Violence, racism and democracy in America: a conversation with Susan K. Smith and Bill Moyers

“All men are created equal” does not mean what we think those words should mean

Published October 8, 2017 8:00PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

This piece originally appeared on

Editors Note: Susan K. Smith almost didn’t make it last summer to the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York — that historic community of adult learning to where outstanding speakers have been holding forth since its founding in l874. Because of cancelled flights she spent a long and sleepless night in an airport, finally arriving at Chautauqua, an hour from Buffalo, just in time to grab some breakfast and less than an hour’s shuteye before addressing an audience of over 2,000 people on the subject, “Grappling with the Myths of Democracy and Monotheism in a World Where Neither Exists.” It was a handful of a topic and a warm day but the audience never strayed as Smith spoke of America’s current turmoil in the context of the documents that guided its founding, in particular the Constitution and the Bible. After she called out “The Religion of Empire” and “The God of the State” the questions came fast but not furious, and lively exchanges followed.

Smith has done a lifetime of homework in American history, culture and religion. She earned her B.A. in literature at Occidental College, her master’s at Yale Divinity School (where she was the first woman president of the student body), and her doctorate at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She’s been a minister of music and senior pastor, led outreach programs to the poor in Columbus, Ohio, and organized a multi-racial, multi-ethnic social justice organization that was recently instrumental in getting the Ohio legislature to enact a law which prevents pay lenders from charging clients exorbitant interest rates. She’s spoken on tensions between the secular and the sacred — and their sometimes coupling — at venues from Oxford University to…..well, Chautauqua, where we met. I had arranged this interview before the massacre in Las Vegas, a story still unfolding as we talked.

—Bill Moyers

Moyers: Why do you think America nurtures such violence?

Smith: I think there is a tie, a connection between violence and the desire for power. Violence is seen as some type of a badge of strength. If you can be violent physically, or if you can be violent emotionally or if you can be violent spiritually, you’re strong.

Moyers: One reason some people like football is that’s it’s authorized violence. Before the massacre in Las Vegas, I intended to talk to you about the protest of the professional football players, and especially why they took issue with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. You’ve done a lot of work on the myths of America — the myths of democracy. Why do you think they took the knee during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem?

Smith: I think it’s a sign of emotional fatigue and a way to try to get people to listen to them when they say that they are tired of the racial violence that African-Americans specifically go through. You know, kneeling can be a sign of protest, but also a sign of reverence — reverence for the flag, reverence for this country, reverence for the Constitution — but protest as well because these symbols of respect have not brought respect to black people. It’s not like burning the flag. Burning the flag would’ve been a sign of disrespect. This was a sign to say, “Will you who love this country see what we’re talking about? Will you see that our people, too, have died for this country and we are still treated as second-class citizens? We respect the flag but this flag and its tenets do not respect us as a people.” I think that’s at least partly why they did it.

Moyers: You’re saying these athletes were in effect taking a knee to protest the system of racism and white supremacy that has prevailed for so long in this country.

Smith: Absolutely, right. It’s the system. It’s the system. And it was laid down in the beginning.

Moyers: Yes, you’ve said elsewhere that the system has been teaching white people how to think about black people since before the Mayflower landed, that it’s inherent in America’s DNA and therefore when it comes to race, we’ve separated ourselves from reality from the start.

Smith: Yes, it is. It is inherent. It is a culturally inherited social malady. And it goes so far back. This whole belief system of one group of people being better than or superior to another group of people goes so far back. It was written in our founding and foundational documents, sure, but it goes back even further than that — thousands of years. I’m reading a book now by Charles Dew called The Making of a Racist, and he talks about how growing up he was inculcated with the notion that white people were just better than black people just by watching daily life. Black people couldn’t use the front door. You never shook hands with a black person, and so on — of course they were inferior. See?

Moyers: I do. On Saturdays at the movies in my home town, black people had to sit in the balcony — “the crow’s nest.” They couldn’t sit at the drug store counter. Or swim in the municipal pool. Their “inferiority” was demonstrated daily. So you have suggested that white supremacy is like a mental illness — like schizophrenia.

Smith: Because I think that when people under the curse of white supremacy actually begin to believe the lie that some people are superior to others, there is a break with reality. Scientifically, the reality is that people are inherently the same. We have the same capacities, we have the same capabilities — whether or not we use them is one thing, but we have them — but because white supremacists believe white people are better, and that causes a break with reality. Those who adhere to white supremacist beliefs act in ways they would not normally not do if they were connected to the scientific and physiological reality of the basic sameness of human beings, race notwithstanding. When they do that, they do the things that you just mentioned and worse. Now, if you are a clinically diagnosed schizophrenic, you will claim and believe, for example, that you’re Julius Caesar and you’ll act like Julius Caesar. But you are not Julius Caesar. You live in a state of altered reality. If you are a white supremacist and you believe that you are superior, you will create policies and act in ways as though there is really a superior race. That’s a break with reality, in my opinion.

Moyers: You describe it as a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion and behavior — and here’s the payoff — leading to a faulty perception. So that’s one way whites came to a faulty perception of blacks.

Smith: Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And you see it in different ways and in different situations. For instance, when I was accepted at Yale Divinity School, I was working as a reporter in Texas and I told the managing editor that I was going to resign to go to seminary — and he asked where, and I said Yale. The publisher came up to me — I will never forget this — with a smirk on his face. He said, “You’re going where?” And I said, “I’m going to Yale.” He said “Oh, come on. Well, How did you get to do that? What are your grades like?” And I thought to myself — there it was. There it was right in my face — his belief that I was inferior. He was saying, “You are not good enough to go to Yale!” And the implication was that I could never have gotten in on my own. African-Americans get that all the time. It’s a break with reality. I studied very hard, I got pretty good grades, but the publisher of the paper blew me out right in the middle of the newsroom.

Moyers: Does this help explain why you have spent so much of your adult life grappling with the myths of democracy, as you did in that speech I heard last summer. You are trying to correct the faulty perception of black people by exposing the myths to scrutiny?

Smith: Absolutely. I believe in the power of words. And I said at Chautauqua that I think that America has two guiding sacred texts, the Christian Bible and the US Constitution, and within both those texts are words that should lead us to a place of community and understanding of humanity on pretty much the same level. But the words in those texts have been violated, or perhaps it is that we have ignored them, but whatever the reason, they have not been successful in bringing us to a place where we can use them to destroy racism and sexism. So “all men are created equal” does not mean what we think those words should mean. At their very inception they meant white, male, Christian property owners were created equal. These are powerful words, life-giving words, but at the time they were never meant to apply to African-Americans — or women or Native Americans, for that matter.

By the same token, the words in the Bible, which are also life-giving, are not interpreted the same way by whites and blacks, by people who study the same words but who belong to different races. I don’t remember if it was the late Strom Thurmond or the late Sen. Robert Byrd, but both were religious men and one of them was asked if he knew the Bible, and he said yes, of course. And he was asked, “Do you believe the words that say that you should love your neighbor as yourself?” And the senator answered, “Sure, I know those words, but I get to choose my neighbor.” Well, if we get to make decisions about the validity of those words being something universally applied or not, the words lose their power. The Bible is said to be “holy” but the definition of “holy” seems defined by culture — different cultures in different ways.

So I’ve come to believe we are really a polytheistic society. We have at least two different Gods — the God of the oppressed and the God of the oppressor. The God of the oppressor seems to sanction and agree with the practices of those who oppress others. This God sanctions and supports militarism, sexism, homophobia and capitalism. We also have one Bible — but at least two groups of people who interpret the same words in a radically different way. And when it comes to the Constitution, we have two groups who interpret those words in radically different ways. As for democracy, well, for me there is no such thing as the egalitarian democracy we were told about as children, where the worth of all people is respected and appreciated. That’s a myth. You know, the Pledge of Allegiance thing about “liberty and justice,” or the Declaration on equality. The white supremacist and I worship different Gods. The white supremacist’s God is okay with somebody going out on a Saturday night and lynching somebody else, then going to church on Sunday morning in a three-piece suit and giving communion. The God that my mama taught me, the God that I learned about in my Sunday School lessons, was different than the God that is evident in our society today. That God taught us to love our enemies. When my mama told me that, I would look over at the white folks on the other side and say, “How come they don’t have to do God like I have to do God?

Moyers: Let me ask you about the Declaration of Independence. As we know, it says that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and they’re endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Are those words sacred to you?

Smith: They are very sacred to me. And they’ve been sacred to black people for the longest time. It’s what has helped us to keep our sanity in our tenacious fight for justice and equality in this country. “All men are created equal” — those are words which seem crystal clear. What they say, to me, is what they mean and that’s why they’re sacred.

Moyers: But they were written by slaveholders and adopted into a Constitution also written by slaveholders that set up a government that would deny their fulfillment to black people for over 200 years.

Smith: I know that, but when we learned this stuff in school, it was not stressed that the writers of those words were slaveholders. We got the same lesson as the white kids got and nobody talked about the slavery thing and the belief that black people were inherently inferior and were not considered fully human. I mean, we heard about the 3/5 clause, but we didn’t dwell on it. Those words were given as the “gospel of American democracy,” in my opinion. So as a little girl, I grew up believing that “all men are created equal” — meant just that, that I and all people …were equal according to the Declaration of Independence! I didn’t think about black people being out of the equation or women either, for that matter.

Moyers: Or genocide against Indians.

Smith: Yes, right, right, no attention to that. But I must say, the idea that all people are created equal and we are endowed by God, the one God, the one sovereign God of everybody, with certain inalienable rights — through all the racism and all the hatred and all the horrible things that had been done to people, those words were life-giving. Believing in those words gave African-Americans the tenacity and the drive to keep on pushing for the equality those words described! In this country, where the sacred words did not match the discriminatory and oppressive actions of white Americans, those words kept us going. They were and have been as powerful as the words and stories in the Bible which tell the story of the Israelites getting their freedom from Pharaoh. It’s almost like God stepped in and, through the word in the Constitution and the Bible — in spite of those words being ignored in real life — God stepping in and giving oppressed people hope and life.

Moyers: When you talk about the “romantic idolatry of the concept of democracy” and “idolization of the Christian Bible” in discussing the myths of democracy and Christianity, doesn’t it get you into trouble?

Smith: It does. It does. These are two separate texts and I am criticizing or at least questioning their authenticity. I am talking about our Constitution and our country and our flag and all of them are sacred to Americans. In the same breath, in my work, I are talking about God and the Bible. We hold both these texts as sacred, but in my observations, that sacredness is based on myth. We worship the Bible (bibliolatry, according to the late Rev. Peter Gomes) and we worship the Constitution and the ideas both offer but we ignore them and go our own way — in spite of these texts. I was just reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who talked about how we Christians we say pious words but we don’t mean them. He says we have fallen into “pious secularism” and says that we Christians have separated themselves from God and what God means. We have put God and the words of the Bible on the periphery of our lives. So when I start talking like that about God and about religion and specifically about Christianity, people’s horns go up because they think I am disrespecting God and the Bible, when in fact, by our falling into the trap of pious secularism we have already disrespected God. But Bill, if we don’t talk about all this it and break our hypocrisy and confusion open and see why we are in such a bad state in this country, we are never going to heal. All I heard after the most recent massacre in Las Vegas and after Charlottesville, was that we have to work for reconciliation, but you can’t have reconciliation until you have truth. And the truth of the matter is that we have been mired in myth from the beginning, the Bible and the Constitution notwithstanding.

I mean, the Seventh Amendment says that we Americans are entitled to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed. We’re not supposed to be subject to excessive bail or fines imposed by the government, or “cruel and unusual punishment.” But just look at real life. So this is myth, too.

Moyers: You say that one myths posits “the separation of church and state.” Words first used by the dissenter Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, an early Baptist, back in the first half of the 17th century. You quote a letter from 1644 in which he wrote: “There should be a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” But you go on to point out that our Constitution did not advocate such separation and that church and state became inextricably intertwined in the early days of this century, that in effect, they were bedfellows. The church helped the state maintain the status quo and the words of Jesus were manipulated and contorted to that end.

Smith: Absolutely, that’s what I said. From the beginning church and state were intertwined. The Congress held Christian services in the Capitol on Sundays. The Supreme Court building was used to house church services on Sunday. Twelve of the original 14 states required religious tests for those seeking public office. After the Civil War, the First Congregational Church of Washington used the House of Representatives for worship. I think it was Supreme Court Justice David Brewer who said in l892: “This is a Christian nation. (The separation of church and state) was neither conceived of nor carried out.” As Howard Zinn wrote in his history, far from being left to itself, religion was imbedded into every institution of American life.

Wes Howard-Brook wrote this book Empire Baptized, in which he talks about a religion of creation, which is what Jesus would have taught us, and a religion of empire, which came into being with the Roman Empire. And he said that early Christian writers, in the process of establishing the religion of empire, almost inverted the gospel to create a religion totally antithetical to what Jesus taught. Yahweh became the God of the empire. Living in the Roman Empire, you were supposed to be loyal to the empire, to follow the dictates of the empire. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew — I get in trouble for saying that — he was not part of the Roman superior class. His way of practicing religion challenged the state. So when he taught “Our father which art in heaven,” it was in direct opposition to what the empire wanted. The empire needed for people of faith to be in agreement with the rulers, for the sake of power. So this religion that Jesus pushed, which was a religion of community and sharing all that you have and loving your enemies and your neighbor, was antithetical to all of the things that the empire pushed. That means that the merger of the empire and the church started early, even in this country. The notion of “freedom” was defined by the state and confirmed too often by the church. Clerics in the 18th and 19th century would say things like, “Where the scriptures are silent [on slavery], the Church must be silent, too…What the Scriptures have sanctioned, she does not condemn.” You could even hear them say, “If slavery was evil, Christ would have spoken against it. Since he did not, it is presumptuous for man to do so.” Check out Forrest Wood’s The Arrogance of Faith.

Moyers: And this is what you mean by a religion of empire and a god of the state?

Smith: Yes, absolutely, that’s what I’m saying. The god of the state. Now, for instance, we have conservative evangelicals supporting an administration where racial hatred is being [pause] pushed — where instead of protecting individuals rights, doctrines and policies are being put in place which will further denigrate and separate people and deny them lose their rights. All of that is being done with cooperation of many “good” Christians, evangelical and nonevangelical. I think capitalism is in the midst of all of it, so many people wanting profit, seeking profit. Greed has taken over. The state is greedy and these churches are greedy as well. And so the church and the state are working together at the expense of what Jesus called “the least of these.”

Moyers: What do you make of this: Since the violence in Charlottesville, when Trump said there were some fine people among those militant whites, some fine people “on both sides,” including, we can presume, the storm troopers who marched through town threatening Jews, not a single white member of Trump’s council of evangelicals has resigned — all right wing Christians, Ralph Reed, Falwell Jr. others. Not one.

Smith: I think it represents the fact that white people and black people are taught from the beginning to buy into the white supremacist ethos. Maybe underneath we have a veneer of civility and “goodness” but at the heart of what we have all been taught, is the belief that black people are bad and that white people are superior, the very thing that made white pastors say during the civil rights movement, “If you support civil rights, then your very salvation is threatened” — that belief undergirds much of what we still do and say. These people advising Trump think they are in line with Jesus. They think God sanctions Trump and them. And they can remain quiet because they believe that Trump is carrying out, even enforcing, the law of God.

Moyers: 81 percent of evangelical voters last year supported Trump. And he is delivering on his promises to them. This is a man who is clearly bigoted. He spews hate. He hurls racist taunts. He demeans Mexicans and Muslims. He and his family are grifters for whom too much is never enough. He cheats his contractors. He never stops lying. He degrades women. He threatens. The filmmaker Ken Burns asked, “What is it you see in Donald Trump that reminds you of Jesus?” Yet these right-wing evangelicals have become his most ardent advocates.

Smith: That’s because their Jesus is different than the Jesus I’m talking about. Their Jesus is, remember, the same Jesus that would have been okay with white people lynching people on a Saturday night and going to church on a Sunday morning. Their Jesus would be the Jesus that would be okay with ushers meeting people of color at the door of their church and keeping them out. Their Jesus would be the one that would be okay with telling Gandhi that he could not come into their church because he was a brown person. Their Jesus is different than my Jesus, or the Jesus that I write about. That’s why I believe that we are a polytheistic society. In their minds they think they are doing the will of God. So when a white supremacist Christian calls on the Lord Jesus, it always makes me cringe because I know that’s not the Jesus that I was taught. But they think God is okay with that.

Moyers: So we create God in our image?

Smith: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we do. We create God in our image.

Moyers: I imagine you’ve read Carolyn Dupont’s book  Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement. It tells of sermons preached in white churches during the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1950s and ‘60s. One pastor is quoted saying, “God Himself established segregation to spare whites from contamination to blacks and any attempts to destroy those God-given distinctions opposes God’s plan.”

Smith: That’s exactly it.

Moyers: Has Donald Trump’s behavior in some paradoxical — even perverse — way finally forced us to bring the historic reality out in the open? Are we stripping the lie from the past? Peeling away the mythology looking at our history without blinking? Trump as the incarnation of all that was denied may be calling out the alternative.

Smith: I think we’re looking at our racist past with honest eyes, even though our truth is ugly. I think that what he has done is gotten right into that, the core of it, and is pulling it to the surface. Before Trump, I could walk around and make myself believe that I was in a pretty safe place to live despite the difference in races around me. But now I walk around and sense the distrust, and I find myself looking at white people and wondering, “Are you one of them? What do you really think about me? “ I’m always testing the danger level. Before it was kind of hidden but now it’s coming more and more up to the surface. In my neighborhood about two months ago, there was a guy driving around — I’d never seen this before in my neighborhood — very slowly with a confederate flag on his truck. And he was just driving and looking and leering at people. It was very frightening. It’s frightening because it feels that we people of color are not even close to having any protection.

Moyers: How much can we attribute this current backlash to the fact that we had for eight years the first black president of the United States? I know many white people reacted with disbelief after he was elected and then re-elected. How much do you think this current savage backlash embodied in Trump is because of Obama’s presidency?

Smith: I think much of it is. I call this the third deconstruction. You know that after the Civil War there was Reconstruction, and then there was the deconstruction of reconstruction, so you had the Jim Crow laws, convict leasing, lynching. White folks were so angry they did everything they could to undo the gains African-Americans had made. They were determined to make sure they stayed in power. There has always been a fight to maintain white male hegemony. They never believed freed black folks were equal to whites and were worthy of freedom. So I think what has happened is, we’re seeing a repeat of this deconstruction after the third reconstruction under Obama. Yes, Barack Obama made it into the White House and for a minute people were saying we had entered a post-racial America. I thought, “How can you be post-racial and you’ve never dealt with the racial pathology of our nation?” But people were thinking that because they had voted for a black man, it was done, it was done. But we have yet to get to the rotted out core of America which is racism. It never went away. So now, it’s OK to be “honest.” Millions of whites are angry. And their anger has been manipulated. It has been exploited so that now masses of them push back against the gains that happened under Obama. They know now they have to work to keep white people in power. By the year 2043 or around that time — I’ve heard different dates — a report said that American whites will no longer be the majority in this country. The first time I read that I thought, “Oh, we’re in trouble.” Now comes the backlash. The backlash says, “You are not equal and you will not be equal and we will make sure that you are not equal.” That’s the message. The sad thing is that poor white people are as much a victim of white supremacy as are black people, and as the economy has changed this has become more and more evident. Yet the Bible is still being pimped by politicians to keep the myth in place and power in the hands of the few.

(To explore these topics further we recommend Myriam Renaud’s “Progressives: To Take Back the White House, Love Your White Evangelical Neighbors” and Richard Rosengarten’s response “Progressives, Evangelicals, and Presidential Politics: What Love Has, and Hasn’t, Got To Do With It.”)

By Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers is managing editor of the new weekly public affairs program, "Moyers & Company," airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

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