The African American Bible: Bound in a Christian Nation
Although our nation prides itself on the separation of church and state, one needs only look at the Christian ideologies against marriage equality for same-sex couples, the conservative right’s pro-life movement, and the anti-muslim rhetoric of politicians to understand that these connection was never truly cleaved.
Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, visited the Hill on Feb. 16 for a discussion about African Americans’ connection to the Bible. Newton, who studied at Texas Christian University before receiving a master of divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, was introduced by his former instructor Brent Plate, now a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton.
Before beginning, Newton extended a note of gratitude to the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) and Hamilton’s Days-Massolo Center, and thanked Plate for his invitation to present.
It is no secret that the American past is wrought with injustice, inconsistency and irony. One historian poignantly asked Newton, “Why would African Americans become Christians?” The question was aimed at uncovering why African Americans would choose to align themselves with their oppressors. The answer, according to Newton, is two-fold.
“These were the words that were available,” he explained, “if everyone is talking about something, then that thing holds social power.” Slaves were often read scripture that supported their ‘rightful oppression’ and, if they were taught to read at all, would only have had access to the Bible. As such, the text has been ingrained in African American culture since colonial times, serving as a mark of education and moral purpose.
The secondary reason is tied to the first, in that the Bible was cited as a legitimate reason to oppress the African American community. Much like the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who cited the Constitution to highlight injustices of the American social system, post-slavery African Americans used the interpretable nature of scripture to fight for a more egalitarian position in American society. Whereas white Americans have historically used scripture to reinforce oppression of minority groups, African Americans have used the same scripture to fight political oppression.
Newton drew many comparisons between the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt and the African American slaves in the United States, echoing the sentiments of leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. “Whether we like it or not, [Americans] are bound to [the Bible] in some way,” Newton stated. “It’s why a white police officer places his hand on the Bible and swears under oath that an unarmed black teenager ‘looked like a demon,’” he continued.
The connection between African Americans and the Bible also goes beyond the text. African American leaders and politicians are often cited as having a spiritual tone or a scriptural message, and African Americans are often stereotyped as a gospel-singing, Bible-quoting community, despite the reality that African Americans practice a wide array of religions, like all other ethnic groups. The distinction of the ‘African American Bible’ is relevant, Newton explained, because without the clarification it defaults to meaning the ‘white Bible,’ which is interpreted in a much different socio-cultural context.