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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 a capacity for faith? Some even wondered if Native Americans were fully human. Representing these two sides of the colonial Spanish debate were Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Sepúlveda. Sepúlveda concluded that the natives had insufficient intellect to understand Catholicism and Spanish culture. He defended their enslavement because they were savages and heathens. De las Casas argued that the natives were God’s special children and their simple ways were indicative of their childlike state. They had a capacity for the Catholic faith but needed to be taught and nurtured. He suggested that colonial settlements import African slaves to work the mines and fields instead. Around the same time, Pope Paul III entered the conversation with the papal bull Sublimis Deus in 1537, which stated that the Native Americans should not be enslaved but evangelized and instructed in European ways. Though Native Americans were officially deemed human, they were still savages, and as savages they and Africans were inherently different from Europeans.

Europeans and white Americans provided a number of reasons for slavery. One was religion. Europeans often justified slavery by indigenous West African “pagan” and “heathenish” practices. Africans, they argued, had no civilization and no culture. The Africans’ lack of Christianity evidenced their primitive civilization. They were “barbarians” without Christ who did not need to be treated as equals, their enslavement justified because they were barely human.


8 Though West Africa was home to a plethora of religious beliefs and traditions, including even Christianity, Europeans argued that Africans were without “religion”—meaning any legitimate religion. Historians estimate that somewhere between ten million and thirty million Africans were seized during the African slave trade from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries.


The American Republic

Though the colonies and later United States imported a small number of slaves compared to other parts of the Americas, slavery quickly became an important part of American culture and the monetary success of the new nation. Unlike the early, if largely unsuccessful efforts to evangelize Native Americans, slave conversions proceeded very slowly or were even nonexistent until at least the mid-18th century. Many owners worried that Christianization would destroy the religious basis for slavery. Others argued that Christianization offered enslaved Africans the ultimate gift—salvation. Conversion offered them something better than freedom, and thus Christian slaves were better off than Africans still across the ocean. In this argument, everyone allegedly benefited: slaves received salvation and slave owners got free labor.

Pro-slavery Christians cited numerous parts of the Bible to support their stance. They pointed to numerous references to slavery in the Pauline letters of the New Testament. Rather than denouncing slavery, Paul told slaves to be good servants and for owners to be good masters (Colossians 3:22). Pro-slavery Christians also used the Bible to explain the origins of the “Negroid” race. They argued that the “Negroid” came from Cain and understood the mark of Cain to be a darkening of his skin in retribution for killing his brother Abel. They also pointed to the curse of Ham, by which Noah called for Ham’s descendants to be the slaves of his brothers’ offspring. Pro-slavery Christians claimed that Ham’s son Canaan (whom Noah cursed) was the father of the African race (Genesis 4: 11–16).


9 Reason might suggest that pro-slavery Christians could use either the mark of Cain or the curse of Ham but not both; after all, the flood Noah and his family survived killed everyone else. An article in the 1850 Southern Presbyterian Review titled “The Mark of Cain and Curse of Ham” suggests otherwise; in it the author cites both these biblical figures to argue that “the special Providence of God” created “the varieties found existing in the family of man.” In other words, God created the different races on purpose. The 1850 essay notes some problems in using both the Cain and Ham rationale for slavery but only in the spirit of strengthening pro-slavery arguments. Although the author concludes that multiples races of people could be attributed to Ham, he does “not doubt that the African negro descended from this [cursed] son of Noah.”


10 The alleged curse of Ham and the mark of Cain deemed the African race distinctive and gained force through their appeal to an ultimate faith—God’s word in the Bible. If God made Africans different, no human act could reverse the curse and the mark. The result was a widespread white belief in the “fact” that Ham was the ancestor of all Africans. “Ham was the ultimate representative of the heathen,” as Sylvester Johnson puts it, “because the fundamental ‘fact’ of racial origins rendered blacks the descendants of Ham.”


11 That many northern and a few southern white Christians argued that all were equal in God’s eyes, rendering slavery illicit, did not require equality before American law. In this view, the reputed curse of Ham and mark of Cain still marked African Americans as inferior. Thus, abolition and support for black equal rights were not necessarily one and the same.

Not surprisingly, ideas about whiteness and its inherent superiority developed alongside Christian arguments for slavery and black inferiority. Part of white supremacy’s power came from its ability to present whiteness as religiously neutral, normal, and natural.


12 American conceptions of Jesus reinforced that naturalness of whiteness. White Christians imagined Jesus as one of their own, although the Bible nowhere describes Jesus’s physical appearance. Nineteenth-century visual images depicted Christ as white, and the mass images circulated by Bible tract societies and Protestant benevolent groups blanketed the American landscape. As Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum argued, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face.”


13 Nativism prospered amid this religiously entrenched white supremacy from the 19th century into the early 20th century. Nativists were American-born Protestants who were opposed to all immigration, and from the 1820s to the 1880s, the massive immigration of Catholics from Ireland, Germany, the Italian principalities, and Poland, with some from Mexico and French Canada, constituted the largest threat to a perceived white Protestant hegemony in the United States. As their immigration proceeded, Catholics surged from only eighty churches and seventy thousand worshipers to thousands of congregations where almost sixteen million Catholic men, women, and children worshipped by 1916.


14 Protestant nativism frequently mixed religious with racial prejudice. Whiteness might have been supreme in the new nation, but only a certain type of whiteness was desired. Political cartoons often characterized the Irish similarly to African Americans, and nativists later discriminated against darker-skinned “swarthy” Italian immigrants on grounds somewhere between the religious, the ethnic, and the racial.


15 Catholics were foreign, dangerous, and practiced superstition. They threatened America because they bore allegiance t