Evangelicals Who Link Evolution and Racism Forget Christianity Was Used to Defend Slavery and Segregation

David Whitney of the Institute on the Constitution believes he knows why Richard Collins III was murdered on the University of Maryland’s campus in May:

“Evolution is also the basis of racism, [and] many assert that racism played a role in the motivation for this murder,” Whitney said. “You see, evolution is essentially racist. So where did Sean Urbanski learn racism? He learned it in his classes on evolution at the local public high school that his parents sent him to and his parents funded that school by the payment of their property taxes.”

This statement should be surprising, but it is not. Prominent creationist Ken Ham is well known for arguing that evolution is the root of racism, and that the solution to racism is belief in biblical creationism.

Shortly before coming upon Whitney’s words, I read an Atlantic article taking on a series of myths about Robert E. Lee. I found the article’s discussion of Lee’s Christianity an interesting counterpoint to Whitney’s claims:

The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved. Lee told a New York Herald reporter, in the midst of arguing in favor of somehow removing blacks from the South (“disposed of,” in his words), “that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”

Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks.

Lee claimed that slavery was Christian—and his argument was a common one for his time. Whites in the antebellum South used scripture to back up their defense of slavery—and this wasn’t just limited to verses telling slaves to obey their masters. Southern whites argued that the black race was subject to the “curse of Ham.” They based this claim on a passage from Genesis chapter 9:

20 Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.
27 “May God enlarge Japheth,
And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.”

Southern whites argued that as a result of this incident the descendants of Ham were condemned to serve the descendants of Shem and Japheth, forever. The descendants of Ham, they argued, were the black race. The descendants of Japheth were the Jews, and the descendants of Shem were the Europeans. Slavery, then, was not only passively biblical but actually explicitly commanded by God.

I should note that this belief predated even the idea of evolution. In other words, the “curse of Ham” was not based on evolutionary ideas about race.

Nor did the use of the Bible to defend racial discrimination or racial segregation end there. During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many white southern pastors preached that God had commanded the separation of the races. These individuals tended to argue that different races should not intermarry, and that God had different purposes for different races. And here, again, their concept of races was rooted in the Bible, not evolutionary ideas.

Have a look at this excerpt from a 1960 radio address by Bob Jones:

What does God teach about the races of the world? If you will go to the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, you will find where Paul preached a special sermon on Mars Hill. …

Paul tells us in his sermon on Mars Hill, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” Now, the statue of the Grecian goddess, Athena, was in the Parthenon; and Paul said that God did dwell in buildings made with hands. “Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.”

Now, notice—this is an important verse—the twenty-sixth verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (in some of the best original manuscripts, the word “blood” is not there, but it is not important anyhow, because the thoughts are the same). “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth. . . .” But do not stop there, “. . . and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” Now, what does that say? That says that God Almighty fixed the bounds of their habitation. That is as clear as anything that was ever said.

Pastors like Bob Jones explicitly preached that God had created separate races, giving each its own boundary and role—and they used the Bible to back up their claims. Trumpeting these passages, Jones vehemently opposed both interracial marriage and school desegregation.

Here, then, is the central problem faced by evangelicals like Whitney: If racism stemmed from evolution, as they claim, we should not see Christians base racist ideas on the Bible, either in recent generations or in the decades before the birth of evolutionary science. And yet, we see just that. If evangelicals accept that racism is part of the human condition, and understand that a variety of ideas—from evolution to Christianity—have been used to justify racism, they grow closer to reality.

Of course, they also lose a favorite anti-evolution talking point.

As an aside, both young earth creationism and evolution holds that humans are descended from a group of early ancestors. Creationist Ken Ham is fond of using the “one blood” terminology quoted by Jones to argue that young earth creationism is anti-racist. To the extent that Ham is able to persuade his followers to reject racist ideas, great! I’m just not sure Ham’s “we’re all descended from the same people” rhetoric is as original (or as different from that of evolutionary scientists) as he thinks.

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