Last Sunday, while addressing Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, a black church in rural South Carolina, GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee asserted, “I hear people say we’ve got racial problems. We don’t have a skin problem in this country, we have a sin problem in this country.” In a 1997 speech commemorating the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High, Huckabee expanded on this “sin not skin” notion by saying:
Government can do some things, but only God can change people’s hearts. Government can put us in the same classrooms, but government can’t make classmates go home and be friends when school is out.
Government can make sure the doors of every public building are open to everyone. Government can ensure that we share schools and streets and lunch counters and buses and elevators and theaters, but let us never forget that only God can give us the power to love each other and respect each other and to share life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I imagine that these statements went over quite well, given that they were uttered in the Bible Belt, where people of all races love god-talk, but they’re quite silly, given that 1. Christianity and racism have aided and abetted each other throughout the centuries 2. prejudice surrounding skin color most certainly is the problem, not “sin.”
As I explained yesterday, sin is some act, word, or deed that is offensive to god. Until recently, the idea that god would be offended by racism would have been considered laughable to the vast majority of white American Christians, particularly in the Bible Belt. White Southern Christians managed to create an ideological and theological system in which racism was not only permissible, but a positive social good that was pleasing to god (the same is true for the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa during the apartheid era). The Christianity preached by the church of the Jim Crow South asserted that segregation was god’s plan, from birth until death. Hence, not only were public places and houses of worship to be segregated, but cemeteries and even heaven itself. Jim Crow churches preached that god had a plan for each race, and for “Negroes,” this meant being in a constant state of degradation vis a vis whites. Black churches that impressed the need for perpetual submissiveness were rewarded by white elites with token bits of material aid, as well as the “privilege” of not being subject to extra-legal violence. Christian apologists would probably say that racism was never a key plank of Christianity and believers were free to take it or leave it, which may be true from a global historical perspective, but to the churches of the Jim Crow South (and apartheid-era South Africa), racism was ordained by god, while “race-mixing” was “communist” and “sinful.”
For more information on this, see Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 by Carolyn Dupont:
One shouldn’t assume that the causal acceptance of racism was simply an evangelical Protestant problem. I’ve written a number of entries about racism and the Catholic church, so I won’t reiterate my points. I also think that it’s better to examine Latin America, particularly Brazil and Cuba, to see how racial issues were handled in a Catholic context (spoiler: it’s no better). While the Catholic church in America didn’t make race a key part of its theology and identity in the same way that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention did, it wasn’t going to go out on a limb for a minority group that was even more unpopular than itself. Catholics were also viewed with suspicion in the Jim Crow South, and the quickest way to be viewed as a subversive was to support civil rights for blacks. I can understand why the church as an institution wasn’t more vocal from a tactical perspective, but conservotrads can’t then complain about why its behavior could be seen as that of a quisling.
My question to Huckabee would be, “If racism isn’t the problem behind our country’s history of contentious racial problems, then what is?” I suppose his answer would be that people of different races have been guilty of “hating their brother” (see 1 John 4: 20), but as I mentioned earlier, part of the “logic” behind Jim Crow was that mistreating and disenfranchising blacks was actually doing what was in their best interest. If you have defined “loving” in such a way that it becomes indistinguishable from “hating,” there’s a problem. I would also ask Huckabee why the South, which has been the most religious part of the United States for many decades, has struggled so mightily with racial problems if the problem is simply “sin.” Black and white churches in the South have preached mightily on sin — what it is, how to avoid it, etc. — for hundreds of years, yet the idea that treating someone differently because of their skin color is wrong was considered so radical in the mid-twentieth century, that white Christians engaged in “massive resistance” to maintain the status quo. Quite simply, the god of the Jim Crow church was more offended by people playing cards and dancing than by institutionalized discrimination and disenfranchisement and this is still the case today with the god that many Americans worship, regardless of race. It’s quite easy to not play card or dance (and be judgmental about it), but much harder to build bridges between communities that have been taught that god loves racism.
Huckabee’s belief that the problem is “sin not skin” is a convenient way for him to not have to provide any concrete answers for what he would do as president to solve racial problems. What “sin not skin” means to me is that Huckabee believes that racism is not a sin (i.e., offensive to god) nor even a real problem that needs to be addressed by the government. Expecting the churches or any other religious institution to lead the way in racial reconciliation is laughable, given their role in aiding, abetting, and profiting from slavery and Jim Crow. The god of the Jim Crow church could never make people of different races love and respect each other, because such a god believes that the races must remain separate and unequal.
I will end this entry with a long quote from Frederick Douglass, who didn’t mince words about the hypocritical religiosity of a “Christian” society that considered slavery and barbarism to be a social good:
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and with out hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation-a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea’ when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”
(from Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech given in 1852, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html)