"Divide and conquer" has always been an effective political strategy. From imperial Rome in antiquity to more contemporary Western colonial powers, "divide and conquer" has allowed external political powers to assert authority over indigenous groups of people and their territory. They "divide" by exploiting existing differences and hostilities between indigenous groups -- or by actually creating those hostilities. The "conquering" power can then rule unopposed because the local groups fight against each other rather than against that external authority. Examples of groups pitted against one another in recent African history are the Tutsi versus the Hutus in Rwanda, and East Indians versus indigenous Africans in South Africa during the Apartheid era. European control was maintained longer when tensions between those groups were at their worst.
Today, we can see the same dynamic at work in the United States. In this presidential election season, three groups are being pitted against one another: women, African Americans, and the gay/lesbian/transgender community (a term meant to include all those who do not fall within traditional categories of sexual and gender identities). More specifically, there are attempts to convince (white) women that the nation's problems can be attributed to the presence of racial/ethnic groups in our country, especially Latinos/as (the largest minority group in the U.S.) and African Americans (including the one sitting in the Oval Office of the White House).
African Americans, both male and female, are encouraged to vote against any legal recognition of same-gender loving relationships. Then, the (white) gay/lesbian/transgender community blames racial/ethnic groups for the failure of marriage-equality initiatives at state-wide polls which makes them less likely to support efforts for fairer immigration reform. After all, from the perspective of the (white) gay/lesbian/transgender community, if immigration reform were successful, it would add even greater numbers of racial/ethnic citizens to vote against them. It is "divide and conquer" at its best and the consequences are the same, even if its occurrence was not intentionally planned and even if there are some within those groups who have not succumbed to the strategy.
There is always a group that benefits from the "divide and conquer" dynamic. Right now, that group consists of privileged white, heterosexual men -- whose perspectives and attitudes have traditionally shaped our concepts of what it means to be an American. We need to remember that, at the time of the first presidential election in 1789, only 6% of the population -- white, male property owners -- was eligible to vote.
As an African American woman, I am always aware that it took adding not one constitutional amendment, but two, in order for me to be able to vote. Our nation's foundational creed that "all men are created equal" has not always been reflected in our actions. Those actions have tended to marginalize and exclude those who are not white (racial/ethnic populations), not male (female), and not heterosexual (gay/lesbian/transgender persons). However, with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the Stonewall uprising, each of these excluded groups has asserted its own understanding of the United States of America and changing federal and state laws have reflected these expanded visions, thereby opening up new opportunities for all of our people.
Yet, as a strategy, "divide and conquer" succeeds when these contemporary groups fight each other rather than the traditional (privileged white male heterosexual) norms that would exclude them all. Each single group seems to think that they can be included among the privileged elite if only they, in turn, enforce traditional exclusions against the other two groups. So, for example, conservative African American men affirm their elite credentials by maintaining traditional exclusions of women and gay/lesbian/transgender persons. However, each group needs to realize that they have something significant in common. Women, racial/ethnic groups and gay/lesbian/transgender communities are all resisting nostalgic notions of a past that is the product of privileged white heterosexual male longings. Such longings would recreate a society where women would be limited to their homes, African Americans and Latinos/as would be seen and not heard, and gay/lesbian/transgender individuals would be back in the closet. It is a past that could easily return with the cumulative effect of conservative efforts at the federal and state levels to enact and enforce laws that reverse reproductive health initiatives for women, set up punitive immigration policies, restrict voting, and ban homosexuality. Rather than fighting against each other, these groups must work together to prevent a return to an unjust past. They must work together towards a fuller and more inclusive concept of our nation.
As I wrote in my book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies, privileged white heterosexual males have not only defined what it is to be an American -- they are also the ones who have defined what it is to be a Christian. Consequently, it is all too easy to equate "American" values with "Christian" values. Historically, women, racial/ethnic groups, and gay/lesbian/transgender communities have been harmed by national policies and church decisions that exclude them and do not take into account their perspectives and realities. Having all experienced the harm of marginalization, these groups must fight against these traditional exclusions rather than just fighting against each other. Whether we belong to one or two of these traditionally marginalized groups or all three, we need to acknowledge the contributions of all segments of our society and affirm a broader notion of who is and can be American. For those of us who are Christian, we need to have a better understanding of the Christian tradition and remember that an important part of our Christian responsibility is to treat our neighbors, those on the margins -- and ourselves -- with love and compassion (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 25:34-40). If we allow "divide and conquer" to work, traditional conservative norms of privileged white heterosexual males will remain in place and the harm will continue. To counter the harm of exclusion, it is entirely appropriate for us as Americans and for those of us who are Christian to make sure that the strategy of "divide and conquer" fails.
Cheryl B. Anderson is Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church. She is also the author of Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2009).