White Supremacy in the Tradition of American Christianity

Robert Jones examined the history of the attitudes and actions of churchgoers.

Posted Nov 01, 2020

In his book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, Robert Jones examines the history of white supremacy in American churches and denominations, reviews sociological research findings, and discusses his own studies.

The History

Robert Jones did not find out about the racist history of his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, until he was a seminarian. It was only recently that historians of the church began to address its proslavery, white supremacist beginnings. Jones argues that nearly all major mainline Protestant denominations were roiled by and split over the issue of slavery.

“As the dust was settling from the Civil War, this tacit shared commitment to white supremacy, and black inferiority, was a central bridge that fostered the rather swift reconciliation between southern and northern whites overall, and southern and northern white Christians specifically."

Catholics had a longer history in the “new world” with the conquistadors at first treating native peoples as subhuman, then with directives from the Pope, as potential Christians who could be converted. But if they did not convert after being missionized in Spanish, a language they did not understand, they were to be treated like infidels and could be killed.

In his review of history, Jones focuses primarily on the issue of slavery, torture, and murder, as well as discrimination against African Americans. Jones describes several incidents, including torture and lynchings, sanctioned by church authorities and performed by professed Christians even on the way home from attending church services.

He cites ministers who were defenders of slavery who would imply from their examples that “in all times, in all countries, whites have been naturally in a state of dominance fulfilling their God-given role to direct the labor of others. As the superior human species, whites are protecting blacks from likely worse fates by enslaving them in a benevolent environment” (p. 83).

Of course, that is far from true. In one of his autobiographies published in 1845, former slave Frederick Douglass described his experience of American Christianity:

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus…He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me…We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen. All for the glory of God and the good of souls!”

Jones reviews multiple sets of findings from large datasets. One of the studies discussed linked slave ownership according to the 1860 census with public opinion collected in the early 2000s (Cooperative Congressional Election Study, conducted by almost 40 universities). They found that whites in the counties with the highest historical levels of slavery were more opposed to affirmative action, had more racial resentment, and were more politically conservative.

The Beliefs

The belief that white supremacy is contrary to the teachings of Jesus seems to be only a partial conviction of many American churches and their members today. Jones documents how survey after survey shows that white Christians are, on average, more likely to hold negative attitudes about minorities (ethnic, religious) and less likely to perceive unequal treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system. They are also more likely to feel nostalgia about a golden past when Christianity was dominant and the world was stable.

In 1964, in the wake of police violence against demonstrators for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, James Baldwin said that the need to maintain slavery, an immoral system, caused a distortion in white Christian theology when Christians tried to justify slavery with Scripture. They put themselves outside of the slavery system, since it was God’s will, keeping their sense of purity and righteousness.

Jones describes the subtle and sophisticated rhetorical strategy among some Christian leaders of lamenting and perhaps even apologizing for past sins of racism and their effects without taking any action toward reparation or costly actions in the present. 

He grew up understanding how much good his religious tradition had done and was doing. He never heard about the institution's having justified racial violence and injustice, entangled in an indifference towards the claims to equality and justice by African Americans. He attributes the paradox to an emphasis on self-protection and a belief in one’s purity.

Protection was extended to those in a congregation and in a denomination, without informing the members of its reliance on an unjust status quo. At the same time “white Christian innocence” is “set against a backdrop of divinely ordained progress” (p. 79). Even today, surveys indicate that when Christians are asked about someone committing acts of violence in the name of Christianity, they typically don’t believe the person is an authentic Christian, whereas if the person is said to be acting in the name of Islam, they are more likely to think they are a true Muslim. “Overall, white Christians are between 20 and 40 percentage points more likely to protect their own religion’s reputation from being marred by the bad actions of its members” (p. 79).

According to sociological research findings, white Evangelical Christians tend to restrict their moral focus to the personal and interpersonal realms of life. Their theology includes three key beliefs:

  • Freewill individualism: being individually accountable for actions
  • Relationalism: the root of problems is in interpersonal relationships
  • Antistructuralism: social problems rest with the sin of individuals, not social structures

These accounts miss how poor relationships can be fostered by laws, institutions, and social structures. A potential result of this triumvirate of beliefs is the tendency (6 in 10 respondents) to attribute any inequalities among minority communities (e.g., in housing, jobs, income) to individual motivation and lack of responsibility. In light of being blind to existing structural injustices (e.g., redlining neighborhoods and keeping them segregated), the effect is that “their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion,” according to Jones (p. 105). Moral vision and imagination become contracted rather than expanded, moral sensitivity anesthetized rather than enhanced.

The “personal Jesus paradigm” is a key aspect of the beliefs of white Evangelical Christians. In this paradigm, Jesus did not die for humankind generally but for each individual person. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (p. 100). Not surprisingly, in this worldview, Jesus himself is white:

“As the exemplar of what it means to be perfectly human, Jesus by definition had to be white. Whites simply couldn’t conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race. … a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationalism necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christian would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite” (p. 101)

Jones constructed a racism index and surveyed over 2,000 adults through the Public Religion Research Institute. White Christian groups had higher median scores on the index (.7) than black Protestants (.2) and whites religiously unaffiliated (.4).

Responsibility

Although Christians have historically considered the "mark of Cain" (Cain murdered his brother Abel and was cursed by God with the "mark" and also with restless wandering) to describe the origins of dark-skinned people, Jones flips the story, contending that white Christians are like Cain.

He concludes that he and his fellow Christians must turn and face their history, and find the courage to embark on a journey of transformation to "recover from the disorienting madness of white supremacy" (p. 235).

References

Jones, R.P. (2020). White too long: The legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity. New York: Simon & Schuster.