The United States–most especially the United States political system and religious systems–seems to have a knack for misplaced self-righteousness and a perpetual confusion of the difference between what means to be pious and what it means to embody holiness.
This phenomenon is nothing new; in fact, this confusion and misplacing of emotion could probably be considered one of the cornerstones of this nation. Or, maybe more aptly put, one of its original sins.
Since the inception of this nation, those in power have conflated their own belief systems with the proper ones, which is not shocking. However, these persons and groups have relied upon a system of plundering, pillaging and brutal domination over most any other group of people they have come into contact with. These behaviors have most often been “justified” through the idea of holiness and God’s ordination. When the Indian Removal Act was signed, it was supported using Manifest Destiny; slavery and segregation were validated using a multitude of passages in the Bible, but most especially the Curse of Ham and, like I wrote about in my last column, same-sex marriage has been railed against consistently on the basis that the Bible condemns it.
If historical examples seem far off or obviously wrong with hindsight, then perhaps we should look at a more contemporary example…Mmm let’s say, I don't know…
The Supreme Court Justice nomination and confirmation hearings, maybe?
The conservative Supreme Court nominee, and the majority of the Senate likely to confirm her, acts from a place that assumes her opinions are faultless. At face value, it is not odd for Amy Coney Barrett–or any other person, for that matter–to trust in their opinions or beliefs. The issue arises when persons such as Coney Barrett act if their opinions hold holy ordination that is just seemingly unbeknownst to the rest of us. In the case of Coney Barrett, her confirmation hearings seem to have left abortion rights, same-sex marriage and climate control legislation hanging in the balance, not only because she dodged nearly every tough question, but also due to the manner in which she dodged them.
Most every response offered by the Supreme Court nominee held a sense of incredulousness to it, as if her stances on important legal matters being analyzed were a ghastly offense. For example, when asked if voter intimidation and suppression were legal based on federal law–which they without a doubt are–Barrett answered, "I can't characterize the facts in a hypothetical situation, and I can't apply the law to a hypothetical set of facts." Setting aside that I am pretty sure facts can’t be hypothetical…the sense of superiority comes not so much from the words themselves, but from the tone that they carry. Barrett sidestepped the existence of a law, while simultaneously making it seem like the senator posing the question was in the wrong, showcasing an air of self-righteousness and superiority.
This leads me to ask: why, or perhaps even how, did these American leaders such as Coney Barrett, and American institutions–ya know...Congress, Senate, the United States Justice System, the whole foundation of the country pretty much–come to form themselves in a way that presumes faultlessness, while also causing damage and disenfranchisement to the masses?
It's not just racism or perverted senses of religiosity that made these heinous occurrences possible; it is a fundamental issue with the structure of American belief systems.
America’s legacy is to believe it is always acting in a righteous manner. From its inception through to the present day, the United States of America continues to believe that divine ordination supports its oppression of marginalized bodies. In reality, the guiding principle of this nation has never been true righteousness, or even holiness, but rather a deeply perverted sense of piety accompanied by a terrible case of self-righteousness.
See, holiness is not about showcasing correctness; it’s about experiencing sacredness. It is meant to be an endeavor that is meant to draw one away from pain, exhaustion and strife of the world caused by sin, while simultaneously drawing one in closer to whatever Deity and spiritual practices one engages in. More importantly, to engage in practices and acts that are truly holy is a deeply personal experience–meaning that there is no cookie-cutter holiness formula or way to create it through “stadium hype” or mass production. With this understanding, it would be nearly impossible for the power structure of this nation (or any other, for that matter) to ever be anywhere near acting from a place of holiness.
What is very possible, and is the case in the United States, is for the power structures and leaders to act from a stance of piety. A healthy sense of piety still works in tandem with holiness, but American piety stems not from devoutness, but instead from self-righteousness. This has resulted in a perversion of the idea of piety, from an act of obedience to a Deity into a zealous devotion to a hierarchy based in domination and domineering, that uses faith as its scapegoat.
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While it would seem that the logical step would be to ask how to untangle or create a redefinition of the American systems, I would argue that this sense of misplaced self-righteousness has grown with American institutions and power structures so closely that it is at this point innate to them, and more than likely cannot simply be redefined or easily disentangled.
To truly disentangle America from this misplaced sense of domination parading as holiness, we as a nation must be willing to engage in a true sense of community that demands we occasionally set aside our own belief systems to hear and listen to those of our neighbors (the ones we like, and the ones we might not care for so much). Such as in the case of Duke’s Eruditio et Religio Living-Learning Community or the Voices for Interfaith Action group, being called into community doesn’t require us to agree with one another one hundred percent of the time, but does call us to recognize humanity in one another and to treat that humanity with respect and compassion. This, if done with true and honest intentions, has the capability to pull this nation away from its misplaced self righteousness, and toward a beloved community.
Tatayana Richardson is a Trinity senior who thinks that NPR is a deeply underappreciated news source. Her column "Searching for Canaan" runs on alternate Mondays.