"Ku Klux Klan at a Gathering Near Kingston, Ontario in 1927" by John Boyd / Public Domain

American Christianity’s White-Supremacy Problem

Sep 3, 2020

By Michael Luo

Early on in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” the first of three autobiographies Douglass wrote over his lifetime, he recounts what happened—or, perhaps more accurately, what didn’t happen—after his master, Thomas Auld, became a Christian believer at a Methodist camp meeting. Douglass had harbored the hope that Auld’s conversion, in August, 1832, might lead him to emancipate his slaves, or at least “make him more kind and humane.” Instead, Douglass writes, “If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways.” Auld was ostentatious about his piety—praying “morning, noon, and night,” participating in revivals, and opening his home to travelling preachers—but he used his faith as license to inflict pain and suffering upon his slaves. “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes,’ ” Douglass writes. Douglass is so scornful about Christianity in his memoir that he felt a need to append an explanation clarifying that he was not an opponent of all religion. In fact, he argued that what he had written about was not “Christianity proper,” and labelling it as such would be “the boldest of all frauds.” Douglass believed that “the widest possible difference” existed between the “slaveholding religion of this land” and “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.”

Yet, a hundred twenty-five years after Douglass’s death, the American church is still struggling to eradicate the legacy of the slaveholding religion he loathed. In a 2019 nationwide survey, eighty-six per cent of white evangelical Protestants and seventy per cent of both white mainline Protestants and white Catholics said that the “Confederate flag is more a symbol of Southern pride than of racism”; nearly two-thirds of white Christians over all said that killings of African-American men by the police are isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern of mistreatment; and more than six in ten white Christians disagreed with the statement that “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” In his new book, “White Too Long” (Simon & Schuster), Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling and research organization, marshals this and other data to lay out a startling case that “the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.” The correlation is just as pronounced among white evangelical Protestants as it is among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics—and stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of religiously unaffiliated whites. Jones’s findings make for some wrenching inferences. “If you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic—than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop,” he writes.

Much has been made of white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. (According to exit polls, eighty-one per cent of white evangelical Protestants voted for him.) Less attention has been paid to the fact that sizable majorities of white Catholics (sixty-four per cent) and white mainline Protestants (fifty-seven per cent) also backed him. In November, President Trump will once again be reliant upon the white Christian vote if he hopes to defeat his Democratic opponent, former Vice-President Joe Biden. Trump’s racism has defined his Presidency—driving his exclusionary immigration policies, his Twitter tirades, his reluctance to condemn white-nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, and his scapegoating of China for the coronavirus pandemic. Yet polls show that most white Christians continue to approve of his job performance. It is a perplexing, distressing trend, one that may be irrevocably damaging to the church, as increasing numbers of people, particularly millennials, leave Christianity. In December, when Mark Galli, who was then the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, wrote an editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office, he urged Christians to consider how their support of Trump influenced their “witness”—the degree to which their lives point to the example of Jesus Christ. “Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency,” he wrote. “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

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