01 December 2011

American Churches and Racism

Why are churches some of the most segregated places around in America today?  I've often wondered this, and I must say that it really, really bugs me.  Race is obviously a contentious issue in American history.  One need not look any farther than the relations between new seventeenth-century settlers and group that these Anglo-Americans drove out of their homeland (American Indians) and between the same Anglo-American settlers and a group (African slaves) that they brought across the Atlantic against their wills.  Some people would argue that racism is largely gone today.  Then a story like the following shows up in the news. Just recently, a Kentucky church voted to exclude interracial couples from membership.

Moves like this definitely show that racism is far from dead.  Would the interracial character of the relationship been a big deal to those that voted to exclude the couple if the non-white member had been a Christian from Turkey, Korea, or Brazil, rather than Africa?  The answer can't be known definitely, but it seems that black/white relationships seem to draw the biggest complaint.  Of course, this goes against Paul's writings about there being no distinctions in the body of Christ (see Galatians 3:28, which ironically, considering American history, put slaves and masters on the same level).

Racism and bigotry have been very common throughout American history.  A recent post on the Religion in American History blog talks about some of the recent directions in the historiography of the Ku Klux Klan.  This post was quite interesting.  I've also read a couple of interesting works lately on the topic of bigotry.  

One was Lynn Neal's article in the June 2009 issue of Church History, "Christianizing the Klan." This article showed how KKK sympathizers used images in their literature that depicted the Klan in Christian and 100% American terms against Catholics, Jews, unions, etc. A good recent work on anti-Catholic journalism in the Progressive Era is Justin Nordstrom's Danger on the Doorstep. The anti-Catholic publication, The Menace, had the second-highest subscription rate in America for a time. All of this tied to the idea of 100% Americanism, which the KKK endorsed. I was also doing some research recently on a totally unrelated subject, and a minister's autobiography (Albert F. Gray) told of a service that he attended (I believe it was Washington State) in which some men in robes came in, presented an American flag, and left. Although the book did not identify said men, I assume that it was some Klansmen given the time period and this practice. (I posted the previous paragraph as a comment on the American religion blog post noted above).

This 100% Americanism has shown up in much of my research on Grand Forks, North Dakota, religious history.  A Baptist church, which I've mentioned in a couple of conference papers that I've posted here, definitely believed in American exceptionalism and thought that the rest of the world should become English-speaking American-style democrats against WWI-era German autocrats.  A Lutheran church in town that I've studied transferred to English-speaking services around the same time that there were moves for 100% Americanism.  While I can see the desire for people to speak the same language as others, because it's difficult to communicate without speaking the same language, I don't think that a proper understanding of Christianity allows for the blatant racism that many in American history have fostered (and apparently continue to foster) in their churches.  I would personally argue that it makes the church as a whole look bad to society.  However, it's just a reflection of the view of people who vote this way in church meetings.


  1. Racism rears it's head in many different forms and formats. If it's the "Our race is superior to your race" attitude you're addressing, then we must address the heart of the matter...proud hearts that exalt themselves above others that God has created to be different. As long as there is pride and arrogance, there will be racism. If you are addressing segregation then you are forced to deal with the issues in the heart that make men react this way. Some would argue that one race is pure and must be kept that way, just as the children of Israel were commanded not to inter-marry, they hold that we must not inter-marry. It is a hard line of logic to hold when you consider that most every person alive is a mixture of the peoples they came from. Some would take a stance on segregation because of fear. For instance, the percentage of men in prison that are black males is astronomically high and "that area" (that happens to be a black neighborhood) is riddled with crime and drugs so MUST keep segregated. The problem with this is faulty logic because I can take you to a "white ghetto" in some cities I have visited in and the same vices and character level is present whether white or black. The error is to pin the behavior to a race.

    I can't solve these problems neither do I pretend to understand them completely but this I know: God commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Neighbors can be Samaritans, black or any other variety of races. We are to show the love of Christ to them and fight the pride, fear, arrogance and hatred in our own hearts and hope that God will use us to help spread love instead of hate.

  2. Well said. Thanks for the comment, Kevin. I would point out that there were instances of Jews marrying outside their "race." This was not the issue. The religious beliefs of the other nations were the issue. Rahab and Ruth are notable examples, but they sided with the religion of Israel, leaving their old way of life behind.


  3. This may be a little off topic: How do you feel about the issue that we are all guilty for the corporate sin of racism that our country is founded on (Using slaves for labor and kicking Native Americans off of their land)? It is undeniable that today we benefit from these past misfortunes. However, some would argue that as the body of Christ in America we are to be the leaders in the act of corporate confession. What are your views on this issue?