One of the most astounding claims made by Dinesh D’Souza in his debate with Susan Jacoby was that without Christianity, there would have been no movements to expand equality. He specifically listed the anti-slavery movement, the fight for suffrage, the civil rights movement and — bizarrely — the temperance movement.
If you look at the great social movements of American politics, not only the movement that led to the founding, which was driven in part by the First Great Awakening, but the movements that led to the temperance movement, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, there were not only waves of religious revival that often preceded and sometimes accompanied these movements, but the arguments in favor of these causes were made in explicitly religious terms…If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left? If you were to subtract it from America, no founding; no Declaration of Independence; no anti-slavery movement; no civil rights movement.
That he actually managed to say this not only with a straight face but with supreme and strident self-confidence speaks volumes about D’Souza’s utter lack of intellectual honesty. Were there Christians on the right side of all of those battles? Of course. But the overwhelming weight of institutional Christianity was firmly on the side of slavery, opposed to giving women the right to vote and opposed to civil rights for blacks. The one example he uses (for reasons that baffle me) that actually was a predominately Christian idea was the temperance movement. And that’s not exactly a good thing. Prohibition did enormous damage to this country. But yes, that was almost exclusively a Christian idea.
But slavery? Sure, there were Christian abolitionists, but The Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest denomination in the country, was formed for the purpose of defending slavery. The arguments in favor of slavery came straight out of the Bible, which endorses slavery over and over again in both the old and new testaments. The Texas declaration of secession could hardly be more clear:
That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations…
For crying out loud, Christianity was a primary tool for the control of slaves. Slave masters taught their slaves Christianity because it taught that they were to obey their masters and that God had decreed the institution of slavery. Abolitionists, including those who were Christian, were condemned as heretics and infidels for their apostasy. Rev. Benjamin Palmer of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans said in 1860:
“The Abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic, The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin Clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law. . . . This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air: “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted, means bondage, confiscation, and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religions and of all truths.”
Frederick Douglass, a freethinker and escaped slave who became one of America’s most powerful orators and activists, had this to say in his autobiography:
“The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s lock stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.”
You can read the book The American Churches: The Bulwarks of American Slavery, written in 1840 by James Birney, by clicking here.
And Christianity was responsible for women getting the right to vote? Seriously? The leaders of that movement, in the earliest days, were freethinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and many others. They often railed against Christianity and religion in general, for obvious reasons; the arguments against universal suffrage were based almost exclusively on the Bible and Christian tradition.
As for the civil rights movement, here again it’s obviously true that many Christians, including Martin Luther King, were deeply involved in that battle. But he leaves out the fact that the primary opposition to equality came from most white churches. The arguments against Loving v Virginia, the Supreme Court case overturning state laws against interracial marriage, were stated in explicitly Christian terms. Indeed, even the trial court judge in that case said in his ruling:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.”
As I said, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed to fight for slavery, and long after the civil war they were still fighting equality in every way possible. The churches that were on the right side of those issues tended to be liberal denominations like Quakers, which were, and continue to be, condemned by the conservative churches.
There is a clear pattern here. Every movement to increase equality and civil rights has had to battle against the full weight of institutional Christianity, often for decades and even centuries. After the battle is won and the traditional Christian churches have been forced to abandon the position that they maintained up to that point, often supported with violence, their apologists suddenly discover that some of the people they fought so hard against were Christians — almost always of some variety that they had always rejected as heresy and apostasy. And then they say, “See! This was a Christian idea all along!”
I’ll make a prediction: 20 or 30 years from now, when anti-gay bigotry is viewed as being as anachronistic as racial bigotry is today, Dinesh D’Souza or his ideological descendants will point to Gene Robinson and some of the very same liberal leaders who embraced equality while they themselves stood foursquare against it, and they will declare that equal rights for LGBT people was based on Christian principles all along.