White Christianity, Democracy, and the Future
“Equality for all” has nearly always taken a back seat to “liberty for some” in America, and white Christianity is the heart of that hierarchy. Whether this nation is of white Christians, by white Christians, and for white Christians or will fulfill the promise of becoming the world’s first and most robust multicultural democratic republic is yet to be seen. The promise is imperiled.
The linkage between white Christianity and racism is indisputable. In fact, white Christianity is a dominant carrier of the virus of racism in U.S. society.
That reality has been strongly demonstrated. As researcher and author of White Too Long, Robert P. Jones writes: “While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity. Again, this troubling relationship holds not just for white evangelical Protestants, but also for white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.”
It is white Christians who:
- Stole or bought stolen Africans to work as livelong slaves and who justified slavery as compatible both with God’s moral order and with their original, limited sense of who deserved to have a voice in self-government and who should be ruled by others.
- Warred with native peoples to win, buy, defraud, and steal land that made the winners land rich and, after the discovery of fossil fuel sources, mineral rich.
- Chose to see themselves as a type of ancient Israel: chosen by God and finding meaning in the Exodus-Conquest story, with liberation from monarchy and then a mandate to conquer the peoples of the Promised Land. This story fed and feeds the related moral-action-justifying narratives of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
- Began their Revolution-Exodus with the stirring words of God-given rights and equality, then established a Constitutional democratic republic that empowered slaveholders and defended slavers’ property rights, thus setting up a society of social, political, and economic unequals.
- Used papal rulings in legal arguments on the division of the “New World” to justify lands taken from indigenous persons.
- Fought a Civil War over slavery that resulted in the end of Constitution-based slavery and over 600,000 dead.
- Immediately after the Civil War passed “Black codes” to continue white supremacy.
- Exported racism into the West which included attempted genocide against native peoples, and various forms of oppression toward Black Americans, Spanish-speaking persons, and Chinese immigrants.
- Violently and legislatively undermined Reconstruction and invented Jim Crow, including voter suppression at the polls, the overthrow of a city government, and at least 5,000 lynchings (which were often led by white churchmen and attended by whole families as if they were Sunday School picnics).
- Consistently put white church unity above the cause of racial equality.
- Justified the Spanish-American war and the acquisition of colonies (e.g., the Philippines) by asserting the superiority of Anglo Saxons over other peoples.
- Enacted the Red Summer of 1919 and the race massacre in Tulsa in 1921.
- Fought every effort to introduce equality in public education through the establishment of segregation academies, battled with the IRS over their uncharitable actions, and explicitly justified their segregation actions as derived from sincerely held religious beliefs.
- Screamed at Black school children, bombed churches, murdered Black and white civil rights workers.
- Redlined real estate transactions.
- Went from preaching “stay in your pulpits and out of politics” to forging an alliance—or perhaps an amalgamation—between white conservative Christians and the Republican Party, starting with President Reagan and continuing through whatever it is the GOP has become today. The creation of the Christian Right includes buy-in for the Southern Strategy, which hides racism in dog whistles and policy.
- Fueled the Tea Party and the marriage of God and guns.
- Stoked the “children of light vs. the children of darkness” narrative, especially during President Obama’s eight years and then roided-up the apocalyptic, end-times rhetoric on websites, social media, podcasts, TV, and in-person to support the current president.
- Supported (by most) the death penalty, mass incarceration, and family separation at the southern border.
- Were prominently on display on January 6, 2021, at and in the Capitol building of the United States of America, waving Jesus flags (or Jesus+Trump flags), carrying crosses, synthesizing Christianity with the QAnon conspiracy-religion, praying.
White American Christians: the above statements do not describe ALL of who we are, have been, or want to be. But ALL of the above statements factually express what we have done in the name of Jesus. All of this is part of our history, part of our present. Based on solid research, all of this is a big part of who we are, a big part of how we have acted and have presented ourselves to the rest of the world, particularly to the people of color in the USA.
White American Christians: our DNA is all over this history of racist dispositions, actions, and policies. Our DNA is evident in the nation’s present conflict, just as it was building up to and inciting the Civil War and then in promoting the Lost Cause myth.
The close association, the merger really, between “in the name of Jesus” and the history of racism among white American Christians has been detrimental to the nation. Moreover, it has been detrimental to Christianity. Christianity is as Christians do. We, white American Christians, as a group, have invented, perpetuated, benefited from, ignored, and denied our racism. The message coming from so many places today is: “The time for reckoning is now.”
The times for the U.S. are perilous; I fear January 6 is but a foretaste. And for white American Christians, we are in crisis, too, brought about by the combination of racism and alignment with “a man who will make things right.” The legitimacy and truthfulness of white Christian witness to Jesus is just as endangered as is democracy, if not more so. Without a real reckoning—including awareness, acceptance, repentance, penance, a new narrative, and conciliation—our public role in the future of the U.S. is dim.
PHOTO CREDIT: By Kerstie Bush – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98770607
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.