By Stewart Burns

When historians look back upon the waning years of the 20th century, they will likely be struck by two defining characteristics of the American public: a marked polarization between the haves and the have-nots, the well-educated and the poorly educated; and a powerful, diffuse yearning for moral and spiritual renewal. Technological change, global competition, corporate conglomeration and downsizing, and a depressed public sector have cleaved a social divide that is wider, arguably, than ever before in U.S. history.

How are Americans responding to the nation’s bipolar disorder, rising impoverishment juxtaposed with unbridled money-making?

Not by sitdown strikes, campus takeovers or mass civil disobedience, but rather by an outpouring of religious evangelism and crusades for atonement and reconciliation. On the surface these phenomena seem to have little to do with racial or economic strife. In fact, the United States has a unique history of dealing with crises of division through moral crusades of one kind or another. The Million Man March, the Promise Keepers, the Million Woman March and other current expressions of mass atonement and civic healing are carrying forward a tradition that climaxed in the Civil War and again in the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1950s and 1960s. What is animating the emerging populist movement of atonement? How is it tied to the nation’s past? Where might it lead as we head into the millennium?

Early on, African Americans condemned slavery, calling upon whites to repent in the face of a just, wrathful God. “Beware Americans!” wrote “Othello,” a free Maryland black, in a white periodical in 1788. (Black writers used pseudonyms for protection.) “Consider the difference between the mild effulgence of approving Providence,” enjoyed in the American Revolution, “and the angry countenance of incensed divinity.” Forty years later, Boston black abolitionist David Walker published a fiery pamphlet: “Americans, unless you speedily alter your course,” he cried out, “you and your Country are gone!!!!!! Your DESTRUCTION is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you REPENT.”

Race in America (Plain text)

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