“Ole Satan’s church is here below; Up to God’s free church I hope to go.”
–Harriet Jacobs, Narrative of a Slave Girl, 1861
My research for my book project introduced me to the rich history of slave narratives, many of which have been preserved and are now archived on the internet. These narratives were often given orally and written by literate people, often white abolitionists. Slave narratives are the most detailed information about the slave experience available; these primary sources are eye-opening, gripping and often quite gut-wrenching.
In fact, the slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave the opinion that religious slave owners were the cruelest masters.
“[O]f all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have found them, almost invariably, the vilest, meanest and basest of their class. Exceptions there may be, but this is true of religious slaveholders, as a class. It is not for me to explain the fact. Others may do that; I simply state it as a fact and leave the theological and psychological inquiry which it raises to be decided by others more competent than myself. “
Douglass’s observation is supported by this account of a Sunday morning experience of a once-enslaved man named Austin Steward:
“One pleasant Sabbath morning on my way to the Presbyterian church…I heard the most piteous cries and earnest pleadings issuing from the dwelling. To the astonishment of those with me, my poor sister made her appearance, weeping bitterly, and followed by her inhuman master who was polluting the air of that clear Sabbath morning with the most horrid imprecations and threatenings, and at the same time flourishing a large raw-hide…”
Steward then details the horrific attack of his helpless sister, which he himself could not defend even though he knew he could likely beat the master in a fight. His station as a slave prevented him from acting on his natural urge to protect his sister. Then, as predictable as it is ironic, Steward’s story ends with the appearance of the savage slave owner in the church:
“With my own heart beating wildly with indignation and sorrow, the kind reader may imagine my feelings when I saw the smooth-faced hypocrite the inhuman slave-whipper, enter the church, pass quietly on to his accustomed seat, and then meekly bow his hypocritical face on the damask cushion in the reverent acknowledgment of that religion which teaches its adherents “to do unto others as they would be done by,” just as if nothing unusual had happened on that Sabbath morning. Can anyone wonder that I, and other slaves, often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion?”
I have heard contemporary people ask this question: how can Black Americans embrace the faith of their oppressors? Christianity is seen as the religion of whiteness and therefore a religion of white supremacy. The enslaved people who adopted Christianity as their faith, however, were able to see an important truth: that Christianity was not and is not a white creation. What is a white creation and tool of white supremacy is what Harriet Jacobs of the well-known Narrative of a Slave Girl once spoke of when she said this: “There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south.”
Generations have passed since the end of the institution of American chattel slavery. The end of slavery, however, was not the end of the systemic racism and oppression of Black Americans. Jim Crow and its legacy have continued to burden Blacks with the badge of slavery. Beyond Black Americans, other groups of people have been marginalized by mainstream, white, heteronormative American culture; Native Americans, immigrants, people of different religions and LGBT people are some of the groups who have suffered discrimination and oppression. At the crux of this discrimination often lurks the same curiosity pointed out by people like Frederick Douglass, Austin Steward, and Harriet Jacobs: Christianity.
The Christian faith has been used to support the oppression of many people. However, Christianity at its core is decidedly inclusive. The religion originated in the Middle East and spread amongst people of different ethnicities. Paul’s theology carefully considered the opportunity for all people, not just members of the Jewish faith, to seek salvation and inclusion in the body of Christ. In the present, the church is growing exponentially in the global south and amongst American immigrant populations. The Jesus of the gospels teaches radical hospitality and inclusion of The Other. He embraced the Samaritan, the Syro-Phonecian, the poor, the tax collector, the orphan, the leper, the widow and the adulteress. Jesus focused on the importance of loving the neighbor and turning away from prejudice. How then, did Christianity make the leap from radical subculture to the “Religion of the South”?
Over time, the rise of the politically dominant European church made Christianity the religion of colonizers, colonials, and slavers. With this, the faith became diluted and negatively influenced by the socially dominant culture. Oppression and injustice have never been a part of Christian orthodoxy, but Christianity has been made a part of oppressive and unjust society.
Today, race relations in America have moved beyond the dichotomy of north and south, but a version of the “Religion of the South” persists. The” Religion of the South” is now “the Religion of America.” And like its predecessor, the Religion of America is not analogous with Christianity. It is a faith which focuses on a God whose preference is for America; specifically for white, patriarchal, heteronormative, culturally Christian America.
Take for instance the website of Franklin Graham, son of prolific evangelist Billy Graham. Frank Graham’s website includes a pledge readers can sign to God and Country.
“Because Jesus Christ is the only hope for America (1 Corinthians 3:11), we call our nation to God and pray for His forgiveness and blessing (2 Chronicles 7:14) and for the liberty and freedom to continue to proclaim His Name until He returns (2 Corinthians 4:5). Will you stand with us in fervent prayer for our nation?”
Graham has also recently tweeted that he is concerned that the great America he experienced as a child will not be available for his grandchildren. This comment was met with great response from marginalized people who pointed out that the America for which he was nostalgic was not hospitable to those of us with ancestors of color or other marginalized identities.
A white version of American nationalism is everywhere. For instance, the vitriol NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has experienced over his national anthem protest in support of victims of racialized police violence is laced with white supremacy, nationalism, and Christianity. Most of those who are angry with Kaepernick’s protest are Christian. The same group of Christians have made statements about harming or even lynching those who dare to speak out against white supremacy in America. How can people who identify as Christians act with such malice against a man calling for an end to unjust killings? This is especially true considering the commitment of the same Christians to human life in the context of reproductive liberty. The same concern for life does not extend to the lives of Black children and adults killed by police shootings (or victims of any shootings based on the overlap between this branch of Christianity and gun enthusiasts).
What Graham and Kaepernick’s critics offer is a reformation of the “Religion of the South.” The “Religion of America” is one of the supremacy of some at the expense of others. This is not Christianity. This is something else entirely.
The notion of the “Religion of the South” left for us by slave narratives proves to be prophetic. The “Religion of America” and its flags in the pulpit and American Patriot’s Bible is not the religion given to us by Jesus Christ and the apostles. It is the religion of the oppressor, being used to maintain a grasp on worldly, human authority.