Half a century after the civil rights movement removed most of the legal aspects of the Jim Crow regime the vast majority of religious people in America do not see fit to worship next to people of another race.
This is not a partisan essay, nor do I have anything in particular to say about the wisdom of this or that choice of words by political leaders. But as one thoughtful commentator pointed out recently, if you’ve been wondering why the first President of African descent hasn’t spoken out more in public about race, just check out the reactions in the conservative media to his perfectly reasonable and entirely accurate comments at the National Prayer Breakfast in February about the historical connection between Christianity and Jim Crow.
An annual event held since the Eisenhower administration, the National Prayer Breakfast is a privately sponsored gathering that brings together a large and diverse group of business, political, and religious leaders in Washington to reflect on the role of religion in public life. The sitting president is usually a guest and gives remarks. This year, President Obama’s brief but rather profound speech outlined the problem of what he called “faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge—or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” He mentioned a number of examples drawn from recent headlines, mostly emanating from the crisis within the Islamic faith. In the face of religious extremism and violence, the President called people of all faiths to practice humility, to stand up for both freedom of speech and civility of public discourse, and to express their beliefs through striving for the common good. In general, hard stuff for all but the most rigidly fundamentalist—of whatever religion—to complain about.
The trouble for some pundits, however, was with the way Mr. Obama cautioned against religious hubris. Lest his listeners imagine that he was pointing a finger solely at Muslims, he noted, for example, the rise of intolerant and often violent Hindu nationalism in India. And he reminded Christians of their own sordid history of religiously sanctioned violence, mentioning the Crusades and the Inquisition in Europe. “In our home country,” he added matter-of-factly, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Now let’s get a few things straight. There is absolutely no question among scholars that the Crusades and the Inquisition were Christian affairs, pure and simple, regardless of their purely political or economic dimensions. Similarly, there is simply no question that American slavery and its latter-day extension, the Jim Crow system, were “all too often justified in the name of Christ.” There are many questions in U.S. history that are open to debate and multiple points of view, but these are just not among them.
Reactions from some journalists, religious activists, and politicians, however, might lead one to believe otherwise. There were defenses of the Crusades and the Inquisition. (My favorite was that those were “Catholic things,” so nothing to blame “us Protestants” for—because everyone knows that real Americans are Protestants, right?) Some said that Jim Crow is ancient history and doesn’t have anything to do with today. (By my count, Jim Crow ended just a few years before I was born, and I’m not yet forty. Just to be clear, in broad historical terms, the worst of Jim Crow was pretty much the day before yesterday.) One criticized Mr. Obama for “talking as if it was Christians who were responsible for racism in America.” (Well who does he think it was then, all those Buddhist slaveholders in colonial Virginia? The Jews who wrote the Constitution? The Zoroastrians who overthrew Reconstruction after the Civil War?) Others said, only slightly less ridiculously, that the President is an opponent of Christianity or that the President is a defender of Islam. Some went so far as to say that Mr. Obama is not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term; and—yes, this is still being trotted out—that the President is himself a Muslim and a foreigner.
Like so much in our media culture today, this is all something of a tempest in a teapot. But it is a telling one. These responses are not just about severely misremembering—or worse, intentionally misrepresenting—Jim Crow. In a religious sense, they are Jim Crow. What I mean is, painting Barack Obama as a non-American and a non-Christian—a trend which really hasn’t gone away since he first campaigned for the presidency in 2008—is only a minimally sanitized version of an important strain of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Protestant thought that held that black people were really not people at all but a permanent spiritual “other,” that black souls were tarnished and could not find favor with God, that they were outside the body of Christ and therefore outside the American body politic. It is a warped religious legacy that the country has yet to fully shed.
Protestantism—the predominant religion by far in the United States, from the colonial period to the present—was intimately connected to the ideologies and practices of Jim Crow. Starting at least in the 1870s, Protestant ministers and prominent laypeople, North and South, led the way in defining the ideas, policies, institutions, and practices that would constitute America’s Jim Crow order—the regime of black disfranchisement, racial segregation and discrimination, and brutal violence that took hold of virtually every nook and cranny of the United States from the 1890s until its formal abolition in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the civil rights movement.
The most vicious strain of white supremacist Protestant thought held that African Americans were creatures without souls. As one young historian put it succinctly a few years ago, according to this view “the greatest sin was sexuality between (white) humans and (black) beasts. The social implications of this theology were clear—any law, custom, or argument that smacked of social, legal, civic, or religious equality must be opposed, for they would invariably lead to interracial sexuality” and thus to the downfall of the white man’s nation. In this poisonous context, policing white and black sexuality became a “sacred imperative,” and white women became both “symbols and captives” of white Americans’ supposed holiness. Whites imagined an epidemic of sexual assault of white women by black men, and they mobilized to stop it.
Across the South—and, as blacks increasingly left the region during the twentieth century, anywhere else where their presence was seen to threaten white people—violence and the threat of violence policed racial boundaries. Clearly, not every racial terror lynching and not every race riot had explicitly religious motives or justifications. But the phenomenon of anti-black violence as a whole was awash in religious symbolism and meaning. Sometimes lynchings were planned to follow Sunday church services. Ministers often condoned them or participated personally; sometimes a preacher offered an opening prayer to bless the affair. Religious language and feeling pervaded: commentators often described a lynching victim as having been “sacrificed” rather than simply killed; witnesses sometimes described a feeling of religious awe that came over the mob; frequently the targets were described as devils, beasts, or demons.
Understanding the twisted combination of whites’ religious and sexual fears is the only way the mind can begin to fathom the bloody spectacle that lynching became by the early twentieth century—not just the extralegal execution but frequently the humiliation, torture, and dismemberment (including castration) of the victims. As South Carolina’s U.S. senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman (himself not a particularly religious person) told his colleagues in 1907, a black man who raped a young white woman “has put himself outside the pale of the law, human and divine. He has sinned against the Holy Ghost. He has invaded the holy of holies. He has struck civilization a blow, the most deadly and cruel that the imagination can conceive.” According to Tillman, mob murder in such circumstances was not only inevitable but entirely justified.
But Tillman was hardly alone. Even so-called “moderate” southern Protestant leaders who supported some measure of educational and economic rights for African Americans lent divine sanction to Jim Crow. As one Episcopal bishop told a church conference in Mississippi in 1908, segregation and black subordination represented “obedience to God’s own creation and appointment.” Even those who denounced lynching as a crime and an embarrassment couldn’t resist the view of blacks as irredeemable sexual predators. “Sane men who are righteous,” wrote a Georgia Methodist bishop and former college president in 1893, “will remember not only the brutish man who dies by the slow fire of torture; they will also think of the ruined woman, worse tortured than he.”
Nor were religious understandings of white supremacy confined to the South. On the contrary, they permeated American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Respected national magazines published justifications of Jim Crow—and, often employing the same rhetoric, of the conquest of “inferior races” in Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines—by northern and southern clergymen. Generations of American history professors, and through their influence, school teachers and textbook writers across the country, imbibed the neo-Confederate views of the “Dunning school” at Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities. And the new mass media traded in racist history and its religious trappings from early on. The country’s first blockbuster movie, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), was an adaptation of a novel by a North Carolina Baptist minister that portrayed blacks during Reconstruction as ravening beasts and the Ku Klux Klan as valorous Christian knights come to save white women from defilement. In the final scene, after the black rapist has been expunged and Reconstruction has been undone, the image of Jesus Christ descends to bless the reunification of the white republic. White audiences around the country flocked to see it, and there was a special showing in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson (himself a Dunning school devotee from Johns Hopkins) and his cabinet. Spurred in part by the popularity of the film—down to the fanciful costumes emblazoned with crosses that the designers made up for the Klansmen of the 1860s—a new Klan dedicated, as one large newspaper ad put it, to “the tenets of the Christian religion; white supremacy; and the protection of our pure womanhood” spread out of the South to the Midwest and West during the 1920s.
Preaching his last Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his assassination, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously lamented that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” was “the most segregated hour of America.” The fact remains little changed today. The National Congregations Study, a survey run by Duke University, reported that in 2012 a bare 13% of American religious congregations were racially mixed to a meaningful degree (which they define, a little too generously I think, as no single group topping 80% of the congregation). In other words, half a century after the civil rights movement removed most of the legal aspects of the Jim Crow regime the vast majority of religious people in America (and most Americans are indeed religious) do not see fit to worship next to people of another race. More alarming still, as the reaction to President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast remind us, Jim Crow appears to be alive and well in the country’s religious imagination. Anyone who claims to take religion seriously as a force for good in society needs to face this ugly legacy with honesty and integrity—and precisely the kind of humility Mr. Obama called for.
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