The Theological Roots of White Supremacy

The Theological Roots of White Supremacy August 5, 2020

There was an interesting piece on Bloomberg the other day with an interview of Robert P. Jones by Francis Wilkinson. The bio and intro reads:

Robert P. Jones is founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the new book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” Jones, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, has a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University. His book is a powerfully detailed history, not a polemic. I interviewed him, via email, last week. A lightly edited transcript follows.

With that in mind, here are few morsels of that interview:

Jones: Properly understood, white supremacy is not fringe at all but actually has framed the entire American story. For most white Americans, the term primarily evokes white sheets and burning crosses — extremist images, mostly from a bygone era. But white supremacy is not just, or even fundamentally, about individual acts of racial terrorism. Its more powerful expressions are built, over generations, into the way society is organized: which neighborhoods were open, which jobs were available, what political power was allowed, and what laws were applied to whom.

If we reexamine the plain meaning of the phrase, its continued relevance comes into view. Even rearranging the words — from “white supremacy” to “supremacy of whites” — gets us to a clearer meaning: the belief that white people’s superior nature and divinely favored status entitles them to hold positions of power over Black and other nonwhite people.

A dizzying array of resources across multiple fields of human inquiry has been deployed to defend this belief. By far, the strongest were theological arguments that presented white supremacy as divine mandate. Particular readings of the Bible provided the scaffolding for these arguments. Black Americans, for example, were cast as descendants of Cain, whom the book of Genesis describes as physically marked by God after killing his brother, Abel, and then lying to God about the crime. In the white Christian version of this narrative, the original ancestor was a Black criminal, and modern-day dark-skinned people continue to bear the physical mark of this ancient transgression. This story implied that Blacks likely inherited both their purported ancestor’s physical distinctiveness and his inferior moral character. These teachings persisted in many white Christian circles well into the 20th century.

Jones continues with his next answer in detailing the close relationship between Christianity and the Confederacy, after which there is this question and answer:

Wilkinson: Yet your book shows that white supremacy is not exclusive to the South or to white Protestants.

Jones:  That’s correct, and this insight is critical for understanding our current situation. In addition to the historical material in the book and my own personal story as a white Christian who grew up as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, the book draws on a range of contemporary public opinion data. In question after question, survey after survey, white Christians of all kinds — not just evangelicals in the South but also mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast — are significantly more likely than religiously unaffiliated whites to hold racist attitudes. For example, white Christians are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say killings of unarmed black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. And white Christians are at least 30 percentage points more likely than religiously unaffiliated whites to say the Confederate flag is more a symbol of southern pride than a symbol of racism.

Overall, even when controlling for a range of demographic characteristics, public opinion data reveal a positive, independent relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity. Looked at from the other direction, being affiliated with a white Christian group — whether evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic — is independently associated with an approximately 10% increase in racist attitudes. By contrast, there is no significant relationship between white religiously unaffiliated identity and holding racist attitudes.

The book certainly looks an interesting read and these answers show an unsurprising link between white supremacy and Christian religiosity.

When you get past the ridiculous atheism=Stalin=Pol Pot=Hitler (see my must-read article “A Great Myth about Atheism: Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot = Atheism = Atrocity – REDUX“), you are left with really struggling with understanding how modern atheists, and certainly humanists, would really see the world in this way. I could be wrong, if you show me how…

 


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