Christianity and Segregation 2: Segregation and the older generations

Last week, I started a series on segregation, beginning with definitions of terms. Atheists and other non-Christian groups will often take certain elements of American Church history as an argument that Christianity is intrinsically racist. There is a tendency to cherry pick church history (as well as American history) when it comes to discussions of racism by both Christians and non-believers; the very propagandistic nature of the discussion makes it difficult to address forthrightly.

Therefore to answer these charges, I will admit that some American Christians (though certainly not all) have supported segregation, some such as Kinists still do (other groups such as the “Christian Identity movement” should be considered cults since they deny important tenants of Christianity). My argument is that Christian segregationists are inconsistent monsters. To begin making that case, though, we need to understand something about the groups of Christian segregationists. Due to length, we will cover this in two articles.

  1. Outright racists

A number of those who claim to be segregationists historically were racists –that is they judged a persons capabilities and spirituality on the basis of their race. One of the major passages quoted by segregationists, ironically, though demonstrates the major problem with this viewpoint – Acts 17:22 states that God has made all ethnic groups of “one blood;” that is, we are all basically human. Racism is best viewed as a foreign infiltrator into Christianity from the surrounding culture (even in places where the surrounding culture is nominally Christian) and from other philosophies. In large part, the later defenders of segregation seem to have been influenced by social Darwinism, in part due to Christian alliances with the “old left.”[1] In most cases, they read various elements of racism into the Bible.

Sometimes, this is difficult for us to understand; but the Church was in a different time. The Klan is a good illustration of this distinction in the times, and how the surrounding culture influenced those within the Church. Christians of my generation generally think of the Klan in terms bomb-planting, white masked, murderous thugs of the fifties and sixties. While the Klan of the very late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the same barbaric monsters under their white sheets, they were also far more subtle. The Klan at that time were great propagandists – in fact the first propaganda film I am aware of was a Klan affiliated film, Birth of a Nation which was actually shown in the White house to an approving Woodrow Wilson. In both the North and the South the Klan wielded political power, and projected an image of being the thin line protecting society from rape, pillage and riots. This image was only broken when an important Klan leader in the state of Indiana was credibly accused of rape in the late twenties. Considering the pervasiveness in the surrounding culture, sadly it is not surprising (though no less dishonorable) that it infiltrated the church as well. We all can buy into the propaganda of our times.

  1. Legal Segregationists

Many have argued that segregation was simply the law, and Christians within the Churches whatever else they may have thought about the issue, felt they needed to abide by the rulings of secular authorities. They would argue the church is not an organization for social change, but spiritual and heart change. In a way, this makes sense – Paul’s argument about one’s social standing and ethnic ties is that they are unimportant in God’s ultimate reality, and he did not argue that Christians should form a nation state. We are enjoined to obey the secular powers (Rom 13:1-5) And yet, this argument might be cogent for discussing segregation within the American civil society, if it were not for segregation within the church itself. After all, throughout the church history we have assumed government authority extends only as far as the Church doors, it has no authority over our doctrine or practices.

In our next discussion we will refer to discussions of segregation in more recent memory and in the Kinist movement.

[1] By the old left, I mean thinkers such as Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger and many of the supporters of Franklin Deleno Roosevelt in the American South.

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