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Tar Babies and Conquest

April 22, 2012

Rep. Michele Bachman’s remark that President Obama is “waving a tar baby in the air” is the latest instance in the longstanding strategy of right wing political talk in this country: demean people of color and associate political opponents with this suspect group.  That’s why race is so often implicated in their criticism of President Obama.  It may be subtle like a “dog whistle,”or as

The Tar Baby

overt as a “siren,” but the strategy persists.This is not just a matter of rhetoric; it’s also embodied in right wing legislation intended to appeal to the conservative base by targeting people of color: the Michigan emergency financial managers law threatening to deprive more than half of the state’s African Americans of local democracy; voter suppression laws that disproportionately hinder people of color; and harsh immigration laws that invite racial profiling.These laws and language are the vile residue of a history that goes back to the colonization of this continent by western Europeans.  In 1452 Pope Nicholas V gave full throated religious sanction to the conquest of this continent and the subjugation of its inhabitants in the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  The Pope purported to grant “permission” to King Alfonso V of Portugal to conquer and enslave native peoples throughout the world.  These children of God were, according to the 19th century international law expert Henry Wheaton, seen as “the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

The Church has repeatedly reaffirmed and never renounced this doctrine, despite a request in 2009 that it do so.  Protestants have claimed identical rights under the doctrine, and it was incorporated into U.S. law in the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).  In the court’s unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that, despite the natives’ long tenure on the land, European colonizers acquired sovereign title to it, including the power to evict the occupants.  A later case declared that Indian tribes were not sovereign, but were, according to Steve Newcomb, a Shawnee American authority on the doctrine, “subject to the federal government’s absolute legislative authority.”This assertion of absolute power in the U.S.

'The lawful prey of their civilized conquerors'

government has justified broken treaties, stolen land, forcible removal of indigenous peoples, and massacres.This pernicious doctrine is still with us as an active legal principle, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2005, and in the wounds that afflict Native American communities today ––extreme poverty, substance abuse, and sexual and domestic violence.

The subordination and domination of indigenous people which the doctrine encouraged has also helped shape the cultural mindset that reflexively demeans people of color, while promoting the continued domination of whites.  Too many people, vocalist Nanci Griffith sings,

Thank the Lord for the land that they live in, / Where the white man does as he pleases.

It is especially fitting that religious communities have the opportunity to take the lead in repudiating this doctrine, as it originated in and has long been sanctioned by religion. The Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches have already denounced it, and the Unitarian Universalists will consider it at our upcoming Justice General Assembly in June.  Our governing Board calls for healing the “profound brokenness deeply embedded in our national identity” by repudiating the doctrine as “a step toward restoring right relationship among the peoples of this land.”

Other faiths are being asked to take this action.  The doctrine contradicts virtually every religion in its determination to “divide and conquer” –– divide humanity into dominant and subordinate groups and then piously demeaning and subduing those deemed inferior –– with words or weapons.  But at its best religion affirms the oneness of the human family, calling its adherents to unite and love –– to make our oneness a living reality by bringing all persons into community.  That means striking down barriers that divide us, and standing with the “least” among us –– those victimized by injustice and cast out of our communities.  Religious organizations should live the reality of that faith by repudiating the past that rejected it.

Find out more about the Doctrine of Discovery:


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  1. Dawn permalink

    Bob – This is a powerful denouncement of white supremacy & racism. One point really stood out for me …. You said “piously demeaning and subduing those deemed inferior –– with words or weapons. ” Words are weapons. In fact, when I think of scripture, the Bible is the one book that has been used many times as a weapon. Truly, misuse of its words have the power to kill. Scripture, particularly in the hands of white supremacists in the name of Christianity has been used to enslave, oppress and to wage war & kill. We are all part of God’s good creation – part of the same humanity and equal in God’s eyes. Certainly, we as Christians must stand against the those who would subjugate others and rob them of their human dignity. After all, the Gospel message is for us to love our neighbor as ourselves – no strings attached … no fine print. Love of neighbor. That is what Christ calls us to do.
    Peace, Dawn
    P.S. Great use of the Bachman news piece to speak out against this age old problem. Also, good direction provided at the conclusion of this piece to direct people to other resources and information.

  2. candidobservation permalink

    Powerful piece!!!

  3. Bob,

    Thank you for this insightful and thorough introductory look into the ramifications of the Doctrine of Discovery from it’s creation to today. I have heard about this document, but never had this much immersion. I think it is important for religious communities, ministerial and lay leaders alike to recognize how this doctrine has influenced the formation of these religious movements in the United States. Furthermore, it is important to speak out against the ongoing dehumanization of our fellow brothers and sisters through a renewed commitment to the liberal religious values we hold dear. Reconciliation may be central to this and I feel I have much to think about as an aspiring UU minister in order to address this work in my ministry. Also, thank you for so much externally linked information!!

    Thank you,
    Nic Cable

  4. Bob – Excellent blog post. You explained the issue well, linked to great resources, and offered a theological tie in to a social / political issue.

  5. JessicaP permalink

    excellent post – I like how you moved into the edicts and doctrine of church, rather than stay on racism, and the ability to correct the error. good use of current faith work rather than just simply scripture.

    on a different note, I really liked your lead in about the dog-whistle and sirens. I followed the links on a whim, reading about how a real ‘dog whistle’ is one that only a group recognize as a slam, and got all the way to the Time article. In 2008, after the victorious declaration of Obama’s win, a friend accosted me with ‘he’s not the messiah’ and left me completely confused. I now understand where the idea came from, due to that Time article debunking “the one” ad. thanks for the good links.

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