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A History of Habits

Sadly, the church frequently surfaces as a guilty culprit in the story of America’s embrace of white supremacy. Not only did the church fail to provide a consistent counterpoint to white supremacy in the broader culture, but it also harbored it within the walls of congregations around the nation. When slave masters refused to evangelize their slaves during the early part of the 18th century, the church, rather than condemning slavery, went to great lengths to assuage the masters’ concerns. Faith leaders like Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury, reconciled the tension between slavery and Christianity with a perversion of Paul’s letters:

As human authority hath granted them none, of the Scripture, far from making any alteration in civil rights, expressly directs, that every man abide in the condition wherein he is called, with great indifference of mind concerning outward circumstances: and the only rule it prescribes for servants of the same religion with their masters, is not to despise them because they are brethren, but to do them service.

Subsequently, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, American fundamentalism, and other segments of Christianity made similar efforts to employ theology in the service of white supremacy. These compromises, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted, effectively “segregated…churches from Christianity.”

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness. Washington’s bargain failed spectacularly during one of the most intense periods of racial violence our nation has ever seen, black soldiers returning from the First World War were lynched in the streets while still in uniform, and the nation grew weary of racial advocacy following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Our history of accommodation has instilled in us what Princeton professor of religion Eddie Glaude labels “racial habits” in his recent book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Racial habits surface in “the ways we [often unconsciously] live the belief that white people are valued more than others.” Our responses to current events often reveal these racial habits. We devote time, resources, and social media platforms to the precious life of Charlie Gard, but we fail to give the same sort of attention to the hundreds of precious people who perished during the same time period in Venezuela due to political unrest. The disparities in our engagement reveal a fundamental gap in how we value different lives.

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