Religion, Race, and Racism: A (Very) Brief Introduction

June 1, 2020

Over the last few weeks, we have seen a spate of racist incidents across the country. These include, but are not limited to, the vigilante lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, and the killing of Breonna Taylor by police while she lay asleep in her home in Kentucky. Peaceful protests have been met with police brutality including tear-gassing, cruelly preventing protestors from breathing while protesting a man choked to death. We have seen otherwise peaceful protests led by African-American communities co-opted and exploited by white men committing violence, whether they be white supremacists, anarchists, or other agents-provocateurs. At every turn, we have been reminded of white privilege and of the weaponization of racism, most dramatically perhaps in Amy Cooper’s false 911 call in New York City. These events have taken place against the backdrop of disproportionate number of deaths of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from Coronavirus due to decades of institutionalized racism.

As educators in religion, we are mindful of the ways in which religion has a long, complicated, and interconnected relationship with the legacy of racism. Religions, religious institutions, and the academic study of religion have been (and continue to be) utilized to uphold white supremacy and justify racism and ethnic discrimination. Religion is neither practiced nor studied in a vacuum. Rather, it is always informed by social contexts and social conditions. Hence, religion often functions as a mirror of society’s broader assumptions and attempts to divide and discriminate, whether that be based on race, ethnicity, class, social status, nationality, religion, (dis)ability, gender, or sexuality.

The continued oppression and marginalization of African-Americans is preceded by centuries of religious speculation about the human status of Black and Indigenous people by European colonialists and theologians. The concept of a hierarchy of human races was developed throughout the long sixteenth century by white Christian Europeans who then used it to justify the enslavement of Africans and their colonialist endeavors against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This concept was preceded by (among many events) the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452), which granted divine authority to Spain and Portugal to capture Africans and subject them to lifetime servitude; by the forced conversion or expulsion of Jews and Muslims in Spain and Portugal; by Columbus’s declaration that the inhabitants of Hispaniola were a “people without religion” and subsequent enslavement and torture of the Taino people (1493); and by the Valldolid trial (1552), which debated whether people of color were barbarians that could be “civilized” by Christian conversion, or worse, people without souls irreparably damned. White supremacy was used to justify enslavement by many of the most powerful Christian leaders in America, including Rev. Cotton Mather, Rev. Jonathan Edwards, Rev. George Whitfield, Bishop John Carroll, and Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, not to mention 12 of America’s Presidents who owned slaves and had varying levels of commitment to Christianity. Racist assumptions were read back into sacred texts, most prominently in the so-called “curse of Ham,” and they led to the development of the “slave Bible,” a version of the text enslavers gave to slaves (when they were allowed to read) that redacted references to liberty and freedom from slavery. Religious institutions like Princeton University and Georgetown University materially benefited from the exploitation of Black bodies. Almost every major denomination had rules about whether Black people could be in religious buildings and policed efforts by Black people to have freedom of religious assembly. White supremacy was preached from the pulpit by the tens of thousands of clergymen that were members of the KKK. Denominations such as the Southern Baptist Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Southern Presbyterian Church owe their existence to support for slavery. White mobs scheduled lynchings on Sunday afternoons so the entire town could attend as a form of entertainment, and did so on the lawns of Black churches as a form of intimidation and domestic terrorism. Throughout the twentieth century, religious leaders were at the forefront of supporting Jim Crow, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. And white supremacist assumptions undergird the religio-political mythologies of the Doctrine of Discovery, the “City on a Hill,” Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism.

At the same time, religion and spirituality have long been utilized as a rich resource for hope and subversive resistance by those who find themselves under the boot of Empire. Abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, and defenders of Black liberation under threat of racism—from Richard Allen to David Walker to Nat Turner to Sojourner Truth to Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X to James Cone to Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu to Alice Walker to Cornel West to Delores Williams—have both appealed to and creatively innovated their religious traditions in order to advocate for justice and to highlight the unique aspects of the Black experience. 

As educators in Religious Studies, our goal is to develop students into culturally literate citizens and compassionate professionals. Through the study of the ways that diverse individuals and groups have found purpose and value, we offer an academic opportunity for students to engage with life’s most pressing questions. As such, it is our collective responsibility to amplify voices that have historically been excluded within the academic community, to educate students about the ways in which the history and practice of religion has been intertwined with the legacy of racism, and to be advocates and resources to our students who are particularly affected by these recent events and are daily marginalized by both individual and institutionalized acts of racism.

We see you.

We are listening.

We are committed to learning how to be better advocates of anti-racism.

It is not difficult to make a statement condemning racism and white supremacy; in fact, even our position to do so reveals a social capital that has long been accrued through various kinds of white privilege. It is much harder to proactively commit to solidarity with the marginalized, to unlearn the ways in which white supremacy has been habituated into our embodied ways of being in the world, and to decolonize the institutions and social structures that perpetuate whiteness as the assumed norm.

There is a lot of work to be done. 

While we are in no position to replace religious communities and pastoral resources, we know that religious thinkers and scholars of religion have offered many resources for thinking about race, racism, and related issues. An evolving bibliography and resource list is available on our department website.  


- Dr. Brock Bahler, Department of Religious Studies