We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. In most cases, it seems like little more than a way of gesturing at the unique gravity of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word — that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright theological — it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.
The Historical Roots of “Original Sin”
In Christian theology, “original sin” has two basic meanings. On one level, it refers to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden — the first or “original” sin committed by the “founding” members of the human race. More importantly, though, it denotes the consequences of that initial sin for subsequent generations of humans. According to a theological tradition that runs from St. Augustine to Martin Luther and John Calvin and beyond, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they did more than commit a single offense. They knocked their will, their capacity for making moral decisions, permanently off-kilter. Where Adam and Eve had previously been in harmony with God’s righteousness, they were now out of tune in a way that they could never fix. Even worse, they passed this moral incapacity on to their children, who passed it on to theirs, and so forth. Thus, according to this view, we are afflicted with the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin from birth, our individual “origin.”
The apparently trivial decision to eat a certain piece of fruit against God’s orders thus carried unimaginably tragic consequences. Every single human being was now morally damaged from birth, incapable of fulfilling God’s moral standards. Thankfully, the story goes, God arranged for us to be saved by becoming incarnate as a human being. By living a perfect life and freely sacrificing himself, Christ created an infinite store of righteousness on behalf of his fellow human beings, which we can access through the sacraments administered by the Church. But although the rite of baptism allows us to be “forgiven” for our inborn state of moral incapacity, the underlying problem is unfixable in this life. In our fallen world, every human being must struggle with their inclination to do the wrong thing, an inclination that will inevitably prevail over our good intentions at least some of the time. Only death and resurrection can bring true healing and allow us to conform fully to God’s moral demands.
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This theological story is in many ways strange and convoluted, but it is familiar. It is the teaching of essentially every mainstream Christian denomination in the U.S., and given that most politicians are still practicing Christians, we have to assume that those lamenting “America’s original sin” are familiar with, as it were, the original original sin. And the connection is fairly clear: In its founding moment, the U.S. accepted a wicked compromise on slavery, which infected all subsequent generations of white Americans with the stain of racism. This stain is so durable that it may never be fully repaired.
The Empty Ritual of Liberal Anti-Racism
Surely that minimal parallel is what most politicians have in mind when they deplore “America’s original sin.” But I believe we can push further. Even if original sin can never be cured — in the sense of allowing us to consistently do the right thing — it can be forgiven, through vicarious sacrifice and ritual action. While Abraham Lincoln may have declared the deaths of Union and Confederation soldiers to be the necessary sacrifice in his second inaugural address, it is most often the sacrifice of Black people on behalf of true American ideals that is in view. This is why we hear so often that Martin Luther King Jr. “gave his life” for justice, when in reality he was assassinated and had no say in the matter. Similarly obscene was when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared her gratitude to George Floyd, who supposedly “gave his life” in service of the quest for greater racial justice in the U.S. In both cases, their lives were taken, not given. Nevertheless, their ostensible “sacrifice” creates a fund of righteousness that somehow makes up for white America’s intractable racism.
The way white, liberal America exploits Black suffering is through ritual actions. We can think here of the infamous shot of congressional Democrats kneeling in commemoration of George Floyd, decked out in Kente cloth. This ritual reenactment of Floyd’s death, in ceremonial garb connected to African culture, bears obvious parallels to Christian rites that seek to reenact and identify with Christ’s sacrifice. Most responses to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have been just as purely symbolic: more television programming on Black themes, greater attention to Black History Month, the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Meanwhile, police funding has actually gone up, and another high-profile police murder happened literally at the same time as the guilty verdict against Floyd’s killer was being announced.
In short, the notion of racism as “America’s original sin” underwrites a cycle of performative guilt and ritual repentance among white liberals, as a substitute for any concrete action. After all, who could presume to fix a problem of such theological proportions? And it is becoming increasingly clear that no one, perhaps apart from those kneeling in Kente cloth, is satisfied with this theological approach to race. On the left, there has been a groundswell of radical and yet clear and practical demands that aim to concretely dismantle the institutions — above all the police — that forcibly preserve the racial hierarchy.
Meanwhile, the right has taken aim at even the most minimal symbolic anti-racist gestures while attempting to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights era. The crusade against critical race theory is above all an attempt to push back against the idea of racism as “America’s original sin.” The bills specify that any instruction presupposing that white people are “inherently racist” should be disallowed. They also take aim at the first sense of original sin by denying that the founding of the U.S. involved any sin at all. In place of liberal guilt, textbooks in conservative states — as well as in private religious schools elsewhere — often elide the history of slavery and racism and sometimes openly valorize it, claiming that slaves were well-treated and even implying slavery was a voluntary condition.
Overcoming Racism Requires Breaking With the Frame of “Original Sin”
The conservative backlash is dangerous and cynical, but there is a moment of truth in their objection to liberal anti-racism. What conservatives are implicitly asking is: If racism is so unavoidable and unfixable, why should we be made to feel guilty about it? The same question could be asked of the Christian doctrine of original sin: What sense does it make for God to demand the impossible of us?
The obvious solution here is to abandon the theological frame altogether. Yet I believe the Christian tradition does offer us some resources for rethinking the problem of “America’s original sin.” Even though Augustine’s view has largely prevailed in the Western world, it is far from the only interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden and its implications for us. Many of Augustine’s predecessors held that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and instead followed the devil’s misleading advice, they were tricked into accepting the devil as their ruler. The consequences of their action were passed down, not biologically, but as the status of slavery or citizenship is passed down. In becoming a member of the human race, God was trying to overthrow the devil’s social contract from within, allowing humanity to imagine a new form of life together.
To draw a parallel with this alternative theological view, the founding of the U.S. did not irreversibly infect all white people with the ineradicable stain of racism — it trapped us in a bad social contract. If we want to escape the negative consequences of that social contract, we need to withdraw from it and join a new, better one. In place of individual guilt, we would get a structural analysis of the mechanisms of racial oppression. Instead of blaming racist outcomes on individual attitudes, we would note that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the institutional structures designed to accommodate race-based chattel slavery for life continue to produce racist results by giving racists control over powerful veto points. And one solution could be to do something seen as a heresy in the United States: draft and ratify a constitution that was not designed by slavers.
In other words — and here both theological views agree — the U.S. must die and be resurrected as something new and better. It must be born again.