Monday, September 26, 2011

Stephen Colbert Delivers 1833 Smackdown

A quote attributed to Stephen Colbert has been making the rounds of the Interwebs lately, especially on Facebook.  It looks like this --

I give Colbert lots of props for the consistency of Christian principles.  If you recall, he testified before a Congressional panel on issues about rights for immigrants.  At the end of his remarks, he broke from his satire long enough to quote Jesus regarding compassion and fighting injustice: "Whatsoever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do also to me."  Colbert added that the migrant workers are "the least brothers," and therefore he felt the need to do what he could to help them.

However, two things struck me about this latest Colbert meme.

1. Colbert is in good company, as a wise man said much the same thing 178 years ago.

2. Colbert speaks to the mistaken assumption that the United States is a "Christian nation."

William Apess was a Pequot who became a Methodist minister and lived among the Mashpee Indians near Boston.  In his 1833 sermon titled "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," Apess asks a white congregation how they can profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ but turn a blind eye to the injustices committed against American Indians in Massachusetts.  Many in the congregation were upset about injustices being committed against Southeastern Indian tribes, who were being removed to what would become Oklahoma, but none seemed to worry about the Mashpee, who were being arrested, abused, raped, and robbed in the congregation's own backyard.

He reminds the congegration that Jesus said nothing about race being important to salvation or for distinguishing to whom one should show compassion.  And yet many white churches did not admit people of color and did little to help those people of color being abused by the white population and government officials.

Apess says, "If you can find a spirit like Jesus Christ and his Apostles prevailing now in any of the white congregations, I should like to know it."

Oh, snap!

A few moments later he says, "Who are the children of God?  Perhaps you may say, none but white.  If so, the word of the Lord is not true."


I paraphrase his point for my students this way:  He gives the congregation a choice; either everything in the Bible is a lie, or they are hypocrites.  To say one is to commit blasphemy.  To say the other is to admit something about yourself most people would want to avoid. 

I teach this powerful and very modern-sounding sermon just about every semester.  I refer to it as Apess's "Dr. Phil Smackdown" to Massachusetts Christians.

I think Colbert makes an important distinction at the beginning of his comment.  He says, "IF the United States IS GOING TO BE a Christian nation...."  His statement seems to assume that the United States has not been a Christian nation before now.  And I agree.

Some people have responded to this Colbert quote by pointing out the separation of church and state.  Government-sponsored welfare programs cannot be justified on the basis of Christian beliefs.  Additionally, Christian charity is voluntary, but government assistance is financed through taxation, which is not voluntary. 

Colbert's remark also reminds me of how I often hear people make the claim the United States is a Christian nation.  This argument is often times made when discussing "the Founding Fathers" and their intentions.  This argument is often times made when people talk of legislating social or moral issues, especially when that issue runs counter to what they believe is permitted by the Bible (gay marriage, for instance).

I think Christianity is not about what you eat or drink.  It is not about your sexual partners.  It is about radical compassion.

Jesus said "by their fruits you shall know them," meaning that a person's true character is evident in his actions.  The Founding Fathers and Americans throughout history have talked a lot about God, but talk is cheap, and talking does not make a nation Christian.  Its actions do.  No one has pointed out to me those actions taken by the United States government that proves its Christian character. 

My Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors have the loss of their Southeastern homelands as evidence to the contrary.

I am not holding the United States to some unrealistic standard, though.  I think it is unrealistic to expect any nation to be truly Christian in its principles.  Nations tend to be built upon one group of people protecting their interests against the interests of other groups of people.  The United States built an empire, and since an empire is built by imposing one nation's will upon other nations, I do not see how one can build a truly Christian empire.

That "do unto others" thing keeps getting in the way .  If you let it.


  1. It is very true that while the majority of people living here since the establishment of the United States are Christians, yet it was never a Christian nation. However, adherence to a specific religion and its set of values should not deter the entire population from following basic principles of respect and individual rights that should be considered common to all humanity. We should not need Christianity to show us what is right and wrong.

    I like his statement because he is revealing the power-hungry hypocrisy of powerful people who use Christianity as a whip for social control.