ANTHONY B. PINN
The history of the United States involves the interplay of religion and political developments at numerous levels. From the religious rationale for the slave trade and the projection of the North American colonies as a “city on a hill,” selected by God for political dominance and economic greatness, through 20th-century appeals to religion by politicians and the political participation of religious figures, the rhetoric of the United States has involved a certain religious ethos and has given some shape to the ethical and moral sensibilities in play during the development of this nation and its self-understanding.
In the case of African Americans, this synergy between religion and political forces has not always produced healthy life options and the ability to exercise “freedom” within the various venues of life. Rather, from the first arrival of Africans as indentured servants to their enslavement for better than three centuries, religion has often served as a mechanism by which to justify and sanction discriminatory patterns and practices. Colonists in the early years of European presence in North America often argued that Africans were properly used as chattel slaves in that biblical proclamations of their inferiority were merely played out through enslavement. To justify this stance, and maintain the illusion of proper Christian conduct, they often appealed to the story of Ham (Genesis), where Canaan, the son of Ham, is cursed because Ham saw his father (Noah) naked. The story goes, Ham sees his father drunk and naked and tells his brothers, who in turn cover their father. Upon awaking, Noah learns of his exposed state and Ham’s viewing of him in that condition and punishes Ham’s son, whose descendants are to become servants. Exegetes of the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament” as it is commonly called), who supported the institution of slavery, argued that modern Africans were the descendents of Ham and Canaan and therefore were slaves in keeping with the scriptural mandate. Others combined this Hebrew Bible account of servitude as divinely sanctioned with “New Testa