Slavery and American Christianity

Michele Bachman is providing mini lessons on the Southern branch of American Christianity. Granted, as she keeps telling us, she’s from Iowa. Her current constituents in Minnesota may also be surprised to find that they’re supporting a branch of Christianity that can be traced back to the slave-owning and segregated South.

Let’s start with the recent challenge during the Iowa debates: Would you, Michele Bachman, bow to the Biblical dictum that wives should be subservient to their husbands? She nicely sidestepped that, but the underlying message of a hierarchy– some members of the human race being closer to God and thus carrying more authority than others–remains. True, the ditty about all God’s children, “black and white, red and yellow,” which we used to sing in Sunday school is inherent in Christianity, but so too is the idea of a “chosen race, God’s chosen people,” a band of the enlightened, persecuted and reviled by pagan hordes, but triumphing if not on earth, then in heaven. Michele Bachman is all about triumphing on earth.

The history of Christianity calls up this complex of ideas and emotions: persecution, special enlightenment, a “light shining in darkness,” and extraordinary power to trump all established kingdoms. Very political, inherently revolutionary or at least resistant. Christianity is replete with contradictions.

I have no special pipeline to heaven, but I do have years of experience with Southern and Christian racism. My parents moved to Charleston, South Carolina after World War II. My father was the son of a Presbyterian “missionary” to his people–they being Italian immigrants in Pittsburgh, whom my grandfather, also a recent immigrant, was trying to convert to Protestantism. My father also studied for the ministry, but gave it up in favor of teaching history. Whatever notions about Christian hierarchy he brought with him to South Carolina, were, over the next four decades, infused and distorted by the furor over civil rights.

“Slavery was a benign institution,” he would say, scratching his receding hairline. “It took barbarians, black as the ace of spades, and it Christianized and civilized them.” It was an old apology for slavery, still making its rounds, one he undoubtedly taught in his American history courses at The Citadel. “Black people a’re unclean,” he would hiss as me as we passed groups of maids and janitors standing at bus stops. It took me a while to become suspicious of this apology for the aftermath of slavery we were living with: segregation. Gradually I noticed that the black parts of town were poor and ramshackled. Black maids and gardeners, our own black janitor Shorty, wore old clothes and down-at-the-heel shoes. They were subservient, though I didn’t know that word, but as they passed empty seats at the front of the bus and moved to the rear, I felt ashamed at laws that burdened hard-working men and women, but privileged me, a mere teenager, simply because my skin was a lighter color.

“God has given them into our hands,” my father would proclaim in his best moods. In his worst moods, he would shout, “Miscegenation will be the downfall of the race!” It took me a while to parse that one. When I finally figured out it meant a black and a white person having sex and giving birth to a child, I narrowed my eyes at him. He was, by then, accusing me of enticing black boys to our door. They would want to date me. “Daddy,” I screeched, “I don’t know any black boys!” Facts did not penetrate his towering, righteous certainty.

When I consider the danger that Michele Bachman represents, I’m reminded of this towering certainty and my father’s rather remote connection to slavery, segregation and the Southern experience. He grew up in the North, yet his family was imbued with a deeply Christian worldview. They were also embattled: fighting one of the Western world’s most decidedly religious battles between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was also given to quoting the Bible, especially the Old Testament where power resided in patriarchs, where believers were hounded out of Egypt but with God’s intervention–rolling back those Red Sea waters–they reached the Promised Land.

As a history teacher, he was well aware of the divide at our nation’s founding: between northern states with little slavery and a dislike of it, and the Southern plantation owners whose entire way of life was predicated on retaining African slavery. What freedom meant to these diverse regions was not the same thing. Over the decades after Freedom was gained from England, freedom shifted its glare toward the bondage of enormous numbers of black people, who lived largely in the south. But there, the white owners coopted the word freedom for their own use: they were free to pursue their own way of life. They would not be imposed upon by their northern brethren. Each side used Christian teaching to prop up their underlying belief about how to treat a people oppressed and degraded within this bastion of supposed freedom.

After listening to the likes of Michele Bachman, it’s s rather a relief to remember Christianity can also be made to support “all God’s children got wings,” to quote a black spiritual. Christ died for ALL our sins. No one is ultimately elevated with power over another. Or, to step aside and view the way religion can be made to serve competing political positions, to remember that the United States is predicated on a separation of church and state. And t0 be deeply disturbed when reading in a recent New Yorker article on Michele Bachman, that Oral Robert University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she received her law degree, required students to sigh a “code of honor” on their Christian beliefs, and that one of the school’s two goals is “to restore law to its historic roots in the Bible.” (Ryan Lizza, “Leap of Faith,” The New Yorker, August 15,22, 2011, p. 59).

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