Different messages

July 06, 2008|By Diana Schaub

Can a patriot say "God damn America"?

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s use of such language led to questioning of his patriotism - and that of his most famous parishioner, Sen. Barack Obama. Mr. Wright's defenders (especially the academic ones) immediately compared his invective to the words of the great abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass, as they scrambled to situate the pastor within an African-American prophetic tradition rich with fiery vituperation and bitter railings.

The most-cited passage from Douglass' political sermon, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," seems to confirm the parallel: "To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license ... your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. ... For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."

Strong stuff. However, before concluding (as more than one commentator has) that Mr. Wright is a modern-day Frederick Douglass, we should follow Mr. Wright's own admonition to ignore the sound bites and attend to the whole speech. When Douglass and Mr. Wright are read in full, the similarities evaporate. Whereas Mr. Wright's jeremiad is crude and cheap demagoguery, Douglass' July Fourth address is profoundly and complexly patriotic.

While Douglass surely damns elements of the nation's conduct, the Maryland-born abolitionist never damns America. To understand why not, one must pay attention to the movement and structure of his speech, which has three distinct phases.

The central section, to which Mr. Wright's defenders have appealed, is indeed a searing critique of American practices, including American Christianity. However, even at his most fiery, Douglass is scrupulous and fair. He castigates "the great sin and shame of America" rather than America itself.

Moreover, Douglass' verbal attack is sandwiched between two other sections, very different in tone. The opening third of the speech celebrates the nation's founding, calling the principles of liberty set forth in the Declaration of Independence "saving principles" and honoring the signers as brave men and great. Douglass respects the fathers of the republic - albeit from a certain distance, felt most poignantly in his repeated reference to "your fathers," i.e., not his, or at least not acknowledged as such by those he addresses as "fellow citizens." It is these fellow citizens, the sons of the fathers, whom Douglass disdains for betraying the promise of the Revolution.

Douglass' polemic works by summoning the present generation to be true to the nation's founding aspirations. This is a far cry from Mr. Wright's constant claim that America was founded upon white supremacy. For Mr. Wright, America's hideous practices are the direct result of its hideous principles. Because there is no solid ground for hope in either the American past or the American present, the future depends on "the audacity" of hope.

Douglass also speaks of hope - "I leave off, where I began, with hope" - but he presents hope as reasonable and well-supported by "the genius of American Institutions." In the last third of his speech, Douglass praises the Constitution in particular as a potent weapon against oppression. To wield it effectively, however, requires that it be freed from the corrosive and slanderous distortions of the slaveholding interpretation.

"Fellow-citizens! There is no matter in respect to which the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document."

By Douglass' lights, Mr. Wright has joined the Southern slaveocrats and their Northern dupes in grossly slandering and misrepresenting the nation's founding charters. We shouldn't allow Mr. Wright's defenders to compound the deception by falsely appropriating the spirit and legacy of Frederick Douglass. Mr. Wright cannot boast of having Frederick Douglass as an intellectual father. Douglass aspired to tell the fullest truth; his precise alternations between praise and blame were designed to enlarge the field for future praise of America. Mr. Wright's hyperbolic, conspiracy-mongering fulminations don't advance either truth or racial progress.

Douglass was a determined opponent of "white supremacy," but he also resolutely condemned the mirror-image black version of race consciousness, on display today in Mr. Wright's "black liberation theology." Douglass emphatically warned against the cultivation of "race pride." Black theology cannot defeat white theology any more than black power can defeat white power. As Douglass said, "Let us away with this supercilious nonsense." According to his confident prophecy, "complexional superiorities and inferiorities" will receive their due comeuppance by the application of the "saving principles" of the Declaration, in accord with the biblical truth of the brotherhood of man.

Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society. Her e-mail is dschaub@loyola.edu.

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