled, roughly 163 Indians lay dead.
The Sand Creek Massacre sparked national outrage, and eventually resulted in a Congressional investigation that chastised militia leader Chivington, but didn’t charge him with a crime. Among the more sobering facts about the Sand Creek Massacre is that the two men who authorized it, Territorial Governor John Evans and Col. John Chivington, were both Methodists. Chivington himself was an ordained Methodist minister (and a committed abolitionist to boot). In 2014, representatives of the United Methodist Church undertook an investigation of the role Methodism played in the Sand Creek Massacre as a way of confronting past sins committed in the name of their faith. Heck, there’s a fairly obvious reason why Colorado Methodist institutions now sit on former Indian land. George Tinker, a professor at the Denver-based Iliff School of Theology, explains the need to understand the past connection between Christianity and violence. “Methodists, like all other white folks in North America, have a lot to atone for,” he noted, “How (Christians) are going to do that, I don’t know, but they have to begin where the Methodists are beginning, by paying attention to their history of violence.” Amen to that.
Of course, the Trails of Tears and the Sand Creek Massacre don’t stand as evidence that Christians are inherently violent, just as Jihadist terrorist acts don’t stand as evidence that Muslims are inherently violent. Nonetheless, both examples do demonstrate how Christianity, just like Islam, can be used to justify the most abhorrent acts of brutality.
And lest American conservatives feel the need to trumpet the alleged moral superiority of their particular interpretation of Christianity, they should recognize that the secular values of the Enlightenment, not mere religion, are what has tempered the more extreme, religiously motivated violent tendencies of the Christian West. As Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in her book The Idea That is America: Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World, “the faith that is part of the idea that is America is more than religious faith. It is faith not only in God, but also in man — in humanity itself.”* Slaughter reminds us that for religion, “the unknown is divine,” but in the humanism of the Enlightenment, the unknown is “the human capacity to overcome the vicissitudes of nature, accident, and the darker side of our nature.”* In the American national consciousness, these two faiths — religion and Enlightenment humanism — are “leavened by humility,” and American faith works best when it “fuses our religious traditions with our secular principles.”* If anything, theocratic Muslim nations could use a good dose of Enlightenment humanism, not Christian proselytizing.
But we’ll never gain a better understanding of the role of faith in the American tradition if we refuse to approach the intersection of history, religion, and violence from a nuanced perspective. The search for clear-cut, black-and-white, good-and-evil explanations for the more sordid events in American (and world) history only perpetuates a Crusade-style mentality, in which those who don’t hold the “true faith” must be subjugated and ultimately exterminated. The latter is precisely the fundamentalist ideology that Muslim Jihadists espouse, and they don’t make for good intellectual company. America can do better. A little nuance will go a long way towards understanding why faith makes people do the things they do. This includes all people, even Americans.
* See Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Idea That is America: Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 201-203.