The Church's Role in Keeping White Supremacy Alive

Pews and stained glass windows in church
Pews and stained glass windows in church

There are many things which we can get around if we try, but it is hard to escape the religious beliefs with which we grow up. In my home, the mantra was "love and forgive." As I watched on television police officers attack innocent black people with dogs and fire hoses, my mother issued a stern reminder that, regardless of what I was seeing, Jesus would have it that we love our enemies and forgive them.

I was devastated, yet struck by her words. I might have tried to ignore the words had they been just from my mother, but the fact that she put the comments in the context of the requirements of God made it almost impossible for me to ignore her.

Those precepts, to me, represented the centrality of the Christian message, but it seemed that they were not the precepts of many Christians, who hold the belief that God is the author of white supremacy, that God wants it and that God demands that believers keep it in place.

It is singularly fascinating that Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the KKK during the 60s, felt like God called him to the task of "preserving the purity of his blood and soil" (God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights) Bowers considered himself to be a "Christian militant...dedicated to oppose in every honorable way possible the forces of Satan on this earth."

He believed that God called him to engage "holy warriors" who would "remain hidden from view...creating an environment of fear as inscrutable as divine wrath." Bowers, who was behind the murders of the three Civil Rights workers -- Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner -- also killed Vernon Dahmer, a black NAACP officer who let black people pay their poll taxes in his store and register to vote.

Their murders, he would say, were the result of divine instruction. Those who worked for equality and civil rights for Negroes were "infidels," he believed, and God's desire was to raise up a band of holy patriots against them. White people were called to be the "guardians of America. Bowers considered himself to be a priest, who, he believed, was one called to rise up against heretics (those who fought for civil rights) because such heresy could not be forgiven.

White theologian Douglas Hudgins was yet another "church person," a religious scholar, who believed that God wanted racial purity to be maintained. He "preached a gospel of individual salvation and personal orderliness, construing civil rights activism as not only a defilement of social purity but even more as simply irrelevant to the proclamation of Jesus Christ as God.

"The cross of Christ," Hudgins taught, "had nothing to do with social movements or realities beyond the church; it's a matter of individual salvation." He further taught that the Cross was a "defender of white supremacy."

If teachings such as these were part of the Sunday School lessons of many white people, it is no wonder that white supremacy is still a mainstay not only of the United States but of the world. According to Charles Marsh, the author of the book cited, these people, and others like them, believed that "white supremacy was divine law" and that mixing of the races, i.e. mongrelization, was "the root of all evil." White supremacy, they taught, was "enacted for the defense of society and civilization."

The religious sanction of white supremacy is as much a part of the American ethos as is our very Constitution; it has seeped over and throughout everything in this nation from the beginning of time.

As strong as have been my lessons from Sunday School on love and forgiveness, on the message of inclusivity contained in the Gospels, so have been the Sunday School lessons of others who were taught that black people are not equal to whites; that they are inferior and to be feared.

Those lessons do not go away. They permeate the spirits of those in control, and provide a smug justification for the treating of black people, even now, as objects, not human beings. They also inspire violence, state-sanctioned violence, against black people. White people were taught to "turn their sights from black suffering."

The Church has been quiet so often, too often, but if we understand the underpinnings and the centrality of Christianity, specifically American Christianity, we may begin to understand that silence and not be surprised by it.

Lessons taught by mama and daddy, and "Rev" whomever, tend to stick with us. That we are still wrestling with white supremacy is testimony and testament to that fact. White people want -- need -- to say and believe that racism is gone, but it is not. White supremacy is a part of the red, white and blue called America.