No, the United States and Western Civilization were not built on racism
This is the terrible terrible racist history of America. This is the terrible terrible history of the church.
Well.... not really. Telling it that way is a lie. But it is worse than a lie. By telling it that way, we do damage to people today by encouraging them to think of their neighbors, government and churches as racist institutions with racist leanings, racist pasts, and ongoing structural racism.
So... let me provide a very brief overview of how it really happened.
As with all things, context matters. Let's start with some context on slavery. Every major empire in the history of the world had slavery. The Chinese did. The Egyptians did. The Romans did. The great Muslim nations did. The great African nations did. Every single one.
And I have often heard people write that the slavery of the Old South was in some way worse than these other forms of slavery. This is simply a myth. Almost all forms of slavery in every region were at least as bad if not worse. Because slaves tended to be achieved as the spoils of war, there was usually a racial/ethnic bias to slavery. There also tended to be harsh treatment, beatings and killings. And there almost always was widespread sexual abuse. For just one example, let's look at the slavery of the Roman Empire. The Romans enslaved prisoners of war en masse. It was one of the primary reasons for going to war. Bringing back slaves from their campaigns in Northern Europe would make generals such as Julius Caesar wealthy beyond compare. The Gauls and Germanic tribesmen and women he brought back made him rich. These slaves had zero rights. One of the primary uses for slaves was sexual. Roman citizens were somewhat limited in what they could do sexually with fellow citizens (no adultery, pedophilia, etc) but these strict rules only applied to Roman citizens. A Roman citizen could certainly do anything he wanted with his slaves. This was taken as a matter of course. It was considered quite normal to use female slaves for sex but it was also considered normal to use male slaves for sex as well (so long as you were dominant in the relationship). But what was particularly horrifying was that pedophilia was also considered socially acceptable and anything was permissible with slaves of any age. Slaves were raped, abused, and had zero rights whatsoever. If a slave attempted to kill their master, all the slaves in the house would be put to death. Slaves literally had no rights whatsoever. And this model was not unique to them. Similar practices in slavery were common in China, in Africa and in every other major empire.
Until Christianity came along. Nancy Pearcy, quoting a historian's analysis of the spread of Christianity notes that, "The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery." In other words, we can track the spread of Christianity based on whether sexual slavery was legal or not. Further, Christians also spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves. Soon, as slaves converted, Christians spoke against the enslavement of fellow Christians. Within a few centuries of Christianity coming to power in the West, slavery, once ubiquitous, had faded from the European scene.
I started off by saying that every major empire in history had slavery as a major component of its life and economy. But Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire, did not. This is the first known instance of an Empire without any substantial use of slaves. Slavery did not rear its ugly head in any substantial way again until the discovery of the New World. We will look at that in a moment but let us first look at the claims of genocidal murders of the American Indians.
Articles such as this History Channel article speak of the genocidal efforts of the White Europeans as they came to North America. Others speak of the intentional spread of small pox. Others speak of the stealing of land and the driving out to the edges of society.
It is certainly true that American Indians died in mass numbers after the appearance of the Europeans on their shores. Estimates vary on how big the population was before Columbus arrived but it is thought that the population dropped by more than half at least. But the cause of this horrible death was not genocide. It was disease. Smallpox specifically. And this was not intentionally spread. There are no known successful attempts to spread smallpox and the disease swept through the Americas much faster than the Europeans did. Jared Diamond in his groundbreaking "Guns, Germs and Steel," recounts stories of conquistadors showing up at cities ready for battle only to find them empty and abandoned. The fact that the small band of Europeans was able to rout the great empires of the Americas should show that there was something else going on.
The Europeans had been living with smallpox for centuries. Plagues and diseases had decimated Europe and as a result the survivors were heartier and healthier and more likely to survive diseases when they came. Diamond argues this was probably due to the close proximity they lived with animals.Whatever the reason, Europeans showed up to a surprisingly empty New World. Far from stealing the land, they were able to settle in areas that were sparsely populated or empty. When wars did happen, it was often the American Indians that were the aggressors. In the excellent book, "The War that Made America," author Fred Anderson argues that, lacking women thanks to the damage of smallpox, Indians would raid frontier cabins, kidnap the women and children and take them back to their tribes.
Now, you might say that the land belonged to the American Indians and Europeans had no right to take it even if it was sparsely populated. But a few things need to be considered here. First, lumping together all American Indians as though they were monolith is sort of racist and historically inaccurate. Many tribes lived in North America and large areas of the land changed possession between tribal nations on a regular basis. It is unlikely that any particular tribe was the original owner of any particular piece of land. Another consideration must be thought of is that almost every nation throughout the world and throughout history took their land from someone who was there first. This is true for almost every American Indian tribe. True for every European nation. True for every African nation. Like it or not, wars of conquest are how the story of human existence has unfolded. Singling out Europeans as any worse than any other group in history in this department should not be done. And it is further important to note that the English did wars of conquest on people of all races. Ask the French. Ask the Dutch. Ask the Irish.
So, the displacement of the American Indians was not the result of racism. It was the result of the tragic spread of a disease coupled with some smaller wars of conquest that were not unique to people of color.
Now, let's get back to slavery. As I mentioned, slavery had faded from Europe with the advent of Christianity. When Columbus and other Europeans discovered the New World, there was suddenly a renewed interest in slavery. The reasons for this are unclear but one reason might be that farmers unlike in Europe had huge arable properties but very limited labor. These land owners were willing to examine options that were previously not needed. Further, it is worth noting that those in North America were further away from the eyes of the church or authorities that might restrict or oppose the trade. While we often think of the early settlers of Americas as devout Puritans, in reality a large majority of those that came to the US did so for financial not religious reasons. Church membership in the early days of the US was very low. Historians Roger Fink and Rodney Stark argue that in the early days of the sentiment of North America, the percentage of people adhering to a religion was below 20%. They argue that it was not until the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries that Christianity started to be widely adhered to and practiced.
So, perhaps it is not a surprise that when, in this age of exploration, a solution presented by traders visiting the coasts of Africa appeared, it was greeted with receptivity. Farmers realized that there was a thriving slave trade in Africa and countless hands that could, for a price, help tend those large farms.
Despite the common misconception (wrongly portrayed in the miniseries Roots) that Europeans would go raiding through African villages kidnapping and killing, the European traders simply went to the market and bought slaves from an already well-established slave trade. They could bid along side Africans for the slaves in coastal slave markets. The fact that the slave trade was already in place, of course, does not justify what those North American farmers did. Reintroducing the slave trade was terrible. They helped the slave trade flourish and kept the terrible slave traders in business. Slave traders were almost without exception monsters. The trade was bloody, abusive and murderous. Slavery was ended by Christians the first time for good reasons and this reemergence of slavery was certainly a horrible thing in the history of the Christian world.
But the reason I bring up the existing slave trade is to note that by engaging in the slave trade, the Euro-Americans were not doing something uniquely evil in the world but simply mimicking the evil already ubiquitously practiced throughout the world including in Africa.
But, thankfully, Christians almost immediately started speaking out against the slave trade. The Catholic Church made several statements against slavery. Pope Paul III in 1537 declared that enslaving American Indians was not allowed. In the 17th century, as the African slave trade was ramping up, Pope Innocent XI declared the African slave trade immoral. But it was the evangelicals in England that had the greatest impact in the world on slavery. Starting in the early 18th century, evangelicals led by William Wilberforce and John Wesley (among others) led one of the most remarkable campaigns in human history. One that would have effects far beyond England and far beyond the Christian world. At the time, the United Kingdom was the largest and most powerful empire on the planet and English colonies employed countless slaves. But Wilberforce and company appealed to the Christian morals of loving your neighbor, caring for the stranger and doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves to convince the government of England to ban the slave trade and then eventually slavery outright from every province and colony in English control. This remarkable campaign would be singular in itself but what is shocking is what happened next. England, at great national cost, spent much of the 19th century actively working to end slavery throughout the world. They pressured trading partners. They used their military to hunt down slave ships. They fought and fought both literally and politically to end slavery in every nation they came in contact with.
And the effects of their efforts on North America were not lost. Slavery was deeply ingrained in the highly agricultural economy of the south but despite this fact, many southern farmers opposed slavery. These opponents included many slave owners. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson among them. You may wonder how a slave owner could honestly be against the slave trade. If they were, why would they not just immediately free them? The answer was that many, such as Jefferson, inherited their properties and with their inheritance came mortgages that included the slaves as property. To free them would be illegal. Further, many thought that just freeing slaves would be inhumane. Congressman John Randolph explained his reasoning on this point by saying that he had "200 mouths looking to him for food." He stated that it would be, "easy to rid himself of them," but considered this not a moral option. Finally, many slave owners had seen the violence that had happened in Haiti when there was a slave revolt. The streets flowed with blood and many wondered if freeing the slaves en masse might not cause disruption, violence, and death. This fear was proved wrong when slaves were finally freed after the Civil War but there was no way of knowing this before doing it.
Now, you can view these reasons with skepticism but it is always easier to say that people should do bold potentially dangerous and illegal things than to do them yourself. But the evidence that there was at least some genuine distaste for the slave trade came in the actions that were taken. Not the least of which, in 1807, the slave trade was banned. No new slaves could be brought to America ending the horrors of slave ships.
But perhaps the greatest way in which the founders hurt the slave trade is in the much maligned 3/5 clause of the constitution. Many think that this clause was meant to diminish the humanity of slaves. But the real reason for this clause was to diminish the power of slave states. You see, it was the slave states that wanted slaves to be counted as full citizens and it was the north that wanted them not to be counted at all. The reason for the debate was this, if slaves were counted then the south would get more congressmen and more votes in the electoral college. More people more power. By preventing the counting of slaves as full persons in the constitution (coupled with the Northwest Ordinance that limited the expansion of slave states), the founders set the groundwork for the limitation of slavery in the future. Without these efforts, the south would have been able to protect slavery much better, the north would have been marginalized, and Abraham Lincoln would have never been elected president. One of the very things that people call "racist" about America's founding was perhaps the single greatest factor in protecting minorities and ending slavery.
And then there was the Civil War. While England gave up slaves freely, America had our most bloody war to do it. Some deny slavery was the cause behind the Civil War but this is simply not true. It was the largest and most obvious issue at hand. Many argue that slavery would have ended without the Civil War but regardless, it is hardly a racist nation that goes to war to free minorities from slavery.
What about the church's role? As I have already mentioned, it was Christian concerns about slavery that sparked the unprecedented global push to end slavery. Many Christians in the US helped to end slavery. It is true that, sadly, some Christians defended the practice but I don't think that should distract us from the remarkable fact that the debate happened at all. Christians were debating slavery when everyone else was taking it for granted. And while there was debate, the anti-slavery arguments ultimately won the day and Christianity universally rejected slavery. Without Christianity, there never would have been a debate about the slaves.
That brings us to Jim Crow. Shortly after the emancipation of the slaves, the south and areas of the north started to institute laws to hamper, restrict, separate, and oppress the former slaves and their children. For the next century, these laws, in various forms, remained in place. These laws were terrible and unjust. But Thomas Sowell of Stanford (incidentally a black man), in his Black Rednecks and White Liberals, argues that they were primarily the result of cultural differences not race. He provides a convincing argument suggesting that where black people adopted the social and cultural norms of the white community surrounding them, Jim Crow laws were lessened or removed.
Whether this is true or not, what is true is that the church was instrumental in the ending of Jim Crow laws. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement were all leaders in the church. When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he addressed it to white Christian pastors and appealed to Christian values. To the extent that southern Christians did not help the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King argued it was a failure to follow Christianity close enough not the result of the Christianity itself.
Finally, if you look at church attendance and religious adherence over the history of the United States, Roger Fink and Rodney Stark argue that these numbers crept up throughout the 19th century and reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century. Some of the highest numbers for church attendance in the history of our nation came at the very moment that the Civil Rights movement was having the greatest impact. I don't think this correlation is coincidental.
So, we have looked at slavery and shown that the American church, far from being a force for racism and slavery, was the very means of bringing an end to this racist practice. We have seen that Christianity was also a force for ending Jim Crow and that the Civil Rights movement was led and assisted by Christians.
So, this brings us to today. Many argue that racism is present structurally and that this is the reason for the differences between the races. But there are many reasons that can contribute to disparities. You can take different groups of white people and see broad differences as well (read the excellent "Hillbilly Elegy" by JD Vance to see this principle) which obviously are not the result of racism but the result of cultural differences. And this is what Thomas Sowell argues. He maintains that the primary reason for economic disparities in society are cultural not racial.
And finally, it should be noted that equality is not a good societal goal. We should seek freedom and let every individual choose his or her own path. Freedom necessarily leads to many different outcomes and therefore much inequality. Instead we should seek to end any sort of hatred, racial or bigotry. But we should not work for equal outcomes. You can read more about my thoughts on equality here.
I have here of course emphasized the non-racist course of our American Christianity. This is not to say that there were not many many racist individuals. There have been terrible things done based on race that cannot and should not be defended. This is not to say that there does not continue to be many racist individuals. There are many people still holding prejudices and biases based on race. The critic of this article could have fun posting countless racist things said by countless people. But my point and the case I am making is that generally Christianity in American has been a force against slavery and racism. To tell the story of American Christianity as a story of shameful racism and hatred is simply wrong. It is wrong on every level. It is bad history. It is the opposite of true. And it does ongoing harm today.
American Christianity does not have a racist past.
For a broad view of how Christianity led to the fall of slavery twice and had other good effects on the world, check out "The Victory of Reason," by Rodney Stark.
For an excellent defense of some of the founding fathers and their attitudes toward slaves and racial minorities, read Thomas Sowell's "Black Rednecks and White Liberals." (Particularly the second half of the book). This book also details at great length the extent to which evangelicals in England led to the fall of the slave trade globally. Sowell's companion book, "Discrimination and Disparities," makes many similar points and is well worth the read.
Another good read for those who are beginners to studying Christian history is called, "Christianity on Trial," by Carroll and Shiflett . They have a whole chapter dedicated to slavery that is quite helpful.
I also recommend the biography on William Wilberforce (pioneer of the abolition movement), "Amazing Grace," by Eric Metaxas. This book shows the Christian roots of the 18th century push that successfully ended slavery globally.
To learn more about slavery in ancient Rome, this excellent book on the house of Caesar by Tom Holland provides some excellent (and sickening) overviews.