Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The God of Whites, it was presumed, was already the God of all other people—even if others did not yet know this fact."

Racism's intimate relationship with Christianity takes on a variety of guises, or at least two (with many sub-variations thereon). Sometimes it is openly and unashamedly violent and downright thuggish, after the manner of the Egyptian monk Shenoute, who proclaimed, "There is no crime for those who have Christ". Such was the case with those who installed baptismal fonts alongside blacksmith's forges in the Slave Castles along the coast of West Africa, so that new slaves could be "won to Christ" at the same instant that they were put into chains, ready for delivery to the New World.

But quite often the relationship between Christianity and racism is (at least somewhat) more subtle, in a skin-crawlingly unctuous sort of way, hiding behind a simpering paternalistic smile while mouthing sanctimonious promises about justice, equality and progress for the downtrodden, but only on the condition that the poor oppressed savages abandon their Many Dark Gods and worship the One White Father. In this way, "conversion" is seen as a way of "uplifting" non-Europeans by turning them into second-class Whites. This transformation is accomplished by removing the dark stain of Paganism from their souls, albeit while leaving the cursed mark of Ham upon their skin. Such was the case with the Quakers who were placed directly in charge of many "Reservations" after the Civil War, and who continued to kidnap Native children in order to raise them as proper Christians in their "boarding schools" well into the 20th century.

This double nature of the relationship between Christianity and racism should be held in mind while reading the following long excerpt from Daniel B. Lee, A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America, which was published in the volume Race, Religion, and Identity Formation in the Americas, ed. Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister, Cambridge: Oxford University Press.

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Until the end of the Civil War, White people in America had a relatively easy time thinking of themselves as God’s chosen people. In this age of imperialist expansion and Manifest Destiny, divine favor was often equated with political power. Who could deny the power of the slave master or cavalry captain? In 1880, the editor of the monthly journal National Repository commented:
Originally our race stock was exclusively Caucasian, for though both the American Indian race and the African were found upon our territory, yet neither of these entered into the body politic or was a real factor in the social structure. So, too, we were a specifically an English-speaking people and a Protestant nation as to all our mental habits and ideas of personal liberty both of thought and action; yet full of religious reverence, Sabbath keeping, Bible reading, and law abiding.
The second half of the nineteenth century brought profound social changes that threatened the way “decent” White Americans represented themselves as a race. Not only did Blacks gain freedom, but also they were given the right to vote alongside Whites. Degenerate Whites were rallying to the calls of proletarian demagogues. Native Americans were “allowed to wander about” outside of their reservations. After the German and Irish immigrants who came to the United States between 1820 and 1880, a second wave of immigrants began to pour into the land. Many more “Romanists” arrived from Southern Europe, Jews came from Eastern Europe, and “idol-worshipping” Asians entered from China and Japan. White Americans were beginning to feel ill at ease.

In 1882, Henry Cabot Lodge expressed the concerns of White America in an article entitled “The Census and Immigration:”
The question of foreign immigration has of late engaged the most serious attention of the country, and in a constantly increasing degree. The race changes which have begun during the last decade among the immigrants to this country, the growth of the total immigration, and the effects of it upon our rates of wages and the quality of our citizenship, have excited much apprehension and aroused a very deep interest.
The “vast masses of alien elements in the social and political body” significantly altered the appearance of the “lovely white” country. White Americans searched for ways to protect their civilization from the polyglot, polytheistic other. Surely God would not submit them to a test that they were not strong enough to pass—with His merciful assistance. In 1880, one writer urged his readers to put their faith in the transforming power of the Gospel:
Can the ascendancy of our American republic and Christian thought be asserted, maintained, and perpetuated among such tremendous disadvantages? …The hope of the American republic, and of the civilization, in which above all else we glory, will be found to abide in the practical effectiveness of its Christian element. Only let these strangers be brought under the power of the Gospel, and we may safely trust them with our civilization.
To maintain their identity as the master race, White Americans increasingly relied on their religious assumptions. In an article detailing the value of Christianity as a social science, published in 1884, Henry C. Potter suggested that the White man’s religion was a true panacea:
How shall we deal with these social problems of the hour—whether they concern the reclaiming of our fallen brethren and sisters here at our very side, or our fellow-creature, the despised Chinaman, who has found his way to our far off Pacific coast, save as we look at each and every one of them in the light that streams from the cross of One who gave himself to lift men up?
The God of Whites, it was presumed, was already the God of all other people—even if others did not yet know this fact. No matter how many people came into the country, God was animating each one. The primary goal, then, was to haul the masses out of their cave of spiritual ignorance. According to the editor of Scribner’s Monthly, writing in 1880, the United States “equals in extent ten of Paul’s Macedonias, while our Home Missionary Territory is larger than the Old Roman Empire.” Considering all of the many different people who must be converted to Christianity, the editor noted, “some races are bright and speculative, others dull and practical; some are in the caves of superstition, others on the heights of philosophy; all are in the childhood of religion.” Lyman Abbott, writing in 1890, had no doubt that his race’s religion could solve all of the nation’s problems, including those posed by Native Americans and the Blacks. Abbott reasoned,
The Indian and the Negro questions are both phases of one and the same question: what duties, if any, do a superior race owe to an inferior and subject race, living in the same territory, under the same government, parts of the same nation? The question cannot be answered by individual philanthropy or by missionary societies; the question is asked of the nation, and only the nation can answer it. If the law “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is a religious law, if the question “Who is my neighbor?” is a religious question, then the Indian and the Negro problems are religious problems.
The United States cannot exist unless all of its children are imbued with “that religious spirit which is essential to national life.” According to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black delegate to the First National Congress of Mothers, which convened in 1897, the profound social inequalities between Whites and Blacks made it difficult, but not impossible, for both races to make the necessary adjustment from “the old oligarchy of slavery into the new commonwealth of freedom:”
You of the Caucasian race were born to an inheritance of privileges; behind you are ages of civilization, education, and organized Christianity; behind us are ages of ignorance, poverty, and slavery; and now into your hands, oh, my favored sisters, God has placed one of the grandest opportunities that ever fell into the hands of a nation or a people… Trample, if you will, on our bodies, but do not crush out self-respect from our souls. If you want us to act as women, treat us as women. If you want us to become good Christians, teach us concerning our high origin, our relation to God, our possibilities of rising so high in the scale of moral and spiritual life that from being a little lower than the angels we may become one with God, even as Christ was one—one in spirit and one in harmony. [57]

In the struggle to Christianize America and the world, religious leaders called for interdenominational cooperation. “Like the scattered bones which Ezekiel saw coming together into a great army they would at once start into new life and activity as the United Churches of the United States,” one writer hoped. In 1882, the editor of The Century pleaded:
The sectarian divisions of the Christian church in city and country, by which in so many places its power is destroyed and its glory turned to shame, all rest on non-essential differences… Suppose we stop talking of union and of unity, and begin working to consider the duty of cooperation in Christian work. This is the desideratum—cooperation. In town and city and mission field, Christians, the disciples of a common Master, ought to cooperate. Can they cooperate? Who will deny it?
In 1884, a reader of The Century wrote an open letter to the magazine in which he praised a recently printed story about a fictional organization called the Christian League. The writer stated, “The spirit of the new theology is the spirit of the Christian League. It will not permit the details of creed and ritual to bar the way to Christian unity, for in Christ all contradictions are reconciled. George R. Crooks, a Methodist minister, argued: “If such opposites as Jews and Gentiles could in the Pauline period be one body, much more can the Christian opposites of the modern period enter, through the life-giving Spirit, into the composition of one body… As the human race is one, being of one blood… so the church is one.”

United in a “noble” spiritual effort, Protestants of English descent easily joined with German and Scottish immigrants. Strategic reasons were even found to work together with Catholics, sectarians, and Black Christians. “An inferior type of Christianity” wrote one commentator, “may have adaptations to particular nations because of its inferiority and admixture with error. Yet upon the possibility of overcoming these objections depends the future success of missions.”