Book Review: Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation
April 15, 2021

Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation, edited by Gerald R. McDermott (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute), 278 pp.

A group of notable thinkers gathered to discuss biblical resources for addressing racial conflict in America in February 2019 at Samford University in Birmingham. Race and Covenant, the product of these scholars’ efforts, offers an analysis of America’s race dilemma and how to overcome it based on the idea of national covenant. The essays are even more relevant after the events of summer 2020, amidst the ensuing public discussion on race, justice, and social reform. Each essay stands alone, but the work expresses a sustained argument for the idea of national covenant as a framework for healing and redemption from the racial wounds and sins of our past.  

Gerald McDermott argues in his introduction that, “our racial dilemma cannot be understood properly without spiritual and religious analysis” (p. xxx). Further, the biblical idea of covenant and the “national covenant tradition” offers badly needed resources for healing and reconciliation (p. xvi). The contributors offer a Scripture-soaked collection of efforts to recover these resources. Biblical quotations and exegesis undergird analysis from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: theological, historical, sociological, economic, and practical. Themes of covenant, exile, and renewal bind the parts into a whole.

The idea of national covenant rests on two premises McDermott lays out:

(a) God deals with whole nations as nations, and (b) he enters into more intimate relationships with societies that claim him as Lord. In other words, God not only deals with individuals during their lives and at the final judgment but also deals providentially with every corporate people and enters into special relationship with certain whole societies. (p. xvii)

God’s covenant with Israel is the paradigmatic example of a national covenant, but God also forms special relationships with other peoples (p. xvii, Amos 9:7). Over the long term, God blesses nations that commit to keeping the moral law, the essence of which is expressed in the Ten Commandments. He punishes nations that flout it. All this relates not to eternal judgment, but to blessings and curses in this life.

The idea of an American national covenant along these lines refers not to a particular ceremony or event, a particular point at which Americans established such a covenant, but to an ethos expressed in documents like the Declaration of Independence, in which the signers proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” endowed by the creator with unalienable rights. Christian doctrine is conspicuously absent from the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution, but political sermons and court cases from the founding era and the first century of U.S. history, along with prayer day proclamations and addresses by George Washington, for example, provide evidence of belief among elites and lay people that America is, in some sense Christian or at least under God, accountable to divine judgment. Prominent members of the founding generation including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush connected the idea of national accountability to God with the institution of slavery, suggesting the practice would incur divine judgment.

American political and religious leaders who significantly advanced racial justice in our history also appealed to ideas connected with national covenant. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. all expressed some form of the idea of national covenant. They believed slavery violated America’s founding principles and the moral law. The Bible does not outright condemn slavery, a fact not lost on slave owners in the American South. Still, laws in the Hebrew Bible, such as the practice of jubilee, mitigated the arbitrary power slave owners possessed, and Genesis introduced the idea of imago dei, a basis for universal human dignity. Teachings in the New Testament emphasized human equality before God (Gal. 3:28). As Carol Swain notes, church fathers like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo thought of slavery as “unchristian” and a result of sin (p. 183).

Douglass and Lincoln interpreted the Civil War, in which upwards of 600,000 people died, as divine judgment for the sin of slavery. King appealed to Americans’ consciences, calling Americans to come together in renewal of the national covenant and pursuit of the Beloved Community in which all men and women are truly equal. McDermott describes Douglass as one of the great expositors of the national covenant idea as applied in the American context, a prophet of divine judgment: 

Racism is sin, and one of our national sins— perhaps our greatest—has been slavery. … Frederick Douglass was right. America has been sent into a kind of exile because of this massive iniquity against God’s covenant with this nation. Our continuing racial conflicts show that this exile continues. What must we do to come out of exile? (p. xxx)

Exile is one form of punishment God inflicts on covenant nations like Israel. A sign of divine disfavor, exile is also a sign of God’s longsuffering patience. Exile is an opportunity to turn back to God and renew covenant. The present racial strife is a sign of continued exile for breaking covenant. The question is how to return from exile and renew the covenant.

Taken together, the essays in the work suggest two answers. First, the problem of historic racial injustice and current racial tensions requires effort for reconciliation and healing, primarily on the part of citizens, not government. Religious groups, particularly Christians and Jews, should especially understand themselves as stewards of an American national covenant based on a commitment to equal human dignity. Second, renewing the covenant requires discarding approaches to racial justice that draw on “identity politics,” roughly defined as an emphasis on grievance-based group affiliation as primary to identity. Explanations of racial disparities that foreground “white supremacy” and suggest as a remedy dismantling it have become commonplace in Christian discourse, especially since last summer. McDermott rejects the “pessimism” pervading discourse on race and two ideas on which it is based: “the presumption that the only racial problem in America is white racism” and the assumption that “more government money and legislation are the best solutions to the problem” (p. xxix). Rather, he argues, we need deeper and richer resources for healing and reconciliation.

Loury’s chapter exemplifies both elements of argument. He analogizes our national situation vis-à-vis persistent racial disparities and the degraded state of many poor black communities to the devastated city walls of Jerusalem in the book of Nehemiah:

National covenant is a powerful religious concept that involves all persons in a      society. America has experienced a kind of exile in its covenant because we have      divided into “us” and “them.” We have not taken ownership of the covenant for    ourselves. We have permitted false conceptions of race to get us off the hook in terms of mutual obligation. By seeing ourselves as belonging to distinct races, we have deceived ourselves into ignoring the social obligations of the covenant. (p. 122)

God called Nehemiah to rebuild the city walls, and we in America are called to rebuild the walls of our common life. The problem of how to deal with the legacy of slavery and racial subordination, he argues, is more about how we understand ourselves in relation to one another than about recompense for past injustice: “We Americans are all one people, bound together under a national covenant and for this reason responsible to one another in a deep and ongoing way.” Loury echoes McDermott’s point about the inadequacy of government solutions: “Our national salvation lies mainly in our redefining identities, not in redistributing resources” (p. 122).

Stewards of National Covenant

Several essays highlight the role of religious communities in stewarding the national covenant. Such communities are best positioned to appreciate covenant with the God of the Bible, the racial inclusivity of which Berman beautifully illustrates in his interpretation of the book of Ruth as the Book of Boaz, who courageously welcomes a racial outsider. Mark Tooley and James Patterson show how ideas associated with divine judgment and providence formed American religious sensibilities well into the twentieth century, informing liberal Protestants’ Social Gospel-based reform efforts. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the last of the liberal Protestants to invoke the idea of divine judgment. Patterson’s discussion of King’s theology and political strategy reminds us that the church, black churches in particular, were central to King’s moral and strategic vision of non-violent action for racial justice. Osvaldo Padilla’s contribution suggests Hispanic churches, themselves multiethnic, offer an embodied example for broader emulation. 

Other authors highlight the role of religious communities in relation to social policy concerns of poverty and family breakdown. Jacqueline Rivers argues that churches have an important role to play, in tandem with public policy, in restoring the covenant of marriage in black communities, buckling under pressures stemming from the legacy of slavery and mass incarceration, and in restoring marriage more generally. Alveda King and Evan Musgraves link pursuit of racial justice with opposition to abortion, pointing out the striking racial disparity in abortions. Once again, religious communities have a central role to play in calling for covenant renewal and building a “culture where every child of every stage is loved” (p. 173).

Against Identity Politics

In promoting national covenant as a resource for healing and reconciliation, Race and Covenant challenges approaches to the racial dilemma broadly captured by the term “identity politics.” Such alternatives focus on obtaining justice in the form of recompense for descendants of oppressed and marginalized groups. Several contributors suggest emphasizing distinct racial identities, as opposed to shared national and human identity, prevents inter-racial reconciliation and leads instead to a spiral of identity-based separatism and conflict.

R. Mitchell Rocklin’s essay on covenantal renewal and reconciliation—distinct from forgiveness—between descendants of oppressed groups and their oppressors, launches the first salvo against identity politics. Rocklin argues that holding past injustices against present generations and emphasizing racial distinction as the source of identity precludes the possibility of reconciliation. Joshua Mitchell continues the critique of identity politics, the core of which he describes as an improper division between transgressors and innocents, improper because it denies shared culpability and susceptibility to sin. Victimhood forms the basis of identity for the descendants of formerly oppressed groups, focusing politics on a contest to claim victimhood instead of constructive effort to build and better our common life. Swain rejects all forms of racial supremacy and racial divisiveness, including anti-white racism, instead promoting national identity and unity.

Derryck Green’s entry argues that black churches’ acceptance of the Black Power movement’s racial justice narrative, mediated through the black liberation theology of James Cone, obstructs racial reconciliation. Such narratives, Green argues, supplanted King’s vision of the Beloved Community, more in keeping with the biblical message and American national covenant. Green registers profound disagreement with scholars and writers including Jemar Tisby and Jim Wallis. Their emphasis on confronting whites with the history of racism, Green argues, cannot bring reconciliation but only perpetuate a sense of victimhood among black Christians and encourage endless, pointless, self-righteous apologizing from white Christians. Green urges black Christians to simply forgive: “Jesus was very clear that the obligation of his followers is to upend the normal cycle of reciprocating anger, antipathy, and hostility. As his disciples, black folks in the churches must initiate reconciliation, and that begins with forgiveness” (p. 219).

Taking National Covenant Seriously

Even friendly reviewers of Race and Covenant like Carl R. Trueman express unease with the language of national covenant, due to its “connotations of national hubris and of elect nations.” In ascribing to the nation and nations an important role in God’s providential purposes, the national covenant idea has some overlap with a complex of beliefs some sociologists and political analysts are calling “Christian nationalism.” Yet, while taking nations seriously as a part of God’s providential purposes, national covenant theology as presented here does not indulge in triumphalism about America, nor does it place the nation above God or the faith community in the life of the believer. National covenant does not whitewash history but interprets the history of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow as serious violations of the covenant incurring divine punishment and proverbial exile. McDermott makes a strong case for national covenant as a biblical idea, mainstream among Jews and Christians for most of their history and abandoned among American theologians only after the debacle of the Vietnam War.

The danger Trueman raises of religious believers over-identifying with the nation and assigning it too great a role in God’s providential purposes is a real one. Nevertheless, if we can avoid this danger, the national covenant idea is a possible corrective both to uncritical Christian nationalism and to excessive pessimism about American political ideals and institutions. Taken as an affirmation of the reality of corporate sin and divine judgment, along with the benefits of covenantal thinking and language for relating to one another in society, the national covenant tradition offers valuable resources for reconciliation and renewal in American society.

Renewing Covenant 

Let me raise an objection to the argument in Race and Covenant that identity and grievance-based approaches to racial justice obstruct healing and reconciliation, divisively perpetuating racial separatism. There is a case to be made, neither aimed at perpetuating victimhood nor extortive of white guilt, that white Americans and Christians have exhibited insufficient acknowledgment of past complicity in systemic racism. Anthony Bradley’s argument for state level “transitional justice” initiatives to heal the wounds of Jim Crow articulates this case. In his account, the failure to fully and openly recognize the extent of the violence and economic injustice state governments and citizens perpetrated against blacks in the post-Reconstruction period has prevented healing through repentance and forgiveness. Bradley makes a point consistent with Green’s analysis of radical black theology in his book Liberating Black Theology: “the major flaw of black liberation theology is that it views people perpetually as victims” (p. 14).  Like the contributors to Race and Covenant, he seeks healing, peace, and reconciliation. He, too, suggests legislation and government programs have been insufficient for real healing, but that healing may require further acknowledgment on the part of white Christians regarding the extent of past injustice and the ways it affects our lives in the present. Such acknowledgment may be necessary to restore churches’ moral authority and fitness for covenant stewardship. 

If, as Green writes, black Christians ought to practice forgiveness and take initiative on reconciliation, shouldn’t white Christians be willing to make sacrifices? We should not be too quick to dismiss the idea of churches offering restitution or reparations. Perhaps such initiatives could be aimed at repairing relations at the local level, especially where particular wrongs and harms can be identified. The logic of national covenant itself, instead of leading white Christians to insist on our individual innocence of systemic racism, could suggest recognizing our association with its history and legacy through our intergenerational association with the nation as a continuous, corporate reality. The same is true of our churches’ and religious institutions’ past support for and practice of institutional discrimination, as Tisby details in The Color of Compromise. Our association with past injustice, even if we are not individually culpable, properly induces a kind of associational remorse and shame. Bradley gives the example of corporate repentance in Nehemiah 9 to argue this is a biblical principle. Rather than perpetuating victimhood, such recognitions might pave the way for forgiveness and healing. Vince Bacote and contributors to a collection of essays at Christianity Today describe what he calls a “politics of reckoning” with the past, as opposed to a politics of guilt, as a necessary step toward reconciliation.

On a related note, there are practical questions about how to restore covenant. The approach is somewhat open-ended rather than offering a precise endpoint. Several contributors suggest patient, genuine conversation and contact with neighbors will be central to healing our divides over race. While the language of national covenant suggests a focus on the nation as a whole, renewing covenant practically means pursuing deeper connections with the neighbors around us. An irony is that such engagement will mean listening and talking with co-religionists and neighbors who focus on historic white complicity with systemic racism and black victimhood, which several of the contributors criticize. Renewing and stewarding national covenant entails openness to learning from and engaging those with whom we disagree. As the rift among church leaders associated with the Southern Baptist Convention shows, such engagement is challenging.

To a degree only hinted at here, Race and Covenant offers biblically informed analysis of the racial dilemma in the U.S. by a diverse set of capable and provocative thinkers. This collection will repay readers with insight, further questions, and a new or revitalized covenantal framework for constructively pursuing healing in an America still suffering from the legacy and wounds of racial injustice.

Ben Peterson is a doctoral candidate in the Texas A&M University Department of Political Science and a member of the Civitas Group hosted at the Theophilus Institute.

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