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The following article originally appeared in Salt of the Earth. It is posted here for private use only. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part without the permission of Salt of the Earth magazine.

Racism and religion:
partners in crime?

Tim Unsworth

Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning . . . is the most segregated hour in Christian America.—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One wastes time and money in ministering to blacks. . . . What reason can there be that you are so solicitous for the Negro?—a priest, cited in The Miserable Condition of Black Catholics in America, 1903.

AUGUSTUS TOLTON WAS THE SECOND OF THREE CHILDREN born in Missouri to Catholic slave parents in 1854. (Catholic slaves required the permission of their owners to be married—even to receive Communion.) His father escaped slavery in 1861, and some years later his mother took the children to Quincy, Illinois, a town crowded with refugee slaves.

When he was refused admission to Catholic school, Tolton's mother persisted. He received some Catholic education and later was accepted to Quincy College, a Franciscan institution, as a part-time student.

Tolton dreamed of becoming a priest, but no U.S. seminary would accept him. At 25, he was finally admitted to Urban College in Rome with the understanding that he'd work in Africa after ordination.

Instead, after his ordination in 1886, he returned to Illinois, where he was given a tiny black parish of barely 30 people. Some wondered why a few whites attended the "nigger priest's" parish, but many whites did accept him, in his words, with "no bitterness because of his complexion."

TOLTON WAS NOT THE FIRST BLACK PRIEST in the United States The three Healy brothers, sons of an Irish immigrant and a slave, were ordained about the time Tolton was born. Throughout their lives, however, they passed as whites. One became bishop of Portland, Maine; a second was named president of Washington's George-town University (which once kept slaves and did not accept black students until the 1920s); and the third priest-brother died of typhoid fever soon after ordination.

At a time when priests mixed only with other priests, Tolton found himself isolated in his diocese. In 1889 he asked for a transfer to Chicago, where an all-black congregation had been worshiping in the basement of a Catholic church since 1881.

He had 260 registered parishioners. Many black Catholics had left the church after they had been hurled out of white churches.

After eight years in Chicago, Tolton died of sunstroke en route home from a retreat. One source said that he was rushed to a Catholic hospital where he was refused admission. He was only 44.

Tolton's life encapsulated the black Catholic experience in America. Although black Catholic communities date back to before the Civil War—when they could be found in good numbers in Maryland, alongthe Gulf Coast, and in Florida—the record of integration is badly tainted with official indifference and racism.

In an early history, The Miserable Condition of Black Catholics in America (1903), Father Joseph Anciaux, S.S.J. wrote: "Nearly all priests, even the most pious, fear the reproach of white citizens so much that they scarcely dare to make the slightest effort on behalf of blacks; others are so imbued with prejudice that they say: 'The care of blacks is not my concern. They do not belong to my flock.' "

THE U.S. CATHOLIC CHURCH DID LITTLE TO FIGHT racism or to evangelize among the African American community. As recently as 1942, when a black Chicago Catholic wrote the late Cardinal Samuel Stritch complaining that he was required to sit on a side aisle in church, the cardinal responded through his chancellor that no discrimination was intended and that "from 100 to 150 Colored people attend the various Masses at Holy Angels on Sunday [and that] the majority find no inconvenience. . . . I am sure you will feel better about this whole matter if you follow the practice of the majority."

The response, cited in Father Steven Avella's history of the Chicago church from 1940 until 1965, was actually mild by the standards of the time. Elsewhere in Chicago, pastors still stood at the doors of their churches denying admission to blacks. In other cities, blacks risked physical harm if they attempted to enter a church.

If admitted, seating was segregated and blacks approached Communion—or Confession—only after whites and received the sacraments from a separate priest. Their children were denied entrance to parish schools except to those that were all-black.

Private Catholic schools and universities—including the bishops' own Catholic University of America (CUA)—were almost universally closed to blacks. An early registrar at CUA explained, "It was tried once with exceedingly unhappy results."

Seminaries and most religious orders barred admission to all people of color. Bishop Benjamin Keiley of Savannah, Georgia, who publicly criticized President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, commented: "In America no black man should be ordained. Just as illegitimate sons are declared irregular by Canon Law . . . so blacks can be declared irregular because they are held in such contempt by whites."

It would be more than another half century after Augustus Tolton's death before the Archdiocese of Chicago, a comparatively progressive and innovative diocese, would ordain its first African American priest.

IN GENERAL, BISHOPS MOVED RELUCTANTLY TO ATTACK racial discrimination and then only under pressure of demographic, social, and political events. The usual episcopal response was: "The opportune moment has not yet arrived." Historian Avella, a Milwaukee priest, observed wryly, "The opportune moment would never arrive."

Racism is not a unique invention of the American melting pot. In nearly all the world's societies, people have developed pride in their cultural accomplishments. Almost inevitably, it has led to derogation of their neigh-bors' successes.

The racist idea that certain groups are genetically superior to others, however, has not been as widespread. Where it exists today, it is mostly the out-growth of the rationalization of slavery and colonial expansion in the Americas and the territories dominated by European settlers.

SOME SCHOLARS DATE THE BEGINNINGS OF RACISM to the Hindu caste system that originated in the physical differences between the Aryans who invaded India between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. and the conquered Dravidians. The three top castes were composed of Aryans; the fourth caste was made up largely of Dravidians; a fifth group, the untouchables, were all Dravidians.

The Hindi term for caste—varna—means "color." While the Aryans were of lighter skin, varna does not refer to skin pigmentation. It connotes, however, good and evil—and the Dravidians were considered the "bad guys."

The good-bad link moved over to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The darker-skinned enemies continued to be seen as the evil ones and the language became filled with associ-ations of skin color to moral fiber.

Neither Hebrew nor Christian scripture contains clear evidence of racism.

RACISTS, HOWEVER, HAVE USED PASSAGES of the Bible for divine sanctioning of slavery.

Noah's curse on his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:20-27) served as the prime proof text for their twisted arguments.

When Noah exited the ark, he planted a vineyard. He sampled too much of his wine, got drunk, and lay naked inside his tent.

Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham had a son named Canaan. Ham saw his father's nakedness, but his brothers walked backward into the tent to avoid the sight. When Noah awoke, he put a curse on Ham's son, declaring that Canaan "shall be a slave to his brothers."

Modern commentators believe that the story was told to justify the enslavement of the Canaanites because of certain indecent sexual practices in the Canaanite religion. The land of Canaan, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan and the Dead Sea, was where the Israelites settled.

FOR CENTURIES, EUROPEANS, AMERICANS, AND WHITE South Africans have used this text to justify the enslavement of Africans, whom they considered the children of Canaan.

Some racists also quote the Song of Songs (1:5-6): "I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards."

The verse has been used as biblical justification that dark-skinned people are to occupy a lower rung on the racial ladder and are ordained to serve others.

Similarly, there is no clear justification for racism in the Koran and Islamic tradition. At least 20 percent of the world's Muslims are black, and black African kings have made pilgrimages to Mecca since the Middle Ages. Even the Arabs involved in the slave trade do not appear to have rationalized their actions in the name of religion.

Asian attitudes about race appear to be dictated by a tight insider system,and both Chinese and Japanese often express a marked dislike for physical types that are at variance with their own ideas of beauty.

There is little real evidence of racism among nonliterate or so-called primitive societies. In a few African tribes, there are traces of it based on height—not much to hang strong hatred on.

Far and away the most widespread, enduring, and virulent form of racism —and the costliest in terms of human suffering—has been that which originated in Europe and its colonial extensions.

Early Roman and Greek states were based on status as patrician or plebeian, patron or client, free citizen or slave. Race was not mentioned, other than to term a nonwhite as "exotic."

With the arrival of Christianity, the divisions became religious rather than racial. Status was measured by whether or not one was Moor, Jew, or Christian, and what kind of Christian. Only when Europeans came into contact with large numbers of dark-skinned peoples, as a result of their colonial expansion in the 15th century, did racism start to develop.

The Spanish conquest of the New World led to immediate distinctions between the Spanish in-vaders and the Indians and between the Spanish born in Spain and those born in the New World.

But it was the Dutch and the British who set the pattern for racism in North America, South Africa, and Australia. In each of these places, racism gradually gave way to one of its cousins—segregation. At about the same time, racism as a "scientific" theory began to take hold in Europe, particularly in Germany.

Although English naturalist Charles Darwin was not a racist, his theory of the survival of the fittest became a convenient peg on which racists could hang their hats. It lasted until around 1930, by which time it had taken political form under Adolf Hitler. His super race was a horrendous exten-sion of Darwin's innocent theories.

There is an undeniable relationship between religion and racism.

Josiah Strong, a minister in the Congregational Church and, iron-ically, a proponent of the "social gospel," defined the world role of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. In his 1893 best-seller The New Era or the Coming Kingdom, Strong linked "the greatest race" with a more purified form of Christianity that would eventually "spread over the earth."

In the "final competition of the races," the weaker ones (read: blacks, Jews, Catholics) would simply never measure up to the new Anglo-Saxonized humankind. "It would seem as if these inferior tribes were only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord!' "

According to Strong, Anglo-Saxon Protestant religiosity was "more vigorous, more spiritual, more Christian than that of any other race." The Anglo-Saxon race, he said, had been chosen to prepare for the full coming of God's kingdom.

Strong's book was widely viewed as a catechism of racial and religi-ous superiority. Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom comments, "American Protestantism in its best moods was capable of genuine charity, but in its average performance and typical expression, it strengthened nativism, contributing in many ways to extreme manifestations of intolerance, and even providing leadership for nativist organizations."

When the South in the 1890s institutionalized Jim Crow segregation, it was with churches' complicity.

As David M. Reimers writes in White Protestantism and the Negro, "Denomination mattered little, for support for the racist creed ran the gamut from urban Episcopalians to country Baptists."

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism was often tied to anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Blacks, Jews, and Catholics were all lumped together as targets of the white-robed Ku Klux Klan, a distinctly Protestant organization that boasted its own chaplains and hymns. "Never before," John Higham wrote in Strangers in the Land, "has a single society gathered up so many hatreds."

Black churches emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Their be-ginnings, observes Cath-erine Meeks, professor of African American studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, were characterized by a "dynamic of the white church's racism and the black church's resistance."

Meeks says, "It was the white control of the worship [on slave-holding plantations], the inability to accept blacks as equals, and the negation of black personhood that led to the separation of the black church from the white church and to the emergence of a black religious community."

Independent black churches—most of them Baptist or Methodist—"were not separating themselves from whites because they held a different doctrinal view of Christianity," notes James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary. "Without exception, blacks used the same articles of faith and polity for their churches as the white denominations from which they separated. Separation, for blacks, meant that . . . they were rejecting racism that was based on the assumption that God created blacks inferior to whites."

Even though white Protestant denominations in the 1840s split over the issue of slavery, the congregations of northern Protestants remained just as closed to blacks who moved north. The religious segregation that took shape then persists today. According to one recent poll, fewer than half of the Christians in the U.S. said they attend a church that includes anyone from another race.

Despite this rather bleak overall picture, there were also numerous examples of Protestant efforts to put an end to racism, especially slavery.

Presbyterians spoke out as early as 1818, at a time when several Catholic colleges and seminaries still held slaves. A group of Baptists published a newsletter calling for an end to slavery. Most abolitionist groups were connected to churches.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. was hardly at the forefront in civil rights. It conformed to local norms—in some places right down to seg-regated confessionals, not unlike Southern water fountains.

In 1954, when Bishop Vincent Waters of Raleigh, North Carolina ordered an end to all segregation in the churches, it made national headlines. But former Common-weal editor John Deedy observes, "The American Catholic Church was about as interested in blacks in America as it was in American Indians, which was not very much."

Catholic and white Protestant church leadership was conspicuously absent during most of the civil-rights struggle with its marches, bus boycotts, voter-registration drives, state-university enrollment, and housing protests.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" in response to a public statement by eight prominent local church leaders (including the bishops of the Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist churches), who had denounced him as an "extremist" and "outsider."

In the letter, King expressed his deep disappointment with the white church and its leadership. He accused it of being content "to stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."

King's appeal finally had some effect in awakening significant segments of the white Protestant and Catholic churches. The strongest expression of that belated support was the 1965 Selma March in which many priests, religious, and ministers participated.

But even at Selma, no major Catholic leaders were present. One bishop even reprimanded his priest-secretary for taking part and thus "dragging his name into it."

Catherine Meeks reminds U.S. Christians that racism is still alive in their churches: "Too little has changed! In spite of the struggles of the past for racial equality, racial freedom, and respect, the basic foundation of racism in the church is alive and well. As a matter of fact, it is thriving in an atmosphere of fear and complacency created by the church's lack of conversion to the message of Jesus."

Looking back on this nation's racist history, former member of Congress and Jesuit Father Robert F. Drinan observes, "It is incredible that in a nation with profoundly Christian roots such a thing could have happened."—END

© 1997 by Claretian Publications


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