Book review: “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” by Robert P. Jones

I finished reading White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones. The thesis of the book is that white supremacy has had such an influence on Christianity in America that it has becomes ingrained in it. It wasn’t done away with the signing of a civil rights bill. I picked this book up knowing it would make me more than a little uncomfortable. But I have increasingly seen the importance of wrestling with the historic wrongs and the dark legacy they have left. It isn’t as simple as saying “It’s all in the past.” It certainly still impacts us today, and we shouldn’t try to pave over it. We should acknowledge it, we should feel remorse– not personal remorse in the same sense that I repent of my own personal sins. But remorse collective remorse in that the traditions and institutions that we value and hold dear have committed immense wrongs. The author of this book outlines his own personal journey in confronting these issues. He is a white Christian from the South. And his book I think is a good model of the kinds of discussions we should be having surrounding race today.

This book tells how white supremacy and American Christianity have sustained each other throughout history. This isn’t meant to be slander, but rather an invitation to become better. He outlines the Christian ministers that molded the theology of slavery and segregation. Manly taught that slavery was part of a divine order:

Manly’s most systematic defense of slavery was encapsulated in one of eight “Sermons on Duty,” a series he honed and preached at various venues across the South. Notably, his discussion of slavery was embedded in a larger theological framework of the patriarchal family, which he saw as central to God’s plan for human society. Different members of the family have divinely ordained differentiated roles, he argued, and the practice of slavery should be understood within this hierarchical context. Thus, the divine order for accomplishing social needs “naturally leads to different occupations– some to labor, some to plane, and to direct the labor of others.” Like a symbiotic ecosystem, genders and races had their roles to play, and when all parts functioned as designed, the ecosystem thrived, and individual members– whatever their lot– were content, since they were fulfilling their created purpose.

That seemed so eerie to me that stripped of the slavery part, you may hear such a talk given in Sunday School by a conservative church member to argue for gender complementarianism. Manly also didn’t see slavery as a necessarily evil either; he said, I have no more doubt or compunction than in pocketing the price of a horse or anything else that belonged to me when it came to slaves.

Jones also covers a whole cast of characters who created a theology to defend segregation. Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi, ran on a platform that included the slogan God was the original segregationist. That also hit home, as racism is baked into Latter-Day Saint theology as well. Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the quorum of the twelve, was invited to run as the running mate of segregationist Strom Thurmond. With these examples and others, Jones makes the argument that Christianity didn’t “tame” slavery or segregation. They reinforced each other. He quotes a passage from Frederick Douglass that really hits home:

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a classleader on Sunday morning to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families– sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and teh adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for teh glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the churchgoing bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near to each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other– devils dressed in angels’ robes and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

Yes, you may argue, that is painful to read. But it is history. It’s in the past. We don’t teach that today. Jones argues that that is not the case. Our doctrines developed to defend a white supremacist system, and they can’t be easily removed as they have grown together. Jones gives the example of personal salvation, which completely ignores the sins on the societal level. He says, It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling around it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry. He quotes Martin Luther King, who expressed a similar sentiment:

On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings, I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over, I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

I appreciated this book because it more fully outlined a history I had read in history books, but hadn’t fully encountered. I hadn’t lived through it or dealt with its effects. I think we would do well to more fully understand this history rather than trying to avoid it. That is all that is being asked. No one is trying to get you to hate yourself for being white; they just want you to read the whole story, rather than cherrypicking the stories that make you feel proud to be an American.

I appreciate this book for bringing to light voices of African-Americans who fought for change. I have been watching recordings of Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. I want to read the works of Toni Morrison. This passage by Baldwin near the end struck me:

I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs, and an intolerable version of myself.

Hence the title of the book, and a challenge to re-evaluate our legacy as Americans and Christians.

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