“What we need is an exorcism” (151). With these prophetic words from America’s Unholy Ghosts, Joel Edward Goza identifies the dire condition of the United States, especially in relation to the country’s racial imagination. In so doing he stands in solidarity with the Prophetic Black Church that he lifts up in this book. Taking up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to “get to the ideational roots of race hate” (iv), Goza aims not so much to pose concrete solutions but to offer a new lens through which to see the state of America’s degenerate political and spiritual life. Goza does this by examining three thinkers that were important in shaping the foundation of said life: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. These three men, as appropriated by the Founding Fathers, loom large as America’s unholy ghosts. These Enlightenment intellectuals provided the ideational basis for the racism, classism, and discrimination that were present at America’s founding and persist to this day. Additionally, Goza argues that the way forward in addressing these abominations can be realized by humbly submitting to and learning from the Black prophetic tradition.
Goza’s book is a complement to books like Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black (Crown, 2016) and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning (Nation Books, 2016). Both of these books focus on racism in the American context, but Goza’s book goes outside of the American arena to investigate those thinkers that shaped the political world of America’s Founding Fathers. Hobbes, Locke, and Smith are who America’s founders looked to for guidance when shaping their deeply flawed experiment in freedom and democracy. Thus, Goza provides fresh analysis useful in attempting to visualize and realize a more equitable American body politic.
The slavemaster’s myth, which Goza defines as the idea that “people in certain communities and from certain countries are only irrational bodies to be exploited for the master race’s pleasure, profit, and power” (30), both shaped and was buttressed by the three aformentioned thinkers. Hobbes grew up in the midst of the European religious wars, and his fear of these wars returning led him to create a politics centered on fear wherein only an autonomous, authoritarian ruler—the Leviathan—guaranteed peace in exchange for unquestioned obedience. Locke builds upon Hobbes’ foundation, by replacing the Leviathan with an aristocratic elite. As Goza puts it, “the Leviathan became corporate” (143).
This elite class is preserved via the protection of property rights, which Locke saw as the primary purpose of government. Finally, Adam Smith, despite good intentions, provided political and economic theories that were used to maintain lies central to the slavemaster’s myth, namely that “justice is retributive rather than restorative” and that “indifference to injustice is no threat to one’s intimacy with God” (106). In summary, Goza demonstrates that “Hobbes imagined and Locke institutionalized the slavemaster’s myth” and argues that “Smith ingrained a morality of hardheartedness into a society that made citizens comfortable with the radical inequities modernity ushered in” (106).
Goza’s intellectual genealogy is important and insightful. He convincingly argues, for example, that America’s practice of ignoring its historical faults aligns with Hobbes’ prescription that history ought to be used to foster nationalism, and that Locke’s focus on property rights rather than human rights perpetuated race- and class-based inequality that exists still today. However, there are other points where his analysis is less convincing. He argues, for instance, that Hobbes teaches the “political lie that government is not about the common good” (35), but perhaps it is more accurate to say that Hobbes was so consumed by his fear of chaos and war that he became convinced that the common good of peace could be attained only through unquestioned allegiance to the Leviathan.
More importantly, Goza fails to address certain aspects of Smith’s thought. Goza argues, for example, that Smith’s “theoretical solutions were thoroughly Stoic, producing a morality antithetical to prophetic aims” (140). The extent to which Smith was a Stoic, however, remains an open question (see for example, Michele Bee and Maria Pia Paganelli’s article “Adam Smith, Anti-Stoic,” History of European Ideas 2019), and Goza does not address the fact that Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) draws heavily on Aristotelian virtue ethics. These limitations do not invalidate the core argument of the book, rather they point to the need for additional research into how the Enlightenment ideas of Hobbes, Locke, and Smith were transmitted to and assimilated by America’s Founding Fathers. Goza thus helpfully provides a foundation upon which important future work can be done to understand and counteract the racist roots of American politics and spirituality.
Constructively, Goza’s work succeeds in capturing the radical and revolutionary nature of the Prophetic Black Church generally and King, in particular. The King that we meet in these pages is far from the colorblind dreamer most Americans encounter once a year in January. Indeed, Goza recognizes that King’s prophetic protest was “held within the flames of a furious solidarity with God’s rage and within the tears of a vulnerable solidarity with God’s love” (169). It is this potent, prophetic mixture of rage and love that calls for a revolutionary rather than evolutionary approach to building an equitable society. Like King, Goza calls us to be “creatively maladjusted” to the evils baked into American society. And, in line with the best of the Black prophetic tradition, Goza calls us to move beyond what we are told is possible and work towards a world where persons are more valuable than property or profit. Indeed, “no one who actually moved the needle in the fight limited themselves to the realm of the possible” (174). To anyone who wishes to become more acquainted with King’s radical, revolutionary theology, I commend America’s Unholy Ghosts.
Goza’s is a timely book. In the era of 45’s presidency, it is increasingly apparent that the racism, bigotry, and xenophobia currently on display are symptoms of an older and deeper corruption. As Goza argues, these evils are not an aberration; rather, “America designed her democracy to perpetuate racial injustices and economic inequality” (145). Goza’s work illuminates new aspects of America’s reprobate past and present and makes it increasingly apparent that if America as a nation wishes to repent of its addiction to injustice it must turn to the Prophetic Black Church to learn and commit itself to “a way of life that measures every citizen as God’s beloved child” (182).