I've repeatedly noted here my frustration that many of those commenting on civil rights issues today, particularly within the academic and journalistic commentariat of my own Catholic community in the U.S., seem lamentably ill-informed about the history of slavery in the U.S. and how religion was used for many centuries to justify slavery and then to defend the legal segregation of the races up into the 1960s. For instance, back in 2011, I took issue with the assertion of Eduardo Moisés Peñalver (a Commonweal contributor whose work I respect) that
[a]lthough there have always been churches and religious institutions that have espoused racial hatred or supremacy or separation of some sort or another, and although some of the arguments people raised in favor of Jim Crow were religious, they were (and even more so now, are) mostly on the fringe of both society and Christian thought.
As I noted in my response to Peñalver here, I think he's vastly understating the role played by religion to undergird opposition first to abolition of slavery in the U.S., and then to abolition of legal segregation. I think that American Catholics have not paid sufficient attention to the historical experiences of the American South, a region generally devoid of Catholic presence (except, historically, in south Louisiana), and the analysis of contemporary struggles for human rights by many American Catholic journalists and academics is often thin as a result.
To be specific: it ignores the ways in which the struggle for gay rights parallels the struggle for rights for people of color, and the way in which religion has been used historically in both struggles to combat the human rights of people of color and gay people. It places Catholics on the side of the angels as the leaders of American Catholicism today make common cause with Southern evangelicals who, a generation or two ago, were fiercely battling against the rights of people of color, and it implies that Catholics colluding with right-wing evangelicals in the religious-right coalition at this point in history in no way bring any guilt on their heads for having formed such an alliance, since Catholics can't possibly be bigots.
Because Catholics haven't ever been racists.
Last week, I noted the nonsense recently written by another top-billed Catholic commentator, Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, when he stated, vis-a-vis the proposal of President Obama to extend protection from discrimination to LGBT federal workers,
We tend to forget that the 1964 Civil Rights Act included robust exemptions for religious organizations out of deference to First Amendment concerns. But, you can bet this administration is unlikely to recognize the value of such robust exemptions.
As I pointed out in response to Winters, for years now, the right-wing anti-gay activists for whom he's going to bat here have been hotly denying that their behavior in opposing gay rights is in any way akin to the behavior of those who opposed rights for people of color in the mid-20th century — on religious grounds — and so isn't it curious that Winters is now willing to admit that opposition to rights for people of color was, indeed, fueled by religious belief? For which religious groups demanded "robust exemptions" from laws prohibiting discrimination on racial grounds in the Civil Rights period . . . .
So that it's nonsensical for Catholics defending the "religious freedom" of Catholic institutions demanding the right to discriminate against gay folks are somehow righteous and pure, whereas the bigots of the mid-20th century who fought against rights for people of color on religious grounds were, well, garden-variety bigots . . . . Unlike us Catholics . . . .
Given my interest in these topics, I'm delighted to see Fred Clark's current series of articles about how integral (and not incidental) the practice and defense of slavery was to the thinking of major American evangelists in the formative years of the nation, to people including George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. As Fred notes,
Whitefield’s slave-owning and his lobbying for the legalization of slavery in Georgia were, in fact, an integral part of his identity. They were an integral part of his theology — his piety, his revivalism, his hermeneutic, his doctrine.
And thus they have become an integral part of our theology, piety, revivalism, hermeneutic and doctrine. Whitefield’s theology shaped the American church. Whitefield’s theology was grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery.
Edwards was a New Englander who later became president of the college in Princeton and we Americans often prefer to forget that American slavery was once common in places like Massachusetts and New Jersey. Edwards was a clergyman and an intellectual, so unlike George Whitefield — another prominent figure in the Great Awakening — he was never involved in a Southern plantation wholly dependent on slave labor. But Edwards' New England household was run by slaves.
And then, citing Jonathan Edwards against Jonathan Edwards, Fred concludes,
The rot is pervasive — infecting every aspect of white Christianity in America. As Edwards argued, this depravity is not confined to a single location — a single misstep that can be identified and excised with surgical precision, leaving the remainder intact and unperturbed by that correction. Its roots are woven and interwoven throughout the whole. The depravity is total.
As he adds in the latest installment in this series, an overriding reason that dominant theological traditions among white Christians in the U.S. (as opposed to many black Christians) have spiritualized the gospel, making it more a matter of hearing the good news than of living the good news in concrete, enfleshed ways that radically challenge our economic presuppositions and practices, is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, slavery:
This is one of the roots of the contemporary belief in white Christianity that, in its language, the Great Commission outranks the Greatest Commandment. The spread of the gospel — evangelization — becomes the paramount concern, eclipsing everything else. The matter of justice no longer matters. Or, rather, justice is redefined as that which best permits and promotes the spread of the gospel. The Golden Rule is reinterpreted and reinvented to mean that our foremost concern is to ensure that our neighbors hear "the gospel" by any means necessary — even if that involved kidnapping them, torturing and enslaving them.
The long practice of slavery and the persistent, foundational defense of slavery and then of racial segregation, have affected all of us in this nation with the soul of a church more than we're willing to admit. Assumptions about slavery and racism and religion are woven into the cultural fabric of the nation in ways we're only beginning to be willing to recognize.
Contemporary debates about human rights — specifically, for women and gay folks — cannot ignore or gloss over or prescind from this history. Not if they expect effectively to engage the deep roots of resistance to human rights for all of us in the United States.
I highly recommend Fred Clark's articles about these matters. Tolle, lege, see what you think.
The graphic is from Owen Strachan's blog.