The recent unsolicited distribution of “The Crusader,” the political voice of the Knights Party, to households in our area that angered citizens (Tideland News, March 31, 2021) has at least one benefit … an opportunity to read what’s happening within the newly “redefined” Klu Klux Klan. On the back page, an unnamed writer in “What is a White Nationalist?” rejected the idea that the United States was created for all people, races and cultures. “The facts don’t lie. This country was created for white Christian people. Tolerance for others? Okay. But leading and setting the moral and cultural tone of the nation was only the prerogative of white Christian people. Period.”
My difficulty with the article begins with the statement, without evidence or proof, that our country was created for white Christians. I do not recall anything in our Constitution that bestows divine favor (or any favor) on a particular race. Historically, it may be more accurate to say that the country was originally created, not for the white Christian, but for Native-Americans who have been living on our continent for 10,000 years.
More troubling is the author’s statement that morality is a special and exclusive jurisdiction for the white Christian. Even a cursory knowledge of the Abrahamic tradition shows that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God and share the Golden Rule as their ethical mandate. Unfortunately, there are many historical illustrations, which show that white Christianity has hardly been a leader in morality.
Anti-Semitism has been a characteristic of Christianity almost from the beginning. Today’s white Christian prerogative, much of it of questionable moral tone, was made official more than 500 years ago. At the time of the voyages of Christopher Columbus and the beginning of European colonialism, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull setting geographical boundaries for exploration and categorically stating that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers. The Bull declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all later European claims in the Americas. England’s King Henry VII instructed John Cabot to locate, subdue and possess the “islands, countries, regions of the heathen and infidels … unknown to Christian people.” In 1513, upon arrival in a new land, every Spanish explorer was mandated to read a document to the natives informing them that their land had been donated to Spain and that they had to submit to the Crown and Christianity or they would be attacked and enslaved. (World Council of Churches “Statement,” 2012)
White Christian prerogative appears in our country’s growth, too. In an 1845 essay, John O’Sullivan wrote about the annexation of Texas and the burgeoning population of California in sacred terms, “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” This doctrine of Manifest Destiny would describe and motivate the tremendous western expansion of the United States. With it, however, there would be violence against Native Americans. The massacre of almost 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho natives, mostly women, children and elderly at a U.S. peace camp in Sand Creek, Colo., territory in November 1864, is described by the National Park Service as barbarism, “one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history.” It was led by a (white Christian) Methodist preacher, Col. John Chivington.
Frederick Douglass, author of “A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave,” (1845) was adamant about slaveholders and Christianity. He particularly objected to Methodists. “I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.” At one point Douglass hoped that life might get better after one of his white masters “got religion” at a camp meeting and came home converted to the Christian faith. Instead, his master was even crueler. In a lengthy appendix at the end of his “Narrative,” Douglass made clear that white slaveholding religion bore no relationship to the “pure, peaceful Christianity of Christ.” He wrote, “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.”
In 1963, several eminent white clergymen, including two Roman Catholic bishops, an Episcopalian Bishop, two Methodist Bishops and a Presbyterian Church Moderator, wrote an open letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., criticizing him and the protests he led in Birmingham, Ala. One could say they were exercising their white Christian prerogative. “I must confess,” King responded, “over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” (from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
According to the “Crusader” writer, tolerance is only “okay,” just a hardly recognizable, very reluctant nod in the direction of other races and religions. What’s missing in white nationalism is a thorough going understanding of the breadth of American religious freedom. Against the wishes of the Knights Party, diversity is a fact. Our country is extraordinarily blessed by the God-given moral and cultural contributions of Jewish, Black, Asian and Native Americans … in other words, all Americans. Diversity is that constitutionally guaranteed milieu in which we nurture respect for others.
These are times when white Christians need to learn from persons of other faiths and races rather than lord over them.
Jim Brewster of Swansboro is a retired United Methodist minister and a Tideland News columnist.