The commitment to equality and freedom are boldly stated in the Constitution. Having such a high standard, it makes sense why so many people are troubled by the state of the country since we rarely live up to them in a satisfactory way. Others criticize America for another reason, one that shows an even deeper character flaw than an inability to live up to one’s own commitments. Some have begun to suggest that our ideals aren’t even real ideals, and that America is actually operating as planned. These are obviously two opposite positions on the intent and meaning of our country’s constitution. The interesting thing is when we look within the realm of black religion, we see leaders on both sides of this issue.
I want to look at the more pessimistic view first and see the arguments for it. The basic argument is that white people have done such evil in history since the colonization of America, and that it’s nothing short of contradictory to say that this country was founded on the ideals of equality and liberty. The history of the evils of white people is something Malcolm X was very clear to point out. (Cone, pg. 97). He also didn’t shy away from pointing out the hypocrisy that came with them holding to these ideals but then committing the acts they did. For much of the history of this country, the liberties of equality and freedom weren’t honestly given to all men, like the constitution proclaims, but only to white men. Throughout the history of America, we see an astonishing amount of oppression against people of color and women. So, these iconic ideals were never really meant for all men and didn’t pertain to all men, but only white men. It is white men who have always had these ideals protected for them.
It is white men who have been treated as equals and given true freedom. Some might even go so far as to say that the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness was really only protected for educated and wealthy white men. This claim is a bit more contentious, but what’s more easily substantiated is the general claim that America’s famed ideals were really fake ideals, and are less heavenly than they may appear. Many critics, like Malcolm X, would point to the current condition of America and say things are happening just the way they were intended to. The reason why white people are so far ahead and minorities, especially blacks, are so far behind is because that was the intention when setting up this country. Again, the reality of slavery and oppression of other colored people and women from the conception of this country, is evidence that our founding fathers never meant equality and freedom for all of mankind within the nation, but really only for the white men in the country.
When acknowledging the history of America, it does seem hard to suggest that America was built on values of equality and freedom for all. Despite this gloomy outlook, there are some who are able to give America and its founding a more generous interpretation. I want to first look at what Frederick Douglass has to say on this subject. Frederick Douglass basically says America, and specifically American Christianity, is not living up to its values and will destroy itself if it continues its hypocrisy of slavery (Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?). In this speech, Frederick Douglass begins by honoring our founding fathers and the values and ideals they have put in the constitution. He proclaims that these ideals are honorable and authentic, but haven’t been upheld, leaving America in a horrific state of hypocrisy. Even beyond that, as a Christian and theologian, Douglass goes on to condemn and point out the hypocrisy of American Christianity. The idea goes the same way here. Christians profess specific values but aren’t living up to them and this is a means of shame and acknowledgement of hypocrisy. In these accusations of hypocrisy, Douglass is calling for Americans to turn back to their original values and begin to live up to them.
Another prominent figure who is in the same lines as Douglass would be MLK. King was convinced that America was a Christian nation that wasn’t fulfilling its destiny by not living up to its original values (Cone, pg. 121). He was also captivated by the universal statements of the constitution and its seemingly “divine origin” (Cone, pg. 67). What MLK is saying here is that the language of the constitution is meant to include all human beings, in opposition to those who claim it was only meant for white men. He’s also saying that in doing this, the constitution is recognizing that all men have basic rights that are intrinsic to being a human. Starting with this premise and interpretation of the Constitution, it’s no wonder why he sees a need to call America back to its original principles. MLK saw America as fundamentally falling short of their God given calling and short of their own values, and that they needed someone to lead them back to the honorable aspirations the country was founded on.
Black religions have been very active in motivating black leaders to speak out against the actions of America. It doesn’t always lead people to call out the same failures, or even provide similar solutions to those failures they agree on. Sometimes, like the issue around the constitution, black religions can promote radically different thinking. Malcolm X, being motivated by the Nation of Islam, saw the values in the Constitution as a hoax and fraud for what America really stood for. This was because of his understanding of history, and his views of Christianity and white people. On the other hand, Frederick Douglass and MLK, both being Christian, saw America as failing true and genuine ideals. Even though my examples come from different religions, it must be noted that these disputes happen within black religions as well, not just between black religions.