God and Race in American Politics: A Short History
by Mark Noll
Princeton University Press (2008)
232 pages, $22.95

American political history is marked by four great transformative periods, says American religious historian Mark Noll in his new book, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press). And in three of the four periods, "potent combinations of race and religion were the engines that drove political change."

The three periods when race and religion worked together so powerfully were (1) the decades leading up to the Civil War (1830-60), when slavery came to overwhelm all other issues on the political landscape; (2) the years after the Civil War (1865-1900), "when the nation gave up on the project of equal rights for all and left African Americans unprotected"; and (3) the recent past (from the 1950s on), "when the battle for civil rights was finally won … with ironic consequences."

So what was the exception? The 1930s, when the economic forces that flowed from the Great Depression radically altered the American political landscape with little reference to race and religion.

You may already know about the Abolitionist movement and great Christian activists like Charles Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe. You may already know about the Reconstruction period and the efforts to resist the new legal realities through repressive Jim Crow laws. You already know about Martin Luther King Jr., and perhaps you can even recite whole paragraphs from his "I Have a Dream" speech.

But until you read Noll's new book, you probably won't be aware of the degree to which the combustive combination of race and religion drove the major political currents of each era. The history of America is, in many ways, the history of God and race.

Christian History executive editor David Neff recently chatted with Mark Noll about his new book. They began their conversation by talking about a uniquely American set of religious beliefs and attitudes that made radical social change seem both possible and imperative—from the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of alcohol through the Civil Rights movement right on down to the formation of the New Christian Right.

You cite a French observer from the 1920s named André Siegfried, who saw among American Christians a particular Calvinist sense of mission. What was it that Siegfried noticed?

It was the belief that the Bible has a message for daily life as well as for eternal salvation. It was a stress on personal redemption and then on the life of holiness that would make people active in society.

How was that Calvinist attitude different from other Christian groups?

The contrasting alternatives would be Catholic, Anabaptist, and Lutheran. In the 19th century, Catholics would have hierarchical assumptions about approaching life in the world. Anabaptists set up alternative Christian communities. Lutherans made a distinction between two "kingdoms" or ways in which God rules the world: by grace (through the gospel) and by law (through the government).

But the Calvinists believed that when people read the Scriptures and develop a strong Christian conviction about something, their proper task is to implement that conviction in society as a whole. In those narrowly defined terms, you can see that the Civil Rights movement and the new Christian Right are cut from the same cloth.

Didn't Roman Catholics eventually come to an approach very much like the Calvinist one?

Right. That transition began in the 1930s with some Catholic supporters of Franklin Roosevelt. They noticed that some elements of New Deal reforms fit well with some elements of Catholic social teaching as articulated by Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. This has intensified as the effects of the Second Vatican Council have magnified the role of laypeople.

Let's turn to the topic of race. The debate that preceded the Civil War confused the issue of race with the issue of slavery. In the Bible, slavery wasn't tied to race. It was, generally speaking, "white people" serving "white people." What is the legacy of that confusion?

The legacy has been extreme and profound, because in the American setting slavery was equated with race-only slavery. Much of the harm done to the slaves took on a racial quality that it certainly never had in the Scriptures and actually had dropped out of Europe until about 1500. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 meant that Muslims could no longer get slaves for the Middle East from Southern Europe. They turned to Africa, where the slave trade had always existed, but it had been mostly internal. The Portuguese began to explore the western coast of Africa, and the Spanish and English settled in the New World. By the time there's a United States, slavery had become racialized in a way that it wasn't even 200 years before. Several cultures that were strongly influenced by race-only slavery have continued to work their effect.

If you build a culture of racial discrimination, you can't just pass a bill or get people to go forward in a prayer meeting and eliminate the culture of discrimination. It has a life of its own. For both the mainstream society and for black society, the cultural implications of the degradation associated with black-only slavery continue to have a profound effect. At the end of the book, I gesture very briefly to the largely African American authors—Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, Tavis Smiley—who have written books filled with complaint against the structures of a largely white society, but also filled with exhortation to largely African American communities to do the right thing with marriage and childrearing and employment—the cultural legacies of Jim Crow America.

So the domestic problems of African American society are related directly to the impact of race-based slavery on the whole society?

Yes. The dreadful statistics that you hear—more African-American youths in prison than in universities, the high percentage of young black men who spend time behind bars before they're 30, the dreadful family statistics—these are problems of the individual will and personal responsibility, but they're also problems built over 350 years of American civilization.

You write about three ways America's founding fathers miscalculated. I was particularly intrigued by the third one: their expectation that religion would be a source of order, decorum, and control. What happened instead?

The kind of religion that developed was not inherited state church-like regimes of the 18th century, but the self-starting, from-the-bottom-up local initiative typified by the more democratic Baptists and Methodists. In the early years of the 19th century, a Bible-oriented, evangelical, revivalist religion made for a stable American culture.

The difficulty was that in the new American mode of religious organization, the individual reading of the Scriptures was very important. For many spheres of life, this was an excellent thing. In the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville saw communities where there was no established church, yet there was a strong moral presence, a strong concern for right and wrong in politics. He said this comes about through the style of Protestant organization that backs the separation of church and state. Without European-style establishment, American religion had figured out a way to activate the people and the leaders who were in touch with the people. That created a template that's being followed around the globe today as Christian groups spring up apart from the traditional European pattern of church establishment.

In the United States, where slavery after 1830 had become the focus of biblical interpretation, the self-starting, Bible-reading, democratic hermeneutical style that had been so helpful for other matters led swiftly to an impasse on slavery. And as slavery became more and more important in the political life of the nation, so also did this religious impasse become increasingly important.

No religious authority had the power to say, We're going to resolve the impasse this way.

No. This is why Catholics on the continent said, You folks need a Pope. You must stop killing each other over interpretations of the Bible.

Of course they were right on that particular issue, though not necessarily convincing on the whole. I find it really striking how many northerners by 1860 were convinced that the Bible at least did not condemn slavery. They didn't always believe the argument that the Bible actively supported slavery. These are moderates and conservatives in the North. There was of course an abolitionist wing in the North, but when they reached for the Bible, it was pretty easy for Southerners to say, You are infidels because you're just not taking the Scripture seriously, since slavery is taken for granted in both Old and New Testaments.

Here we come back to the race issue. There were a few people who pointed out: Look, slavery's not the issue. Black-only American slavery is the issue, and black-only American slavery can be condemned by the Scriptures much more easily than slavery in the abstract. But those few voices did not get much of a hearing.

Segregation in the South created a space where the African American church could develop as a solid leadership institution. That institution eventually energized the Civil Rights movement—but at what cost?

That comes back to the maladies that affect some African American communities today. The triumph of the black churches was their ability to give encouragement and hope and a moral compass in a situation where in both North and South there really was very little effort to live up to the ideals of the American founding—or even to the law as it existed after the Civil War. I think the damage was also catastrophic in white society, because white society, South and North, tolerated a political structure in which race discrimination was absolutely central.

How do we explain the irony that evangelical religion in the North spawned and energized much of the abolitionist movement, and yet just a few years later it was quite happy to tolerate ongoing racism?

Socially active evangelicalism before the Civil War did exist. But it was not widespread, and it also very easily bled over into rank heterodoxy. I don't think it's fair to say evangelicals uniformly supported the status quo, but it's also not right to say that abolitionism was a solely evangelical enterprise. Even more than in Britain, there were Unitarians, liberal Quakers, even secular people who contributed to the abolitionist drive. And then later, well, I despair over what happened when people like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Dwight Weld lost interest in race by the early 1870s. This is very discouraging.

It is encouraging, however, that there were very capable black leaders at the time. Henry McNeal Turner, for example, and Francis Grimké, a Presbyterian minister in Washington, D.C. They were orthodox theologically and became, in effect, protoliberationist. But the difficulty is that today you say Henry McNeal Turner to somebody and they ask, Who's that? You say Harriet Beecher Stowe, and they know who that is. But who was the Harriet Beecher Stowe of 1876 or 1880? There actually were a few white Protestants fighting racism, but I found hardly any white evangelicals who were really active between 1870 and 1960. It is discouraging right up to the 1950s and 60s. To me, that is a theological and moral problem of the first order for Evangelical Protestant Christians.

William Martin's With God on Our Side quotes Religious Right pioneer Paul Weyrich as saying he tried to mobilize conservative evangelicals politically by using abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and he just failed. Then, during the Carter presidency, the IRS threatened some white Christian day schools with losing their tax exemption. That lit the spark that mobilized this constituency. Does this mean the Religious Right was racist at its roots?

All this is balanced by the movements that would lead the Southern Baptist Convention to make a public apology for racism and slavery, at the same time that it was becoming very political for Bush and against Clinton.

Certainly there's a connection. I read four or five excellent local studies of places like Atlanta and Mississippi that try to show how local politics led to the New Christian Right. And clearly there is a minority that helps form the New Christian Right because it is opposed to the growth of government because of race.

My sense is that the expansion of federal government power required to carry out desegregation was more the cause of the upset than race itself. I say that because in California, Illinois, Indiana, and New York evangelicals pretty soon jumped onto the New Right bandwagon. If they were racist, it would have been only in the mildest form.

There's irony and tragedy there, too, because small government is a really good principle, but one of the main reasons we don't have small government anymore is because Christian people sat on their hands as the racist terror continued. If we complain about big government today, we have to repent of what happened when small government prevailed on these matters up to the 1950s.

What did you learn about the cooperation between theological liberals and theological conservatives in the Civil Rights movement? It just seems out of character for American religion.

It is hard to find liberal-conservative cooperation except in communities that are under pressure from the outside. The reason Martin Luther King, Jr. could appeal to the really hardcore fundamentalist black church population was that the black churches had been bottled up together, so that the National Baptist Convention was not torn apart by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Because it was a black convention, and because it was under a great deal of pressure from the world of Jim Crow, things were kept together that were flying apart in white society.

Thanks for a book that gives us a different way to see the political landscape.

Writing it was depressing, as you can imagine. I like it more often when my evangelical good guys win. Nevertheless, there are a few partial victories there.