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How American Christians can break free from ‘slaveholder religion’

A large crowd gathers in opposition to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13, 2017. Photo by Michael Sessum/Creative Commons

(RNS) — It’s been a century and a half since the American Civil War ended, but according to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the slaveholder religion of that era has quietly persisted until today. But to understand this development, a history lesson is in order.

In the mid-19th century, Christian abolitionists used the Bible to make a case for racial equality. Plantation owners could not let this stand, so they paid preachers to use the Bible to argue for white supremacy. This oppressive theology is what Wilson-Hartgrove calls “slaveholder religion.”

“After the South lost the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but slaveholder religion never went away,” he says. “It never repented. And it is with us still.”

Not convinced? Neither was Wilson-Hartgrove until he went back to read the many sermons and books from the mid-19th century, which remain in many American theological libraries until today. He was shocked by how familiar they felt. Slaveholder propaganda was eerily similar to the messages propagated by 21st-century conservative white evangelicals.

In “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion,” Wilson-Hartgrove wrestles with the troubling history and theology held by many believers. But more importantly, he explains what must be done to break free from these oppressive views and spark a more just expression of Christianity in America.

Does Donald Trump promote a “slaveholder religion,” in your opinion? If so, how?

The crucial point is that slaveholder religion promotes him. It doesn’t seem that the basic message of Christianity was ever personally appealing to Donald Trump. But candidate Trump discovered the incredible political power of slaveholder religion while attacking America’s first black president.

When researching this book in 2016, I spent a lot of time reading sermons by white Southern preachers during Reconstruction — the brief period when black people had political power after the Civil War. I was struck by how much they sounded like Trump.

The nation was in trouble, Washington was a den of corruption, and somebody needed to rise up and “take our country back.” This was the language of slaveholder religion after abolition. It was all about white supremacy, but it was framed as a moral crusade. Historians call it the “Redemption Movement” because it really was a matter of faith for white Southerners. Just as “Make America Great Again” is a matter of faith for many today.

What about the religious leaders and pastors who have supported and advise Trump? People like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Paula White and Robert Jeffress? Are they promoting a slaveholder religion?

Yes, but they don’t see it. They think they are standing up for righteousness over and against the liberal media. This is where religion is so powerful. It gives people a capacity to believe in spite of the evidence. Which means you’ll never prove to them that they’re wrong. But I don’t know how to explain Trumpvangelicals apart from white Christianity’s long history of justifying and defending white supremacy. How else do you reconcile “America first” with “the last shall be first”?

Still, I don’t want to let the rest of us off too easy. As I talk to folks in churches around the country, most people find Trumpvangelicals to be extreme. Falwell and Jeffress are on TV a lot, but Christianity Today has distanced itself from them. They’re hardly guiding lights for most evangelicals.

But another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be “too political.” So we also have to face the silence of white moderates as a vestige of slaveholder religion. It’s not just the Trump defenders who got us here. It’s also all the good Christian people who did nothing when a man who was endorsed by the KKK became a candidate for president.

Why is it that a white man is writing a book about a “slaveholder religion” anyway? Shouldn’t we be lifting up minority voices in this conversation rather than speaking on behalf of the marginalized?

Image courtesy of InterVarsity Press

Yes. But I’m not speaking for anyone else in this book. I’m confessing my — and my people’s — complicity in slaveholder religion. And I’m trying to share the good news that another way of being Christian is possible. Even for white folks.

Twenty years ago, when I was trying to get a foot into the world of the Christian right, I hit a dead end. I was nauseated by the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of it all when I saw it up close. And I didn’t know what to do.

I’m still a Christian today because I was invited into the black-led freedom movement and learned the long history of another way of being Christian in America. I showed up like Saul — a blind man who only knew I’d heard the voice of Jesus ask, “Why are you persecuting me?” A lot of this book is about what I learned from the Ananiases who shepherded me into beloved community. They are the ones who took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You have to talk to white people about this. Maybe they’ll be able to hear it from you.”

When writing about your escape from slaveholder religion, you call yourself a “man torn in two.” What does this mean?

That the line between the Christianity of the slaveholder and the Christianity of Christ runs through all of us.

In order to tell the truth about myself, I’ve had to learn to say two things that seem to contradict one another: first, that the people who raised me and taught me to love Jesus gave me an incredible gift, and second, that those same people also passed on to me the habits and assumptions of slaveholder religion.

Until we’re honest about this, we can’t be saved. But as Martin Luther said, only the gospel that kills gives life. Once we stop trying to justify ourselves and deal with the hard truth, the Bible comes to life. Every chapter in this book ends with a rereading of a gospel story. The Bible comes to life when we release it from the bondage of slaveholder religion. I’m a preacher. I want people to hear and believe this good news.

How do church communities — often unaware — promote racial blindness and even racism? 

By telling us stories that make us feel righteous about our segregation. One example: I’ve come to see how profoundly it shaped my understanding of the world that I learned rap music was bad music. Evil, even.

I mean, any white guy who grew up in rural North Carolina heard country music on the radio and bluegrass at the family reunion. That’s our culture. But it took religion to teach me that someone else’s culture was sin. I was a minister at the local black church in my neighborhood before one of our youth pulled me aside 15 years ago and said, “You need to listen to Tupac.” It wasn’t just about the music. He was inviting me to understand how he saw the world.

Racial habits are the hundreds of little ways we perpetuate systemic racism every day just by living the way we’ve always lived. Churches aren’t alone in reinforcing these habits, but the fact that the church remains the most segregated institution in America suggests that slaveholder religion still holds more sway that most of us want to believe.

You’re a progressive Christian, and so is Rev. William Barber, who wrote your foreword. What about your conservative brothers and sisters? Do you see them fighting the same battle or are progressives carrying all the weight?

I think most people in the media understand “progressive Christian” as a political label. Folks who believe everyone deserves health care, a living wage and equal protection under the law are labeled “progressive.” If Christian faith compels you to believe that, you’re a “progressive Christian.”

Author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, right, with the Rev. William Barber. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

But Franklin Graham says progressives are atheists. Slaveholder religion makes racial politics a matter of faith. It wasn’t enough to argue that we didn’t have the money to pay for Obama’s policies or that they didn’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny. For Graham and others, efforts to expand democracy and access in America were an assault on God’s order. His 50-state “Decision America” tour in 2016 was really about framing “Make America Great Again” as a 21st-century Redemption movement.

I don’t think most people who send their monthly donation to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association think they are supporting a political movement. They want people to know the love of Jesus. But their religion has been hijacked by extremists. And we’re all going to have to decide which side we’re on. We need a lot more people who think of themselves as moderate or conservative to stand up and say, “What’s happening in our name is extreme, and we’re not going to allow it anymore.”

Last year, conservative blogger Rod Dreher stirred up a lot of conversation about a “Benedict Option,” which encouraged Christians to basically retreat from popular culture. I know you’ve written on Benedict and the monastic tradition, and your Benedict doesn’t look very much like Dreher’s. Is there another Benedict Option in “Reconstructing the Gospel”?

Rod grew up in the South like me. We have a lot in common. But he doesn’t want to grapple with racial blindness. I’ve tried to talk with him about this. I invited him to come visit us at Rutba House (a community the author co-founded for the formerly homeless) when he was writing his book. But our interpretation of Benedict didn’t fit his politics.

I love Benedict and have learned much from Benedictines — some of whom have come and walked the streets of our neighborhood in their long black robes. It’s a sight to behold, I’ll tell you! But Benedict, like Jesus and all the prophets, is dangerous when weaponized by slaveholder religion for the culture wars.

In the fifth century, when Roman civilization was crumbling, Benedict discovered the gospel as a way of living a new world in the shell of the old. Rod’s “Benedict Option” is essentially an effort to hold onto white culture as the demographics of American democracy trend blacker and browner. He can’t see that, but the crusade for “religious liberty” that his Benedict Option wants to wage nonviolently is the battle white nationalists are willing to fight in the streets. The clergy in Charlottesville told me that the Klan and Nazis didn’t call them racial slurs when they stood them down in the street; they spewed anti-gay rhetoric.

I’ve read Benedict for the past 15 years in the context of the prophetic black church tradition. So I see Benedict’s way-of-life Christianity as concrete practices for unlearning whiteness and learning beloved community as white supremacy unravels. Yes, this is a very different Benedict Option. But it’s one our world desperately needs right now.

Some people would acknowledge that the problems you address are real, but they might critique your tone. For example, I can imagine some would say that phrases like “slaveholder religion” are extreme and inflammatory and unnecessarily divisive. How would you respond to such criticisms?

It’s hard to speak softly when the house is on fire. When the people you love are in danger, you holler. Of course, a lot of people don’t feel this way because their  families aren’t being torn apart by deportations. Their kids aren’t getting shot by the police. But this is my family. These are my kids. I’ve been to too many funerals.

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” American Christianity hasn’t faced our legacy of slaveholder religion. Ultimately, I don’t know whether white people, as a group, are willing to change. But I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we face this. I’m doing it because I love white people. But I’m also doing it because, when the house is burning down, there’s no way to just save your room. We’re all in this together, whether we want to be or not.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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  • Many years ago when I was a college student, a good friend of mine thought it would be a good idea, as a joke of sorts, to attend a revival by the fire-breathing evangelist James Robison at the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas where Robert Jeffress is the current pastor. To this day I’ll never forgive that friend of mine, who is now dead. (May he rest in peace.)

    After the revival was over and the fire-breathing finally came to an end, I turned to my friend and said, “do you notice anything peculiar about this congregation?” Without missing a beat, he said, “there’s not a single black person here.” Mind you, the room seated more than a thousand people, was entirely full, and the church was situated in a part of the city that was filled with black people. This was in the late seventies. Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded on the very idea that slavery was A-OK with God, so neither of us should have been surprised, but we were.

    Nixon had his “southern strategy,” Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town most associated with the murders of three black men in 1964, even while courting Jerry Falwell, Sr. and his so-called “Moral Majority.” H.W. Bush had his infamous Willie Horton ad which tapped into racism, his son Junior launched a whisper campaign in South Carolina that John McCain had fathered a black baby after McCain won the New Hampshire primary and Junior got desperate. Now we have Trump, the granddaddy of them all, using racist dog whistle language to his so-called “religious” base with impunity.

    The “Slaveholder Religion” mentality is alive and well in the modern Republican party and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

  • You don’t actually tell us what “slaveholder religion” actually IS. Is it Evangelical Christianity? Is it Protestant fundamentalism? Is it liberal guilt? Is it participation in America’s caste structure, as in race and class division between congregations? If you can’t specifically define what you’re talking about, I’m not interested.

    And the bad news is, that you haven’t got my interest, and I’ll not likely be back to find out. But from the rest of your article, I really get the idea that this is nothing more than liberal mush; your idea, if it can be called that, completely lacks any sort of clear thinking.

    I’m not saying that something bad might not have survived, but if it did, you’ve little clue what it is!

  • If you want Christianity to have a clean break from its association with slavery, maybe start with throwing out all the “God-breathed” verses in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter (etc?) that explicitly or implicitly accept slavery as an acceptable institution. That might make it a little easier to make the case that God *is* actually against it, right?

  • Well, I’m sure that Christians of color, such as the Rev. Mark Burns, Bishop Harry Jackson, and Dr. Samuel Rodriguez will appreciate being informed that they are big supporters of “slaveholder religion”, merely for supporting Trump and failing to join the Strident-Trump-Hater faction upon demand.

    And while the following celebs aren’t overtly associated with the church scene, I’m sure Kanye West and the black Youtube stars “Diamond and Silk” will appreciate the same proclamation.
    (Assuming that Kanye survives the worldwide Crip Jihad that Snoop Dogg’s gangster cousin recently declared on Kanye for merely supporting Trump.)

    And all of the above, will doubtless appreciate being lectured on slaveholder religion by a white liberal. The End.

  • You don’t actually tell us what “slaveholder religion” actually IS.

    Yes, he did. In his introduction, even:

    In the mid-19th century, Christian abolitionists used the Bible to make a case for racial equality. Plantation owners could not let this stand, so they paid preachers to use the Bible to argue for white supremacy. This oppressive theology [of white supremacy] is what Wilson-Hartgrove calls “slaveholder religion.” [bold added]

  • Ultimately, slaveholder religion is about power, not the color of your skin. It’s about telling the Christian message in such a way as to acquire and maintain power. So the black people you name bought into that which they think, under this administration, will give them power. I thank God that some in the Evangelical wing are finally starting to accept and repent of their own history.

  • I grew up in South Carolina in the Southern Baptist Church, and I do not need an explanation of what Wilson-Hartgrove is talking about. I experienced it directly for years and years. The “Gospel” I was taught was tainted with the stain of the message that the black people we lived among were “lesser” than we, the white Christians, were. The message of white supremacy was one of the central messages that was taught in that church, and “mixing” of races was considered, along with many other personal failings, as “sin.” I was ALWAYS confused by this, because I was also taught things like “God is love,” and the song, “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Being a rather demanding child, I didn’t like it that I was being given mixed messages, and I wanted it explained. I soon found out that asking such questions about the ambiguities inherent in making the actual Gospel consistent with the slaveholder version I was being taught was not welcome. I was to simply believe that my elders knew the truth, and if it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for me. Needless to say, after many experiences that highlighted the inconsistencies that could not be explained, i.e., the hypocrisy of the church’s decision to try to serve two masters, I left the church when I went off to college.

    I don’t know what has happened in that single church since I left it long ago, but I do know that I keenly recognize what I experienced there in at least some quarters of conservative evangelical Christianity today, with Falwell and Graham being the loudest, brashest voices continuing that tradition. It’s clear that slaveholder religion has survived and has found new encouragement and reason for being in Trump and most of the Republican party today. Wilson-Hartgrove is right on in what he is calling out, and his perspective needs to be recognized and heeded by Christians of all stripes.

  • And then it not only changes but tries to hide past changes. The circus tent shell game is the only “eternal truth” that never changes in the con game of organized religion. When you think you know under which shell the pea has been hidden, odds are that the “pastor” actually has it in his pocket.

  • What is? I didn’t quote any assertion about today, so you’ve left your antecedent entirely undefined.

    I could assume that you meant to refer to the author’s claim that white supremacy theology still exists today, but that would be putting words in your mouth—and patently false ones, at that. So what specifically are you calling “baseless”?

  • Hi Ben,

    Of course, it goes without saying that heterosexual supremacy was assumed in that church (and probably all others in that era as well). Two comments, however: Ironically, it has always been a source of wonder to me that the long-time organist in that church was gay and lived openly with his partner in our small town, and he was very loved in the church and in the town. Many of my friends took music lessons from him at his home, and NO ONE that I ever heard either in the church or in the broader town was critical of him or afraid to have their children have him as a teacher. Perhaps there was gossip in some quarters I was never a party to, but, if so, it was kept very low key. I never heard a word about homosexuality in that church or in the denomination at that time. It’s my personal take that the extreme vilification of homosexuality in the conservative churches overall developed in later years (same as any strong or open rejection of abortion!), once gays began to demand dignity and equal rights. I think it was much more about a non-mainstream group of people that came to visibility and demanded a place in the world equal to everyone else’s that caused people to begin to be so violently opposed to people they had once embraced as individuals perhaps different but not worthy to be cast out or condemned. From my point of view, it seemed to be a cultural reaction and the religious response seemed concocted afterwards as justification.

    Second point, by leaving that church and that denomination behind, I am thankful I did not directly experience the ugliness that has ensued over gay rights and SSM that have been a hallmark of conservative evangelical churches since then. The racial hypocrisy was enough for me; I never wanted to live in that atmosphere again. I have had a lot of exposure to the issue, however, living with and supporting family members and many dear friends who are gay and lesbian in dealing with excuciating experiences in churches, as they have tried to live out their own Christian callings.

  • You’re telling us what YOU think is slaveholder religion, not what the author thinks is slaveholder religion.

    And you don’t say exactly what you were taught from the pulpit either.

    Pardon me for being one of them not mind readers. You need to be specific, not merely dogmatic. Assuming there’s actual substance and not just dogma to what you’re saying.

  • No, I told you what I LIVED as slaveholder religion. And I did tell you what I was taught from the pulpit. If you missed it, not sure how I can make it much clearer. Nothing dogmatic about what I wrote; it’s what I experienced. I related it exactly as it was.

  • …He’s talking use of the Bible to justify white supremacy. That’s outright in the paragraph I quoted.

    Do you need it phrased differently? Some folks pluck snippets from the Bible to claim that it says some people (ex. the whites) are better than others (ex. the non-whites).

    There are many routes people can take to do this. Perhaps the simplest one I’ve encountered is the claim that “the curse of Ham” was black skin—and yes, some folks actually do believe that.

    But all such arguments require an underlying presumption that some folks are better than others, which is the slaveholder mentality. Focus on the underlying presumption is far more useful than playing Hungry Hungry Hippo with specific arguments, which will always resurrect as long as the assumption is left in place.

  • Well, Mob, I would, but this here internet thingy is as available to you as it is to me. Besides, I have to wash my hair.

    And in any case, it won’t allow me to post physical objects like mirrors and pointing fingers.

  • Thanks for your kind and thoughtful response. I apologize for any snarkiness that my comment might have implied.

    In response, I can only say that people frequently see what they want to see, and are carefully trained neither to see nor to question what others don’t want them to see, or what they don’t wish to see themselves. Believe it or not, there are people who post on these very pages that are absolute, raging bigots, but are so filled with the love of Christ that they can’t see it! (That was intentional snark, but you have to excuse me here. Two cappuccinos will do that to me this early in the morning).

    It doesn’t surprise me, your story of the organist. It’s not the first time I have heard that story about church organists and choir directors, nor will it be the last. It’s what the closet enables everyone to do. As long as your example wasn’t being uppity, and knew his/their place, and kept the silence that made his fellow parishioners comfortable, there are frequently no problems.

    That’s what don’t-ask-don’t-tell in the military was all about: not that gay people couldn’t serve as well or better as heterosexuals, but that being open made some other people uncomfortable. Colin Powell even admitted it, and coming from a black man who couldn’t see what was in front of his black face, it was a rather startling admission. One has to wonder who the real threats to unit cohesion were, but that was also what some people fervently wished not to see.

    Your comment about the cultural response and the religious concoction was exactly the case. That’s why I frequently comment about bigotry hiding behind religious belief. Thank you for your support of your friends and family members. There has been a profound cultural shift as more and more people like you — kind, decent, intelligent, and compassionate people— see he ugliness that hide behinds “faith”, and want no part of it.

    Thanks again.

  • Heterosexual supremacy is believing that a uterus can nuture a baby and a butthole can’t.

  • Slaveholder religion is not wanting to spend taxpayer’s money on a new welfare program called reparations.

  • No problem, Ben. Snarkiness I can abide and even engage in from time to time. It’s the intention to wound, to score points, to disempower, to infict damage, to deem irrelevant, to ridicule that I refuse to respond to or engage in.

    I’m sure you’re right about our organist and others. He was a quiet, dignified man who was always beautifully dressed and groomed and was a wonderful musician. Beyond that, there was little known about his life; his partner did not attend the church. Later on in the town, the first very openly gay man, who was flamboyant, outspoken, and fun, was excoriated and terrorized. That seems to have been the beginning of homosexual consciousness and vilification in that community – a man who tried to live as he wanted to live and received the message that he was not going to be allowed to do so, at least not in that town. He left to find a place where he could do so, and so begins and continues segregation on the basis of sexual identity that our society so greatly suffers from today, which impoverishes us all and kills and damages so many people.

    To your comment about faith, yes, ugliness can and does hide behind it. I am no longer in any church, even an open and progressive one, in small part because of my impatience with the everlasting battles over issues of sexual identity. But I do have to say that from my long observations of those battles and their consequences, the people I have known who have been the most tireless, the most courageous, the most loving, the most hopeful in that work have been and still are people of faith. There are a number of people I know, whose central work in the world has been in the area of church attitudes toward gender-nonconforming people, that I admire with my whole being. Where they get their unending wells of good will, of love, of patience, of energy, of optimism I can’t account for in any other way but to believe what they say – from their faith. I wish there were more people of faith like that in your life and experience too, Ben.

    Thanks for your response. Peace to you today.

  • There was slavery in the ancient world, but it wasn’t based on race. Any conquered people could become slaves.

  • I see they decided to reinstate this comment after they (whoever “they” are) rescinded it multiple times two days ago. Curiouser and curiouser.

  • Yet Southern Baptists are slowly and but steadily turning non-white, as is the nation. A sizable percentage of newly planted SBC churches are planted by non-white pastors in ethnic neighborhoods and among first-generation people groups. Church planting in Houston, for example. That tells me the gospel is going on, with or without the past. Within a generation or so, the SBC will be as Asian, Latino and African American as it is white, maybe more so.

  • I tried to understand what Mr Wilson-Hartgrove thinks are the important characteristics of slaveholder religion. If you did too, you may be interested in what I noticed.
    1. “The nation was in trouble, Washington was a den of corruption, and somebody needed to rise up and ‘take our country back.’ This was the language of slaveholder religion after abolition.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for regaining political hegemony.
    2. “But another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be ‘too political.’”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for giving up political hegemony.
    3. “How do church communities — often unaware — promote racial blindness and even racism?
    By telling us stories that make us feel righteous about our segregation. One example: I’ve come to see how profoundly it shaped my understanding of the world that I learned rap music was bad music. Evil, even.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for deprecating the approval of violence and misogyny.
    4. “Folks who believe everyone deserves health care, a living wage and equal protection under the law are labeled ‘progressive.’ If Christian faith compels you to believe that, you’re a ‘progressive Christian.’
    “But Franklin Graham says progressives are atheists. Slaveholder religion makes racial politics a matter of faith.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for criticizing theologies of democratic socialism.
    5. “Benedict, like Jesus and all the prophets, is dangerous when weaponized by slaveholder religion for the culture wars.
    “In the fifth century, when Roman civilization was crumbling, Benedict discovered the gospel as a way of living a new world in the shell of the old. Rod’s ‘Benedict Option’ is essentially an effort to hold onto white culture as the demographics of American democracy trend blacker and browner.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is not only rhetoric for giving up political hegemony but rhetoric for defensive disengagement from a hostile polity.
    Here is my conclusion about what Mr Wilson-Hartgrove thinks is the characteristic of slaveholder religion: Christian religious rhetoric that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or does not affirm all such moral judgments as a group of nonwhite people associates with its ethos.
    Here is further evidence that my conclusion is correct:
    “When writing about your escape from slaveholder religion, you call yourself a ‘man torn in two.’ What does this mean?
    “That the line between the Christianity of the slaveholder and the Christianity of Christ runs through all of us.”
    We have all absorbed Christian doctrine that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people and that does not affirm all moral judgments deemed typical of a group of nonwhite people. By Mr Wilson-Hartgrove’s lights, we may find slaveholder algebra in our high schools.
    I wondered why Mr Wilson-Hartgrove would write a book proclaiming the very dubious thesis that contemporary Christianity without advocacy of social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or all morality deemed typical of nonwhite people is slaveholder Christianity. Then I noticed his own explanation and understood that his book was not intended to have a plausible thesis: “When the people you love are in danger, you holler.”

  • After rapid reading, I faced the same problem. But I looked more closely and found statements implying what the author thinks slaveholder religion actually is. See my comment.

  • What I lived in church as a child was very different from what you lived, but, as the author conceives of it, we both were taught slaveholder Christianity. Indeed, slaveholder Christianity, as the author conceives of it, has been taught everywhere for nearly 2000 years. See, outside this thread, my comment on the author’s conception as implied by his statements in the interview.

  • He tells us even more specifically what characterizes “slaveholder religion” and I collect most of these specific characteristics in my comment that appears outside this thread.

  • He gives some specific consequences, yes, but example applications have limited usefulness when divorced from the underlying root that the applications derive from. It can be easy to focus so much on a specific application or consequence that other applications and consequences get overlooked.

    But thank you for taking the time to cite some of those specifics. 🙂

  • Try “breaking free” from Islam in Pakistan now and you find yourself on death row. The same for making fun of Mohammad (blasphemy laws).

  • Hi Richard,

    I do not see your longer comments outside the thread, although I did see them earlier today when I had no time to process or respond.

  • If that is true, then Chris Rock must have a very low opinion of Dr. MLK Jr.

    (Where do you dig up all these soggy earthworms from, Spuddie?)

  • I have to agree with you on all points. I do have several christian friends, including my oldest friend in the world. They are horrified that their faith is being used by others as a weapon.

    Peace also.

  • Maybe.

    MLK was considered by some to be too accommodating to the power structures he opposed. Although Rock is not particularly known to be a political comedian. Take it up with him.

    But conservatives really can’t reference MLK without looking foolish and hypocritical. Especially those who advocate attacks on the civil liberties of others 🙂

  • If “it’s about power” as you claim, then anybody who closely follows the black community’s headlines — and watches local racial interactions from middle school thru adulthood — will realize that we blacks are just as guilty of raw racism, raw misuse of power, and even raw slaveholder religion, as you whites.

    (We even historically sold some of US, to your people. Insane!)

    Meanwhile, what do you actually know about Trump’s evangelical advisors of color? All YOU really know is that they don’t share you and Hillary’s card-carrying, worn-out political and theological liberalism.

    Could it be that you are, umm, bigoted against Christian conservatives of color? You certainly ain’t the first one who may seriously need to “repent” of it.

  • Other than his own unpleasant bigotry, Tom has no evidential basis for claiming that minority clergy of Jackson’s, Rodriguez’s, and Burn’s statures are serving as Trump advisors from a motive of power-seeking.

  • Slaveholder religion was real. It was a well documented distortion of Christianity, created to justify and support a culture that was economically dependent on slavery. To deal with the obvious conflict with the teachings of Jesus, it was necessary to demonstrate that blacks were lessor creatures, simple but useful, and that whites had a God commanded responsibility to take care of them. The industrious white man had to take charge of the shiftless incompetent black man. I’ve read sermons of the sort the author mentioned. But I don’t intend to cover the whole subject here; read the preacher’s book. I’m sure you know all this.
    And you know also that free blacks owned black slaves and that it was to their economic advantage to participate with the white community in this distortion…even while they were victims of it themselves at times. Money can buy you things, a bit of power even, but it never guaranteed your full acceptance in white society in the South.
    The ideas of slaveholder religion persisted through the decades of Jim Crow. Think of how they would justify voter suppression… “dumb blacks don’t know how they should vote.” The dark side of slaveholder religion is that it’s just not real. Black people are just as capable as anyone, so when it became too obvious, some black man proved he was better than the next guy, then someone had to push him down again, put him in their place. Again, Floyd, this isn’t news to you.
    When the Dixicrats left the Party over desegregation and became Republicans they brought a lot of this thinking with them. Now it seems to me they own Washington and they don’t like uppity blacks. On the street, a black man with a gun risks being shot on sight.
    Slaveholder religion didn’t create all this, it just provided a religious justification for it long long ago and that justification supports a lot of racial bias in some quarters today. The men you named are just enablers who have found that it brings them fame, money and a modicum of power. Sort of like the free blacks who owned slaves and supported slaveholder religion.
    Christianity is better than this. It should never be used to prop up bigotry. I support Rev. Barber and follow Jesus, a black man.

  • Got under your skin, did I, Floyd. You usually seem supremely confident in your own ideas and don’t need to resort to personal attacks. Is it my name? My nephews call me Uncle Tom.

  • What “personal attacks”? My respect for you has NOT lessened. But you totally lack evidence for your heavy claim against Christian Trump-advisors of color, so it IS appropriate for me to do the caveat of White Liberal Bigotry.

    Of course, this is usually where both white liberal Christians and black evangelical Christians, in public dialogue or workshops, immediately change to a neutral topic (or take a bathroom break). Gotta reduce the blood pressures, yes?

    Meanwhile, you call on evangelical conservatives to repent. Sure, we need it. But I call on you white liberal Christians to repent just as much, with YOUR candidates and YOUR current policies too. And tell that liberal Wilson-Hartgrove guy to repent of all his “slave-holder religion” broad-brushing, or I might have to ask “Diamond & Silk” to do a YouTube Special on HIM !!

  • See response below. Nobody’s denying that “slaveholder religion” existed. Where Messrs. Wilson-Hartgrove and William Barber are messing up, is this thing of trying to broad-brush today’s Trump supporters with that tragic label. You do NOT have a rational justification for that broad-brushing, Tom.

    Worse yet, you think you are in a position to accuse three well-respected and long-experienced (both in terms of religion and race) evangelical clergy of serving as advisors to President Trump only for power-seeking, fame-and-money seeking motives. You gotta be kidding me.

    Did you at least read their life stories online before going there, Tom? Sans evidence, one has to ask what motivated you to go there. Far too many white liberal Christians have got their OWN bigotry, thinking THEY know who and what we black evangelicals should support, oppose, or advise. Mm-mmm.

  • I have noticed complaints that comments in RNS disappear for no apparent reason; here is the first time one of my comments has fallen, or been taken, out. Well, my longer comment that you lament losing is this:
    I tried to understand what Mr Wilson-Hartgrove thinks are the important characteristics of slaveholder religion. If you did too, you may be interested in what I noticed.
    1. “The nation was in trouble, Washington was a den of corruption, and somebody needed to rise up and ‘take our country back.’ This was the language of slaveholder religion after abolition.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for regaining political hegemony.
    2. “But another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be ‘too political.’”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for giving up political hegemony.
    3. “How do church communities — often unaware — promote racial blindness and even racism?
    By telling us stories that make us feel righteous about our segregation. One example: I’ve come to see how profoundly it shaped my understanding of the world that I learned rap music was bad music. Evil, even.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for deprecating the approval of violence and misogyny.
    4. “Folks who believe everyone deserves health care, a living wage and equal protection under the law are labeled ‘progressive.’ If Christian faith compels you to believe that, you’re a ‘progressive Christian.’
    “But Franklin Graham says progressives are atheists. Slaveholder religion makes racial politics a matter of faith.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is rhetoric for criticizing theologies of democratic socialism.
    5. “Benedict, like Jesus and all the prophets, is dangerous when weaponized by slaveholder religion for the culture wars.
    “In the fifth century, when Roman civilization was crumbling, Benedict discovered the gospel as a way of living a new world in the shell of the old. Rod’s ‘Benedict Option’ is essentially an effort to hold onto white culture as the demographics of American democracy trend blacker and browner.”
    I understand that slaveholder religion is not only rhetoric for giving up political hegemony but rhetoric for defensive disengagement from a hostile polity.
    Here is my conclusion about what Mr Wilson-Hartgrove thinks is the characteristic of slaveholder religion: Christian religious rhetoric that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or does not affirm all such moral judgments as a group of nonwhite people associates with its ethos.
    Here is further evidence that my conclusion is correct:
    “When writing about your escape from slaveholder religion, you call yourself a ‘man torn in two.’ What does this mean?
    “That the line between the Christianity of the slaveholder and the Christianity of Christ runs through all of us.”
    We have all absorbed Christian doctrine that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people and that does not affirm all moral judgments deemed typical of a group of nonwhite people. By Mr Wilson-Hartgrove’s lights, we may find slaveholder algebra in our high schools.
    I wondered why Mr Wilson-Hartgrove would write a book proclaiming the very dubious thesis that contemporary Christianity without advocacy of social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or all morality deemed typical of nonwhite people is slaveholder Christianity. Then I noticed his own explanation and understood that his book was not intended to have a plausible thesis: “When the people you love are in danger, you holler.”

  • Ahhhh – a new way to try to bang away at Trump. This website is too funny

  • Can you provide the scripture that says blacks are lesser than whites please? I must have missed it

  • Richard, please show me the scripture that suggests that blacks are lesser than whites. Thanks

  • You guys will go to any ends to discredit Trump. Last I heard Bill Clinton was a Southern Baptist. How about asking the Democrat party to explain their roll in Slavery? Socialism is the new Slavery.

  • However, now homosexuals want everyone to celebrate their life choice. I don’t know any church that celebrates or promotes divorce or adultery.

  • Richard,

    I have struggled a bit to understand the conclusions you are have reached about the meanings of the five quotes from the interview. While I would accede to your interpretation of point 1, I disagree with your interpretations of quotes 2 and 3, and I am still puzzling over 4 and 5. Your statement that slaveholder Christianity is “Christian religious rhetoric that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or does not affirm all such moral judgments as a group of nonwhite people associate with its ethos” also leaves me scratching my head. Moreover, you state “We have all absorbed Christian doctrine that does not” advocate and affirm as you have indicated in the immediately preceding quote from your post. I’m not sure who you mean by “all,” (all Christians? all white Christians? all Southern Baptists?), and I don’t understand what you mean by “absorbed” (heard? took in? agreed with? made a part of our faith? made a part of our lives?) In sum, I apologize for my obtuseness, but I am at a loss to make much out of what I have read.

    I will therefore abandon the field and offer something from a Christian spokesperson who I believe had something to say on the point that I believe both Mr. Hargrove-Wilson and I were trying to make, whether either of us were very successful in making it. His words, for me, are a touchpoint on the issue of whether there is still “slaveholder Christianity” alive and well in some Christian quarters today:

    “I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

    I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. 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?”

    Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

    There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

    This text is excerpted from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” written April 23, 1963, fifty-five years ago last month. For me, these words are a non-negotiable part of the Christian canon, whether they have been incorporated into the biblical canon or not. Any church that ignores the sentiments expressed in these words and their prophetic import for all time, not just for the 1960’s, regarding issues of justice, inclusion, human dignity for all people, genuine compassion for the oppressed, the fearful, the downtrodden, the desperate, and active concern for the poor and outcast is, in my mind, either consciously or obliviously preaching “slaveholder Christianity.”

  • I know lots of NT scripture that implies whites and blacks are equals. I do not know any NT scripture that suggests blacks are lesser than whites and I have no idea why you would assume the contrary.

  • “However, now homosexuals want everyone to celebrate their life choice. I don’t know any church that celebrates or promotes divorce or adultery.”

    “However, now homosexuals want…… no, we have friends, families, neighbors and colleagues.

    “want everyone to celebrate” no. We want you to stay the hell out of our lives.

    “their life choice.” No. We don’t choose to be gay. The only choice we have is whether to live our live happily and authentically as we are made.”

    “I don’t know…”. finally, a yes, as in YES YOU DONT KNOW ANYTHING.

    “any church that celebrates or promotes divorce or adultery.” Nor should they. Though the will celebrate and vote for a thrice married, lying, fornicating habitue of prostitutes and porn stars and excuse his every sin. But they are not the same thing at all, except to people who know nothing about the subject.

    Have a mirror, dear.

  • A response was submitted to this, but is no longer visible. When I checked, service indicated it was removed as “suspected spam.” I’m not sure what the definition of “spam” is on Disqus. It was a serious, non-profane response. I’m not sure whether it will be restored.

  • Are you then trying to imply that we are slaves to Christ – then you are absolutely correct. I don’t disagree one iota

  • Richard,
    I have struggled a bit to understand the conclusions you have reached about the meanings of the five quotes from the interview. While I would accede to your interpretation of point 1, I disagree with your interpretations of quotes 2 and 3, and I am still puzzling over 4 and 5. Your statement that slaveholder Christianity is “Christian religious rhetoric that does not advocate social reform in the material interests of nonwhite people or does not affirm all such moral judgments as a group of nonwhite people associate with its ethos” also leaves me scratching my head. Moreover, you state “We have all absorbed Christian doctrine that does not” advocate and affirm as you have indicated in the immediately preceding quote from your post. I’m not sure who you mean by “all,” (all Christians? all white Christians? all Southern Baptists?), and I don’t understand what you mean by “absorbed” (heard? took in? agreed with? made a part of our faith? made a part of our lives?) In sum, I apologize for my obtuseness, but I am at a loss to make much out of what I have read.
    I will therefore abandon the field and offer something from a Christian spokesperson who I believe had something to say on the point that I believe both Mr. Hargrove-Wilson and I were trying to make, whether either of us were very successful in making it. His words, for me, are a touchpoint on the issue of whether there is still “slaveholder Christianity” alive and well in some Christian quarters today:
    “I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
    I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. 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?”
    Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
    There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”
    This text is excerpted from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” written April 23, 1963, fifty-five years ago last month. For me, these words are a non-negotiable part of the Christian canon, whether they have been incorporated into the biblical canon or not. Any church that ignores the sentiments expressed in these words and their prophetic import for all time, not just for the 1960’s, regarding issues of justice, inclusion, human dignity for all people, genuine compassion for the oppressed, the fearful, the downtrodden, the desperate, and active concern for the poor and outcast is, in my mind, either consciously or obliviously preaching “slaveholder Christianity.”

  • Read my comment again and attend to the parenthetical phrases “as the author conceives of it” and probably you will understand me.

  • Have you no sense of humor? Our author’s characterization of slaveholder religion makes it include just about any Christian teaching. His conception of slaveholder religion is not only useless for understanding American Christianity but is ridiculous.

  • Slaveholder religion, if it is a distinct theology, would be doctrine that God approves slaveholding. Slaveholder religion would not necessarily be about segregation or about Jim Crow laws. It would be misleading to call doctrine that God approves racial segregation slaveholder religion. It is much, much more misleading to refer to doctrine that our author describes as slaveholder religion; the doctrine that our author describes has been taught together with condemnation of slaveholding and even condemnation of Jim Crow laws.

  • I think slaveholder religion may just as legitimately refer to the “religion” crafted by slaveholders, former slaveholders, and the preachers who were beholden to such people for their positions, their power, and their livelihoods in order to convince themselves, their slaves, former slaves, and everyone else of the rightness of slavery and the related evils associated with it, i.e., white supremacy, segregation, suppression of human and civil rights, economic oppression, xenophobia, etc.

    How a church or denomination today deals with these issues in its teachings and in its practices indicates to me to what degree some version of slaveholder religion still holds sway in that church. I am not as interested as you in nailing down Hartgrove-Wilson’s definition, particularly not one parsed from fragmented parts of an interview or article. I am interested in reading his book, which is probably the best way to know how he defines the subject, but also in order to compare my own experience with his. I’m sure they are different, at least to some degree. In the spirit of Potter Stewart, I will say that although I may not always be able to intelligibly articulate what precisely slaveholder religion looks like (although I think I could certainly offer some accurate clues), I do know it when I see it.

  • You and I agree, then.
    Before you read Hartgrove-Wilson’s book, will you do the research necessary to learn what theology was crafted by slaveholders, former slaveholders, and the preachers who were beholden to them? Or, confident that you have intuited what theology was crafted by them, will you just look for that theology in contemporary literature like Christianity Today?

  • I have for the past several days been discussing slaveholder theology, how it arose, and what its aims were with a friend who is a professor of American history with a concentration in southern history. While my intuition is never inactive, and I have learned to trust it, my professional life has always required, and I am very accustomed to dealing in, facts, to the degree they can be discerned. I’m pretty sure I won’t be looking for anything in Christianity Today.

  • Is there any contemporary literature that you are pretty sure you will be examining to find proclamations of theology crafted by slaveholders, former slaveholders, and the preachers who were beholden to them?

  • No, none in particular. I will not make a particular study of this issue, even though I am curious about the connections between past and present that Hartgrove-Wilson identifies. If there are references to particular denominations, churches, or preachers in his book, or if I discover such references in newspaper articles or other books or publications, my practice is to go to whatever direct public information is available from the source itself, e.g., church or denomination websites, sermons, statements of faith, church mission statements, brochures, etc. While third-party information is a guide to issues I’m interested in, my curiosity generally leads me to explore the sources for what they have to say about themselves.

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