At a pragmatic level, white churches served as connective tissue that brought together leaders from other social realms to coordinate a campaign of massive resistance to black equality. But at a deeper level, white churches were the institutions of ultimate legitimization, where white supremacy was divinely justified via a carefully cultivated Christian theology. White Christian churches composed the cultural score that made white supremacy sing.
For whiteness is the mortar holding together the fortress of white supremacy, and if it crumbles, those walls will inevitably collapse. Because of its binding importance, the idea of whiteness has been, and remains today, vigilantly defended. In fact, virtually nothing has proven too costly a sacrifice on the altar of its defense: the bloodbath of the Civil War, the construction of a segregated education system, the creation of an apartheid Jim Crow system of laws enforcing segregation across all aspects of society, redlining real estate practices that divided virtually all of our major cities along racial lines, the development of a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates millions of black men, and even the distortion of Christian theology. If one stops long enough to reflect on it, the ransom this fiction has demanded to sustain itself is staggering: the number of lives both white and black, the amount of money and cultural energy, and the disfigurement of some of our most precious ideals.
White supremacy lives on today not just in explicitly and consciously held attitudes among white Christians; it has become deeply integrated into the DNA of white Christianity itself.
That last statement, standing alone, sounds shocking. But an honest look at the historical arc of white Christianity in America suggests that we should instead be astonished if it were otherwise. For centuries, through colonial America and into the latter part of the twentieth century, white Christians literally built—architecturally, culturally, and theologically—white supremacy into an American Christianity that held an a priori commitment to slavery and segregation. At key potential turning point moments such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement, white Christians, for the most part, did not just fail to evict this sinister presence; history confirms that they continued to aid and abet it. The weight of this legacy is indeed overwhelming.
Writing in the mid-1960s, cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace described Lost Cause religion as a revivalist movement aiming “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past,” terms eerily close to contemporary calls by President Donald Trump to “Make America great again.” It is true that old-school Lost Cause theology is rarely aired in mainstream white churches today. But its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well.
To be sure, this theological worldview has done great damage to those living outside the white Christian canopy. But what has been overlooked by most white Christian leaders is the damage this legacy has done to white Christians themselves. To put it succinctly, it has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion. As antebellum Presbyterian preacher Donald Frazer argued emphatically, many abolitionists had the shoe on the wrong foot by pretending to be “more humane than God.” It was God’s law, not human conscience, that set the limits on the treatment of blacks by whites, he argued. Moral discomfort, even moral horror or outrage, has no place in this theological worldview. But surely it should give white Christians pause to continue to pledge allegiance to a theological system that contracts rather than expands our moral vision; that anesthetizes rather than livens up our moral sensitivities.
Further, I maintain that those of us who insist on adjudicating the Christianity of others in the public sphere are only serving to reinforce the Christian supremacism that is so baked into American society that too often we don’t even notice it.
This Christian supremacism, however, which is very much white Protestant inflected, overlaps heavily with white supremacism. Inasmuch as the two are intertwined, it’s impossible to dismantle the one without tackling the other. It may seem like an innocent reaction on the part of progressive Christians to denounce their authoritarian coreligionists as “fake Christians” or “not following the teachings of Jesus,” but it’s neither innocent nor accurate, as I have previously discussed on my blog and at Playboy.
The Jesus portrayed in the Bible is a complex and contradictory figure, and there’s nothing resembling a universal consensus among Christians about how to interpret the teachings attributed to him. Christianity has, since the fourth century, frequently gone hand in hand with imperial power, and the existence of liberationist strains of the faith does not negate the existence of these punitive, power-grabbing strains.
Finally, when Christians deflect from addressing the bad behavior of other Christian individuals and groups by writing them out of “true” Christianity, they’re essentially equating Christianity with goodness at the direct expense of nonbelievers and religious minorities who are afforded no equivalent deference. Christians are as capable of atrocities as members of any group and adherents of any ideology, and so long as polite American society proceeds as if this isn’t the case, polite American society is complicit in the normalization of Christian extremism.
It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)
Racism is a doctrine of the congenital inferiority and worthlessness of a people. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 49)
If we had to put our finger upon the year which marked the beginning of modern race relations we should select 1493-94. This is the time when total disregard for the human rights and physical power of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the colored peoples, was officially assumed by the first two great colonizing European nations. Pope Alexander bull of demarcation issued under Spanish pressure on May 3, 1493, and its revision by the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), arrived at through diplomatic negotiations between Spain and Portugal, put all the heathen peoples and their resources-that is to say, especially the colored peoples of the world-at the disposal of Spain and Portugal.
This, then, is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its socio-attitudinal facilitation-at that time only nascent race prejudice. (Loc. 8548)
[S]ocial intolerance, which attitude may be defined as an unwillingness on the part of a dominant group to tolerate the beliefs or practices of a subordinate group because it considers these beliefs and practices to be either inimical to group solidarity or a threat to the continuity of the status quo. Race prejudice, on the other hand, is a social attitude propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified. (Loc. 10083)
Source: Caste, Class, and Race
While the South lost the war, this secessionist religion not only survived but also thrived. Its powerful role as a religious institution that sacralized white supremacy allowed the Southern Baptist Convention to spread its roots during the late nineteenth century to dominate southern culture. And by the mid-twentieth century, the SBC ultimately evolved into the single largest Christian denomination in the country, setting the tone for American Christianity overall and Christianity’s influence in public life.
The theologically backed assertion of the superiority of both “the white race” and Protestant Christianity undergirded a century of religiously sanctioned terrorism in the form of ritualized lynchings and other forms of public violence and intimidation.
The link between political leaders and prominent white churches was not just incidental; these religious connections served as the moral underpinning for the entire project of protecting the dominant social and political standing of whites.
This book puts forward a simple proposition: it is time—indeed, well beyond time—for white Christians in the United States to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present.
White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story.
American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy. While it may seem obvious to mainstream white Christians today that slavery, segregation, and overt declarations of white supremacy are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, such a conviction is, in fact, recent and only partially conscious for most white American Christians and churches. The unsettling truth is that, for nearly all of American history, the Jesus conjured by most white congregations was not merely indifferent to the status quo of racial inequality; he demanded its defense and preservation as part of the natural, divinely ordained order of things.
The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy. And the genetic imprint of this legacy remains present and measurable in contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast.
After centuries of complicity, the norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness. To many well-meaning white Christians today—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Catholic—Christianity and a cultural norm of white supremacy now often feel indistinguishable, with an attack on the latter triggering a full defense of the former.
At the base of that fear was what Smith calls the “grand bargain” of white supremacy, buttressed by paternalism and evangelicalism, whereby the southern white masses relinquished political power to the few in exchange for maintaining their social status as better than the black man. It was a bargain that required no paperwork or signatures. This deal was silent, embedded so deeply in southern white culture that it functioned as a political institution in and of itself, checking and balancing the forces of change. “No white southerners, rich or poor,” says Smith, “ever sat down and wrote out this bargain as a creed to believe and to live by, or ever said aloud or whispered in their own minds all of it at one time, or even faced in their hearts its full implications for people who claim to be Christian and democratic; for it grew on them, little by little,” she explains. “It was absorbed by them from their newspapers, from their friends’ talk, in smoking compartments of trains, in wispy little odds and ends of jokes and rumor,” Smith noted, and “from politicians’ speeches and promises.”
Ever the dealmakers, these southern white elites bent their culture to their political will, trading democracy for power. When that power was threatened by the civil rights revolutions, they struck another grand bargain—this time with the Grand Old Party—the terms of which have yet to expire.
This book is not about any single election, for that matter, nor is it a history of realignment or a longitudinal quantitative study. Rather, it is a panned-out, backward glance at the long-term implications of the Republican Party’s decision to court southern white voters. Initially, the GOP acted on the advice of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona who, in a speech following Richard Nixon’s loss to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, told fellow Republican leaders, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” To do so, the GOP decided to capitalize on white racial angst, which was not in short supply in the South. However—and this is critical—that decision was but one in a series of decisions the party made not just on race, but on feminism and religion as well, in what is called here the “Long Southern Strategy.”
This southern white way of life, however, is not based solely on white superiority. Rather, it is best viewed as a triptych with religious fundamentalism and patriarchy standing as separate hinged panels that can be folded inward—bent to cover or reinforce white supremacy throughout much of the region’s history. The stereotype of southern white womanhood, for example, by which delicate, sacred white women of privilege need constant protection from black males, was constructed and maintained to justify everything from slavery, to lynchings, to segregation. It was a red herring from its inception, promoted to cast white supremacy as chivalry while relegating southern white women to a distant pedestal where they could be seen and not heard. This two-for-one deal criminalized black men while silencing white women and kept southern white male power unchallenged. Any threat to such authority by African Americans could be met with swift violence. Southern white women, on the other hand, needed cultural reinforcement of their “special” status as the fairer of the sexes, or so they were taught from childhood via countless Sunday sermons where patriarchy came wrapped in scripture. As a result, the cult of southern white womanhood requires women to participate in misogyny—or at least in the way that philosopher Kate Manne describes in her 2018 book, Down Girl , where misogyny is defined as the constant practice of correcting and policing women’s behavior to maintain male power. 26 For many southern white women, at a subconscious level, submissiveness became their duty. Their oppression became their privilege. Tradition became their cause, and faith became their defense, just as it had been for much of the Confederacy.
Once the GOP was seen as the protector of the southern sacraments of white privilege and patriarchy, many southern white voters flocked to it, turning the South solidly red in 1984 for the first time in history.
Cone lectured on his new book, A Black Theology of Liberation. After class, Dad approached the professor.
“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way.
Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.”
James Cone’s working definition of a Christian described a Christianity of the enslaved, not the Christianity of the slaveholders. Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation. My parents now had, separately, arrived at a creed with which to shape their lives, to be the type of Christians that Jesus the revolutionary inspired them to be. This new definition of a word that they’d already chosen as their core identity naturally transformed them.
“A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” I like that. Far better than the Southern Strategy Christianity I grew up with.
#EmptyThePews points to the necessity of abandoning and confronting anti-democratic Christianity. Some religion embraces pluralism, but fundamentalism, in its intolerance, undermines pluralism, and white evangelical Protestantism is a variety of fundamentalism.