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The History of Religion, Race, Racism & Slavery in America: Where was/is the Church?

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History of Religion, Race, Racism & Slavery in America: Where was/is the Church?

The relationship between religion and race in American history is a complex and varied one. Since both are analytical categories rather than stable ones, the historical and cultural contexts shape how religion and race intersect and interact. Racial categories first emerged as a means of classifying people, and thus the presumed “natural” differences between races were socially and culturally constructed. Similarly, religion and American assumptions about religion are also social constructions. Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith has long illustrated how religion is not sui generis but rather the result of human activity. For example, European Christians first developed ideas about religion broadly and what it was in moments of encounter and conflict with non-Christian communities. Their initial definitions of religion, then, looked strikingly similar to descriptions of Christianity. As Europeans “discovered” indigenous peoples around the world, they came to similar conclusions about many of them: if those people practiced something that did not look like Christianity, this meant they had either no religion or a very primitive version of it. “The question of the ‘religions,’” Smith wrote, “arose in response to an explosion of data.”

1 American ideas about race developed amid struggles for social domination, competition for economic power, and questions of property. Ideas about race were inextricably linked to these issues. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris argues, “it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination.”

2 Ideas about race and understandings of racial identity are then inseparable from issues of power, which is why the development of racial hierarchies seemed a natural step. Throughout American as well as world history, certain races were seen as more evolved, more cultured, more developed than others—and thus better. For the most part, Europeans and Euro-Americans held such assumptions and placed themselves atop the evolutionary spectrum.

In the United States, assumptions about race were constructed in tandem with settler colonialism. Religious Studies scholar Sylvester Johnson has argued that the United States is a racial state since “it was created as an Anglo-American republic of White-only citizens.”

3 The country sought to reach from one ocean, the Atlantic, to the other, the Pacific. White Americans assumed this was the nation’s destiny. To achieve this would require economic success and western expansion. The first was actualized with the help of slavery, and the second required the defeat and/or relocation of Native Americans. Slavery involved the colonies and then the young nation in an international chattel slavery trade, and while the United States would formally close the international slave trade in 1808, an illegal international slave trade continued, exemplified by the illegal arrival of the slave ship Clotilda as late as 1860, and the nation possessed a robust domestic slave trade through the Civil War.

4 Although scholars in most fields reject race as a legitimate classification because “race” has no scientific substance, it is still commonly used in U.S. society. One need only look at the U.S. Census form or apply for a job to see how the categories of race and ethnicity continue to order American lives.

Not surprisingly, racial hierarchies developed alongside religious hierarchies. During the era of European and American colonialism, taxonomies of religion included Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or idolatry; natural and primitive religion or high religion; natural religion or ethical religion. These distinctions were not without judgment. A “primitive” religion was one that worshiped objects or idols instead of focusing on belief and text. In contrast, “ethical” religions emphasized rationality and right rather than the material. Around the turn of the 20th century, many scholars of religion subscribed to an evolutionary model of religion that ranked world religions on an evolutionary scale, and this model ran concurrent to an evolutionary model of culture. This meant that the more evolved societies allegedly had more evolved religions. Scholars like James Freeman Clarke in The Ten Great Religions explained how belief in one deity (as opposed to polytheism) denoted a more sophisticated and less tribal religious worldview. Written texts allegedly expressed more developed religious components compared to those religious traditions that emphasized ritual or practice. Christian, Western, and often Protestant scholars picked the elements of an evolved religion based on their own cultural background. In this formulation, Protestantism seemed to be the best religion; after all, its characteristics were used to define what makes a “good” religion. Not surprisingly, many of the religions deemed “primitive” were also those practiced by indigenous, non-white populations.

Colonial Encounters and Conflicts

Native American cultures were diverse before European contact, and this diversity extended to religious beliefs, practices, and understandings of the world. However, European explorers, colonists, and colonial governments often imbibed a myth that the Americas were an Edenic place of complete and total peace before European contact, a view that also produced a view of Native Americans as simple and childlike, “the noble savage.” This ethnocentric view finds no support in scholarship. Native Americans cooperated with neighbors but also warred with neighbors.

5 As colonization proceeded and Native Americans resisted, Europeans began to lump all Native communities together into a different uniform group: the savage red man whose brutality contrasted sharply with the cultured and evolved white man.

The three primary European powers that came to the new world—Spain, France, and England—offer interesting contrasts in their approaches to religion and race. For the Spanish conquistadors who came with guns to seek gold for the glory of God and Spain, Catholicism was a significant part of their cultural identity. Spaniards were known for their forceful colonial style. Some conquistadors were quite violent, and these men are the source of what is known as the “Black Legend,” which describes the Spanish as a brutal colonial power that terrorized and murdered the Americas’ native population. The Spanish enslaved large numbers of natives very early, especially in the Caribbean, and forced them to work in the mines or in the agricultural fields. The work was hard and death rates were high. Religious “conversion” rarely was more than a mass baptism, with little to no religious instruction afterward. When encountering an indigenous settlement, Spanish conquerors often read a document known as El Requerimiento (The Requirement) that offered natives two choices: convert to Catholicism and accept Spanish power or suffer the consequences of invasion, death, and enslavement.

French colonists and soldiers did not enslave Native peoples to the degree of the Spanish, but they too viewed Native Americans as savages. The Jesuit Relations, a collection of letters, journals, and travel logs from French Jesuit priests in New France, contained detailed descriptions of native culture. The Jesuit priests’ dislike of native religion shaped their descriptions of the natives’ religious practice. The religious beliefs and practices of the Native Americans made them “heathens” and “savages” desperately in need of Christ’s salvation.

Evangelizing the Native American in colonial New England involved an important multistep process. Puritan settlers believed they possessed “true” religion, which made it easy for them to identify those with false religion. The Puritans believed that the Native Americans needed their righteous religion and their civilized culture. This English assumption is depicted clearly in the official colonial seal of Virginia, in which a Native American kneels before the English monarch. Queen Elizabeth holds her coronation orb and scepter, bejeweled with a Protestant cross, while the Native American offers tobacco. After first attempting to strip Native Americans of their own culture, the English would then teach them English Protestantism and culture in “praying towns.” Numerous Native Americans resisted and then fought back in the so-called King Philip’s War of 1675–1676. Following this, the English abandoned many praying towns and sold a number of Wampanoag Indians into slavery in the British Caribbean.

As European and Native American interactions continued, some Native Americans increasingly viewed Europeans as a different race. Natchez Natives in colonial Louisiana believed themselves to be “Red Men” as a way to unify their communities against a common French enemy. As they saw the French make clear distinctions between themselves and their African slaves, the Natchez claimed racial power by identifying themselves as superior to the French. Historian and ethnographer Le Page du Pratz refers in his writings to a story told to him by Louisiana Natives. In it they referred to an ancient flood that killed many on earth and the ancestors of all the Red Men were those who sought safety atop a mountain.

6 The Natchez were not alone in this regard. Native communities across the United States adopted racial discourse as part of their arguments for sovereignty as they pushed back against colonial and early republic assumptions of white superiority.7

The mass enslavement of native peoples by the Spanish prompted a large European debate about Native Americans: Was enslavement justifiable and did Native Americans have