White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots In U.S. Christianity Beginning in the days of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, elements of racist ideology have long existed in white churches. How Christians could promote such views is a point that upsets many people.

White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots In U.S. Christianity

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some white Americans these days are struggling to understand how racism is rooted in their country. They may find answers in some surprising places, like their own churches. While many Christian pastors have been active in the struggle for racial justice, churches at times have also supported the notion of white supremacy. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been exploring that history.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: During the years when they were enslaved, Black Christians in America generally didn't have their own churches. Where they were allowed to attend services, they had to sit in back. Only later could African Americans get churches of their own, often called Sabbath schools. Ladson Presbyterian in Columbia, S.C., dates from that time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll see y'all later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Take care, my friend. I'll see you.

GJELTEN: I visited Ladson shortly before the church closed its doors because of COVID-19. The atmosphere after worship that Sunday morning was cozy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That was a wonderful trip we took.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

GJELTEN: Rosena Lucas, 88 years old, is a longtime member at Ladson. She told me the church's roots come from another church a few blocks away, First Presbyterian, where Blacks had been relegated to the balcony.

ROSENA LUCAS: We grew out of the First Presbyterian Church. They've got the space here for us to have a Sabbath school so that the Blacks could come and worship alone.

GJELTEN: Despite those ties, Ladson Presbyterian and First Presbyterian have little to do with each other these days. Lucas can't imagine attending the mostly white church down the street.

LUCAS: I've never had an interest in considering that.

GJELTEN: You don't know anyone who goes there.

LUCAS: I don't know anyone who goes to First Presbyterian Church, no. No.

GJELTEN: Neither does Hemphill Pride. He's an elder in the Ladson church.

HEMPHILL PRIDE: I see that church as a stranger, really.

GJELTEN: And the estrangement between these churches is a story of the racial division in U.S. Christianity, how it started and how it's persisted. First Presbyterian in Columbia was led in the years before the Civil War by a preacher who delivered sermons Sunday after Sunday, justifying the enslavement of Black people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As James Henley Thornwell) The relation of master and slave stands on the same foot with the other relations of life. In itself, it is not inconsistent with the will of God. It is not sinful.

GJELTEN: The words of James Henley Thornwell, read here by an actor. In the years when he presided at First Presbyterian, Thornwell himself owned slaves. His message to fellow slave-owning Christians - no problem. They were all right with God.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As James Henley Thornwell) The Scriptures not only fail to condemn; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS TOLLING)

GJELTEN: In the First Presbyterian cemetery, there's a monument to members of the church who served the Confederate cause. James Henley Thornwell is among them. Educated in part at Harvard, Thornwell was, in his time, the leading Christian theologian in the South. He supposedly memorized huge sections of the Bible. He also served the prevailing economic interests at a time when they were under challenge.

Bobby Donaldson directs the Center for Civil Rights History at the University of South Carolina.

BOBBY DONALDSON: Slavery, in the minds of many, was necessary for the South to thrive. And so Thornwell used his pulpit to defend the South against charges by the North, by abolitionists, and more or less said, you know, those who are supporting abolition are themselves atheists and socialists.

GJELTEN: Now, it wasn't enough simply to say slavery was OK. A preacher had to explain why it was justified.

DONALDSON: He provided the intellectual defenses that many slaveholders needed to explain how slavery was not un-Christian, that slavery was not abhorrent but that slavery was actually justified by the biblical teachings.

GJELTEN: Such as in the apostle Paul's New Testament letter to the Ephesians where he writes, slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling and sincerity of heart. To be sure, some Christian groups were prominent in the movement to abolish slavery, and vague biblical references to slaves were ultimately discounted by most Christians.

But a hundred years after Thornwell's death, some white preachers were again invoking Scripture, this time to justify racial segregation. They said God meant for the races to be separated. In part, that was a matter of churches just going along with the prevailing prejudice of that era, but there's more to the story. It's been studied by historian Carolyn Renee Dupont. She grew up with a devout Christian grandmother in an East Texas town that, like many in the South, was full of churches.

CAROLYN DUPONT: My grandmother was a wonderful woman in many ways but also very much like many Southerners. You know, she was born in 1895.

GJELTEN: And holding bigoted views that were common in her white world - Dupont, now teaching at Eastern Kentucky University, remembers asking her about that.

DUPONT: She said, well, I just don't believe that Blacks should be treated the same as whites. And that stayed with me. And for many, many years, I wanted to understand what seems like a central riddle - that the part of the country most fervent about religious faith was also the one that practiced white supremacy most enthusiastically.

GJELTEN: How could this be? Dupont's answer - some white Christians had come to see racial equality as a political issue, whereas the church had a narrower mission - simply to win souls for Christ.

DUPONT: If Christianity is really about individual salvation, then these people who are telling us that we need to get involved in the civil rights movement are just trying to lead us astray.

GJELTEN: In fact, James Henley Thornwell said the same thing - the Christian church should stay away from social causes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As James Henley Thornwell) It is not, as too many regard it, a moral institute of universal good whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill.

GJELTEN: That argument still resonates. Many conservative evangelicals agree - the Christian church has no business working for justice on Earth. At First Presbyterian in Columbia, James Henley Thornwell is still esteemed, despite his racism. The building next to the sanctuary where he once preached is Thornwell Hall. When I visited, I asked associate pastor Gabe Fluhrer whether he thinks the church's reputation has been hurt by the Thornwell association.

GABE FLUHRER: As far as I know, it has not kept people from our doors.

GJELTEN: Fluhrer has studied Thornwell's writings and finds much he agrees with, including Thornwell's idea that the Bible preaches a narrow role for the church. He doesn't want to think Thornwell's racism would keep a Black Christian away.

FLUHRER: If it were an impediment, I would love to speak to that person and say, look; we need to condemn what is wrong with him, and we need to celebrate what is good. He got a lot right on the Scriptures and everything wrong when it comes to race.

GJELTEN: But getting everything wrong when it comes to race is an unforgivable failing for many people whose life experience is shaped by racism. Back at Ladson Presbyterian, the church founded by people not welcome at First Presbyterian, Thornwell's legacy is seen differently, at least by Hemphill Pride, the church elder.

PRIDE: It's an affront to me, first of all. Those buildings named after people who interpreted the Bible in that manner was disrespectful to all Black people.

GJELTEN: White Christian churches in the United States are not solely responsible for the racial injustice that still exists here, but the idea that racism is systemic means its elements are buried deep in the institutions of daily life, including churches.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEIST SONG, "I'M NOT RUNNING AWAY")

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