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Christianity’s Role in American Racism: An Uncomfortable Look at the Present and the Past

The above quote is from my eighth-grade history book called America: Land I Love. I remember studying its cover, a painting of George Washington at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, and feeling stirred by the righteous spirit of the founding fathers. I took to heart whatever my Christian curriculum said. A Beka Book, now called Abeka, has provided millions of Christian schools with textbooks since 1972. Over 1 million students learned from their curriculum in 2017 alone. They are one of many Christian curriculums infusing racism into the education of American schoolchildren, helping to shape the evangelicals making up more than 25% of our voting block. A Beka Book shaped me.

  Right now, my country is blazing with protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. People are marching peacefully and being brutalized by the police. Others are rioting and looting. Most of the people I know are sharing social media memes asking us to educate ourselves and each other, beseeching one another to have difficult conversations and to look inward at the ways our racial biases have consciously and unconsciously contributed to Black injustice in America. People also say to write what you know. I know how Christian education is fueling racism in the United States.

The Curriculum

Last week, I was part of a group text where one of the members, who didn’t go to school in the U.S., asked what we Americans learned about anti-racism in our education. “We didn’t have any anti-racism or racist awareness classes at all,” one woman responded. “I mostly had race courses in college,” another replied. “Same here,” wrote someone else. Do I do it? I thought. Do I say what I learned in my school books? Will I be discounted because I was homeschooled? Do I even have a place in this conversation? Yes, I did.

“I was homeschooled,” I wrote, “like many U.S. evangelicals, with a Christian curriculum. Was taught about Black history from the narrow perspective of how Christianity ‘freed’ the slaves. Many conservative right-wingers went to Christian schools and were taught from the same books I was. We were essentially taught good Blacks turned to Christianity and white assimilation (MLK Jr) and to associate black anger and violence with non-Christianity/Black power (Malcolm X).”

Before going further, I’d like to be clear about something: My parents did not teach me this. My mom went through several different curriculums when I was growing up trying to find one that was not religiously dogmatic. In the mid-90s, it was far more difficult to find secular homeschooling resources than it is today. My parents are also both college-educated—they graduated from UC Berkeley, a police officer and a history-major concert pianist, and I share this to dispel the notion that Christian homeschool parents are all uneducated and paranoid. Mine were flawed as any are, but their decision to homeschool their children primarily stemmed from my mother’s genuine love of teaching.

Back to what my Christian curriculum had to say about Black people. The impression I retained was one of white savior superiority that demonized non-Christian, non-assimilating Blacks through the lens of spiritual warfare. (For the unfamiliar, I explain spiritual warfare in my post about the Christian Right’s opposition to abortion. The same spiritual logic applies here.) Out of curiosity, I decided to look up exactly what my 1990s and 2000s schoolbooks said. What I found floods my ears with blood to reread today. (Emphasis mine.)

A few slave owners were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well.United States History for Christian Schools, A Beka Book

Although the slaves faced great difficulties, many found faith in Christ and learned to look to God for strength. By 1860, most slaveholders provided Christian instruction on their plantations. America: Land I Love, A Beka Book

To help His children endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave the Christian slaves the ability to spiritually combine the African heritage of song with the dignity and power of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is freedom from the bondage of sin.America: Land I Love, A Beka Book

Only 6000 families in the entire South had over 50 slaves in 1850. America: Land I Love, A Beka Book

The story of slavery in America is an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin. The sin in this case was greed—greed on the part of African tribal leaders, on the part of slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering—most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well.United States History for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University Press

These excerpts are from two of the most popular Christian school and homeschool curriculums in America: A Beka Book (now Abeka), who published several of my math, history, and civics textbooks; and Bob Jones University Press (BJU), whose curriculum my mother didn’t use, although many of her peers did. Only in November of 2008 did Bob Jones University issue an apology for their racism, which included a ban on interracial dating until the year 2000. 2000. It took a Black man winning the Presidency of the United States before BJU would publicly admit they were wrong. Abeka has yet to issue any formal apology that I can find. In fact, its founders say, “We present free-enterprise economics without apology and point out the dangers of Communism, socialism, and liberalism to the well-being of people across the globe.”

Many former Christians have been revealing the racism taught in their education. Activist, writer, and ex-evangelical Chrissy Stroop coined the hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools on Twitter in January of 2019. It went viral and made headlines with stories of curriculum-sanctioned racism, homophobia, sexism, corporal punishment, science denial, and more. All Biblically-based, of course. Contributions from ex-Catholics, ex-Mormons, and ex-Amish poured in alongside evangelicals and non-denominationals.

To say Christianity has nothing to do with American racism would be white privilege on privilege. That wasn’t my Christianity, you might be thinking. That’s not my Jesus. I can already see the hashtags. You want to talk about #NotAllChristians? Not all Christians were privileged with a secular education. Not all Christians were privileged to grow up in a coastal, liberal state. Not all Christians were privileged to learn the Bible from a non-literal, cherry-picked point of view. We were taught to take the entire Bible as God’s truth.

Christian school curriculums have been under scrutiny since Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos is on a mission to “advance God’s kingdom” through education, and for over 30 years, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to enroll their children in private and overwhelmingly Christian schools. Just last month, DeVos used the $2 trillion coronavirus stabilization law to redirect “...millions of federal dollars intended primarily for public schools and colleges to private and religious schools.”

In 2018, the Orlando Sentinel reported what these religious schools are teaching students from three of the most popular curriculums in Florida, which also happen to be three of the most popular nationwide: Abeka, Bob Jones University Press (BJU), and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). (Emphasis mine.)

The Abeka book said in a section on “evangelizing black Americans” that “the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior.”

The BJU text said “God provided” North America as a place for the Protestant church to flourish, keeping Catholics to Central America and South America.

The ACE curriculum supports the values the school believes are important, CEO Bill Keith said. Other schools teach “revisionist” history, he added, promoting Malcolm X and communism.

These three Christian curriculums are being used in countless tax-funded schools. Nearly 6 million students attend private schools in the United States and about three-quarters of those are Christian schools. Additionally, around 1.7 million American children are homeschooled. Below are snapshots of what these students are learning from Christian school and homeschool curriculums. You’ll see it wasn’t just bigotry against Black people.

Here are more excerpts from Christian school and homeschool curriculums about race:

Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel… Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write.Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, A Beka Book

[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians. United States History for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University Press

While the end was a noble one—ending discrimination in schools—the means were troublesome. Liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University Press

This is what millions of children and teenagers are being taught. This is the programming they carry with them into adulthood. This is what has shaped the minds of evangelical politicians and untold numbers of others in power.

Does this seem like the kind of education that would be an ally of a movement called #BlackLivesMatter?

Denying History

I posted a graphic on Instagram a week ago quoting Jeremiah Camara, a Black American filmmaker. The backlash was swift. 

“Dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”  “Not all Christians are racist.” “This post is in itself racist against whites.” “Why are you trying to divide people even more?” “The Gospel message has nothing to do with white supremacy.”

“Most of the early, and most vehement, abolitionists were Christians.” “You’ve been traumatized for your evangelical upbringing.”

That post was not about me. It wasn’t my quote I shared, it was a Black man’s. It wasn’t me talking about the psychological damage of white religious iconography or linking white supremacy to racism. It was Jeremiah Camara. And you bet I backed him up. Because I know it’s true. I will not apologize for boosting the voices of Black non-believers* in the discussion we’re having about racism. I will not be sorry for sharing their perspectives—especially when they make Christian-raised, non-Black people like myself uncomfortable. 

Black non-believers are a minority-within-a-minority. The faith-filled Black community has many allies. The Black faithless, not so much. So if anyone was hoping I’d learn my lesson and not speak of religion and racism again, I am not sorry to disappoint you. If anything, I am even more compelled to speak up about this inconvenient correlation.

Christianity is a part of the system we’re talking about when we say we need to change systemic racism in America. [Click to Tweet]

Most can agree that racism existed well before Christianity. That doesn’t change Christianity’s role in the trafficking of Africans and their enslavement in the American continents. Many would prefer to believe Christianity has nothing to do with white supremacy. They’re wrong. Only 11% of Americans have read the Bible and it shows. I understand the urge people have to jump to the parts of the Bible that talk about love and equality. I don’t deny these verses are there. But denying the racial prejudice and hatred that is also in the Bible is to deny God’s word. Even as a Christian, I understood that.

Someone commented on my post, “To me you are saying God is a racist.”

The God of the Bible is a racist. There are a plethora of stories displaying God’s racial favoritism and genocidal hatred of entire nations. For now, let’s focus on the Bible stories used to justify the abduction, bondage, and oppression of Black people. Let’s start with the Curse of the Canaanites.

The Canaanites were descendants of Noah’s son, Ham. In the book of Genesis, Ham finds his father passed out drunk and naked. When Noah wakes up and realizes Ham saw him in his uncovered state, he proclaims the curse that will be used to justify African American slavery centuries later. “Cursed be Canaan!” Noah cries. “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

Somewhere in Abrahamic storytelling, Ham came to be widely portrayed as Black. In Black and Slave: the Origins and History of the Curse of Ham, author David M. Goldenberg writes (emphasis mine):

The introduction of black skin color into Noah’s curse has a long history… In 1848, the American anti-slavery minister John G. Fee wrote that Ham was made black “by the curse of the Almighty,” and he succinctly described that effect, which was commonly believed in his time: “God designed the Negroes to be slaves.” ... It didn’t matter whether one supported the institution of black slavery or not, or whether one was black or not; everyone seemed to believe in the truth of Ham’s blackness.

Only in 2017 did the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledge that the roots of Christian white supremacy were based on the Curse of Ham, providing a theological justification for slavery and segregation.

Progressive Christians can’t be blamed for trying to detach themselves from Christianity’s association with racism. Many are quick to point out that the Old Testament, where the story of Ham and the curse of the Canaanites is found, was made irrelevant with the arrival of Christ. Yet even if a version of Christianity is narrowed to the New Testament—even stripped down to only the red-lettered words of Christ—Jesus himself showed racism to a Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her daughter. He called her a dog. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus said. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” She wore him down until he deigned to reward her faith. 

Many liberal Christians pardon the Bible’s more heinous contents by claiming “historical context,” metaphorical impunity, or choosing to focus primarily on the New Testament. Yet all throughout the Bible, New Testament included, infamous verses backing up slavery can be found. The apostle Paul returns a runaway slave to his master. He instructs masters to treat their slaves kindly, but also commands slaves to obey their earthly masters with fear and trembling. One verse from the Old Testament and two verses from the New deserve to be printed in full. (Emphasis mine.)

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property. Exodus 21:20-21

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:18-21

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. Titus 2:9-10

Is it any wonder how Christian slaveholders justified their treatment of Black people? 

Black Christianity

I broach this section with careful consideration. Nearly eight-in-ten Black Americans identify as Christian. It is not lost on me that George Floyd, whose murder we collectively witnessed in viral video, was a devout believer. His family is turning to God in their unimaginable grief. It is not my intention to mock the personal beliefs bringing them comfort, or the beliefs of anyone finding solace in faith or a lack thereof. Again, I reiterate: I am not here to criticize people. I am here to help explain Christian ideology’s historic role in Black oppression, so that we may address its lasting ramifications as we move forward with sincere efforts to change the perpetuating of systemic racism. 

Many Black Christians in America today are painfully aware of their religion’s past. The Washington Post published an article last year titled, “The Bible was used to justify slavery. Then Africans made it their path to freedom. (Emphasis mine.)

It is not lost on [Alabama pastor Reverend Jaymes Robert Mooney] that the Gospel he preaches, the Gospel so many African Americans embraced to sustain them through the horrors of beatings and rapes, separations and lynchings, separate and unequal, is the same Gospel used to enslave them.

Rev. Mooney addressed the murder of George Floyd in his sermon last week titled When You Feel Like You Can’t Breathe. “What do you do,” he asked his congregation, “in a world that every now and then reminds you that you do not have any value to them? ...When we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ we are reminded that ‘I can’t breathe’ is because our breath has been taken away by the transatlantic slave trade.”

Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University, was also quoted in The Washington Post article, saying:

Christianity was proslavery. So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.”

And about those abolitionists?

Abolitionists tried to make arguments against using the Bible to justify slavery, but they were in the minority. “They were considered to be radical,” [historian of American Christianity Mark] Noll said. “And often they were considered to be infidels, because how could they say God was opposed to slavery if it was so obvious in the Bible that he was not? “[Slaves] very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in,” Pierce said.

When you cannot reason with your oppressor, embrace his language. When you cannot escape the ideology that justified your abduction, embrace the ideology. This sounds eerily similar to Jeremiah Camara’s likening of Black Christianity to Stockholm syndrome.

After I quoted Jeremiah Camara in my Instagram post, I received several messages from people wondering how Black Christians might feel if they saw it. I understand where their concern is coming from. Again, it is not my goal to critique people, but to ask us to examine the ways Christian ideology is contributing to systemic racism. I hope sharing my Christian curriculum made that point clear.

Another point I dare to bring up is that of segregation in the Christian church.

American Christian churches have been racially segregated since before our country’s founding. Obviously, this stems from white racism against Blacks. Today, 90% of white American Christians worship in all-white churches and 90% of Black American Christians worship in all-Black churches. Although some church communities are making efforts to racially integrate, one of the reasons many Blacks want to worship separately from whites is because the Black church acts as a shelter from injustice and discrimination. Black pastor Isaac Adams wrote an article called “Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People” describing additional reasons Black Christians may be reluctant to have fellowship with whites, including:

• Many white brothers and sisters don’t work against, much less acknowledge, racism, whether subtle or blatant. …Some white folk in the church act as if, according to one writer, “any mention of ‘racism’ is a racial slur directed at them.”

 • It feels like the majority doesn’t want to hear what it feels like to be black. All it takes is to be told once by a white brother or sister to just “get over” the issues of race to feel like those in the majority are opposed to understanding you, to loving you.

• Sometimes blacks feel like projects instead of peers. Some white churches do not think of blacks as those who can minister to others; we’re only to be ministered to by others. In other words, we feel like objects of ministry, not those encouraged to initiate it.

A rising number of Black Americans are rejecting church altogether. In 2007, 12% of Black Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated—atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” In 2014, that number grew to 18%, and it is likely to be higher now. These Black non-believers are often stigmatized as traitors in their communities. One of those Black atheists is Tiana Afrika, co-host of a podcast called Speak No Pseudo. In the episode released this February titled “Racism in Religion,” Tiana and her co-host Kuante Afrika discussed Christianity’s role in American slavery.

“A lot of people, believers in particular—the theists—do not like what I have to say,” Tiana said. “Religion and racism go hand-in-hand. We can’t say that atheism and racism go hand-in-hand.” “Let’s be honest,” added Kuante.“There are religious people who are not racist. There are racist people who are not religious. What we’re saying is that religion is one of the blueprints for racism. That’s the point we’re making here.” [Click to Tweet]

If you won’t hear it from me, please hear it from Black people themselves. Follow Black Nonbelievers on Twitter. Listen to the Speak No Pseudo podcast. Subscribe to atheist artist Greydon Square’s YouTube channel. Read ex-evangelical Tori William Douglass’s blog White Homework and start with “The Day I Learned White Christians Hate Me.” And please, if nothing else, watch Jeremiah Camara’s Amazon Prime documentary Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America. So many people are saying to donate to Black nonprofits, patronize Black businesses, and amplify Black voices. Please, continue to do so. I only ask that you also consider donating to, patronizing, and amplifying the voices of Black non-believers. Their Black lives matter, too.

In Closing

First of all, thank you for hearing me out. If you’ve read this blog in its entirety, seriously, thank you for just being open to considering another point of view. I know how difficult and scary it can feel, especially if you believe entertaining non-Christian ideas are spiritually dangerous. I appreciate your willingness.

White and non-Black Christians, I challenge you to ask yourself five things:

  1. How many Black people regularly attend your church?

  2. How many times have you been to a historically Black church?

  3. What did you learn about the transatlantic slave trade? Did you learn about Christian white supremacy and the Slave Bible? Do you think of Africa as a continent that needs “saving”?

  4. If a Bible verse is no longer true because it was for that time and place, and if we are not to take some verses literally, why are any of the other verses true or literal?

  5. If you do not consider yourself a racist, and if you do not condone slavery, are you willing to rebrand Christianity by publicly declaring that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God? Are you willing to say that Jesus was imperfect, and that your Jesus, not the Biblical Jesus, does not stand for racism and bigotry? Are you willing to say you are Christ-inspired and let go of a label that carries a 400+ year history of Black American trauma?

Black Christians, you are not my people to challenge. You have my sincerest allyship in your fight to matter, and I wholeheartedly support your movement while criticizing what I see to be part of its obstruction. I do apologize for the hurt this post may cause.

White and non-Black non-believers, I ask you to watch, read and boost the work of your Black fellow atheists, agnostics, and spiritual-but-not-religious comrades. Don’t be afraid to “go there.” There will never be a good time to link racism with religion.

Lastly, Black non-believers… Thank you. Thank you for helping to educate me. Thank you for your unique lens, your unique bravery, and your unique voices that you bring to our community table. Thank you for your anger, your grace, and your courage.

I’ll let the words of Tiana and Kuante from Speak No Pseudo close us out.

“If we can get people to leave religion alone,” says Tiana. “It would help a whole lot. You know what I mean? It doesn’t mean it’s the end-all. But it will help.” “It’s a start,” adds Kuante. “It’s a HUGE start… I think it is a form of deflection when people say, ‘Well what about this,’ or, ‘Well, we’ll get to that.’ But right now we’re talking about religion. Don’t try to take the spotlight off of religion and pretend like it’s not there. Because then it doesn’t get solved.”

Systemic racism in America may never be solved. But if we refuse to look at the role Christianity plays in the oppression of Black people, we refuse to fight oppression. [Click to Tweet]

You don’t have to like it or agree, but I hope that I have persuaded you to at least consider it with honest reflection. Because Black lives matter.

~ *AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I refer to Black non-believers, I am primarily referring to Black atheists and agnostics, although Black people who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious may certainly share their perspectives. I apologize to any Black people who might be offended by the term “Black non-believers.” Also, because this piece is about Christianity’s contribution to Black oppression, I did not address other demographics such as Black Muslims and ex-Muslims. Lastly, for those wondering if a Black person read and approved this, yes they did. Special thanks to my friend Charley, a Black agnostic and talented recording artist, for graciously offering to do me the honor of a sensitivity read.

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05 jun

Your writing always leaves me informed and inspired. Thank you! Solar

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