Imperial Pieties: Religion, the Sanctification of Whiteness, and the Duplicity of the Sacred

Joseph Winters

The image of Donald Trump wielding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, a snapshot that occurred immediately after protestors were penetrated with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to clear space for the President, quickly became a target of controversy. Some critics, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, berated Trump for using the military on US citizens to safeguard his symbolic endeavor to bridge the religious and the political. And while some religious leaders expressed concern that Trump misused the Bible and distorted its central tenets (justice, reconciliation), others were grateful that Trump invoked Christianity against the profane actions of protestors and looters. One can imagine Trump’s handling of the biblical text as an opportunity to discuss longstanding disagreements within Christian theology and practice regarding order, allegiance to the State, and liberation. Yet this essay develops a different line of thought and concerns. I want to take seriously Trump’s posturing, along with his vow to make American great again, as its own kind of religious performance. We might call this the re-sanctification of whiteness in the face of endeavors to honor black life and death and strivings to abolish rituals that create, demand, and feed off the black corpse. By working through black studies, particularly the ideas of WEB Du Bois and Sylvia Wynter, I aim to show that the religion of whiteness, or the sacrality of Western Man, is fundamental to understanding the logics and operations of colonial modernity.1I am indebted to my conversations with J. Kameron Carter on these issues. See, for instance, J. Kameron Carter, Between WEB Du Bois and Karl Barth: The Problem of Modern Political Theology, in Race and Political Theology 83–111 (Vincent Lloyd, ed.2012). I am also grateful to my conversations with Nicholas Andersen on these matters. Consequently, Trump’s photo-op should not be dismissed as frivolous, but treated as a manifestation of pernicious arrangements and dispositions that involve race, empire, and the sacred.

One must tread lightly when thinking of religion and whiteness together. Readers might understandably be worried about the abstraction involved in the idiom of whiteness. And by juxtaposing whiteness and the imperial Man, one risks overlooking the multiple subject positions, experiences, and relationships to power within whiteness (e.g., poor white people are acutely vulnerable to what Marx calls the despotism of capital; white women endure sexual violence, unequal pay, and ongoing endeavors to take away reproductive rights). In addition, whiteness in abstraction fails to register the historical processes through which different populations become white, particularly in the United States. While I take these concerns seriously, my approach does not eschew abstraction, but simply affirms a crucial distinction between whiteness and white people. From this perspective, whiteness names an assortment of investments, attachments, habits, and ways of creating and distributing value across bodies and populations. We might say that whiteness includes those practices and dispositions that develop out of, and fasten subjects to, modernity’s violent projects — settler colonialism, slavery and its afterlife, capital accumulation and expansion. As Cheryl Harris points out, whiteness is closely connected to property insofar as whiteness emerges alongside European/American appropriation of indigenous lands and the conversion of Africans into merchandise; furthermore, whiteness has been defined as a kind of asset that operates through exclusion and subordination.2 See Cheryl I. Harris, Whiteness as Property, 106 Harvard L. Rev. 1709 (1993). While white people across the globe have a special, and differentiated, relationship to whiteness, non-whites are also invested in reproducing whiteness, even when white supremacy works to subordinate them and even as their access to whiteness is limited. 

To further elaborate on the qualities and features of whiteness, I maintain that we think of it as a religion with a repertoire of beliefs, pieties, rituals, and sacred figures. WEB Du Bois provides assistance in this endeavor. In his oft-cited 1920 essay, “The Souls of White Folk,” Du Bois develops an insightful account of whiteness as a belief system. Written in the aftermath of World War I, Du Bois’ essay was a response to those who were shocked by the carnage of the war and surprised that Europe could descend into such chaos. For Du Bois, the war, largely motivated by Europe’s scramble for its African territories, was the latest expression of the violent underside of European civilization, an underside that non-Europeans have been forced to inhabit. In addition, “The Souls of White Folk” anticipates America positioning itself to replace Europe as the “leader of the free world” and questions this maneuver in light of America’s tendency to commit actions against black people within its borders that it renounces elsewhere.

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918. Wikimedia

In the midst of these geopolitical conditions, Du Bois takes a moment to reflect on the meaning of whiteness. Acknowledging that dividing populations by color is a recent invention, Du Bois ponders, “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” In this formulation, whiteness has a spatial and temporal dimension. With regard to space, it is defined as ownership, possession of the earth, and turning the entire world into (its) property. With regard to temporality, this planetary ownership expands incessantly and approaches eternity. For Du Bois, the “belief [in such] an extraordinary dictum” constitutes the “new religion of whiteness,” a religion with particular missions, doctrines, sacrifices, and deities. What is crucial here is that whiteness for Du Bois is not simply a designator for “all white people” and does not mean that all whites share the same power and access to wealth and capital. The religion of whiteness names a system of belief, an imaginary, and a stubborn commitment to the idea that the earth (forever) belongs to white people — that land, time/progress, virtue, and being are the possessions of Europeans and their American offspring.  

This belief structure is accompanied by a missionary project that strives to civilize the uncivilized. The religion of whiteness imagines itself as a “gift” that needs to be spread and deposited across the globe. For Du Bois, this sense of gift is a euphemism for “expansion overseas [and] colonial aggrandizement.” Further, distributing this gift of civilization is an obligation as “it is the duty of white Europe to divide up the darker world and administer it for Europe’s good.” As Du Bois points out, civilization is a donation that involves theft, sacrifice, and erasure; it is a gift of death. He writes, “What have we seen — Merciful God! In these wild days and in the name of Civilization, Justice, and Motherhood — what have we not seen, right here in America, of orgy, cruelty, barbarism, and murder done to men and women of Negro descent ” Here, Du Bois positions America as an extension of Europe regarding the interplay between civilization and barbarism — barbaric violence is acceptable, and even deemed necessary, when directed toward those who are less than human. By using the term “orgy,” Du Bois suggests that the violence directed toward blacks consists of exuberant rites and celebrations. More specifically, this term indicates the sexualized quality of anti-black violence, an apt allusion considering the ritual of lynching that reached a peak in the early 20th century. For the sake of protecting white women, and Motherhood, from black male sexuality, black men were castrated, hung, burned, and sacrificed. The lynching of black bodies functioned to solidify whiteness and maintain the order of things. 

Du Bois reminds the reader that there is nothing new about domination and the exploitation of others “for the benefit of masters.” What is new about Europe’s planetary power is the scope and scale of its reach. As Du Bois claims, “The imperial width of the thing — the heaven-defying audacity — makes its modern newness.” This imperial expanse enables the white settler to assume the role of a “world-mastering demi-god,” an earthly sovereign who acts as a substitute for the traditional (Christian) god. Among other things, this means that access to being, wholeness, and redemption must pass through whiteness. According to this new religion, the world must approximate, or submit to, the qualities and attributes of the white demi-god; in order to persist, the world must accept a belief system motivated by the fantasy of ruling the earth forever. And, for Du Bois, this general acceptance spells death and anguish for those on the opposite side of the color line.

Similar to Du Bois, Sylvia Wynter has thought about the religious underpinnings of colonial modernity. Du Bois’ “world-mastering demi-god” sounds a lot like Wynter’s description of Western imperial Man. The capitalized term “Man” signifies a particular conception of the human that develops within modern Europe and alongside Europe’s imperial endeavors, beginning in the 15th century. Man is the ideal human — white, male, propertied, cis-gendered — and the closer one approximates these attributes, the closer one is to being a complete human. And while there have been competing conceptions of the human, the figure of Man continues to prevail. What is important for Wynter is how the relationship between Western Man and its other (especially blacks and indigenous peoples) re-mixes certain theological distinctions that governed medieval Christendom — spirit and body, redeemed and pagan, heavenly and earthly. In other words, the hierarchical division between spirit and body, for instance, gets extended into the contrast between the rational European subject and the unruly black and Native. In Wynter’s important essay, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Truth/Freedom,” she writes, “In the wake of the West’s reinvention of its True Christian Self in the transmuted terms of the Rational Self of Man, however, it was to be the peoples of the militarily expropriated New World territories (i.e. Indians), as well as the enslaved peoples of Black Africa (i.e., Negroes), that were made to reoccupy the matrix slot of Otherness — to be made into the physical referent of the idea of the irrational/subrational Human Other . . . .”3Sylvia Winter, Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Truth/Freedom, 3 The New Centennial Rev. 257, 266 (2003). As this passage points out, Man’s invidious relationship to the not quite human has religious underpinnings. While it appears to be secular, Western imperial Man is a sacred figure.

The religion of whiteness names a system of belief, an imaginary, and a stubborn commitment to the idea that the earth (forever) belongs to white people — that land, time/progress, virtue, and being are the possessions of Europeans and their American offspring.

The notion of the sacred is tricky. It is usually associated with objects and spaces that collectives want to protect from contamination, from profane signifiers of death and disorder. According to this sense of the sacred, places populated by those who approximate the ideal human would have to be protected — by gated communities, socio-economic disparities, borders, policing — from those who inhabit the slot of the not fully human. Or to return to the example above, Trump needed to be protected and separated from the disorderly protestors, through the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, in order to restore the image of power, sovereignty, and the religion of Man. But as 20th century authors like Emile Durkheim and Roger Caillois describe, there is an ambivalent quality to the sacred. While the term can signify purity, wholeness, and order, it also applies to defilement, contamination, and the accursed (within religious traditions, contact with sacred things can bring about harm as well as strength). By introducing this ambivalent quality, we might think of the sacred as an opaque, transgressive phenomenon rather than an extension of property and ownership. On this reading, the sacred includes those events, encounters, and interactions that point beyond some rigid order-disorder binary. It would draw our attention to the ways in which communities that have been hailed as wretched have developed ways of interrupting social arrangements that obliterate them. Du Bois might point us to the spirituals and black practices that combine vulnerability, sorrow, and frenzy in opposition to the will to mastery. Wynter might point to the possibility of invention and creation, a possibility that assumes the prevailing configuration of the world is accompanied by movements and energies that cannot be completely contained. In other words, these authors gesture beyond the religion of imperial Man toward something like blackened piety. ♦

Joseph Winters is an associate professor of religious studies and African and African American studies at Duke University. His research examines how black studies re-imagines religiosity and grammars of the sacred. He is the author of Hope Draped in Black (Duke University Press, 2016).