Source: The Atlantic
By confronting their faith’s legacy of racism, white Christians can build a better future for themselves, and their fellow Americans.
By Robert P. Jones: Author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed that this arrangement was not just possible, but divinely mandated. Yet many white Christians, like myself, came of age in churches and communities where we seldom heard anything substantive or serious about the white-supremacist roots of our faith.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist family, participated actively in my Southern Baptist church, and graduated from Mississippi College, a Southern Baptist institution. But it wasn’t until I was a 20-year-old seminary student that I began to grasp the central role that my denomination, and white Christians generally, have played in sustaining and legitimizing white supremacy. I knew that there had been a split between Northern and Southern Baptists, but the narrative was vague. Baptists in the South, I was taught, were caught in larger cultural and political fights that were rending the country in the mid-1800s. And—just as I had learned from my Mississippi public-school education—the true causes of the Civil War were “complicated.” Slavery was not the central issue but merely one of many North-South conflicts precipitating the split. As the prominent Baptist historian Walter “Buddy” Shurden has pointed out, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that white Baptist historians confronted the denomination’s pro-slavery, white-supremacist origins.
The Baptist denominational history is not unique in American Christianity. Virtually all of the major white mainline Protestant denominations split over the issue of slavery. For example, Northern and Southern Methodists parted ways in 1845, the same year as the Baptists, producing an additional spark for the tinderbox of Southern political secession. While they disagreed about slavery, both Southern and Northern Methodists agreed that Black Methodists should hold a subservient place not just in society but also in Christian fellowship. When the branches reunited in 1939, they segregated Black congregations into a deceptively named “Central Jurisdiction,” thereby limiting their influence in the denomination for three decades, until this system was finally abolished in 1968. And while the national United Methodist Church publicly supported the civil-rights movement, most white Methodists in the pews rejected or simply ignored national denominational directives and actions. In the South, white Methodists and other mainline Protestants were hardly distinguishable from white Baptists in their support of a white-supremacist social order during the civil-rights era.
The history of white supremacy among white Catholics is more complex, but the connection to white supremacy is equally clear. With its roots in Western Europe, Roman Catholicism has a long history of colonialism, particularly in Africa and the global South, where centuries of atrocities against Black and brown peoples were justified by the conviction that white Christians were God’s chosen means of “civilizing” the world. In the United States, Catholics and Catholic institutions were prominent slaveholders in the 18th and 19th centuries and forced enslaved people to convert to the religion. In late-18th-century Maryland, for example, one-fifth of Catholics were enslaved people owned by white Catholics or white Catholic institutions.
This post was adapted from Jones’s recent book.
Given this pervasive history, it is well past time for white Christians to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present. For most white Christians, this journey will be challenging because, as I have found, it is deeply personal. My 1815 family Bible gives witness to ancestors from middle Georgia who were Baptist preachers, slave owners, and Confederate soldiers. My family moved from Virginia to Georgia after receiving land grants as a reward for military service in the Revolutionary War. This occurred while the government was forcibly removing Native Americans from Georgia and supporting the growth of white settlements.