A Grotesque Heresy

Like a college professor impatiently quashing a grade-school argument, the Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates descended with encyclopedic thoroughness on the conservative whining about the president’s National Prayer Breakfast admonition to self-righteous Christians that they had a few things to repent in their own communion, including support for slavery and Jim Crow. If anything, Coates says, Obama understated the extent to which Christianity served as a rationale for racist policies and all their brutal corollaries. After quoting Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ explicit claim of divine sanction for slavery, Coates notes how common this sacralization of racism was and continued to be right up to the 1960s:

Stephens went on to argue that the “Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa” could only be accomplished through enslavement. And enslavement was not made possible through Robert’s Rules of Order, but through a 250-year reign of mass torture, industrialized murder, and normalized rape—tactics which ISIS would find familiar. Its moral justification was not “because I said so,” it was “Providence,” “the curse against Canaan,” “the Creator,” “and Christianization.” In just five years, 750,000 Americans died because of this peculiar mission of “Christianization.” Many more died before, and many more died after. In his “Segregation Now” speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him “a system that is the very opposite of Christ.”

This reminder is especially powerful to me because I recall a sweet church-going elderly aunt of mine in 1968 asserting that “George Wallace is the best Christian running for president,” not long after I heard her say she wished she could give sanctuary to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin. Horrific abuses of Christianity are not some some of relic of a poorly remembered Middle Ages, as some conservatives are now saying. And no, it does not suffice to argue that Christians were on both sides of the barricades during the Civil War and the civil rights movement. In the white southern milieu of both eras, active evil reigned almost unanimously, rupturing not only the Union but many major Protestant denominations. If we are supposed to hold Islam in general accountable for the peculiar branch of Sunni belief and practice prevailing in one corner of the world (with sympathizers elsewhere), then it’s entirely fair to hold Christianity to the same standard for the behavior of those who dominated the faith’s own sort of Caliphates in the past, distant and near. That Barack Obama does not favor this sort of guilt-by-imputation should be pretty obvious–as it should be that Christian self-righteousness, about which that faith’s Founder repeatedly warned his disciples, is a grotesque if evergreen heresy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.