Was Opposition to Interracial Marriage Motivated by Christianity?

Was Opposition to Interracial Marriage Motivated by Christianity? April 18, 2014

A good deal of the controversy over same-sex marriage has been linked to the comparison of it to interracial marriage. Merely perusing the articles, comments and debates reveals that many believe that same-sex marriage today is what interracial marriage was in the past. That may be. But one argument in particular that has caught my attention is that just as Christianity is the major force opposing same-sex marriage today, it was the major force opposing interracial marriage in the past. The implication of this argument is that just as today there are few people, religious or otherwise, who oppose interracial marriage that in the future this will be the same as we realize that the same religious foolishness that opposed interracial marriages will be recognized as foolishness in the same-sex marriage debate. When I used to do research on interracial marriage, I read a good number of academic books on the history of interracial marriage. Somehow I did not remember the historians making this argument. But it had been a while since I had opened those books and so I decided to go back and take a look.

First, is the book Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America by Renee Romano. She mentions that those concerned with racial purity often framed their opposition in terms of Christian beliefs. However, not all whites shared the view that intermarriage violated Christian beliefs. Romano goes on to say that opposition to intermarriage was motivated less by religious beliefs and more by a fear about the consequences of seeing blacks as social equals. In the balance of her book, Christianity is mentioned sporadically and generally as a description of some who supported interracial marriage. Romano does not provide an argument that religion is the main motivator of anti-miscegenation.

The next book I looked at is Tell the Church I Love my Wife: Race, Marriage and Law – An American History by Peter Wallenstein. Christianity and religions come up in several places in the book. Sometimes it refers to ways Christians oppose interracial marriage. For example, President Truman articulated that he believed that interracial marriage was inconsistent with the Bible. However, Wallenstein also pointed out how religion was used to challenge interracial marriage such as in the 1960s when various religious figures enunciated an opposition to bans of interracial marriage. Reading this book does not provide one with the sense that Christianity was an overwhelming factor in opposition to interracial marriage. It is fair to say that Christians historically may have more opposition than support for interracial marriage but at best it was one of many sources of support of anti-miscegenation, and not a core source since some Christians were motivated by their religious beliefs to support interracial marriage.

My examination of Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance by Rachel Moran proved to be quite frustrating. I searched the index in vain for references to religion, Christianity, Catholics etc. As I thumbed through the book, it seemed that there was more of a focus on notions of racial purity but very little, if any, on religious regulation of interracial marriage. It is quite possible that Moran says something about the role of religion that I missed, since I did not review the book word by word, but it is quite clear that Moran is not making an argument that Christianity is the main factor in the resistance to interracial marriage. If she made such an argument, it would have been much easier to find examples of such in her book.

White Woman, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th-Century South by Martha Hodes looked at a phenomenon of white women marrying black men soon after the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction in our country. Perhaps this is not the best book for me to examine since Hodes does not focus as much on discrimination as other historians. She does mention the Catholic community in the wedding of Irish Nell and Negro Charles, but otherwise there is not much on religion in her work. There is not much about Christianity, or even religion in general, in her work.

So far my survey of books that pay significant attention to the history of interracial marriage has not provided much information on the role of Christianity on the attempts to ban interracial marriage. For these books the most that can be said is Christianity is a peripheral element in the resistance to interracial marriage. But now I turned to two books where there is much more attention paid to the religious dynamics in interracial marriage. The first book that does so is Marriage in Black and White by Joseph Washington Jr. He devotes a chapter looking at the influence of religion on the question of anti-miscegenation.

Washington looks at different religious groups as it concerns interracial coupling. He does not merely look at Christians but also looks at the issues of Jews. For Jews this issue is not as much an opposition to interracial marriage as much as it is an opposition to interfaith marriage. As it concerns Christian denominations, Washington first notes the lack of agreement with what Christians say and what they do. He sent inquires about acceptance of interracial marriage to several Christian denominations. By and large these denominations either offered support for such marriages or did not take a stance on interracial marriage. This is in contrast to the actions of many individual Christians who personally and openly opposed interracial marriage. Churches may not provide the sort of supportive atmosphere for interracial marriage suggested by the official support of these marriages by the leaders of their denominations. Washington’s findings offer support for the mixed nature of the role of Christianity on resistance to interracial romantic relationships. Unfortunately, the mixed nature of the findings does not provide us a clear answer as to whether the Christian faith was overall harmful or helpful to the cause of interracial marriage (although my personal argument is that historically it was overall more harmful than helpful). However, his work clearly argues that religion in general, and Christianity in specific, is not a core source of resistance to interracial marriage.

Finally, we get to what I think is one of the best books on the history of interracial marriage – Mixed Blood: Interracial and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America by Paul Spickard. It is an easy read and I assign it in my “Multiracial Families” sociology courses. The book is split up into three possible intergroup marriages – Japanese/White, Jew/Gentile and Black/White. So a third of the book is devoted to a type of interfaith marriage and clearly Christianity play an important role in shaping the prevalence of this type of marriage, although there is as much resistance from Jewish sources as there is from Christian sources to such marriages. I do not even assign this section in my classes since my focus is on interracial marriages in my course.

Another way Spickard brings religion into his work is his discussion of religion in his discussion about how people tend to marry people of the same religion. Most specifically, individuals married within the major religious groupings of Protestants, Catholics and Jews. The mixing of ethnicities may occur within those religious groupings. This type of theory may help to explain how Christianity can provide some barriers to interracial marriages if those of different races are more prone to non-Christian religions, but it is not an argument that religious justification drives animosity towards racial outmarriage.

Finally, Spickard’s treatment of the history of interracial marriage of Japanese and Blacks to Whites offers possible insight. As it concerns whites marrying Japanese he only has a few references, mostly tied to the fact that the Japanese who immigrated to the United States were influenced by Christians in their native country. It is only in the discussion of black/white interracial marriages does he note the hostility of Christians against such unions. He cites a few specific examples of such resistance such as the attitudes of Bob Jones, president of Bob Jones University. However, even here he feels obligated in his footnotes to point out that such attitudes received push back from Christians of all across the theological spectrum. Spickard does not paint a picture of an unrelenting Christian hostility against interracial marriage. Rather, he thinks that there is a hierarchy of acceptable and non-acceptable racial groups for intermixing and while religion plays a role in which groups are acceptable, as clearly the case in Jew/Gentile marriage, it is not the only, or even the most important, factor.

There are a few more minor books, or books that touch a little on the history of interracial romance that were not from established university or academic presses I obtained in this period of my career. They include Interracial Bonds by Rhoda Blumberg and Wendell Roye and A Completely New Look at Interracial Sexuality by Lawrence Tenzer. In none of them did the authors look to Christianity as a major factor explaining hostility towards interracial marriage. I would put less weight on these books than the others as I am not certain that the authors used acceptable historical methodology, but it is worth accounting for them to gain as complete of a picture as possible of what historians have said about this question.

Ultimately, there is very little support from these historians that Christian justification has been the driving force inhibiting interracial marriages. Admittedly, it is quite plausible that I missed important works since I did not do any original historical research myself and thus felt little need to exhaust all possible research on the history of interracial marriage. Furthermore, I have not done any serious research on interracial sexuality for several years, and it is quite possible that new historical research has come out since the literature I cite here. However, unless there is serious research out there that says differently, it is not feasible to argue that resistance to interracial marriages was based mostly in Christian theology. However, now that this social argument has been made, there likely will be a revisionist historian who will pull together the material to make the case that historical opposition to interracial marriage is religiously based. Unfortunately, there have been actions from Christians in the past who will give them some material for that case, but given the current political environment, I will be skeptical of the timing of such a claim.

Let me be clear. I know that Christians historically behaved very badly as it concerns interracial romance. Often Christians opposed interracial marriages for no reason other than racism or feelings of racial superiority. Sometimes they used the Bible to justify their own racial animosity. Even recently I did research showing that Christians are more open to dating someone of a different faith than a different race, and I know firsthand that some Christians have anti-miscegenation tendencies. Of course there are exceptions to these actions, and we should recognize the Christians who had the foresight to support interracial marriages in a racialized society that condemned interracial mixing. Nevertheless, my comments are not an attempt to exonerate Christians from their shortcomings. But my reading of the historical material is that these Christians were guiltier of following the racist norms of the day rather than creating those norms. An honest assessment of their actions was that their sin was more of a failure to live according to the tenets of “Neither Jew nor Gentile” than an active role of creating anti-miscegenation perspectives from the tenets of their faith. Clearly those who disagree with my interpretation of these books are free to read those books and come up with alternative interpretations.

So what are we to make of the argument that same-sex marriage is the same as interracial marriage? I will decline to comment on that argument except in this one narrow comparison on the importance of Christian belief in the resistance to each type of coupling. If Christian resistance is the core element in resisting same-sex marriage, the same cannot be said of interracial marriage opposition. Religious equivalency in the historical rejection of each type of marriage is a myth.

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