Debunking D’Souza, Part 2: Christianity and Civil Rights


One of the most astounding claims made by Dinesh D’Souza in his debate with Susan Jacoby was that without Christianity, there would have been no movements to expand equality. He specifically listed the anti-slavery movement, the fight for suffrage, the civil rights movement and — bizarrely — the temperance movement.

If you look at the great social movements of American politics, not only the movement that led to the founding, which was driven in part by the First Great Awakening, but the movements that led to the temperance movement, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, there were not only waves of religious revival that often preceded and sometimes accompanied these movements, but the arguments in favor of these causes were made in explicitly religious terms…If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left? If you were to subtract it from America, no founding; no Declaration of Independence; no anti-slavery movement; no civil rights movement.

That he actually managed to say this not only with a straight face but with supreme and strident self-confidence speaks volumes about D’Souza’s utter lack of intellectual honesty. Were there Christians on the right side of all of those battles? Of course. But the overwhelming weight of institutional Christianity was firmly on the side of slavery, opposed to giving women the right to vote and opposed to civil rights for blacks. The one example he uses (for reasons that baffle me) that actually was a predominately Christian idea was the temperance movement. And that’s not exactly a good thing. Prohibition did enormous damage to this country. But yes, that was almost exclusively a Christian idea.

But slavery? Sure, there were Christian abolitionists, but The Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest denomination in the country, was formed for the purpose of defending slavery. The arguments in favor of slavery came straight out of the Bible, which endorses slavery over and over again in both the old and new testaments. The Texas declaration of secession could hardly be more clear:

That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations…

For crying out loud, Christianity was a primary tool for the control of slaves. Slave masters taught their slaves Christianity because it taught that they were to obey their masters and that God had decreed the institution of slavery. Abolitionists, including those who were Christian, were condemned as heretics and infidels for their apostasy. Rev. Benjamin Palmer of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans said in 1860:

“The Abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic, The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin Clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law. . . . This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air: “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted, means bondage, confiscation, and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religions and of all truths.”

Frederick Douglass, a freethinker and escaped slave who became one of America’s most powerful orators and activists, had this to say in his autobiography:

“The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s lock stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.”



You can read the book The American Churches: The Bulwarks of American Slavery, written in 1840 by James Birney, by clicking here.

And Christianity was responsible for women getting the right to vote? Seriously? The leaders of that movement, in the earliest days, were freethinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and many others. They often railed against Christianity and religion in general, for obvious reasons; the arguments against universal suffrage were based almost exclusively on the Bible and Christian tradition.

As for the civil rights movement, here again it’s obviously true that many Christians, including Martin Luther King, were deeply involved in that battle. But he leaves out the fact that the primary opposition to equality came from most white churches. The arguments against Loving v Virginia, the Supreme Court case overturning state laws against interracial marriage, were stated in explicitly Christian terms. Indeed, even the trial court judge in that case said in his ruling:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.”

As I said, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed to fight for slavery, and long after the civil war they were still fighting equality in every way possible. The churches that were on the right side of those issues tended to be liberal denominations like Quakers, which were, and continue to be, condemned by the conservative churches.

There is a clear pattern here. Every movement to increase equality and civil rights has had to battle against the full weight of institutional Christianity, often for decades and even centuries. After the battle is won and the traditional Christian churches have been forced to abandon the position that they maintained up to that point, often supported with violence, their apologists suddenly discover that some of the people they fought so hard against were Christians — almost always of some variety that they had always rejected as heresy and apostasy. And then they say, “See! This was a Christian idea all along!”

I’ll make a prediction: 20 or 30 years from now, when anti-gay bigotry is viewed as being as anachronistic as racial bigotry is today, Dinesh D’Souza or his ideological descendants will point to Gene Robinson and some of the very same liberal leaders who embraced equality while they themselves stood foursquare against it, and they will declare that equal rights for LGBT people was based on Christian principles all along.

Comments

  1. says

    Every movement to increase equality and civil rights has had to battle against the full weight of institutional Christianity, often for decades and even centuries.

    Many, many centuries.

    If Christianity is all about equality, why was equality not even an idea for century after century after century of theocracy in Europe?

  2. says

    If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left? If you were to subtract it from America, no founding; no Declaration of Independence; no anti-slavery movement; no civil rights movement.

    Every time I hear this nonsense, I have to ask, if Christianity was responsible for these things, why did it take the better part of 1500 years for things like representative democracy, abolitionism, and what we today regard as basic civil rights to come to pass? Does Christianity really have such a slow fuse? Maybe throughout the multiple centuries spanning Augustine and Aquinas they just weren’t the right kind of Christian?

  3. says

    D’Souza:

    …but the arguments in favor of these causes were made in explicitly religious terms…

    Well, duh! When 98% of the nation’s population are self-professed believers (true even in the 1960s), then in what terms do you think the reformers should have been making their arguments if they wanted to get any type of traction amongst the general public?

    D’Souza is a nincompoop.

  4. says

    The Grimké sisters (abolitionists and proponents of women’s suffrage) were both Quakers, n’est-ce pas?

    Many male abolitionists were Christian ministers, and James Birney (whom you’ve cited) was a Presbyterian. And more important for this discussion perhaps, those abolitionists who were Christians (probably the majority of abolitionists) regarded slavery as contrary to Christianity. You could argue with some plausibility that they were wrong to think so–but that does appear to be what they thought.

    I’m not saying D’Souza is right; he never is–but rather that you find believers on both sides of these struggles, and those believers who have fought for civil rights have pretty typically regarded their moral principles as consonant with, and arising from, their religious beliefs.

    Incidentally, I hesitate to say that they were entirely mistaken in believing so, because I’m not convinced I have any special talent for discovering someone else’s false consciousness. I of course entertain the same doubts about other people’s abilities in this area.

  5. Erp says

    Well there were some ideas of equality

    “When Adam delved, and Eve span
    Who was then a gentleman?”

    dates from the 14th century supposedly

    Strictly speaking Europe was not a theocracy (except in parts) but a collection of monarchies (and a few other bits). It did have effectively a single religion and the interaction between the church as represented by bishops/great abbots and the kings/princes/great nobles could be acrimonious (though both united against the peasants when they revolted during difficult times). The rhyme dates from one peasant rebellion.

  6. Chiroptera says

    If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left?

    Beliefs based on rational inferences from empirical facts?

  7. says

    “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.”

    Let’s see: leaving one continent, picking up a bunch of slaves in another continent, and then settling down and exterminating the inhabitants of a third continent… that’s doesn’t mess with God’s original arrangement at all. But marrying one of those people? Now you’ve done it.

    Also, since when did Malaysians get to have their own race? That’s totally unfair.

  8. says

    Every time I hear this nonsense, I have to ask, if Christianity was responsible for these things, why did it take the better part of 1500 years for things like representative democracy, abolitionism, and what we today regard as basic civil rights to come to pass? Does Christianity really have such a slow fuse? Maybe throughout the multiple centuries spanning Augustine and Aquinas they just weren’t the right kind of Christian?

    I remember a bunch of British philosophers and historians having a roundtable discussion over the impact of religion throughout history, and this issue came up. All of them, without hesitation, agreed that Christianity may have had a major effect in delaying significant progress and reforms in the thousand year period after the Classical Era.

    It was in one of the episodes of the BBC’s In Our Time (from several years back), which I would highly recommend to everyone. They have made their complete archive available online, and discuss a wide variety of topics involving religion, philosophy, science, culture and history:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/in-our-time/

  9. says

    And let’s not forget Jefferson:

    May it [the Declaration of Independence] be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”

  10. markhoofnagle says

    This is a little US-centric. Anyone here hear of Gandhi? Sure everyone uses religious arguments for whatever position it is, for or against. But that’s because as a rhetorical tool for motivating religious people, religion works. And in a country that was > 90% Christian for the last two centuries people are then surprised when Christians are the ones making forward progress?

    To say specifically Christianity has served the purpose of liberalizing the world ignores the entire non-Christian world and movements led by non-Christians. It also probably wrongly includes folks on the liberal side like Jefferson and Lincoln who can only be considered very weakly Christian. Jefferson likely a deist, and Lincoln, who according to his long term friend and law partner, was contemptuous of religion. Didn’t stop either of them for using religious language like “better angels” to talk to the masses. They were no fools.

    D’Souza is making an argument that is historically and culturally ignorant.

  11. coragyps says

    One of my several-times-great grandfathers was Rev. George Junkin, D.D. He wrote a catechism, of which our family has a copy, “for the Instruction of Coloured Persons,” full of the Bible verses that instruct them to be obedient to their masters, etc. And Dr J was a college president and anti -secessionist: he fled Virginia to Pennsylvania when the Confederacy started forming.
    But he knew those darkies’ place, and what text to prove it with!

    Yeah, D’Souza is full of it.

  12. grumpyoldfart says

    There are plenty of good Christians who know that D’Souza is a liar – but not one of them (not one) will stand up and say so.

  13. says

    Actually, I know lots of Christians who will stand up and say that D’Souza is a liar, and have done so. Just like there are Christians like John Fea and Gregg Frazer who openly call David Barton a liar. Such blanket statements are bound to be wrong and yours certainly is, grumpyoldfart.

  14. says

    …The one example he uses (for reasons that baffle me) that actually was a predominately Christian idea was the temperance movement.

    Um, no, he’s wrong there too: the temperance movement was based on secular policy ideas arising from evolving non-faith-based understanding of real-world suffering, no less so than any of the other great movements D’Souza cites. People saw that widespread alcohol abuse had really bad effects, so they tried to use state power and other tools to make things better. And, as with all the other movements mentioned here, the use of Bible verses to justify and build support for the policy came after.

  15. anandine says

    white, black, yellow, Malay, and red

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Malay as a separate race from the primary colors. Wikipedia says “The concept of a Malay race was proposed by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), and classified as the brown race.”

  16. vmanis1 says

    I’ve always found temperance a fascinating phenomenon. It was based on a very real problem (alcoholism) and had links to 19th-century feminism (and in particular to trying to end domestic violence), but then became its own crusade, ending up causing worse problems than the one it tried to combat.

    Nothing captures temperence better than the image of the temperance ladies coming back from smashing up saloons to have some Lydia Pinkham’s tonic (which, unbeknownst to the temperance ladies, had a LOT of ethanol in it) to revive themselves. There’s a folk song about Lydia Pinkham (`Lily the Pink’) which has appeared in many versions; one, popular in Canada some decades ago, was by the Irish Rovers; its last stanza went “Lily died and went to Heaven/All the church bells they did ri-i-ing/She took with her that Medicinal Compound/Hark the herald angels sing!’.

    If Dingbat D’Souza wants to claim temperance for his cause, I say let him.

  17. slc1 says

    It sounds like DeSouza was engaging in a Gish gallop, which is the vice of engaging in debates with shitheads like him.

  18. abb3w says

    Essentially, there’s a spectrum. (Possibly not quite linear, but such complications can be left for another day.) As an approximation (with some overlap and imprecision to the definitions)

    • Atheists, who don’t believe in God.
    • Agnostics, who don’t feel confident enough to state a belief one way or the other.
    • Deists, who think that there’s a God who started the universe, but with little to no interest and meddling since.
    • Providentialists, who think that God likes us, and does a little subtle meddling now and again to our benefit
    • Freethinkers (of the traditional sense), who serve God as they see wise, but without reliance on the dictates of tradition or other cultural authority
    • Liberal (Theists), who pay attention to some such authority, but don’t seek to push others to do so in the same way
    • Evangelicals, who seek to persuade others to pay attention
    • Fundamentalists, who seek to persuade others that their own narrow interpretation is the One True way to follow God
    …and beyond.

    It appears that for each of these issues, examples could be found of holders of each position: EG, pro-Slavery atheists, or pro-Abolition fundamentalists. Similarly, it’s possible today to find outliers on contemporary questions: pro-Choice fundamentalists, or pro-Life atheists. (Or even on Evolution; and probably more than you’d expect.)

    However… they’re outliers. Within the categories, as you move from the “more Godly” end of this spectrum to the “less”, the more Freethinking tend to lean more toward a “better” job (in historical hindsight) on most of the issues. Hard to get statistically rigorous numbers, though; opinion surveys of what people thought were common back in the 1800s, and statistically representative ones non-existent prior to George Gallup in 1936. Not to mention, public identification as being in the more freethinking parts of the spectrum was even more scandalous than today.

  19. Akira MacKenzie says

    Beliefs based on rational inferences from empirical facts?

    As much as I’d like believe that, chances are humanity would have found another religion to follow.

  20. says

    The temperance movement was NOT a Good Thing. Which makes it a perfect example of how Christianity “helps” society!

  21. says

    Thank you, Ed Brayton! This has really opened my eyes about Christianity opposing abolition and equal rights! I am going to do a lot of reading!

    I already knew that the Catholic church was against this country allowing freedom of speech (two papal bulls in 1832 to that effect. Wish I could cite.) But I had no idea that the Southern Baptists were pro-slavery!

    Now, about Dinesh D’Souza: is this the dipshit who provided Gingrich with the “Obama is an anti-colonialist” meme?

  22. equisetum says

    D’Souza is a nincompoop.”

    This should become a meme. “And for the affirmative position ‘Christianity is the greatest thing evah!’ distinguished nincompoop Dinesh D’Souza.”

  23. says

    @ Erp
    “When Adam delved[sic], and Eve span
    Who was then a gentleman?”

    But those Lollards were revolting (as far as the church and state were concerned :-) ) and John Ball was imprisoned by the church and eventually, in 1381, was hanged, drawn and quartered.
    So: yes he was a Christian (not much choice at the time) and a priest even; but was pretty definitely not on the side of the Church.

  24. caseloweraz says

    Ed’s cogent arguments aside (and Mark Hoofnagle’s likewise), D’Souza fails to understand that making dogmatic statements about alternative histories is risky to the point of foolhardiness.

    To give a simplistic example: “If the rebel generals had managed to assassinate Hitler, World War II would have ended much sooner.” Maybe, or maybe not. Someone equally tyrannical, but without Hitler’s foibles, might have taken over.

    If Christianity, with its patriarchal characteristics and its tendency to demonize and outlaw other religions had not grown so widespread with the aid of the later Roman empire, there might be less need today for movements to expand equality. (Notice I said “might.”)

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