"From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz
"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" - Matt. 5:46,47Students of geography will tell you that there are actually two Americas: North America and South America, both continents. One sits entirely north of the equator, and the other primarily (but not entirely) to the south of it. Students of history will tell you that there are two (United States of) Americas. One is a nation based on religious tolerance, equality, and "Christian principles"; the other is what they learn about by studying history.
From the beginning, there has been a considerable disconnect between the ideals so eloquently stated by many of the "founding fathers" and the reality of the American experience, including the lives and actions of several of those same eloquent statesmen. These men were still politicians, after all. And yet, this phenomenon is not unique to the United States of America; every nation in the history of the world has been aided by inspirational, premeditated rhetoric, with varying levels of correlation to truth. Fortunately, our nation is much more egalitarian today than at our conception. Surely we're not perfect, but we have learned (albeit rather slowly) the error of our ways. A quote (probably wrongly) attributed to Winston Churchill sums it up rather well, "The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted."
Certainly a lot of men and women suffered and died for the cause of equality, and some of those men and women did identify as Christians. Unfortunately, they are exceptions; far more often than not, Christians have sided with the oppressor over the oppressed. Sometimes this was out of apathy, or a desire to take the path of least resistance, but sadly there were also many times the collective Church actively fought for the oppressor because they were the oppressor. According to historian Brian R. Farmer (Lubbock Christian University), "two-thirds of the national Klan lecturers were Protestant ministers" at their height in the 1920's.
This unfortunate and predatory pattern began quite early, long before any thought of what we now know as the western hemisphere. The nascent faith of Christianity quickly contracted a nasty strain of anti-Semitism. In 325 the Council of Nicea voted to separate Easter from Passover:
"For it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people...we desire dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews..."In 339, conversion to Judaism became a criminal offense; in 415 St. Augustine wrote:
"The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus."Religious tolerance was certainly not a concern as Pope Leo forced the baptism of Jews, nor for the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099. Below is an excerpt from an article written by Michael D. Hull and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Military History magazine:
The Crusaders spent at least that night and the next day killing Muslims, including all of those in the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Tancred's banner should have protected them. Not even women and children were spared. The city's Jews sought refuge in their synagogue, only to be burned alive within it by the Crusaders. Raymond of Aquilers reported that he saw piles of heads, hands and feet on a walk through the holy city. Men trotted across the bodies and body fragments as if they were a carpet for their convenience. The Europeans also destroyed the monuments to Orthodox Christian saints and the tomb of Abraham.In 1543, the original Protestant Martin Luther penned an essay entitled On the Jews and Their Lies that advocated oppression of Jews, including limits on speech, worship, and property ownership. It would later greatly influence Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, although Hitler would identify as Catholic and not Lutheran. There were some notable Christians who would sacrifice everything to defend and save Jews from the Holocaust, but the very reason we know a few names like Schindler or Bonhoeffer is because they were exceptions; most Germans identified themselves as both Christians and members of the Nazi party. Indeed, the Holocaust would have been impossible if the majority of Christians had refused to cooperate.
Time after time, power granted to a Christian group often resulted in the oppression of others, including other Christians (such as the bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant groups in Europe). This literally flowed over to America. Puritan and Separatist sects in England, who had long sought to reform the Anglican Church toward Calvinism, made their way to a New World in the first half of the 17th century, in part out of a desire for greater religious freedom. The degree to which they were actually persecuted in England is one that is debated by scholars, but it is important to note that at any rate, they considered themselves persecuted - oppressed by religious authorities closely tied to the government. After a couple of decades to establish authority of their own in this new land, talk of religious tolerance all but disappeared. Instead, citizens who did not meet (subjective) criteria were tried and killed as "witches".
The African slave trade was one issue on which many Christians took a stand. Men like John Wesley and William Wilberforce worked to end the practice in England, while George Whitefield (who is credited for sparking the Great Awakening of American evangelicalism) argued for the legalization of slavery even where it was illegal. While slavery had been already been outlawed in the American Province of Georgia, it was legalized in 1751 due in large part to Whitefield's efforts - and would remain legal for over a century more. Through these years, numerous pastors would preach racism to their congregations, such as Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney: "Every hope of the existence of church and state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage." As would become the pattern in America, the rhetoric from churches in support of oppression would fade after government action defined them as the losing side, and eventually the consensus among Christians would fall in line with the "progressive" stance they once opposed. Today, one is highly unlikely to encounter such racism spoken from the pulpit.
Likewise, Christian attitudes on women have changed dramatically. The typical church position in the mid 19th century was opposed to women having the right to vote, as they were considered subordinate to men. President Grover Cleveland (also Presbyterian) remarked in 1905 that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by a man and a woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours", published oddly enough in Ladies Home Journal (1905). While he was not speaking on behalf of his denomination, the sentiment was still very commonplace among churchgoers. After the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, such commentary also faded away. I know of no current pastors that believe that it is wrong for women to have the right to vote.
A southern minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He challenged Christians of all colors to consider the injustice of racial prejudice in public policy, and to act in the interest of justice, but where such a call to action was (as one might expect) answered enthusiastically by many black congregations, white congregations did little to help. Certainly, there were white persons who joined in the many marches for racial equality, but consider for a moment that among all persons identified as Christians in the 1960's, blacks were about twelve percent, whites over 80 percent. Contrast that with pictures from the time period, where black faces outnumber white ones at an inverse ratio (at least).
The message, intentional or not, is clear: the oppressed are responsible to fight for themselves, you can't expect churches that aren't personally affected to help you. Even today, Christian-affiliated groups often lobby the government against what they may perceive as oppression (including the Affordable Care Act), but will not lift a finger to help any other group experiencing injustice. A very recent example comes from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by Pat Robertson.
According to the group's website, the ACLJ is "committed to ensuring the ongoing viability of freedom and liberty in the United States and around the world." It goes further to specify that they aim to "protect religious liberty and safeguard human rights and dignity." Surely, a group dedicated to protecting religious freedom would be something I could support, if there wasn't again a large disconnect between these stated ideals and reality.
Where the ACLJ considered it defense of religious liberty to present oral arguments against the prohibition of Christian literature distribution and fund solicitation at post offices (United States v. Kokinda,1990 - the prohibition was upheld by the Supreme Court), they not only failed to defend the rights of Muslims to build a mosque in Manhattan - they actually argued against it. How can one claim to value religious freedom only for some? While it may be noble to fight for the rights of some persecuted group that you are affiliated with, it takes a man (or woman) of principle to fight for the rights of another group, where there is little or no opportunity for personal gain. Even more impressive is one who insists on solidarity with the oppressed, as when Dora demands to be put on the train in Life is Beautiful or when William Lloyd Garrison demanded he not be buried in any location that does not allow blacks to be buried there as well.
Pursuit of "justice" only for your own simply isn't. Freedom demands justice, and justice demands equality. No, I do not believe that Christianity hates equality - quite the opposite. I believe it demands that believers fight for the oppressed, and not just fellow Christians. Gay or straight, liberal or conservative, white or black, Muslim or Jew or Atheist, any attack on any of them is an attack on us all; there can be no better presentation of the faith than showing our principles to be unwavering. What better contrasts with the norm?