When Michelle Obama addressed the significance of the first black First Family living in the White House, a house built by slaves, she was unintentionally giving a history lesson to many who didn’t know this to be the case — and some who would wish to prove parts of her statement false.
But it was the truth, even if conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly, for multiple nights in a row, argued that the slaves who built the presidential palace were, at the very least, “well-fed,” ate “meat, bread and other staples,” and had decent lodging. At no point has O’Reilly recognized that the racist, dehumanizing institution of slavery is the fundamental issue at hand.
Christian author and columnist Rachel Held Evans called these responses “disheartening” in a Facebook post Thursday morning, especially since O’Reilly’s sentiments seemed to resonate with her fellow faith practitioners:
Some Christians in particular have so idealized our country’s “Christian heritage” that they shrug off American slavery as “not that bad” or an “unfortunate incident.” But we cannot hope to move toward racial justice and reconciliation in this country if white Americans refuse to grasp the severity of the sin of slavery and the continued prevalence of racism.
Contemporary Christians, Evans contends, are too willing to forget one of America’s original sins rather than face how America’s past transgressions are inextricably tied to the country America has become. But today’s Christians are not unique.
In fact, a look at the history of American Christianity shows that people of faith aren’t exempt from facing each generation’s political and ideological battles. More often, those battles are waged among faith leaders themselves.
Not all Christians saw eye-to-eye on slavery
As the story goes, America was initially forged as a safe haven by European colonialists fleeing religious persecution. And while their experiences precipitated “the separation of church and state,” the line between religion and politics was often blurred when people of faith had to figure out where they stood on slavery.
Pennsylvania, for instance, was originally founded in 1681 by William Penn, a Quaker, as a “holy experiment” in which religious tolerance was the law on the condition that the state’s government reflect the spiritual values of its inhabitants. And while Quakers heeded women’s calls for equality — at least, better than most denominations of the time — it would take a century and a half for the state to transform from being a major hub for the slave trade among the colonies into a leader in abolishing slavery.
“Is there any that would be...sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?” read a petition penned by four members of the Society of Friends and sent to the Quakers’ 1688 general meeting. They aimed to appeal to the morality of fellow Quakers through the golden rule. Instead the petition was tucked away. At the time, those at the meeting believed slavery was “so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here.”
That lasted until the nineteenth century, when a Christian case began to be made for slavery. With the advent of Protestant Evangelicalism, slaves were being converted to Christianity in large numbers. And in the South, Protestant clergy used Christianity to justify slaves’ obedience to slave owners.
So in 1844, as the national conversation on slavery intensified, the 17th-century Quaker petition was finally published, and helped pivot Quakers toward being the leaders against slavery they are known as today.
Although the Quakers remained relatively intact while their stance on slavery shifted, some denominations fractured to keep slavery in place.
The Southern Baptist Convention, currently the largest Protestant denomination in the US, was created in 1845 after a group of churches, unwilling to remain neutral on the moral standing of slavery, created their own association that allowed them to both praise God and support the institution. The network of churches issued a formal apology for slavery in 1995. And it was only a month ago that it passed a resolution to stop displaying the Confederate flag.
However, other denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church exist because neither the state nor the church let slaves praise God freely.
Richard Allen, a former slave born in Philadelphia in 1760 and the first ordained black Methodist Episcopal preacher, converted to Methodism when he was 17 years old after he heard a white Methodist preacher railing against the institution that shackled him in chains. After, he bought his freedom, and worked in the Methodist church.
But when he got to the Methodist church, Allen learned that even the pulpit was segregated under the eyes of God.
Frustrated, Allen and other black congregants left the church in a mass walkout in 1792. By 1816 Allen and Rev. Absalom Jones had officially established the American Methodist Episcopal Church, the first national black denomination in the country. Not only was it an opportunity for black Christians find spiritual sanctuary, as it expanded, the AME church became a refuge for early black organizing efforts against the institution that held most black people of the time in bondage.
Despite praying to the same God, how people understood God’s views on slavery depended greatly on their own stakes in slavery itself. For some, the institution was an abomination, while others advocated that slavery was a manifestation of God’s will. And for early African-American Christians, faith was as much a means of fighting against slavery as it was fighting against racism in white Christian pews.
“Eleven-o-clock on Sunday is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America”
Because of this relationship, even in America’s earliest days, faith has been tied to organizing for the rights of black Americans. Some of the most prominent black leaders in the nation’s history were rooted in faith — and saw the struggles of racism through the lens of faith.
During an interview with Meet the Press in 1960, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. recounted the sober reality of Christianity’s ties to race: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation ... is that 11-o-clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.”
A century after emancipation, the vestiges of slavery remained as churches stood divided between white churches that wouldn’t let black people into their pulpits, and black churches that maintained their own religious institutions for their own safety and because there weren’t really many other options.
The cleavage was so acute that it led to the rise of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist Islamic movement founded in 1930 that rose to prominence through figures like Malcolm X. The movement was presented as a means of delivering black people from slavery, and that included rejecting Christianity for its sordid past as a tool that white people used to justify slavery and white supremacy.
But white Christians also found little refuge when they stood at the front lines with their black counterparts in the name of racial equality. In 1965, three white Unitarian ministers were severely beaten with clubs by white segregations in Selma, Alabama, who were upset by their work helping black people register to vote. Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff W. Miller survived the assault. Rev. James Reeb died from his injuries. When three white men were tried for killing Reeb, an all-white jury found them not guilty after an hour and half of deliberation.
Christianity, like most religions, is not without its problematic points in history. While it has inspired the best in many human beings, American history also shows that Christianity has also been used to justify America’s oldest and worst sin.
The first lady’s convention speech proved that progress is possible. But when racism remains, it can’t be that surprising that some Christians can’t see what’s wrong with slavery when Christianity hasn’t always helped show there was anything wrong with it in the first place.