The American Church and Segregation Part 2: Foreign Philosophy

Recently, I noted that the Evangelicals who were segregationists is an example of those within the Church being influenced by the surrounding culture, rather than the culture being impacted by the truth of the gospel. In part, this is because the whole notion of segregation is an assault on the teaching of Scripture. As just a short summary,

  • Acts 17:26, ironically one of the favorite passages of segregationists,[1] implies the very equality rooted in our common humanity that segregation denies. Some evangelicals and many lawyers at the time described segregation as separate but equal, but the practice of separation clearly lacked any meaningful definition of equality.
  • Ephesians 2:14 describes Christ wall as breaking down the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and creating an equality between Jews and Gentiles.
  • Paul similarly explains this in terms of various ethnic groups as well as in terms of persons enslaved versus those who were free in Col 3:11.

Of course, it is true that first century Christianity did not erase all social, cultural, economic or gender related distinctions within a society nor the political boundaries between various regions (such as between Sythians, Barbarians, Greeks and Romans) – but when one walks into a church, when one engages in worship, we all come as supplicants to Jesus Christ and these temporary barriers of our modern world lose their importance as we experience, at least for a moment, the Kingdom of God.[2] This is precisely why ethnic or racial segregation makes no sense in a church – it rebuilds the barriers Christ has torn down in principle, and will one day tear down in every last detail.

So where did segregation come from? From outside of the church. It is a sad fact of Church history; we often borrow illegitimately from the philosophy of life of those around us. Racism was a part of the American culture from early times. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, written by someone who at the time professed to believe in the gradual emancipation of slaves, clearly indicated that he thought black men were inferior to white Europeans. Lincoln the great emancipator made some comments modern thinkers would decry as racist, and his greatest political triumph was the amendment to the constitution ending slavery in the United States.[3] Oftentimes Darwinism is blamed for the rise of racism in America; this is both true, but overly simplistic. Darwin’s first book, The Origin of Species was not as controversial as historical revisionists have often suggested, the real controversy was his book, The Descent of Man. It is in that volume he first connected human beings to evolutionary processes, and he gave two primary arguments, 1. Embryological comparisons between humans and animals, and 2. The alleged superiority of Europeans to other men, which he saw as evidence of biological evolutionary advancement. And yet, if racism inspired Darwin, Darwinism would fuel the expansion of racism to new levels.

Social Darwinism would expand the damage to the United States and Western society by multiples, as noted in my previous piece. During the early twentieth century, Social Darwinism was a major tool in the expansion of segregation policy. And, unfortunately, in the name of science many perverted the faith by allegorically interpreting Genesis to make room for the scientific consensus that some racial groups were more primitive, and therefore were not worthy of equal rights. The church, of course failed to be the church and light it should have been, reproach was brought on the name of Jesus Christ – but this is a very different matter than arguing that the church or evangelicalism was responsible for these things.

[1] Acts 17:26 does go on to discuss God’s setting the “bounds of their habitations;” but this is a description of God’s sovereignty rather than a prescription for ethnic policy.

[2] It is on these grounds, in part perhaps because I am a Baptist, that I really question political symbols, such as national flags, being placed on a church platform (or for that matter the American flag being flown on Church property). I am extremely patriotic; I believe God has blessed America historically and we are heirs to a great resource as Americans to the wisdom of our founders, a resource we sadly squander all too willingly. And yet, the flag is a symbol of a political division, a human nation state; a division created because of sin, and in the Kingdom they are reunified in Christ, and these boundaries become unimportant, and therefore I believe symbols of these divisions are inappropriate at times of worship.

[3] There are a lot of debates about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, and this is exacerbated by the propagandistic nature of many of his early, hagiographic biographies, and these early works are actually in conflict with each other on this point. However, if he was converted to Christianity, it was likely in his later life, not his earlier one.

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