This is the second installment of a series of three exploring the resilient racist cultural roots of our resilient racist issues in our culture. The first installment introduced the concept of deep culture and explored the links to Trump’s insurrection and Big Lie about the election. The third edition will conclude by discussing the cultural war that forced us to compromise with racism in the Constitution, during Reconstruction, and beyond. This post will take a deepish dive into the foundation of racism, discrimination, and white identity that Puritanism and Calvinism laid n our white psyches. But, first, let’s review the definition and implications of deep culture.
Deep culture is the set of assumptions, norms, and values that underpin our behaviors and mental processes. In other words, if two people view the same scene, the closer their interpretation, understanding, and reaction to it, the greater amount of culture they share. For example, most people looking at a classroom will recognize it whether it is from an impoverished culture where the students sit outside using chalk and boards or in a rich culture where every student sits at a desk with a computer at hand. Deep culture operates outside of our conscious awareness and allows us to predict what is about to happen next and the outcome of most social situations because we will understand the motivations and aims of those around us in very broad strokes and sometimes very minutely. Culture is passed from one generation to the next. It is learned. Consequently, it changes very slowly.
With that, lets go back a couple of hundred years in US history to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Puritans that settled there.
The Deep Roots of White Supremacy in our Deep Culture
Puritanism and the Massachusetts Bay Colony
We have been taught that the Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution and imply that because of their persecution, they had a deep and abiding respect for religious freedom. While the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church all delighted in persecuting the Puritans and they came to America to escape that persecution, they did not come here wanting to create a land of religious freedom. They merely wanted to be the ones doing the persecuting.
Don’t believe me? How ’bout we ask Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who were both exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Mary Dyer who was executed because they defied the dogma of the Puritans. These people did not respect the religion of others. They could not tolerate deviation from their beliefs. And, this intolerance for deviation in thought and deed permeates our American culture to this day.
A good example is the eerie similarity between the issues that caused Roger Williams to be banished from the colony and the issues that bedevil us in our own time. Williams believed in the complete separation of church and state. No tax dollars should be used to support any church and no government should be telling its citizens what beliefs they should be following.
Tell us about your thoughts on our racist deep culture in the comments!
The Puritans were so sure that they were the one true church that this idea was utter nonsense to them. How could the state not support the only vehicle of actual true belief and the true word of god? It just doesn’t make sense if you believe you have the only true word of god… kinda like evangelical white Christians do now, don’tcha think?
We now decree that religious freedom means that you can discriminate against anyone who’s lifestyle sufficiently upsets you because of your religious beliefs. Today it is the homosexuals who can be denied service and fornicating women who take birth control pills who can be denied employment and insurance, but tomorrow it is those sporting the mark of Cain or who adhere to differing faiths who can be. Ah bulieve ah will go to hell iffin’ ah serve the blacks and browns and Mooslims. Ah cayn’t be forced to sell ma survices to such heathens and risk goin’ straight ta hell, can ah? Ah have mah rights and freedoms! Seriously, we haven’t changed much from that Puritan belief system, have we? Discrimination and a deep belief in our correctness are parts of our deep culture.
Calvinism: The Legacy of the Elect
Calvinism is the Protestant doctrine started by John Calvin in the early 16th Century and extends Martin Luther’s Reformation of the Church. Apparently, one of the big deals was the idea of predestination, you know the thing that your grandmother used to tell you about a big book that god kept in heaven in which the wrote the date of your birth and death and that god has a special plan just for you!
Way back when, though, people figgered that if it was all predestined then everything they did was out of their control, so if they got drunk and fornicated, it wasn’t their fault because god and his big book and everything. Calvin distinguished himself with this work around: we knew who was predestined to go to heaven because of the success that people had in life and the godliness with which they lived. If god loved you, he showed it by making you successful here on earth and predestining you for a godly life.
The Puritans took this to mean that they could create heaven on earth building it on the backs of the still warm and twitching corpses of Native Americans and the back breaking work of slaves. They also set about watching each other very carefully for any signs that they wasn’t living a godly life — think The Scarlet Letter – and low and behold, ever’body was living capitalism, the Protestant work ethic, manifest destiny (eventually), and American exceptionalism.
The Protestant work ethic is the belief that if you work hard enough, you’ll succeed and if you ain’t succeeding, it’s because you ain’t working hard enough! Hard work is rewarded, after all. Success and failure are based on character and god’s love. If America succeeded, it was because god loved her best of all the nations and all of the good white people’s hard work.
The opposite is also true. If you are a failure, then it is your fault. You didn’t work hard enough and god don’t love you. It is the ultimate in blaming the victim and excusing the abusers.
So, when the English pirates brought their captured Portuguese ship, the São João Bautista, to Point Comfort in Virginia in 1619 and slavery made it to the Puritans, they figgered, “Welp, looks like god wants us to have slaves, now. All these heathens ain’t been chosen by god. We can do with them as we please.”
They formed for themselves a nice circular self-fulfilling prophecy that justified every evil abuse they inflicted on some hapless group of people they needed to exploit for their success. When god loves you best and has predestined you to living a godly life, then everything you do must be godly and right even holding slaves and massacring Native Americans.
This is the foundation that American culture is built on. It forms the bedrock of our deep culture and it influences our behaviors and mental processes in ways that we aren’t consciously aware of, which is why white people tend to have racist thoughts and assumptions about black people. We can only rid ourselves of it by consciously challenging these thoughts as they arise, which is hard work that most of us are unwilling to do, and the reason that racist political dog whistles draw the inner racist out of most white folks.
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