Obama, Cal Thomas and the Mark of Cain

In an August 11 USA Today forum debating the downgraded state of the U.S. credit rating, columnist Cal Thomas equated S&P's loss of public faith in America's economic standing with the "mark of Cain." America and the Obama administration are now cursed, Thomas retorted, with an AA-plus rating, putting America "on financial par with New Zealand and Belgium. Nice."

At first blush, what is offensive about Thomas' comments is not his xenophobic economic prognostication. We'll get back to that a bit later. Instead, it's Thomas' cavalier use of the biblical term "mark of Cain." Especially when it's deployed within even a rhetorical mile of America's first black president. Thomas' language should raise eyebrows as well as move fingers to keyboards to type messages of repudiation for his Don Imus-like racial slur.

Why the fuss over the "mark of Cain"? A quick Bible and history lesson is in order.

The expression "mark of Cain" refers to Genesis 4, in which God "set a mark upon Cain" as punishment for killing his brother, Abel -- a story frequently cited as history's first murder. This "mark" or "curse" on Cain has gone hand in hand with the curse Noah places on the progeny of his disloyal son, Ham, whom Noah declares will be "servant[s] of servants ... unto his brethren" (Genesis 9-18-27). These two curses created convenient biblical anti-heroes that have long been used to justify the segregation, persecution and enslavement of various populations of undesirables, minorities and underclasses.

In medieval Europe, Jews were associated with Cain and Ham, whose Old Testament sins were held to foreshadow the great sin of deicide, for which the New Testament condemned their Jewish descendants. The Jews' supposed crime against Christ justified forcing Jews into ghettos, denying them legal protections and access to many professions.

With the advent of the African slave trade, Cain and Ham's biblical marks -- and Noah's pronouncement of perpetual servitude on Ham's descendants -- were correlated with Africans' dark skin. The insidious full flowering of the link between Cain/Ham and Africans took shape in antebellum America where some southern and northern Christian ministers defended slavery as biblically justified, the result of God's unconditional mark of darkness on Africans who were considered the permanent intellectual and moral inferiors of white Europeans.

Let me be very clear here: The Bible itself is not to blame for creating a link between deicide and Jews, slavery and Africans. Religious ideologies of race that supported anti-Semitism and African slavery were read into, and did not emerge out of, the Bible. But centuries of interpretations of Cain and Ham have accreted race onto Genesis like mud on a riverbank, making a non-racialized reading of the Bible all-but impossible. When Thomas references "the mark of Cain" in relation to Obama, he reactivates the history of misusing the Bible to dehumanize people of African descent.

Cal Thomas cannot plead ignorance of the troubling history of the term "mark of Cain." The churchgoing Thomas is quite biblically literate, often citing the Bible to bolster his conservative economic and political positions. He has a particular fondness for the story of Cain and likes to link it to Obama. In a 2007 column critical of the CNN/Sojourner's forum on faith and politics that was attended by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Thomas mocked the future president's statement that his faith taught him, "I am my brother's keeper." Thomas correctly writes that Obama, whom Thomas considers only a "nominal Christian," was referencing Genesis 4, the source of the "curse of Cain" mythology. But Thomas fails to realize that Obama flipped the usual interpretation of this passage in which Cain denies responsibility for his brother's safety and welfare. Obama, the future first African American president, asserted that, unlike Cain, he believes that people do have a social responsibility to be their "brothers' keepers," especially to their more economically vulnerable brothers and sisters.

And now we circle back to the economic debate Thomas was putatively engaged in when he made his recent "mark of Cain" riposte. Thomas, ironically it seems, believes that the American government should answer the question of whether we are our brothers' keepers like Cain did -- that the government should deny its responsibility to create a basic safety-net for its citizens. Instead, Thomas declares that the government should follow 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in which St. Paul writes: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." Thomas' (debatable) interpretation here is that the Bible's basic economic message is one of individual responsibility: "the threat of an empty stomach is the best incentive for providing for one's self."

And herein lies my point about the relationship between religion and politics in America. As pundits and politicians debate America's economic priorities, inevitably some will draw differing interpretations from the Bible to inspire their public policies. This is reasonable, perhaps even welcome. What is not welcome is the kind of not-so-subtle misuse of the Bible, the barely veiled allusions to the ugliest traditions of biblical interpretation, which Thomas uses toward the president, to undermine the president and other political rivals' positions and even their humanity. In discussing the debt and deficit, in debating religion and politics, let's just leave Cain out of it.

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