Johns Hopkins University Press

Readers of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead novels will not learn from them that some historical traditions of American Christianity were engines of Christian white supremacy justifying slavery and segregation—despite the fact that the novels are about Christianity, slavery, and segregation. This marked absence has become increasingly clear in the years since she first published Gilead in 2004, especially with her most recent addition of Jack in 2020. The absence of Christian white supremacy in Robinson's novels shapes a cultural memory of Christian innocence for her and for her readers—a striking evasion that aligns with the Christian Right's rewriting of its origin story to be not a reaction against Civil Rights but against abortion.


Marilynne Robinson, Christian Right, segregation, slavery, cultural memory

Readers of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead novels will not learn from them that some historical traditions of American Christianity were engines of Christian white supremacy justifying slavery and segregation—despite the fact that the novels are about Christianity, slavery, and segregation. This marked absence has become increasingly clear in the years since she first published Gilead in 2004, especially with her most recent addition of Jack in 2020. While some critics protest against the idea that authors be "required" to represent certain themes or facts, the absence of Christian white supremacy in Robinson's novels has a way of shaping a representation of American history and identity—for her and for her readers. It is an ideological silence about what she sees as an ontological impossibility: there could never be authentic Christians, or at least very many authentic Christians, who practiced violent forms of white supremacy by enslaving other people. Robinson's Gilead novels are important works of cultural memory that employ a strategy of cultural amnesia. Strangely, her novels' silence about Christian white supremacy in America aligns her with Christian Right culture warriors she otherwise opposes. At a critical juncture in the nation's [End Page 190] history, when national memory and identity formation are the very site of struggle between multiracial pluralist democracy and a revanchist white Christian authoritarianism, the country's greatest, wisest living Christian author lacks clarity and honesty about the subjects of her art.

Claims and Counterclaims

I first made a version of this argument eleven years ago in an article critical of Marilynne Robinson's handling of religion and race in Gilead.1 Five years later, I updated the argument in my book on American literature during the age of the Christian Right.2 My argument took Robinson to task for what I see as her fiction's dishonesty in treating the complex intersection of race and religion in the United States. Scholars responded with counterarguments and other evidence and in the meantime, Robinson wrote three more novels about the two intimate families in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, exploring the interiority and psychological complexity of Ames, Glory, Lila, and now Jack.3 I have changed my mind to some degree about Robinson's fiction, compelled by arguments of other scholars and by Robinson's growing fictional universe—the latter of which throws into new relief the earlier novels. But my interlocutors have addressed only part of my argument, often pointing to the difficulty of authorial irony, and ignored the more consequential aspect of my criticism that Robinson's silence is shaping an ahistorical cultural memory. Robinson's additional novels confirm this more important aspect of my critique: that when it comes to religion and race in the United States, Robinson continues to evade the most troubling truths about Christian white supremacy.

My original argument about Gilead is that it fails to treat that intersection of Christianity and race with the complexity it deserves. As is well known, Gilead's two dramatic conflicts turn on questions of race. As Ames describes his "begats" to his young son in memoir form, he recalls the ideological struggle between his grandfather and father. Both abolitionists, their argument turned on whether proper Christian resistance to slavery entails ethical violence, an ideal championed by the grandfather, who preached fiery abolitionist Sunday sermons while bloodied from gunfights with nearby slavers, or nonviolent opposition as Ames's father contended. This national frame for religion and race is mirrored by the second, more personal, dramatic conflict, as Ames discovers that his godson Jack Boughton is unofficially married to an African American woman, a marriage they cannot legalize in Tennessee where antimiscegenation laws rule. My argument was that in centering her question of proper Christian ethics in America on race—right modes of resistance to slavery before the Civil War, and how families and law should embrace mixed-race marriages and children in the Jim Crow era—Robinson was using what Toni Morrison calls an "Africanist presence" to think through her most important themes of loyalty, freedom, love, family, and justice. As I state in the original article, I think Robinson treats her Africanist presences with seriousness and [End Page 191] respect, unlike Mark Twain. That respect is confirmed by the latest novel's inclusion of a sustained voice for Della that transforms her into a genuine character.

My criticism of Gilead is based on its portrayal of abolitionist debates and the novel's erasure of pro-slavery Christianity:

Gilead's moral frame begs the question: should a Christian oppose slavery or support it? What's so bad about slavery, we might ask, just as actual Christians did during the period. Because the great divide within American Christendom in the nineteenth century was not between Christian violent resistance to slavery and Christian pacifist resistance to slavery. The divide was actually between Christian abolitionism and what Frederick Douglass called "Christian slavery."4

My article read Robinson's novel alongside two important intertexts, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Like Beloved, Gilead refracts its large questions about race and national identity through the prism of family memory. And as in Atwood's Gilead, the fact that there are no longer any African Americans in Gilead after an arsonist set fire to a local church is at the center of what Jack sees as the failure of white Christian ethics on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. I argued that Gilead avoids confronting Christianity's roles in Christian segregation and in the Christian slavery out of which it grew. Instead, Robinson portrays white American Christianity as a victim of moral decline by critiquing Ames and Jack's father for their parochial assumptions about the Civil Rights movement (continued in Home) and for their inaction as African Americans were terrorized out of the former abolitionist sanctuary: "In Gilead's Christian multiculturalism, whiteness is critiqued and repudiated so that Christian identity might be defended and reclaimed."5 Gilead, I concluded, "dishonestly cleans[es] 'true' Christianity of its history by 'forgetting' unsavory aspects" like Christian slavery and Christian segregation.6

I reprised this argument in a larger context for If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right in 2016. At the same time, other criticism—and Robinson's extension of her fictional universe—allowed me to see that Jack is an important moral center in the series. For example, Jonathan Lear's review of Gilead and Home had argued that "'Jack is the only person in Gilead who evidently feels compassion for the plight of black people in 1950s America.'"7 I concluded, "Lear presents the most plausibly sympathetic reading of the novels, seeing Jack as their 'Christian hero' (47) instead of Ames, who is the subject of almost all the reverent criticism on the two works."8 Because of this other criticism—including critiques of my argument—and Robinson's expanding fictional universe, I have changed my mind about the extent of authorial irony in Ames's narration, given her careful crafting of Ames's failures of understanding and courage.

Elisa Gonzalez makes the authorial irony case most compellingly.9 Cautioning that Robinson "writes realist novels that do not culminate in [End Page 192] didactic perorations, nor telegraph which characters should be applauded and which condemned," Gonzalez suggests that "White characters—especially Ames, but also Jack's father, and the wider community—repeatedly and sometimes egregiously fail to pursue, much less embody, goodness, as they are shown to be complicit in the erasure of racist realities, historical and ongoing." "The real John Ames is already there on the page," Gonzalez says, and "the Gilead novels offer a chronicle of white Christian failure, novelistic tracery or fictional historiography, with Jack as the trigger of recollection, if not complete reckoning." Ames "dismisses" the "little nuisance fire" set to the local African American church, a phrase he repeats such that it "begins to seem like rhyme, with each diminution of the fire's significance a way of emphasizing its centrality." When Jack's father is more disturbed by his outburst of "Jesus Christ" as they watch "television news show[ing] police turning dogs and firehoses on Black protesters," Robinson's critique becomes more charged: "His father objects to his language, not the violence, then speaks in favor of the need to 'enforce the law.' He even draws on a quote from the Apostle Paul for support. (Paul's writing in particular has often been used to buttress Christian pro-slavery doctrine.)" And when, finally, Jack's father "misremembers Emmett Till's murder as being a lawful execution justified by a real attack" effected only after a "trial," Gonzalez says it is a larger "fictional embodiment, small-scale, of the way the white church writ large has dismissed the murder of Black people as merely 'upsetting.'" She concludes, "The Gilead novels depict, subtly but unwaveringly, a strain of Christian white supremacy that cloaks itself, an evil that exists amid goodness."

At the same time, Briallen Hopper's devastating article suggests a limit to Robinson's authorial irony: sometimes mistakes and elisions belong to Robinson, not her narrators or characters.10 Hopper shows how "Robinson 'forgets' Montgomery" in Home, in "a series of counterfactual descriptions" more reminiscent of the violent police responses to the 1963 marches in Selma and Birmingham than the yearlong bus boycott in 1956. She ascribes the mistake to "Robinson's deep disinterest in embodied communities and profound interest in the aesthetics and theology of resignation." Hopper's crucial intervention is evidence, I think, that scholars are overstating the case for Robinson's authorial irony.

Gonzalez powerfully argues for a Jack-centered authorial critique of his Christian elders' passivity and deafness to questions of justice. Indeed, Jack's questioning of Ames likely triggers his ambiguous reflection that "this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it," as I noted in my original article.11 I went on:

But if the 1956 setting of Gilead momentarily registers this question of segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, there is no corresponding recognition that support for segregation was often articulated through Christian thought, as was its opposition. Nor is there recognition that this segregationist era is the genealogical link between [End Page 193] the proslavery Christian conservatism whose historical presence the novel erases and the racially tinged political empowerment of conservative Christianity at the time of the novel's composition, to whose political values Robinson is opposed. Thus while Ames's refusal to respond properly to the church burning seems to be Robinson's momentary criticism of modern (1950s) Christianity, that criticism works by contrasting its moral tepidity to the fiery abolitionism of the grandfather, thus representing Christian moral practice as a victim of decline, as though it were not already contaminated by Christian slavery.12

This remains the crux of my argument, one which tends to be ignored in critical responses to my article and book. Critics like Gonzalez and others have sharpened our attention to authorial irony in Gilead and the subsequent novels, locating in Jack a moral sensibility to which his more Christian elders seem blind. But other critics miss the larger question of the selective silence with which Robinson treats Christian American history, tending to respond to my argument about Robinson's forgetting of Christian slavery by pointing to her authorial irony when Jack confronts Ames about the burned church. The reading of the church episode is correct but beside the point.

Thus, for example, Lee Spinks agrees with part of my critique but then argues,

The crucial weakness of this reading of the novel, however, is its dependence upon a structural confusion between author and protagonist. Thus while it is certainly true that Ames treats history as a kind of memory which enables him to repress the ethical demand central to his grandfather's radical abolitionism, his encounters with Jack Boughton are expressly designed by Robinson to enact a type of "rememory" of the past which compels him to confront the continuing trauma of African American disenfranchisement from Bleeding Kansas to the emerging civil rights movement of his own time.13

This is fine as far as it goes, except it misses the import of my critique. Spinks is certainly right that Ames is forced to confront race and disenfranchisement in a way that is painful for him. But my argument is rather that in the novel—in all four novels—neither the author nor the characters can confront the historical facts that there were catastrophic forms of proslavery and prosegregation Christianity. I am not arguing that Ames "forgets" about Christian slavery in a way that disallows him to properly grapple with the Christian segregation that Jack wrestles with. I am arguing that rarely or never across four novels does Robinson acknowledge other forms of Christianity aligned with power, racism, supremacy, and authoritarianism.14 Unless we bring the prior knowledge about Christian slavery and Christian segregation with us, four novels later readers will have no idea about these harder, frequently violent, forms of Christian white supremacy beside the moral passivity to [End Page 194] which Ames has fallen. Ames and Boughton Sr. are synecdoches for the mainline white Christian pastors whom Martin Luther King criticized as unwilling to see Civil Rights struggle as a moral cause—even if they were not actively preaching prosegregation sermons. As Gonzalez points out, a "law and order" version of the gospel had previously justified "Christian pro-slavery doctrine"—but Home's readers have to bring that knowledge and make that connection themselves, because the novel does not.15

Other critics similarly tend to dismiss or mischaracterize my critique. Daniel Muhlestein, for example, suggests of my argument that "the heart of his claim is that Robinson uses Gilead to willfully conceal the fact that for the bulk of American history, many Christians used Christian doctrine and practice to justify racism and slavery."16 He continues, "Douglas's assertion that Robinson writes Gilead precisely in order to conceal the fact that historically many American Christians were racist would likely come as a surprise to such critics as Lisa M. Siefker Bailey, who argues that the novel itself demonstrates that 'even though he did not burn down the Negro church, Ames is guilty for it'17—not because of anything he did but because of the many things he failed to do" (15; emphasis added). To be clear, I don't think and have never claimed that Robinson writes her novels with an intention to deceive and to conceal historical facts. As I argue below, strategies of memory and forgetting, authenticity and inauthenticity, are forms of faith practice that cannot be grasped by notions of intentional deception. But recognizing Ames's moral failings in the church arson episode (which I discussed in my article and book) is not evidence against my argument that Robinson's novels tend to not recognize the violent forms of Christian white supremacy that justified slavery and segregation.

Similarly, Ray Horton writes of the article version that I think the novel

reflects a "sanitized" history of Christian race relations during the Civil War era (345). The most basic rebuttal to Douglas is that Gilead is set in Iowa, a hotbed of abolitionism, not Georgia or Alabama. More subtly, though, Douglas's reading leaves out the bitter irony in Jack's reference to Iowa as "the shining star of radicalism" (210), as well as the crucial subtext of Jack's inability to return home with Della, his African American partner. As Michael Vander Weele has pointed out, Jack's struggles leave the reader uncertain "whether to bless the town or exercise our judgment upon it" (232), a scathing rebuke of the decaying town that had once celebrated and fought for equality and diversity.18

Horton's reading of Jack's views about—and Robinson's critique of—the town (and Ames) is surely correct, as discussed above, but this critique likewise misses the crux of my argument that Robinson elides active Christian support for slavery and segregation.

Andrew Ploeg suggests of the article that my "lumping together of Robinson with the likes of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, due to what he [End Page 195] describes as their shared investment in a 'historiography … as partial and narrow as that to which it is opposed' (Douglas 350), glosses over the novel's nuanced working through of issues like the church's historical complicity in slavery and persistent racism."19 While it's fair to say that my article did not give enough attention to Gilead's critique of Jack's elders in their insouciant attitude toward "persistent racism," I just don't see the evidence for "the novel's nuanced working through of issues like the church's historical complicity in slavery," and Ploeg doesn't cite any. What is it? Where is the novel's attention to Christianity's complicity in slavery?

Patricia Andujo cites my article's question about why the novel "evades the complex truth about Christian practices of and beliefs about slavery in the nineteenth century."20 She answers, "Robinson's marginal treatment, intentional or not, of slavery merely mirrors the way a significant portion of white Christians have dealt with racial injustices in America. As such, the novel does not operate didactically, as some [including me, I presume] would like it to, giving modern Christians a clear picture of what an appropriate response to injustice looks like. Rather it accurately reflects America's interaction, or more precisely inaction, with racial strife."21 Thus "Robinson's characters do not overreach and become a beacon of hope for social justice because most white Christians of this era would not have overreached."22 I think Andujo is right about this, and her essay is one of the best critiques of the white indifference that characterizes Boughton's and Ames's missing attention to racial injustice. Andujo shows that Boughton's "shortsighted reaction" to seeing Civil Rights protests on television mirrors the white clergy's response that Martin Luther King criticized, and notes that Boughton "rewrites the history" of Emmett Till.23 But her article's excellent critique of the inaction, inattentiveness, and carelessness of mainline white Christians does not address my specific critique that Gilead's readers never get a glimpse that millions of white Christians supported segregation and slavery, rendering the history as a moral decline from Ames's grandfather to his generation.

Lastly, Lynne Hinojosa directly confronts the substance of my critique. Summarizing my argument, she suggests "Essentially, Douglas likens Robinson to Ames's grandfather and father—she is unable to yield, reconcile, or dialogue because of her supposed polarized opposition to the other side, and this position causes her to neglect the real moral issues surrounding slavery and Christianity in United States history."24 But, she rejoins, "Yet Robinson is not trying to write a novel that explores how Christian slavery supporters justified their actions theologically or that tries to understand this position."25 I think this is certainly true that Robinson is interested neither in exploring nor understanding pro-slavery Christianity. Nor need she be. But in declining to notice the existence of Christian slavery and Christian segregation—now across four novels—despite the fact that they are centrally concerned with the slavery and segregation and what the proper response to them Christians should take, she allows this silence to shape her fictional world. This problem goes to the question of whether [End Page 196] author "should be" talking about something they don't, to which I now turn my attention. While other critics cite my article or chapter, sometimes mentioning my key argument about Robinson's silence about Christian slavery and Christian segregation, no others engage with it critically.26

Silences, Biblical and Ideological

So what does it mean that we can read all four of Robinson's Gilead novels and never come away with a sense that some historical traditions of American Christianity were engines of Christian white supremacy justifying slavery and segregation—despite the fact that her novels are in an important sense about Christianity, slavery, and segregation? Hinojosa is surely not the only one to—reasonably—protest my method of reading the gaps in the novel, focusing on the unsaid, listening to the silence.27 But absence is a way of shaping our understanding. All literary works are shaped by the silences that surround them, like the frame of a painting, and other silences sometimes powerfully reside inside them, like the Godot who never arrives. A painting's frame directs our attention toward what the artist selects for us, just as silence shapes communication, leaving some things unsaid. Other silences might be less purposeful, but they can still shape the meanings of a work of art. I am not suggesting that we require novels and other kinds of art to talk about certain topics. But it should strike us as relevant that the greatest living American Christian writer, writing in the early twenty-first century about religion and race in the mid twentieth century back to the mid nineteenth century, has nothing to say about—and won't even acknowledge across four novels—religious support for white supremacy and racialized violence, for slavery and segregation.

Robinson is a keen reader—and teacher—of Biblical literature, where we find an artful use of silence. "Though biblical narrative is often silent where later modes of fiction will choose to be loquacious, it is selectively silent in a purposeful way," Robert Alter argues.28 Using silence, he writes of David's character, "the Bible's artful selectivity produces both sharply defined surfaces and a sense of ambiguous depths in character."29 Characters and actions are rendered using silence, ellipsis, reticence, and opacity, producing ambiguity and mystery, even from the opening stories. Who is the "us" God speaks of? What is the "deep" over which he extends creation? Does God not know that the animals He creates will not meet Adam's needs for a partner? Where is Adam when the serpent tempts Eve? Why can the serpent talk? Can all animals talk? What is the serpent? Why is it allowed in the Garden of Eden? What is the "knowledge of good and evil" that the tree's fruit conveys? Why does God seem to not be able to find Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit? These silences are artful gaps that readers must provisionally fill, or attempt to imagine, in order to interpret the text; even then, the mysteries do not go away as "the text leads us to speculate without providing sufficient information."30 Biblical literature's "narrative technique of studied reticence"31, Alter says, compels us [End Page 197] "to get at character and motive, as in Impressionist writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple or sometimes even wavering perspectives on the characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character" that emerges in their surprising ability to change.32 Indeed, the "innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology," producing a kind of narrative that compels us to a "continual suspension of judgement, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided."33

This kind of artfully wrought ellipsis that encourages mystery and ambiguity is certainly present in Robinson's writing, but I think her silence about Christian slavery and Christian segregation is of a different kind. Nor is it redolent of the gaps found (as Alter alludes to above) in literary modernism, as with the wonderful effect of dialogue in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw in which readers must try to finish the unfinished sentences, filling in the gaps just as the characters themselves do, artful ellipses giving rise to ambiguity and mystery.

The reticence of the Gilead novels, rather than reminiscent of Biblical opacity or modernist ambiguity, seems ideological. There is a phenomenon that is unrepresentable, unspeakable. We witness here not a silence that invites ambiguity, mystery, and interpretation, but forgetting. The silence strikes me as ideological in a way that invites a suspicious reading. Pierre Macherey, for example, suggests that "The speech of the book comes from a certain silence." He continues,

A matter which it endows with form, a ground on which it traces a figure. Thus, the book is not self-sufficient; it is necessarily accompanied by a certain absence, without which it would not exist. A knowledge of the book must include a consideration of this absence.

This is why it seems useful and legitimate to ask of every production what it tacitly implies, what it does not say. Either all around or in its wake the explicit requires the implicit: for in order to say anything, there are other things which must not be said. Freud relegated this absence of certain words to a new place which he was the first to explore, and which he paradoxically named: the unconscious. To reach utterance, all speech envelops itself in the unspoken. We must ask why it does not speak of this interdict: can it be identified before one might wish to acknowledge it?34

Thus, if "Silences shape all speech",35 then "What is important in the work is what it does not say … what the work cannot say."36 A novel has "its margins, an area of incompleteness from which we can observe its birth and its production."37 I think Macherey's language of gaps, silences, margins, and absences is helpful in thinking about the missing ideology of white [End Page 198] Christian supremacy in all its relevant historical forms of Christian slavery, Christian segregation, and Christian antimiscegenation theology, in Robinson's Gilead novels. I think Robinson views these historical forces as ideologically impossible, and their absence is less Biblical ellipsis and more reminiscent of Biblical memory and amnesia.

Robinson has taught the Hebrew Bible to her students and is familiar with its narrative techniques and its project of cultural memory and mythmaking. Andrew Cunning explains how Robinson understands Biblical "myth" as the genre of the "recording of memory" about the "grand truths about the human experience of the world, and indeed of the very existence of the world itself. … In using 'myth' as her descriptor, Robinson is not opening up a debate about the historical veracity of these accounts, for myth is a genre term and not a statement about the historicity of their claims."38 In this sense, "Myth is, above all, a mode of remembering",39 a "collaborative social experience over a period of time," in the words of myth theorist William Doty.40 Citing Egyptologist Jan Assmann on how ancient stories about the gods helped communities structure their realities, Cunning concludes,

Taking myth seriously does not entail believing its details are an accurate account of a historical event, but instead are read with an eye for the importance of memorialized detail. Consequently, myth should be interrogated as follows: "why was this event remembered in this way?"; "what does the myth contain that is revealing about the worldview of its writers?"; "how does this myth construct reality and in what ways does it speak of the self, the community, of reality?"41

Robinson means this—correctly—as a defense of the genres of Hebrew Bible narratives such as Creation or Noah's Flood, stories not meant to be understood as literalists and inerrantists do. At the same time, she means myth—here elucidated by Cunning—as the form that communal memory work sometimes takes: fluid, in process, communal, and not dependent as a professional historian is on facts, materiality, or the archive.

But there is another aspect to communal memory work not touched on by Robinson or Cunning: the productive labor of cultural amnesia. To return to the terrain of the elliptical Bible, scholars today see strong evidence for an ancient Israelite polytheism that was eventually replaced in the cultural memory work of the text by the one monotheistic God. While "the various ways by which ancient Israel reconstituted the diversity of its deities into a single God"42 appears to have taken centuries, this consolidation into "monotheism" has left its traces in the Biblical text itself, and in other archeological and textual evidence in the ancient Near East. As Mark Smith describes this transformation of ancient Israel's pantheon, "Collective memory—or the lack of it (in other words, collective amnesia)—helped Israel to forget about its own polytheistic past, and in turn served to induce a collective amnesia about the other gods, namely, that many of [End Page 199] these had been Israel's in the first place."43 Cultural amnesia about primordial polytheism allowed textual traces of it to survive, residual imagery and vocational niches that became available to apocalyptic Jews and then Jesus followers in the centuries to come.44

Cultural amnesia need not be thought of as an insidious propagandistic erasure of the past a la George Orwell's 1984. It can instead entail the selection of what to remember and the harmonization of the present according to newer memory of the past. Ancient Israelite theologians seem to have experienced the defeat of the northern kingdom by Assyria in 722 BCE and then the southern kingdom by Babylonia in 587 BCE as entailing the impossibility of their national god's defeat. They reimagined their national god's power over all other deities in response to the historical crises of the defeat of Israel's and Judah's national god by Assur and Marduk. Their innovation told a new story about their single supreme God's punishment of them through the weapons of other empires, as proper disciplining for the worship of gods other than YHWH, gods who became retroactively remembered as "foreign."

I would like to propose that an analogous labor is at work in a vastly condensed form with the facts of Christian slavery in Robinson's fiction—and not only her work. Its memory work entails a cultural amnesia about Christian slavery and Christian segregation in the service of a purer Christian identity. Her silence is not so much reminiscent of Biblical ellipsis, full of mystery and ambiguity, as it is an overwriting of that which is not selected for memorialization, something that was impossible anyway. This construction of reality through cultural amnesia about Christian segregation and slavery is a "myth" being forged before our eyes, in response to a historical crisis in liberal Christian theology: how is it possible that the reactionary white conservative supremacists that have become increasingly extremist and authoritarian during Robinson's writing career—1980 to 2022—could possibly be Christian? Their forebears in Christian slavery suggests one answer—they have always been with us—but we labor to forget them. The Gilead novels are helping to construct a new myth of Christian innocence, not white innocence: Christians might not always be perfect—witness Boughton and Ames' negligence on Civil Rights—but they never partake in world-scale evil, tens of millions supporting slavery. Those weren't real Christians. It's impossible.

Communal memory work involving myths of national identity can have political consequences. Merging El and YHWH and forgetting that Baal, Asherah, and Anat had once been Israelite gods, Biblical writers rendered them illegitimate by ascribing to them a new foreignness, gods brought to Israel from outside by outsider wives. The prohibition against foreign gods is closely linked to the imagined dangers of exogamy in the Deuteronomistic History. This speech ascribed to Moses illustrates the link between foreign women and foreign gods for the new chosen people of Israel: [End Page 200]

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.

(Deut 7:1–4 NRSV)

The dangers of "foreign" gods, linked to the sexual allure of foreign women in marriage, became justification for separation and genocide. Two and a half thousand years later, it was used by segregationist Christians to justify the antimiscegenation laws that bedevil Jack and Della in the Gilead series.

Christian segregationists relied on such passages and others like Noah's curse on Ham's descendants, just as their Christian slaver ancestors had relied on them to justify slavery. In the Jim Crow South, for instance, the Ham story continued to justify hierarchy and power. Ham's descendants would still be the "servants" of the descendants of his brothers, now not as enslaved peoples but as a lower caste of disenfranchised workers kept in check by white Christian terrorists who burned crosses and men. Christian segregation entailed a new prohibition against mixed marriage: "Perhaps the most-deployed biblical argument against interracial marriage was Isaac's Blessing to his son Jacob: 'And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan,' namely, women of African descent" (see Gen 28:1).45 Christian segregationists cited other Biblical injunctions to justify antimiscegenation theology as well. William Eskridge notes the historical use of "Acts 17:26 (stating that each race's lot in life is according to God's plan, delivered from Paul to the Athenians); 2 Corinthians 6:17–18 ('Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.'); Deuteronomy 7:3 ('Neither shalt thou make marriages with [women of African descent] …'); Ezra 9:11–15 (relating Ezra's prayer about intermarriage); [and] Genesis 27–28 (recounting Isaac's blessing to Jacob and Jacob's subsequent dream)" (671n63).

Jack tells the story of the anguish that Jack and Della suffer from antimiscegenation laws and customs, but the source of the cultural opposition to their marriage remains blurrily in the background where it has no origin or shape; no ideas, no theory, no tradition or history. The most proximate resistance is from her family, her minister father in particular. "He doesn't believe in marriage between the races," Della tells Jack: "I probably don't either."46 As Gonzalez explains, "he's told by a Black pastor that even if he were 'the most impeccable white gentleman on earth,' Della's respectable, Garveyite family would not accept him."47 While Jack makes clear that antimiscegenation customs are codified in law, "the criminal code of the state of [End Page 201] Missouri," the novel spends more time discussing Della's African American family's (understandable) rejection of Jack as a husband—that is, a little bit of time—than it does attending to the Christian justification for those antimiscegenation customs and law—that is, no time at all.48 As with the other novels, unless we come to Jack with prior historical knowledge, we might be forgiven for concluding based on the novel that religious opposition to miscegenation was as (more?) marked among Garveyite African American Christian congregations as it was among the white congregations whose racial purity antimiscegenation law was intended to "protect."

Indeed, white "evangelicals' strong opposition to interracial marriage and support for miscegenation laws, which had only recently been struck down by the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia"49 is central to the story of the emergence of the Christian Right during Robinson's lifetime and writing career. Segregationist logic was intimately tied to fear of racial mixing from its beginnings: "'Mixing' of the races would invite interracial sexual congress, which was a violation of God's Word expressed in Noah's Curse—a precept that religious southern segregationists found reaffirmed throughout the Old and New Testaments."50 Jerry Falwell preached pro-segregation sermons in the 1950s and his church started a private school in 1967, "the same year all public schools were required to implement integration plans"51; he later started the Moral Majority in 1979 with Tim LaHaye, a harbinger of the emergent Christian Right. The Moral Majority, along with many conservative white Christians, found a champion in Ronald Reagan, who became a hero among the emergent Christian Right partly for his support for "the racially discriminatory Bob Jones University … in a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which had denied them tax exemptions under civil rights guidelines."52 Bob Jones had reluctantly admitted "a married African American man" in 1971 but wouldn't admit an unmarried African American, afraid of the intermarriage that might result.53 When George W. Bush gave a speech at Bob Jones University during the 2000 election campaign, it still had a prohibition against interracial dating.54

These facts are just a few data points in the larger history of Christian white supremacy—contemporaneous with Robinson's literary career—in which the Christian Right emerged directly out of the Christian segregationism and Christian antimiscegenation theology55 that afflicts Jack and Della, and out of the unrecognized Christian slavery of Gilead. The point I want to underline is that Robinson's practice of cultural amnesia about Christian slavery and Christian segregation makes their continuity with today's Christian Right that much more difficult to comprehend. Her unwillingness to recognize even in passing across four novels the Christian character of slavery, segregation, and antimiscegenation laws is likely because she views adherents as inauthentic Christians, just as she views their descendants in the Christian Right. In her essay "Memory," Robinson's language dismisses and negates their authenticity, as when she claims that Christian Right members or regions "claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian" (158), probably don't read their Bibles (158), "claim Christianity" [End Page 202] (159) and "have colonized the word" (160), making it "a brand name for assorted trends and phenomena that have no more to do with its texts and traditions than women warriors have to do with online retail" (161), are among "those regions most inclined to call themselves Christian" (162), and so on.56 This unwillingness is consequential: while slavery and segregation were a reality in the United States, I surmise that Robinson believes real Christians did not, could not, support them. Abolitionism was "quintessentially American" in a way slavery could not be.57 In these ways, Robinson lays down a cultural memory of Christian history. It is probably not an accident that Robinson rejects evidence of ancient Israelite polytheism and rejects the authenticity of the Christian Right's Christianity in the same essay I am quoting here, "Memory." Defining the boundaries of religious communities by what she regards as essential practices and beliefs, she excludes contrary material, historical and textual evidence. This cultural memory work as myth-making repeats and strengthens what the memorialist deems are the essential boundaries of group identity, excluding and forgetting evidence of alternate group practices and beliefs.58

Cultural memory and cultural amnesia work in part through such selection and framing. Rather than the historical revisionism and intentional, programmatic erasure, I am suggesting that the most well-known and greatest living Christian American writer in the present is selecting for memory across her novels the virtuous and courageous history (and occasional failures) of Christian abolitionism and excluding the tarnished record of support for the evils of slavery, segregation, and antimiscegenation law. This selective memory reinforces the mainstream view among religious and irreligious alike that religious faith is beneficent unless corrupted by outside "cultural" forces. This view is normative and is represented by the many critics who think Jack is "more Christian" than Boughton or Ames, rather than differently Christian.59 It is a picture that comforts thoughtful white Christians, suggesting that they could have done more without asking what is it about this nexus of religion, race and nation that continues to encourage power, hierarchy, violence. Cultural amnesia about Christian slavery and Christian segregation is not censorship, but it confines them to the knowledge domain of specialists, to be encountered only in a few upper level university classrooms. Disturbingly, Robinson's cultural memory work aligns with the Christian Right's rewriting of its origin story to be not a reaction against Civil Rights but against abortion.60

In the Trump era, a collection of recent books by Christian (and ex-Christian) academics in other disciplines has done a better job at recognizing the continuity of Christian white supremacy in American history to the present.61 This includes a real recognition of its roots in Christian slavery and segregation, without dismissing its religion as inauthentic, even while they rightly insist on other, more ethical alternatives within the faith tradition. English as a discipline and Literature and Religion as a subfield have yet to catch up to this work. We avoid reading the Christian Right literature that other disciplines study carefully. The influential paradigm of [End Page 203] the postsecular discourages attention to revanchist, reactionary religion.62 In our discipline, Christian and non-Christian academics usually employ an under-interrogated model of normative religion as benign unless twisted by outside forces.63 In these ways we partake in the labor of cultural amnesia about white Christian supremacy practiced by Marilynne Robinson's Gilead novels. That amnesia has made is more difficult to recognize and confront the conservative white Christian support for Trump and Republican authoritarianism, the situation of our current political and epistemological crises. We literary critics are part of that crisis; what we have done and what we have left undone have contributed to its power and urgency. As the Christian character of some white supremacy is being forgotten by Christian writers and academics, legislatures controlled by conservative white Christians undertake its more programmatic erasure in the name of combatting "critical race theory."64 That our best, wisest living Christian writer can write four novels about race and religion in America during the powerful Christian Right reaction in the last twenty years, and not register the real religiosity of the evil social forces that is their setting, is a sobering thought. Marilynne Robinson can do better; we can do better.

Christopher Douglas

Christopher Douglas is the author of If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right (Cornell University Press, 2016), as well as recent articles in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2021) and Religions (2022). He edited the special issue of Christianity & Literature on "Literature of / about the Christian Right" (2020). He teaches contemporary American fiction, religion and literature, and the Bible as literature, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.


1. Christopher Douglas, "Christian Multiculturalism and Unlearned History in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead." Novel 44, no. 3 (2011): 333–53.

2. Christopher Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).

3. Gilead (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004); Home (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008); Lila (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014); Jack (Toronto: Penguin, 2020).

4. Douglas, "Christian Multiculturalism, 335.

5. Douglas, "Christian Multiculturalism, 345.

6. Douglas, "Christian Multiculturalism, 351.

7. Jonathan Lear, "Not at Home in Gilead," Raritan 32, no. 1 (2013): 34–52, at 40.

8. Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 314n20.

9. Elisa Gonzalez, "No Good Has Come: Marilynne Robinson's Testimony for the White Church," The Point, March 24, 2021,

10. "Marilynne Robinson in Montgomery," Religion & Politics, December 22, 2014,

11. Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 233.

12. Douglas, "Christian Multiculturalism, 345.

13. Lee Spinks, "'The House of Your Church Is Burning': Race and Responsibility in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead," Journal of American Studies 51, no. 1 (2016): 141–62, at 145n14,

14. As I quote in the article and chapter, a partial exception is Ames's brief dismissal of the radio television ministries whose "jackrabbit" theology destroys the "facts of mystery" he tries to awaken in his congregation (Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 98). I think this is an opaque allusion to the beginnings of the Christian Right: Jerry Falwell developed a radio ministry for his new church in the year Ames is narrating, 1956. See Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 92–93.

15. Boughton says, "The Apostle Paul says we should do everything 'decently and in order'," citing 1 Corinthians 14:40 (Home, 98). Despite Gonzalez's implication that Boughton's reference might signal a recognition of "Christian pro-slavery doctrine," this wasn't a prominent quotation of Paul in proslavery theology. It is unlikely that this brief reference to Paul would lead readers to recollect how his other writings were used in proslavery theology.

16. Daniel Muhlestein, "Marilynne Robinson, Wallace Stevens, and Louis Althusser in the Post/Secular Wilderness: Generosity, Jérémiade, and the Aesthetic Effect," Humanities 9, no. 2 (2020):15,

17. Lisa M. Siefker Bailey, "Fraught with Fire: Race and Theology in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead," Christianity & Literature 59, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 265–80, at 270.

18. Ray Horton, "'Rituals of the Ordinary': Marilynne Robinson's Aesthetics of Belief and Finitude," PMLA 132, no. 1 (January 2017): 133n12,

19. Andrew J. Ploeg "'Trying to Say What Was True': Language, Divinity, Difference in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead," Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 63, no. 1 (2016): 2–15, at 4,

20. Patricia Andujo, "Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience," Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, ed. Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson, InterVarsity, 2019, 100–121, at 101.

21. Andujo, "Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience," 101.

22. Andujo, "Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience," 101/

23. Andujo, "Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience," 118–19.

24. Lynne Hinojosa, "John Ames as Historiographer: Pacifism, Racial Reconciliation, and Agape In Marilynne Robinson's Gilead," Religion & Literature, 47, no. 2 (2015): 117–42, at 124

25. Hinojosa, "John Ames as Historiographer," 124.

26. An exception is Yumi Pak ("'Jack Boughton has a Wife and a Child': Generative Blackness in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home," in This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Gilead and Home, ed. Jason W. Stevens [Leiden: Brill, 2016]) who generally agrees with my argument and uses it as a springboard for her compelling investigation into the way black presences mediate various father-son relationships. Pak suggests that Boughton Sr.'s resignation in Home—"So much bad blood. I think we had all better just keep to ourselves" (Robinson, Home, 147) is de-facto support for segregation, and so Pak asks "What does it mean for Boughton, himself a religious man, to believe in segregation?" (Pak, "Jack Boughton has a Wife and a Child," 227).

27. For example, Jordan Carson, American Exceptionalism as Religion: Postmodern Discontent (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2020), wonders in response to my argument, "It's true that a 'more comprehensive map of Christian practice' would include Christian slavery (which Robinson's nonfiction acknowledges), but why it's incumbent upon Robinson to provide this in a work of fiction, I'm not sure" (181).

28. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed., New York, Basic, 2011, 144.

29. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 144.

30. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 148.

31. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 157.

32. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 158.

33. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 12.

34. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London, Routledge, 1978), 85, emphasis original.

35. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 85.

36. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 87.

37. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 90.

38. Andrew Cunning, Marilynne Robinson, Theologian of the Ordinary, New York: Bloomsbury, 2021, 132.

39. Cunning, Marilynne Robinson, 133.

40. Quoted in Cunning, Marilynne Robinson, 136.

41. Cunning, Marilynne Robinson, 133.

42. Mark Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 151.

43. Smith, The Memoirs of God, 5.

44. Smith is an accessible introduction for nonspecialists on the construction of "monotheism" from ancient Israelite polytheism. I attempt to indicate the usefulness of this scholarship for literary studies in "This Is The Shack That Job Built: Theodicy and Polytheism in William Paul Young's Evangelical Bestseller," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 88, no. 2 (June 2020): 505–542, and in "Revenge Is a Genre Best Served Old: Apocalypse in Christian Right Literature and Politics." Religions 13, no. 1 (Dec. 2021): 21,

45. William N. Eskridge, "Noah's Curse: How Religion Often Conflates Status, Belief, and Conduct to Resist Antidiscrimination Norms," Georgia Law Review 45, no. 3 (2011): 657–720, at 671.

46. Robinson, Jack, 267.

47. Gonzalez, "No Good Has Come."

48. Robinson, Jack, 224.

49. Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 63.

50. Eskridge, "Noah's Curse," 671.

51. Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 27.

52. Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974–2008 (New York: HarperPerennial, 2008), 182.

53. Butler, White Evangelical Racism, 66.

54. Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 103.

55. Sarah Posner, "Amazing Disgrace," The New Republic, March 20, 2017.

56. Marilynne Robinson, "Memory," The Givenness of Things: Essays (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2015), 157–71, at 158–62.

57. Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 181.

58. While she concedes in the essay that slaveholders quoted scripture to support slavery (Robinson, "Memory," 168–69), she abstains from calling them Christians and believes such rhetorical support was marginal.

59. See Cunning Marilynne Robinson, 118; see Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 316n30.

60. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, 23–27.

61. See Butler; Kristen du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, Liveright, 2020); Robert P. Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020); Andrew L. Whitehead, and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

62. Christopher Douglas, "Introduction to 'Literature of / about the Christian Right'," Christianity & Literature, 69, no. 1 (2020): 1–14,

63. Douglas, If God Meant to Interfere, 111–16, 294–303.

64. See, e.g., John Nichols, "Texan Republican Cancel Culture Targets the Teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr." The Nation, July 21, 2021,