Did you know that a blonde, blue eyed Jesus exists only in American congregations? Consider how the image of a white, male God affects the theology and practice of the Christian faith in this country. As a result, issues like voting rights, suppression and intimidation of non-white races are a direct assault on the “imago dei”—the created image of God in each of us.
It all began with the importing of a White European Christianity to the New World. It was a version of Christianity that since Constantine was wed to the Empire. So much so that in 1493, Pope Alexander issued a papal bull called the Doctrine of Discovery which gave European explorers the right to claim and exploit any land not inhabited by Christians. Furthermore, the native inhabitants of those lands could be enslaved and/or forcibly converted to the religion and culture of the superior white race.
It is not surprising that when African American slaves began converting to the Christian faith that the white congregations suggested they start churches of their own. Black denominations were created to accommodate these new believers who in turn created an expression of the faith born out of their own culture and experience. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s there was an effort to begin integrating white congregations; but in most cases this was met with resistance. So much so that Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the most segregated time of the week was Sunday morning. With some exceptions that is still true today.
What is more alarming is the way white Christianity has been linked with movements such as the Ku Klux Klan and more recently with white Nationalists—those that meld their religious belief with patriotic fervor. Lenny Duncan, an African American pastor and author of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US writes: “We need to have a final reckoning with radical evil and the forces that defy God. We need to name them and claim them. White supremacy is a systemic force in this world that defies God…I believe the only hope for mainline Christianity is to dismantle white supremacy--first in our pews and then in our communities. This is the call of discipleship. With the rise of xenophobia, racial violence, and nationalism in the United States, it’s hard to deny the roots of the real hurt that people of color experience in this system. White supremacy is antithetical to the gospel.”[i]
Why has white privilege become such a concern in the national debate about faith and politics? In her award-winning book, White Identity Politics, Ashley Jardina goes further than any scholar I have read to date in documenting the causes and consequences of white identity, arguing that the increased salience of whiteness as a social category corresponds largely with how demographics have changed in this country. Jardina finds in her research that this, in turn, has created a fear among some white Americans that their hold on power has become increasingly precarious. It is that fear that drives them to try to maintain their power and privilege at any cost, even at a threat to our democracy that we saw demonstrated in the insurrection at our nation’s capital on January 6th.