Much of the white church in America is illegitimate. It has long been simply a cover for white supremacy. This was again made evident after pastor Robert W. Lee IV recently spoke out against racism at the VMAs. Lee’s parishioners subsequently opted to vote on his tenure, resulting in his resignation. This ordeal furthers the argument that, at its core, the white Christian movement in America has never stood for faith and piety but rather, white supremacy.
This is evident in the role the church played in sanctifying the institution of slavery. It can be seen in the segregationist roots of the conservative evangelical movement; a movement that for decades professed Christian faith to be of chief importance but mobilized to support a Mormon over a Christian in the 2012 election.
Any credibility white conservative Christians still had was decimated just four years later when they overwhelmingly supported the new de-facto leader of the Confederacy, Donald Trump. The historical record makes it nearly impossible to believe that spirituality and godly devotion was ever the true concern of white Christianity at large. On the other hand, the record helps make perfect sense of Robert Lee’s current predicament.
Our nation’s founders were slavers but not enthusiastically, in most cases. Thomas Jefferson thought slavery to be a “moral depravity” and a threat to the nation’s very survival. Benjamin Franklin started as a typical white supremacist and slaveowner but by 1787 was President of the Abolition Society of Philadelphia. Indeed, before his death Franklin petitioned Congress to bring about slavery’s end. It is well documented that Abigail and John Adams were strongly anti-slavery in their convictions, also. How, then, did we evolve into the Dred Scott nation? Giving the Supreme Court’s majority opinion on the case, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that the nation’s founders believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” The church bears an overwhelming responsibility for that evolution.
It was the church that provided a theology to assuage the conscience of an ambivalent slave nation. Slavery could not have succeeded without a Christian church that was happy to subjugate faith to the larger desire for profits and white supremacy. Period. That foundation was, in part, laid well before 1776, during the First Great Awakening revival. The country was becoming more religious through that great revival but curiously, the movement’s leaders largely left the institution of slavery untouched while seeking to convert the slaves. More disturbing, George Whitefield, perhaps the movement’s most prominent leader, was among the most adamant apologists for slavery.
In 1735 the colony of Georgia became unique for its prohibition of black slavery. Whitefield was not pleased, arguing that “the constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves.” Whitefield believed the progress of his orphanage, Bethesda, was retarded by Georgia’s anti-slavery position. He said, ”Had Negroes been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans without expending above half the sum that has been laid out.” Whitefield gladly advocated for change.
The American church was to be an institution in service to white supremacy, that much was clear. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was well aware of this. Many thought Stowe exaggerated the conditions of slavery in her classic work and in response she published “A Key To Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in order to verify the accuracy of her depiction of slavery. In it Stowe presented a record of the church’s endorsement of slavery. In doing so Stowe noted that, “There is no country in the world where the religious influence has a greater ascendancy than in America. There is no country where the clergy are more powerful.” Given the influence of the church at that time it was especially egregious when the Charleston Union Presbytery, for example, said,
“Resolved, that in the opinion of this Presbytery, the holding of slaves, so far from being a SIN in the sight of God, is nowhere condemned in his holy word; that it is in accordance with the example, or consistent with the precepts of patriarchs, apostles, and prophets, and that it is compatible with the most fraternal regard to the best good of those servants whom God may have committed to our charge.”
These are the roots of white Christianity and they sprouted trees. It should be of no surprise, then, that the modern conservative evangelical movement was birthed from a desire to maintain segregation. It is well documented that after the Brown v. Board decision, parochial schools emerged quickly. Rather than integrate, white Christians used the cover of faith to establish schools that weren’t subject to integration mandates. However, the government soon began to challenge the tax-exempt status of those schools due to their segregated status. Evangelical leaders suddenly felt the spirit and decided to launch a political movement; they simply needed a more palatable cause to rally for publicly.
As Randall Balmer eloquently laid out in a 2014 Politico story, evangelicals were largely silent after the Roe vs. Wade decision. Still, leaders like Bob Jones — who maintained that the Bible taught segregation — and Jerry Falwell felt the IRS’ oncoming charge and supported a national organizing effort around the abortion issue. In the spirit of George Whitefield and other religious forefathers, the cover of Christianity was again used to uphold racism and it worked. In the 1980 election Jimmy Carter, an evangelical, was shunned in favor of Ronald Reagan — a man who in 1967 signed the most liberal abortion bill in the country. It was never about Christianity or values.
The last two presidential cycles again hammered the point home. The overwhelming support for Mitt Romney — a Mormon — over a Christian was telling. The overwhelming support for Donald Trump — a complete reprobate — over a candidate with a defined connection to the Methodist faith over the years was also telling. This was never truly about God or faith, in the same way that the Crusaders weren’t. White Christianity has largely been, to quote Frederick Douglass, “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” What happened to Robert Lee after the VMA’s is simply more evidence in an open-and-shut case.
I don’t identify as Christian but am qualified to offer this rebuke. I am a son of the black church and the son of classical Pentecostal ministers. I hold an advanced theological degree, not from any school but Oral Roberts University, in fact. I can fully discern that what happened to pastor Lee only serves to make the subtle more obvious.
To be sure, science, universities and a host of other American institutions served the same larger aim of white supremacy. Still, the church has claimed responsibility for humanity’s ultimate concern and to be a representative of God on earth and as such, more is required. Perhaps there is a living Jesus to be sought but not within the white church as we’ve known it. It must die.