A Megachurch History Lesson: Americans No Better Than ISIS

It is bad enough when writers of selective history craft a narrative to fit pre-determined conclusions of American guilt and shame. But when pastors push a version of American history devoid of victories for individual liberty, overriding commitment to equal rights, and sacrificial giving of blood and treasure across oceans -- while selecting out and exaggerating specious wrongs -- it is a special kind of travesty.

While a Texas Austin Ridge Bible Church staff pastor was trying to make points about poverty of spirit and relative values of sin, he gratuitously pivoted to accusations of American wrongs. Similar to Obama’s admonition against getting on a high horse, this pastor said that Americans “have to work hard not to distance ourselves from all of these [ISIS] atrocities” since:

[O]ur own heritage as Americans is filled with these [ISIS atrocities] same kinds of things. Our nation was founded on the extermination and encampment of thousands and thousands of native Americans; barbaric in many ways. The Southern/South was made powerful and strong for white people on the lynching of thousands and thousands of black people; horrible public spectacles of black people to scare and to terrify anyone who would step out of their place. We did that. And in Texas and its own history, it’s rife with the extermination of thousands of Mexicans because they are different, and we want this land, and we want them out of it. That’s who we are.

America’s own heritage is not filled with ISIS-like atrocities, and it is reckless to say so.

With no recognition of any of America’s prevailing record of good deeds this litany of generalized wrongs, devoid of context, does nothing to account for America’s unique democratic propensity for correcting misdeeds and wrongful thinking. When the American people have judged their own errors, they have issued corporate apologies and -- although these examples were richly debated -- paid reparations for Japanese internment and initiated a period of affirmative action to atone for past discrimination.

It is fraudulent to use the words “rife with” and “filled with” when the history was episodic and actions on both sides of conflicts must be considered. The decision to use the word “exterminate” twice was also inaccurate and harsh. Great care should taken when charging a nation and its people with intent that is linked to genocide. There is no evidence that Americans targeted a particular group of people for systematic murder.

Starting with Native American history, it is impossible to discuss all details, but important to consider the nuance and proportion that was not included in this pastor’s remarks. Yes, the American government does have a shameful history of betrayal and duplicity when making agreements with Indian tribes. There were settler and Indian massacres that went both ways. What is often overlooked is the honor culture that expected some tribes to torture prisoners for humiliation purposes. There are also accounts of barbaric treatment of missionaries in the 16-and 1700s. Indians fought with the French in a war against the British on colonial soil and they fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War.  At the same time, King George incited Indians against patriots during the Revolutionary War. Although there was disgraceful governmental disrespect for treaties, one cannot characterize American treatment of Native Americans as a plan to exterminate them.

There were about 4500 total lynchings recorded in the United States. About 1200 of these were in the West and the victims were white, Mexican, and Chinese (most for horse thieving). These hangings were renegade mob action that was not sanctioned by government authority as a legal punishment.

Regarding the Texas legend, one must start with the Mexican Declaration of Independence from Spain in 1821. Mexican leaders then recruited settlers from the United States to help hold the Texas territory. In 1835, after a revolution, native-born Tejanos and immigrant Texians declared Texas an independent state. War with Mexico ensued. The Alamo fell. Sam Houston later captured Santa Anna at San Antonio and ended the war. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas with popular support from Texans. How this decades-long period may be summarized as extermination and taking land because “because they are different and . . . we want them out of here“ defies the historical record.  

This is much like an orphaned child being given a version of his parentage constructed solely to mis-shape his self-esteem. Rather than telling this child of well-intentioned parents who grew in maturity, confronted sins, and rose to commit many noble deeds of great merit, if only acts of plunder and violence are selected for teaching, what does the child think of his pedigree?

Unbalanced accusations of American evil from the pulpit cause disproportionate harm to the unique sense of moral authority possessed by historically informed people of faith. American aspirations to charity, economic opportunity, and freedom of conscience stem directly from the founders’ understanding of Providential design. America’s founders realized that they were establishing a very special “city on a hill” inspired by Christian Scottish Enlightenment ideals.

American generosity of spirit and interest in justice was expressed early on by John Adams’ offer to defend British soldiers who fired first shots at the Boston Massacre. Important framers of our original charters valiantly fought to keep the institutionalization of slavery out of the Constitution as recorded in books like Vindicating the Founders. John Quincy Adams and later abolitionists advanced the moral arguments against slavery and President Abraham Lincoln won the long hard struggle for the Emancipation Proclamation. America entered and stayed committed to the horrendous costs of WWI, WWII, Korea, and the Cold War to vindicate human rights and to defy totalitarian and genocidal powers.

Now Americans of moral confidence are needed to speak against a real genocide of Christians at the hands of ISIS. Would those living under the tyranny of terror really require that Americans have a perfect record before speaking out on the most urgent moral and religious freedom issues of our lifetimes?

Author’s Note:  I contacted the church with my concerns on the Sunday afternoon of the sermon and the pastor who delivered the sermon responded to say that he may have been clumsy but that “our reading of history is far from one another.“ The senior pastor said he hoped I would understand “if we do not dialogue any further on this one issue.” The sermon, entitled “Becoming People of the Cross,” may be viewed on the church website, but the almost two minute section that I transcribed above was removed at some point during the week after the sermon was posted (approximately the 31:09 minute marker). Finally, I submitted the text of my piece at final editing phase to the pastors for review, comment, clarification, or rebuttal. The senior pastor replied: “No comment.”

Karen Lugo is civil rights and constitutional lawyer and director of Libertas-West Project