Campus Reform | Prof claims the apostle Paul would criticize ‘American exceptionalism.' A leading theologian responds.

Prof claims the apostle Paul would criticize ‘American exceptionalism.' A leading theologian responds.

In a sermon at the National Cathedral, a Vanderbilt University professor said that the apostle Paul would criticize the United States for racism and "American exceptionalism.”

He asserted that American exceptionalism is no more than “white supremacy on the sly.”

Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told Campus Reform that “our background or skin color does not render us either guilty or innocent, an oppressor or oppressed person.”

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A professor said that the apostle Paul would criticize the United States for racism and "American exceptionalism," which is really "white supremacy on the sly."

In an interview with Illinois State University’s NPR channel, Michael Eric Dyson — who is a Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University — explained his remarks and how they apply to Christians who supported President Donald Trump.

“American exceptionalism is really white supremacy on the sly,” said Dyson, according to a recording of his January 17 sermon at the National Cathedral, which NPR host Steve Inskeep played for his audience. “The man who founded your nation relished talk of God while holding Black flesh in chains. Many of those who say that God takes special pride in your nation seek to bless the blasphemy of white supremacy. The American church has sinned by portraying truth as white, facts as white, reality as white, beauty as white, normal as white, moral as white, righteousness as white, theology as white, Christ as white, God as white. And America as white.”

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Inskeep explained that Dyson was imagining a letter from the apostle Paul to the United States in his sermon.

When asked why the apostle would tell Americans that there is nothing special about their country, Dyson asserted that “American exceptionalism, which argues... that there's something peculiar and unique about America — therefore the blessing of God rests upon it, therefore it has a duty and mission in the world — is quite misled.”

Inskeep asked Dyson to explain his assertion that the voters, not God, choose the president. In response, Dyson blamed “white evangelicals” of a double standard in supporting Trump rather than Barack Obama.

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“The same white evangelicals who, despite his apparent moral failures, held close to Donald Trump, are the same white evangelicals who found Barack Obama especially offensive,” said Dyson. “And in that case, when you say God put Trump in office, did God take a break when, you know, Obama got in? Or for those who claim that Obama was divinely appointed, was God on lunch break when Donald Trump came into being?”

Owen Strachan, Director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, told Campus Reform that “our background or skin color does not render us either guilty or innocent, an oppressor or oppressed person.”

“The American tradition has real failing in it,” he explained. “Sadly, some who helped create America held racist convictions and lived by them. This was not a unique problem in this country, but a global one; for example, the African slave trade flourished in part because of real wickedness that transcended skin color and ideology. Sadly, slavery, ethnic partiality, and evil treatment of others was common in past centuries. Though the world — and in particular America — has seen real societal change and progress in these areas over the last century or so, the human heart still is tempted to partiality along ethnic and ‘racial’ lines. In our fallen state, the apostle Paul sums up our natural condition: we are ‘hated by others and hating one another’ (Titus 3:3). This means that we easily slip into hatred as a posture, and a mentality; all of us naturally do.”

Strachan said that these realities help us “understand American failings," nothing that while America did facilitate slavery, it also begot abolitionists and ultimately achieved the heroic victory of ridding the nation of the practice. 

“America, of course, was not monolithic in its approach to slavery; thankfully, many opposed slavery, including abolitionists who saw that Scripture in no way endorses chattel slavery, and only prohibits ‘man-stealing’ (1 Tim. 1:10). Further, America overcame slavery. This is part of what we recognize when we do unbiased history: we see not a straw man America, but a complex America that has real heroism and real sin in its past. America’s championing of liberty fits this theme: it offered far more liberty to citizens than most any other country on earth from its founding, which was a massive gain, but denied liberty to some, which was a serious failing.”

“All this gives us a vision of America that will not allow us to either baptize or torch this country’s heritage,” he continued. “We should neither hate America nor read it as perfect. Instead, we should be thankful for the real strengths of this country, while remaining ever aware of its flaws. Thankfully, the same country that promoted slavery also overcame slavery, and did so through diverse coalitions formed in both the 19th and 20th centuries. There is much in this country to celebrate, therefore, for America eventually harvested its founding principles, making good on the promise of liberty, albeit at great cost and after a long time.”

“Some American Christians were on the wrong side of these issues; others were on the right side, and proclaimed the gospel truth that in Christ, all are one,” said Dr. Strachan. “Through the blood of Jesus, hostility between peoples ceases (Ephesians 2:15). We are all guilty in Adam, and we who repent of our sins are all redeemed in Christ. This concept is not ‘white’; it owes to the Scripture, a book written by authors of diverse backgrounds (including many from the Middle East) who sought to exalt a crucified Messiah hailing from the Jewish people. Christianity, therefore, is not a ‘white’ faith, either in its formative period, nor in this era.”

Therefore, “our background or skin color does not render us either guilty or innocent, an oppressor or oppressed person.”

Rather, “it means that ‘whiteness’ is not our major problem, and does not make us evil in itself. And this diverse church refuses to embrace divisive woke ideology that reads ‘white’ people as condemned, and people of color as innocent. Thankfully, people of every skin color, ethnicity, and heritage love Christ. We who claim his cross know that we have much to learn from the American past, and one of the lessons is this: we must not fall prey to dividing along ethnic and ‘racial’ lines. We should not treat individuals as stereotypes.”

“Living in humility and charity,” explained Strachan, “we should see that we are one human race, everyone being made in God’s image, and that we have one human hope: to know Christ as Savior such that hatred ceases and love triumphs.”

Before joining Vanderbilt’s faculty on January 1, Dyson worked as a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and ESPN. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the Chicago Theological Seminary, and the University of North Carolina.

Vanderbilt chancellor Daniel Diermeier lauded Dyson, calling him a “vital and inspiring addition to our community, a scholar with a proven ability to empower students and transform lives through dialogue, analysis and new modes of inquiry.”

Campus Reform reached out to Dyson for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft