Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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An ideology that begins with the idea that humans can be divided into distinct categories or groups based on perceived physical differences, which in turn are seen as being intrinsically related to differences regarding intellectual abilities, moral character, personality traits, and cultural values. These differences are used to depict some groups as being inherently superior and others inherently inferior, thereby serving as a rationale for systems of racial stratification and domination (Banton 1987, Shibutani and Kwan 1965).

Prior to the nineteenth century, religion was the primary vehicle used in the articulation and propagation of racist ideas. Modern thinking about racial divisions arose at the time that Europeans began to explore and colonize vast part of the globe. The impetus for such thinking revolved around the question of what kinds of policies Europeans ought to enact in establishing relations with the indigenous peoples they encountered. This was clearly an important matter in the Americas. It was unclear to the earlier colonial powers whether the proper course of action was to attempt to incorporate or assimilate these peoples, establish some form of pluralism, or engage in exclusionist policies.

These questions were apparent in the famous sixteenth-century debate in Spain between Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The latter, using Aristotle's description of the "natural slave," argued that the domination by Spaniards of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was just because of the sins of those peoples (especially important to him was the sin of idolatry). Subjugation was considered necessary as a precursor to efforts aimed at converting the natives to Christianity. In short, Sepulveda offered a philosophical and theological justification for the colonial domination and enslavement of the Indian population.

Las Casas countered this conclusion by arguing, first, that the Indians were fully human and therefore the equals of the Spaniards. Although he did not disagree with the proselytizing work of Catholic missionaries, he forcefully challenged what he took to be the unwarranted arrogance of those who failed to realize that nobody is born enlightened. Las Casas argued that every human must be nurtured and instructed, and that this must be done in all instances with a sense of humility and compassion. In short, his understanding of Christian theology provided him with a basis for challenging the racist doctrine advanced by his opponent. Although some observers at the debate found Las Casas to be the more persuasive of the two, subsequent historical events clearly indicate that Sepulveda's views prevailed in practice, as the Spanish initiated a ruthless campaign of subjugation (Hanke 1970).

Similar views were held by other European colonizers and were clearly evident throughout the nineteenth century. In the United States, for example, an ideological justification for the policy of Indian removal from their ancestral lands was contained in the Manifest Destiny doctrine. This doctrine reflected a conviction that the white settler nation was destined to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Underpinning the concept was the religious belief held since the Puritan period that the United States had a providential mission to tame the continent and Christianize it (Dinnerstein et al. 1990:87 ff.).

According to Roy Harvey Pearce (1967), the American Indian was seen as religiously and morally incomplete and as an impediment to civilization. Although some Europeans—Catholics earlier than Protestants—saw it as their duty to convert these nonbelievers, others were less sanguine about the prospects of "civilizing" them and sought to remove or otherwise eliminate the American Indians from their midst.

However, during the nineteenth century, two developments emerged that reshaped the role of religion in the formulation and perpetuation of racist discourses. The first development involved the supplanting of religion by science in providing an ideological grounding for racialist thought. This shift was evident, for example, in Arthur de Gobineau's The Inequality of Human Races , which first appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. De Gobineau offered a quasi-scientific, rather than religious, justification for the European colonization of much of the rest of the world. Such scientific racism also was evident in the nativist attacks on mass immigration in the early twentieth century. By this time, Darwinism and eugenics had become the dominant conceptual undergirdings of racist thought. Although such thinking has increasingly come under attack, particularly after World War II, those ideologues who still attempt to advance racist ideas generally do so by turning to science rather than religion, as the most recent example of such thinking, Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (Free Press 1994), attests.

The second change occurred at the same time that science replaced religion in legitimating racist discourses. Increasingly from the nineteenth century onward, religion was used as a vehicle for attacking racism. The abolitionist movement, generally rooted in Protestant churches, became the focal point of opposition to slavery. Abolitionists, despite their desire to abolish what historian Kenneth Stampp referred to as "the peculiar institution" in a book with that title (Knopf 1956), often shared with proponents of slavery a belief in the inherent inferiority of blacks. But they understood that presumed inferiority, not by recourse to religious discourse about the children of light and the children of darkness, but to biology, and later to cultural explanations that were not generally infused with theological arguments.

Religion performed a crucial role in structuring a distinctive worldview within the African American community. Beginning during the antebellum era, as historian Eugene Genovese (1972) has shown, the world the slaves made was shaped by a Christianity that had been transformed from the version promoted by the slaveholders, with its emphasis on quiescence and acceptance of slavery, to one in which Christianity became the primary ideological basis for resisting oppression and for seeking liberation from slavery. After emancipation, with the emergence of a distinct African American community, the church proved to be a center of resistance to the oppressive conditions of the new racial order that emerged after the failure of Reconstruction. With the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the church proved to be an important resource insofar as it supplied the movement with leaders, a mobilized mass, and an ideological rationale for nonviolent confrontation. The singular importance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the campaign to end segregation in the American South is evidence of the important role religion played in resistance to racism (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

The white Christian churches were divided. Many liberal Protestant denominations and liberal Catholics—the clergy often before the laity—embraced and often actively took part in the civil rights movement. While some conservative religious bodies expressed vocal opposition to the civil rights movement, many churches simply remained silent on the issue. However, by the end of the 1960s, racism was rather roundly repudiated by religious bodies across the political spectrum. Thus the New Christian Right publicly condemns racism and argues on behalf of racial equality.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the religious center has become an important component of antiracist discourses. Only at the periphery—and one can look on the one hand at the Christian Identity movement and on the other at the Nation of Islam—can one find religion being used to legitimate racist thought.

Peter Kivisto


M. Banton, Racial Theories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

L. Dinnerstein et al., Ethnic Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)

E. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon, 1972)

A. de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races (London: Heinemann, 1915 [1853-1855])

L. Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1970)

C. E. Lincoln and L. H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990)

R. H. Pearce, Savagism and Civilization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967)

T. Shibutani and K. M. Kwan, Ethnic Stratification (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

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