“Of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”
These words felt like a terrible blow as I was listening to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass*, an autobiographical account of Douglass’s life in slavery and eventual escape from it.
Douglass is a remarkable figure in nineteenth-century America. He amazed the people of his day with his striking intellect and powerful oratory skills. His narrative was meant to validate his genuine slave background and further the abolitionist cause—a cause he championed with great force and effectiveness in the antebellum years.
We love to look back on the past and select stories of people who embody our values, people who inspire us because of great deeds, people who make us feel proud. That’s one reason why we erect monuments—to remember great men and women who have accomplished significant feats. We want to enter into and identify with their greatness.
In the United States, our presidents often receive some of our grandest accolades. We have even carved their faces out of rock in the hills of South Dakota. The four men whose faces are depicted there capture for us the hope that Americans can aspire to greatness and do magnificent deeds.
But all our heroes fail us.
I recently finished listening to Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (Metropolitan Books, 2019). He tells an unsettling narrative of how Americans have used space to address some of their nation’s deepest problems, particularly its hang-ups with racism and empire building. The book traverses much ground, and while it is not focused on religious elements of American history, I found that some themes in this 2020 Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume (in general nonfiction) prompted some thoughts regarding American religion worth discussion on this blog.