“The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi, is a fresco of the first president of the United States ascending to the heavens. The goddesses of Victory and Liberty, along with 13 maidens who represent America’s original colonies, flank George Washington; here, he’s elevated to the status of a god (and it’s worth noting that “apotheosis” actually means “deification”). In the 150 years since Brumidi’s last brushstroke, the painting’s characters have borne silent witness to the machinations of the U.S. Congress from the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. When the fresco was completed, four million black people called the United States home but were only that year able to enjoy even the most limited experience of citizenship when the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation began the process of ending slavery. Of course, Brumidi’s fresco only features white faces.
His painting illustrates the complexities of a nation inextricably informed by the religious ethics of its founders and those who continue to wield power today: Religious white men, ascending to fame on the strength of their ideals. Even those founding fathers—who identified primarily as deists—shared views that aligned with Christian theologies. American society is heavily informed by this religious foundation, specifically in terms of racial injustice, even as religious identification declines.
A recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute on police brutality showed that between December 2014 and April 2015 the percentage of white Americans who believed that police killings of black Americans were part of a broader pattern jumped from 35 percent to 43 percent. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, see the recent homicides as isolated incidents—62 percent of them said that police treat blacks and whites equally. This isn’t an accident of demographics; it springs from the religious framework that undergirds American societal values. To deny the ongoing influence of Protestant ethics is to be willfully ignorant.
The “Protestant work ethic” is a term coined by sociologist Max Weber, whose seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, delineated how links made by theologians between religion, work, and capital laid the groundwork for capitalism. Calvinist theology holds that only an elect few are predestined for salvation from birth, while the rest are damned. The anxiety this produced compelled people to look for hints or signs that they were members of the elect; they believed that material success was among the most notable indicators of God’s favor. Doing the hard work of creating God’s kingdom on Earth through a secular vocation was considered a pathway to God’s grace. The opposite also held true: Just as material success indicated God’s grace, poverty was a sign that you’d been denied God’s grace. In this context, slaves could be both blamed for their own plight and have the legitimacy of their labor erased.
“When the Protestant work ethic was being developed here, many people who were in the country weren’t even considered people and that continues to inform how we think about work,” said Jennifer Harvey, a professor of religion at Drake University whose research includes the intersection of morality in the context of white supremacy. “It cannot see certain kinds of work and labor as real and therefore virtuous,” she continued. It’s easy to be outraged when something as tangible as a video of a man being executed by police surfaces, but more insidious forms of racism still permeate our views of what does and does not constitute valid work—even among those who don’t subscribe to Protestant ethics.
A survey of millennials conducted by MTV showed that only 30 percent of whites reported being raised in families that talked about race at all. A different survey from PRRI in 2014 found that “[W]hile more than three-quarters (76 percent) of black Americans, and roughly six-in-ten Hispanics (62 percent) and Asian Americans (58 percent), say that one of the big problems facing the country is that not everyone is given an equal chance in life, only half (50 percent) of white Americans agree.” An even more comprehensive study of young Americans in 2012 showed that 56 percent of white millennials believe the government “paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities.” Considering the fact that so many white people were raised in families that erased race by not talking about it at all, it’s not hard to see how the government’s attention to other races could seem excessive.
Dr. Ray Winbush is the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, and he said that his work in Baltimore has recently increased his exposure to racial conceptions of work and goodness. “White people will say, ‘Why don’t you black people pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. This is America, everyone is free to do what they want,’” Winbush told me. “But what was the civil rights struggle of the 1960s if not the greatest self-help movement in American history?” Through the old lens of work as an act that contributes to building God’s kingdom on Earth in a very physical way, the work of political organizing can’t be recognized as a legitimate form of labor. Denying the labor of black Americans reinforces white supremacy.
“The Protestant work ethic that influenced the founding of this country included a belief that the more material wealth you have, the closer you are to God,” said Robin DiAngelo, a professor whose research focuses on how white people are socialized to collude with institutional racism. “So during slavery, we said, ‘You must do all the work but we will never allow that to pay off.’ Now we don't give black people access to work. Then and now they have not been allowed to participate in wealth building or granted the morality we attach to wealth.” This historical entanglement of property and virtue continues to inform racial views. “Property among white Americans is seen as something to be treasured and revered,” said Winbush. “Black Americans do not view themselves as truly owning anything in America.”
DiAngelo noted that we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at sporting events and don’t even flinch at “the land of the free” lyric written in 1814, a time when the country was home to millions of slaves. Winbush pointed to the black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was burned to the ground in 1921 by white mobs enraged by the incredible prosperity blacks had created there. Black attempts to participate in the promise of America are met consistently with this kind of violence. Ethicist Katie Geneva Cannon has written at length about how the institutional denial of citizenship and freedom to black people essentially wrote out the possibility of them ever being seen as virtuous in white society. “The ‘rightness of whiteness’ counted more than the basic political and civil rights of any Black person… Institutional slavery ended, but the virulent and intractable hatred that supported it did not,” Cannon wrote in The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness. Through both erasure and ignorance, we continue to deny the virtue and legitimacy of black citizenship and labor.
As we abandon our explicit ties to religion, religious ethics still inform our views of race, prosperity, and even personhood. It’s easy to blame older white Protestant evangelicals for the country’s residual racial strife, even as it represents white America’s refusal to interrogate the source of our worldviews and our tremendous social and political capital.
What is troubling about the fresco in the rotunda is that it functions as a mirror: The Congress those white faces look down upon is 92 percent Christian and 80 percent white. George Washington and his cohort of virtuous states are enshrined above so, theoretically, we’ll forever remember the virtuous, godly work of “protecting freedom.” Meanwhile, the black human lives whose uncompensated work built America’s prosperity—and the Capitol building—with their blood, sweat, and tears are consistently forgotten.