Damning America: Right and Left

Great outcries of angry condemnation have swirled around the Obama campaign for presidency because of the oft-quoted words of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, “God damn America.” Few quote his full text where he said, “that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people… God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and is supreme.” For many Americans, the words, “God damn” are “bad language” and should not be heard from the pulpit. To say “God damn America” is to commit the supreme sin of anti-Americanism. They fail to remember that such words are an integral part of the biblical tradition. Indeed the word “damn” fundamentally means that someone is declared to be guilty and deserving of punishment.

Few of the pundits who were so outraged by such language from Obama’s pastor bothered to note that Christian fundamentalists are in the habit of regularly opining that God is punishing America for some sins. Only their list of sins for which America deserves punishment is different from those of Wright. In the words of Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, “I really believe the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger at them and say you helped 9/11 happen.”

Similarly Pat Robertson attributed the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, to divine vengeance brought about because of the Supreme Court forbidding Bible reading and prayer in the schools. “We have insulted God at the highest level of government and then we say why is it happening. Well, it is happening because God almighty is lifting his protection from us.” Both Robertson and Christian conservative John Hagee claimed that hurricane Katrina was a punishment from God for the sins of New Orleans. Hagee said, “All hurricanes are acts of God. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God (citing a planned gay parade in the city). I believe the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment and I believe that hurricane Katrina was in fact the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”

Although some Americans may claim to be shocked by Wright’s words (while ignoring those of Falwell, Robertson, and Hagee), such damning is indeed typical of biblical prophetic thought. The prophet Jeremiah, for whom Jeremiah Wright is aptly named, filled his book with condemnation of Israel for its sins, both sexual and social, proclaiming God’s intention to pour out divine wrath against it. “Let my wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doing,” and “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without an inhabitant.” (Jer. 4:4; 9:11).

Moreover such diatribes threatening America with divine punishment for her sins, appropriately called “Jeremiads,” were a regular feature of American preaching from the first Puritans in Massachusetts Bay colony. The first governor of the colony, John Winthrop, in his first address to colonists written on shipboard during the journey to America, warned that if this elect people “deal falsely with their God,” divine wrath will be poured down on them, they will become cursed and driven out of the land to which they are going.

Such warning continued to echo from American pulpits into the twentieth century. Nicolas Street, pastor of the New Haven Congregational church at the time of the American Revolution claimed that the suffering of the colonists at the hands of the English crown was divine punishment for their sins. Only if they repented would they be allowed to enter into the new liberties promised by the revolution.

All these threats, warning and proclamation of divine punishment, both in the biblical texts and in the mouths of American preachers, stand within a context of the assumption of divine election of a special people of God, whether Israel or America. Because God has chosen this people for special blessing, God is especially wrathful at their “backslidings.” In Robertson’s words, “God almighty is lifting his protection from us.”

While Jeremiah Wright also proclaims God’s damnation on America as a reversal of its presumed entitlement to divine blessing, his catalogue of sins have to do with injustice to America’s black citizens. Moreover he includes in these sins for which America deserves punishment, setting itself up as an idol to be worshipped: “God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Perhaps it is this is judgment upon the sins of American history, along with those of racism, that Americans should particularly heed.