The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama, slavery, Jim Crow, and Christianity

The outrage machine is on hyper-drive today because President Obama said this at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday:

“How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Obama went on to suggest that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith,” and noted that the outbreaks of religious violence we’re seeing internationally exhibit a trait that is “not unique to one group or one religion.” As Juliet Eilperin observes, Obama has been here before: He was restating a view of U.S. history which stresses that “Americans must try harder to live up to their own self-image” and that a central part of the process of American self-improvement is admitting to our own “shortcomings.”

Republicans and Christian groups are attacking these comments, arguing that they amount to a “wrongheaded” comparison between Christians and ISIS. One GOP official even claimed that Obama has “offended every believing Christian in the United States,” and shows that “Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

Ed Kilgore has an interesting take on Obama’s comments. He argues that what’s really motivating some of his critics is a fundamentalist objection to the President’s failure to show solidarity with “our” religion in an ongoing “religious war,” and to his lack of a sufficiently self righteous view of Christianity as a template for how to “run public policy and everything in society.”

I wanted to focus specifically on Obama’s evocation of slavery and Jim Crow, however. As it happens, the argument over which side could claim religious justification for their position in the battles over slavery and Jim Crow was, in fact, important to the history of how those battles unfolded. Those working to end slavery and Jim Crow explicitly criticized their opponents for invoking God and religion in defense of the status quo.

In the case of slavery, it’s right there in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which Lincoln talked about how both sides were invoking religion, and asked how slave-holders could conceivably invoke a “just God” on their side, though he acknowledged uncertainty about God’s designs:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

In the very first Congressional debates over slavery in the 1790s, when anti-slavery groups were petitioning the new Congress for an end to slavery, southern Members of Congress invoked God’s will and the Bible in defense of slavery, and cited southern Christian ministers’ sermons in doing so. As historian Eric Foner relayed in a quick phone conversation: “In the south, Christianity was a bulwark of slavery. Ministers defended slavery on the basis of the Bible. Christian churches owned slaves. In the north, many people saw Christianity as condemning slavery.”

As for Civil Rights, many southern defenders of segregation genuinely believed God was on their side. As Julian Zelizer puts it in his terrific history of the era, southern opponents of Civil Rights legislation saw its proponents as “radical agitators who wanted to destroy wholesome southern communities, where white Americans and African Americans lived separate and equal from each other, as ordained by God.”

Many religious groups, of course, were instrumental on the other side of the debate, exerting intense pressure on Members of Congress to support Civil Rights legislation, through prayer vigils, trips to Washington, and sermons back at home that resulted in huge volumes of letters pouring in to the Capitol from congregants across the country. Leading supporters of Civil Rights explicitly criticized those on the other side of the argument who used their positions in organized religion to delay change. Martin Luther King, Jr., ripped southern churches as “arch-defenders of the status quo” and criticized the church for its “vocal sanction of things as they are.”

The President seemed to suggest that those episodes represented a “sinful tendency” in all of us that can “pervert and distort our faith.” This is not an argument I would feel comfortable making, but then again, I’m not religious. I’d be genuinely interested to know whether religious people today would object to that depiction of those historical episodes. Certainly many religious opponents of slavery and Jim Crow believed that at the time.

Now, in fairness, Obama’s critics seem to be avoiding taking direct issue with the slavery and Jim Crow-oriented aspects of Obama’s remarks. But, to the degree that Obama is being criticized for vaguely “offending Christians,” and departing from American “values,” it’s worth noting that his suggestion that Christianity has been pressed into service to justify some of the darker moments in American history is not at all controversial.