Throughout this month, we’ve been talking about how to approach the issue of race from the perspective of science and Christian faith. In her article introducing the theme, president Deb Haarsma explained that modern genetics has debunked the idea that humans can be neatly sorted into scientifically determined racial categories. She mourned the ways in which scientific institutions have been complicit in the terrible history of racism. But she also pointed out that racial prejudice cannot be blamed on the advance of modern evolutionary science; the racist use of science has always been an abuse.
How we understand our history deeply shapes the way that we see the present. Dave Unander explored this theme in his essay, exploring the historical origin of racist ideas as a way of making sense of the racial conflict he observed as a child. Georgia Dunston shared how her research into the genetic history of humankind “liberates us from the bondages of fear-born ignorance."
For American Christians engaging the issue of racial injustice and prejudice, it is critical to come to grips with the messy history of race in America. There is a tendency among many Christians, especially those who have historically benefited from racial privilege, to look for scapegoats like evolutionary science for the injustices of American history. This is often done to preserve a “neater” version of American history wherein morality and justice can be neatly correlated to Christian influence. This is the version I was taught in my evangelical childhood. But as I studied American history for myself, I was shocked to discover the depth to which American Christians were complicit in prejudice and injustice, particularly against people labeled as racially inferior.
Racist arguments drawn from the Bible predate Darwin, and they have been repeated by Christians holding every possible perspective on evolutionary science. Yet Christian faith, deeply rooted in the Bible, has also been the driving force behind work of racial justice, and the source of strength for those oppressed because of the color of their skin. How can Christians make sense of this twisted history? What lessons can we learn—particularly those of us who have historically benefited from racist ideologies?
Slavery and the Bible
America’s history is deeply intertwined with the idea of white supremacism, which could be defined as the belief that “white” European people have the right to dominate, subjugate, and exploit other people groups with darker skin colors. This ideology was the backbone of the American slave trade, which by the time of the nation’s founding had brought millions of Africans to our shores as human cogs in the nation’s economic machine.
Slavery was never an uncontroversial practice in America, but it wasn’t until the early to mid-19th century that the issue began to tear the nation apart. As evangelical historian Mark Noll chronicles in his book The Civil War as Theological Crisis, the American debate over slavery was a deeply biblical one: both pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates thought the Bible was on their side.
The dominant biblical hermeneutic in American Christianity, at this time, favored a plain, “common sense” reading of the Bible, and viewed other hermeneutical approaches with deep suspicion. This statement by Leonard Bacon, a Connecticut Congregationalist, demonstrates this method: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”
This made it surprisingly difficult for anti-slavery Christians to make their case. As Mark Noll explains,
Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced…it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. […] In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.
Noll also notes that, while there was a huge diversity of perspectives on slavery among white American Christians, almost nobody seriously questioned the core racist ideology of white supremacism. Christian anti-slavery groups in the North generally thought of Africans as inferior to European whites—they simply disagreed with pro-slavery Christians about how these “inferior” people should be treated.
It bears repeating that these debates were carried out using biblical and theological arguments, not scientific ones. It was not until well after the Civil War that Darwin’s theories began to spread to America.
Christianity, Race, and Darwinism
As Deb noted, Darwin’s theories were used to support a stunning variety of ideologies, including racism. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century is a good example. Adherents sought to employ genetics to artificially breed out certain traits that they considered undesirable. Non-whites were thought to have more of these undesirable traits, and thus were targeted for forced sterilization.
Historian Christine Rosen, who has studied the eugenics movement extensively, writes that the movement “included Protestants of nearly every denomination, Jews and Catholics, and they overwhelmingly represented the liberal wings of their respective faiths...They were the ministers, priests, and rabbis who were inspired by the developments of modern science.” Modern science has since completely debunked the core ideas of the eugenics movement. It was never good science, and it was always a terrible perversion of the biblical message.
But racism in this period of American history is not limited to fans of Darwin. George McCready Price, a strident anti-evolutionist and a prominent early figure in the history of modern young-earth creationism, pointed to the Tower of Babel as the biblical origin and justification for racial difference and separation. In much the same way as the eugenics movement, Price organized humankind into “Caucasian, Mongolian, and negro” races, with Caucasian on top and “negro” on the bottom.
Scripture and Segregation
At the dawn of the Civil Rights era, “the most theologically conservative Christians often opposed the movement for black equality most vigorously,” according to historian Carolyn Dupont. This includes Bob Jones Sr., an important leader in the Protestant Fundamentalist movement and the founder of Bob Jones University—also a vociferous critic of evolutionary science.
In a radio broadcast on Easter Sunday, 1960, Jones employed Acts 17:26 as a slam-dunk exegetical warrant for racial segregation: “God Almighty fixed the bounds of [each races’] habitation. That is as clear as anything that was ever said.” In that same address he decried Christian integrationists as “Satanic propagandists,” saying it “makes me sick...for a man to stand up and preach pious sermons in this country and talk about rubbing out the line between the races.”
In the past half-century since this sermon, most American Christians have—at least in word—repudiated the blatantly racist ideas of Bacon, Price, Moore, and those like them. This includes Bob Jones University itself, which in 2008 released a statement officially apologizing for its racist history:
For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than providing a clear Christian counterpoint to it.
While BJU’s apology is admirable, it does not address the central paradox of their situation: Bob Jones Sr. explicitly saw his position as coming directly from “the principles and precepts of Scripture,” not from his own opinion or cultural assumptions. His sermon leaves little doubt that, if he had seen BJU’s statement before his passing, he would have viewed it as caving in to “worldly” influences rather than standing on God’s Word. What is so chilling about Jones’s sermon is not just the perversion of the Bible to support racial segregation, but his utter and complete confidence that he was correct. Christians like Jones grossly overestimated their ability to distinguish between the voice of Scripture and their own opinions, born of a racist cultural ethos.
Learning to Listen
To simply dismiss Bob Jones, and others like him, as embarrassing relics of the past is to miss the lesson they teach us. To learn from history, Christians—particularly those from racially privileged backgrounds—must engage the issue of race with the assumption that we need help understanding how our cultural biases affect our ability to read Scripture and live out its teachings. Where will this help come from? Of course it must start with prayerful humility and reliance on the Holy Spirit. The work of scientists studying the human genome can also be a great aid to us as well. But a crucial part of the answer, as Deb argued in her own essay, is learning to listen to those who can help us see the world from the perspective of racial injustice and marginalization.
Mark Noll makes this point explicitly, in relation to 18th-century debates about slavery:
So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme authority in adjudicating such matters...Testimony from African American Bible readers, which was surprisingly rich under the circumstances, was never taken seriously.
The testimony of Christians who have experienced racial prejudice shows how badly the ideology of racism distorts the message of the Bible. To these Christians, it is unconscionable that the Bible—whose message speaks of human equality before God and his love for the oppressed and marginalized—could ever have been seen to support the exploitation and marginalization of human beings in God’s image.
There is no magic formula for cultural discernment and faithfulness in difficult times. But it must start with listening—to God’s Word, to God’s world, and to God’s many-colored image-bearers who are part of the human family he loves.