Tish Harrison Warren says that Christian virtues dispel racism

November 14, 2021 • 11:45 am

I subscribe to Tish Harrison Warren’s NYT column for the same reason I sniff the milk when I already know it’s gone bad. Masochism, I suppose.

Today we have a very confused column from the Anglican priest, whose schtick seems to be to take a conventional and approved moral position, inform us how virtuous she is on the issue, and then inform us all how her Anglican faith has buttressed her virtue. I’m not sure what the Times sees in this approach unless it wants to either valorize faith in general or convert people to Anglicanism.

Click on the screenshot to read, or make a judicious inquiry:

Today the issue is racism, which she properly decries, but of course opposing racism is nothing new. The “added value” here is her explanation of how her Christianity helps with her anti-racism.

The first part of the column is her declaration that America is founded on slavery and white supremacy, and that attacks on Critical Race Theory are made by white supremacists to allow white Americans to avoid confronting the sordid past of their race. The last bit is partly true, but the first—that criticizing CRT is a manifestation of racism—is not.

Warren:

I don’t remember the first time I was taught that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery. I am a white Texan, so this idea was simply in the ether, as were myths about “good slave owners” and the “Lost Cause.” I knew that America had a racist history, but when I was a child, the details of what that meant were blurry and vague.

This experience is common. There is objective truth to our nation’s history, based in research and primary sources. But as Clint Smith describes in his book “How the Word Is Passed,” in America we too often tell a slanted version of our history to protect the feelings of white people. Smith highlights how an intentional disinformation campaign, which began shortly after the end of the Civil War, has altered the way much of America narrates our racial past. He looks at the convenient lies that white people often rely on to belittle the horrors of the past, the way we exclude stories that might trouble or challenge us.

I’m wondering if she’s adhering to the claims of the 1619 Project here, as she comes awfully close.  Nothing she says differs from what Nikole Hannah-Jones or Robin diAngelo says.

She then tells us about the aspects of Christianity that help her realize how soaked America is in racism and white supremacy. But before she does that, she says this:


The question before us as a nation is simple: Are we willing to tell the truth about our history or not?

My convictions about this question are deeply shaped by my Christian faith. White Christians do not appear to be any better than the culture at large at truthfully telling the story of America. But the Christian doctrines of sin and grace require truthfulness, even if those truths make certain people feel guilt, shame or discomfort.

First, White Christians are WORSE than others about “telling the true story of America” (i.e. recognizing racism). Look at this article from NBC News (click on screenshot).

 And who could answer “no” to the first question? The problem is that “truth” differs among people. To Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Revolutionary War was fought so America could keep its slaves. Not true. Also to Hannah-Jones, America was founded on slavery, which is the dominant strain in our history. That’s debatable, even among historians. Don’t forget that she also said that America dropped nukes on Japan in WWII even though we knew Japan was going to surrender because, well, we’d made the bomb and wanted to use it. That’s also untrue. So is Nikole-Smith, the truth-teller about America, adhering to her goals?

But I digress. She’s not the only one, as there are debates, even among liberals, about the degree of structural racism in America  and how it influence our history. So yes, we should tell the truth (and, to be fair, many white folks don’t want it told), but a lot of what passes for “history” is debatable, especially around race, for it consists not of empirically verifiable facts but in interpretations of facts.

But then she admits that White Christians aren’t any better than anybody else (and, in my view, probably worse than atheists) in apprehending historical truths. So what good is Christianity if it doesn’t help anybody else but Reverend Warren? She is being personal rather than general, which limits the value of her argument.

Here are the aspects of Christianity that, according to Warren, are supposed to foster anti-racism:

Recognition of evil. 

Christian doctrine also understands sin and evil not only as individualistic, voluntary decisions to do evil but also as a communal, atmospheric reality. We are born into communities with sinful assumptions and narratives about the world that drive oppressive and destructive behavior. However unintentionally, we give our assent to these ways of understanding and acting in the world.

I’m sorry, but racism didn’t pose much of a problem for Christianity until  the twentieth century. In fact, many Christians used their faith to support slavery and promote racist attitudes. As for whole communities being racist, well, we have purely secular explanations for that—explanations better than the fact that we’re born sinful.

Truthfulness.

The gospel presented in scripture demands that we “walk in the light,” that we not try to hide or minimize the truth of what’s wrong with us or our history.

Fine. Then why aren’t Christians “better than anybody else” on the issue of racism? As for distorting history, well, let’s just say that the Christian myths that Warren embraces and preaches to her flock are dubious at best. Jesus as a miracle-working son of God/part of God? The Resurrection? If Christians are going to get straight with history, then they’ll have to discard a lot of their faith.

Repentance for sin.

Christian doctrine also understands sin and evil not only as individualistic, voluntary decisions to do evil but also as a communal, atmospheric reality. We are born into communities with sinful assumptions and narratives about the world that drive oppressive and destructive behavior. However unintentionally, we give our assent to these ways of understanding and acting in the world

John McWhorter would have a few words on this paragraph as showing the similarities between Woke anti-racism and religion. The repentance in the former case involves abject apologies by the Sinful.

Anti-idolatry.

The Bible also lends us the tremendously helpful concept of idolatry to help understand racial evil. John Calvin wrote that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” Our loves are disordered. Our idols, which are often unknown to us, are not usually bad things in themselves, but instead are things that we have loved and exalted too much. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being white. God designed the specific amount of melanin in my skin. But America has — and has always had — an idolatry of white culture and power. Our history makes that clear.

Here she stretches to draw an analogy between political and racial attitudes on the one hand, and false gods on the other. Whether you find that comparison valid is up to you, but it doesn’t move me.

But the main thing that Warren overlooks—probably deliberately—is that the Bible itself has been used to justify slavery, and, as far as I know, says nothing about racism and nothing negative about slavery.  From the preceding link:

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

Why did Christianity become anti-slavery? Because of secular humanistic morality, which realized that slavery was immoral. The religious, as they so often do (viz., gay marriage) change their morality only after society itself has started changing because of secular morality.

We all know that time and again, the Bible condones or even approves of slavery. (n.b.. Slaves back then were not mostly blacks, but simply conquered people of all hues. But the same principle applies: the Bible doesn’t criticize one population from enslaving others.) The Wikipedia article “The Bible and Slavery” is a good start. God, it seems, didn’t adhere to Christian principles!

In the end, every Christian anti-racist virtue that Warren says dispels racism was ignored until secular society started becoming abolitionist. And if you adhere stricly to the Bible, you would not criticize slavery or racism. Rather, you’d support them!

What we see in Warren’s essay is a great big con job. Like most of us, she deplores racism, and that attitude is great. But since Warren converted to Anglicanism from being a Southern Baptist. she’s found a way to twist her new faith to show that it’s really anti-racist. It’s not, and hasn’t been until it took the lead from humanism.

If Warren wants Christians to tell the truth about history, they should begin with the things they believe about the history of their own faith, and examine what the Bible says about slavery. Then they can start making up stuff.

38 thoughts on “Tish Harrison Warren says that Christian virtues dispel racism

  1. The U.S was also founded on the Genocide of the Native American Tribes and the taking of land and the second half was founded on Manifest Destiny – the excuse for invading Mexico and taking forty percent of the land, killing more Native Tribes and what had become Mexicans in 1821. The U.S was completed until this happened. To deny this and only see the founding of America as built on slaves is not the whole truth. The North American invasion began with the genocide of the Native American. Mexico didn’t import slaves – New Spain (via Portugal) did in the 15th century and had slaves until the early 19th century (around 1800) until the “rebels” of New Spain that eventually identified as Mexican gained their independence from New Spain, and changed the name to Mexico. Mexico did away with slavery after their independence from New Spain and their were “few” in comparison to the U.S. Cuba was the last country to import Slaves in the late 1800’s. We never hear anything about Cuba – that country was built on slavery as well and they still discriminate against their black population. North America – in particular the U.S. has a more complicated history than we ever care to talk about. It isn’t just black and white. Parts of America were not simply founded on black slavery, they began with the genocide of the Native American people, and then in the 19th century continue with Manifest Destiny.

    1. It was called Right of Conquest, a doctrine that arose in mediaeval Europe and didn’t die until 1945 when the recently victorious United Nations changed their minds and said you weren’t allowed to invade and conquer sovereign states after all. (The concept that genocide was a bad thing, distinct from war itself, came into existence about the same time.). Relations between nations aren’t governed by morality but by interests. The colonizing Powers were able to subjugate the Americas and carve colonies out of them, which eventually became autonomous and continued the subjugation of the remaining land independently. Because they were able to, they did. “Manifest Destiny” just dresses up what the settlers were going to do anyway as their population grew.

      The people who sailed across the ocean to settle were seeking a better life than they had back home, just as their ancestors had tramped around Europe, and the ancestors of the people they found here had tramped here from somewhere else. If you meet with resistance, — and you will, guests are OK but no one likes interlopers — you either overcome it or you die. You can’t go back to where you were driven out of. And your children know no home but where they were born.

      Slavery “worked” in some places and the fur trade “worked” in others…until they didn’t. What do you do with all that now-surplus labour? Hunter-gatherers can’t co-exist on the same land with farmers and pastoralists. The ones with guns and diseases drive off the ones without. So the choice is finessed with masterful inactivity until assimilation occurs, deferred by paying the Dane-geld, or confronted by resort to violence.

      No point rending your garments and smearing your face with ashes over it. But it is in my “late-night thoughts while listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.” (Lewis Thomas)

      Yes, you really can take the same facts and build more than one historical interpretation from them.

    2. One of the reason that Anglos settlers in Texas rebelled against Mexico was because Mexico wanted to force them to convert to Catholicism.

      Most Native American tribes in the South also owned slaves

  2. “racism didn’t pose much of a problem for Christianity until the twentieth century. In fact, many Christians used their faith to support slavery and promote racist attitudes.”

    And, I want to point out, Christians of all races adopted it. It has been depressing to watch how subjugated peoples (have been forced to) adopt the gods of their rulers, whether Christian, another Abrahamic faith, or something else entirely. I have Aboriginal Canadian friends who were mandated to attend religious Residential Schools. Religion is used to reinforce people’s roles in social order. I hear horror stories about the caste system in India, and I have seen the effects on some of its survivors.

  3. There is so much to comment on this post that I will limit myself to just a few issues.

    1. Warren says:

    —————–
    “I don’t remember the first time I was taught that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery. I am a white Texan, so this idea was simply in the ether, as were myths about “good slave owners” and the “Lost Cause.” I knew that America had a racist history, but when I was a child, the details of what that meant were blurry and vague.

    This experience is common. There is objective truth to our nation’s history, based in research and primary sources. But as Clint Smith describes in his book “How the Word Is Passed,” in America we too often tell a slanted version of our history to protect the feelings of white people. Smith highlights how an intentional disinformation campaign, which began shortly after the end of the Civil War, has altered the way much of America narrates our racial past. He looks at the convenient lies that white people often rely on to belittle the horrors of the past, the way we exclude stories that might trouble or challenge us.”

    —————-

    As I have argued many times before, there is no objective truth in our understanding of history, although there can be objective facts. However, sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that objective truth is approached. The above paragraphs make that approach, regardless of what is said in the 1619 Project.

    2. “To Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Revolutionary War was fought so America could keep its slaves.”

    Again disregarding the 1619 Project because Hannah-Jones is not a person to look to for reliable history, although sometimes, perhaps by chance, she does approach a plausible interpretation of American history, the issue of whether the Revolution was fought in part out of a fear that that slavery could be jeopardized under British rule is an area of contention among scholars of the war and in no way is the issue near resolution.

    3. “But the main thing that Warren overlooks—probably deliberately—is that the Bible itself has been used to justify slavery, and, as far as I know, says nothing about racism and nothing negative about slavery.”

    Can we really say the Bible says nothing negative about slavery? Weren’t the Israelites delivered from Egypt because they were held in bondage there? I guess it matters what people are enslaved.

    4. Yolanda Pierce is quoted as saying that Christianity was intertwined with slavery. This is a half-truth. She seems to have forgotten that the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement was led and financed by deeply religious northern evangelicals. They were a despised minority, even in the North. Due to their particular sense of morality and the desire to impose it on others (some things haven’t changed), they were the “conscience” of a country that often wished that discussion of slavery be constrained within certain boundaries or just go away.

  4. Christians are really hard to figure out. They tend to drift from one extreme to the other. It’s a pretty good bet she does not follow Fox channels as many Christians do.

  5. I subscribe to Tish Harrison Warren’s NYT column for the same reason I sniff the milk when I already know it’s gone bad.

    I’m led to believe that it also feels good when one stops beating oneself in the head with a hammer. 🙂

  6. Warren ignores centuries of slavery during which the Christian virtues she espouses seem to weigh very lightly on slavers and slaveholders. Didn’t the Baptists split over the question of slavery? The Southern Baptists didn’t have any trouble reconciling their faith and slavery. I also wonder if she includes Catholics among Christians, because Catholics in New World have an even longer history of slavery (and, courtesy of the Portuguese, introduced it to what would become the United States). Christians, broadly speaking, seem to be very good at thinking well of themselves, and ignoring unpleasantness like the Inquistion and, apparently, slavery. As an aside, I’ve never noticed that the Church of England was particularly anti-idolatrous.

  7. Even if Christianity did promote anti-racism (as our host points out, it doesn’t) there’s the whole problem that Christianity has undeniably promoted hatred of people with different religious beliefs and the church has slaughtered thousands upon thousands of unbelievers. Of course, that’s in addition to the very many it has slaughtered because although they believed in Jesus they believed in him in the wrong way. Religion poisons everything – Amen.

    1. Amen to your amen. Let me enlarge on your post by emphasizing that Christianity was spread by the sword just as much as Islam was. For example, I, of Hungarian descent, am named after King Stephen I of Hungary, a particularly belligerent spreader of Christianity, who was sanctified by the Church because of his coercive (to put it mildly) efforts to spread the True Doctrine. Glory be!

  8. “Don’t forget that [Nikole Hannah-Jones] also said that America dropped nukes on Japan in WWII even though we knew Japan was going to surrender because, well, we’d made the bomb and wanted to use it. That’s also untrue.”

    It‘s not untrue, nor the opposite is true. It‘s debatable.

    1. It is untrue and it’s crap. We already tested the bomb in New Mexico. It worked. If you know nothing about the battle just completed in Okinawa or the many others prior to that one, you should read up. The Japanese could have surrendered after Okinawa but they still had many volunteers for kamakazie. We wanted to get the war done before the Russians got further into China. Conventionally they could have killed thousands more Americans. I would have dropped it in a minute.

      1. I read Richard Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire recently, a truly excellent book that looks at all aspects of the end of the war with Japan. One thing he points out is that, aside from America, or Japanese, casualties stemming from an invasion, 100,000 people a month were dying in Japanese occupied territories. Not using the bomb, even if an invasion was successful, would have meant many more deaths in the interim.

        1. Indeed. The Japanese didn’t surrender immediately after the Hiroshima bomb and only did so six days after the Nagasaki one – so the suggestion that any such surrender was somehow imminent without the nuclear strikes seems somewhat unlikely. Whether more lives would have been saved without the bombings is arguable, as pointed out above, but dealing with hypothetical questions through the lens of history is, perhaps, equally debatable.

          1. Come now, you are talking about troops who routinely fought to the death and had a core of suicide pilots. In fact, wasn’t there a guy in the Philippines who kept fighting in the jungle for 23 years or something because he never got the news of the Emperor’s surrender? Not to mention the massive loss of life from house to house fighting to Ally and Japanese troops in house-to-house fighting, but the U.S. had cut off the food supply so most of the noncombatants would have been starving to death while the fighting went on. In all reality, far more Japanese, civilian and soldiers would have died without the atomic bomb.

            Hannah-Jones is conducting psyops, not writing history. She makes David Irving’s works look like an exercise in impartial scholarship by comparison, and that is not intended as a compliment to Irving.

  9. Yes, absolutely.

    The basic question revolving around the dropping of the atomic bombs is this: Were the Japanese on the verge of surrendering prior to the bombs, thereby eliminating the need for the bombs or a ground invasion?

    Many books and articles by reputable historians have been written on this topic with varying different conclusions. A consensus is quite unlikely anytime soon. This debate as the ones over the role of slavery in precipitating the revolution and whether or not the Constitution was pro-slavery when written are indicative that, in contrast to what most of the general public seems to believe, the understanding of the past is also subject to being revised (a term the public unfortunately thinks is synonymous to intentional distortion of the understanding of past events). I think that many historians get pissed off that the public thinks there is a “true” history, perhaps handed down by God, and any attempt to change the narrative is by evil people trying to erase the past. Understanding the past, as well as the present, can result in ambiguity and frustration.

  10. The question of slavery is complex. Slavery did not become “problematic” until the rise of Capitalism and wage labor, and national market economies (where wage labor came into conflict with slave labor). This happen only in predominantly Christian societies either in Europe or in places settled by Europeans. Second, the moral attacks on slavery were brought by heavily Christian organizations, and there was a great resistance to the operation of slavers in countries like Brazil by Catholic missionaries. Because these were European-settled, Christian countries, unsurprisingly the resistance to anti-slavery movements were also populated with European Christians as well. Last, the slave trade was stamped out predominantly through the efforts of the British through the Empire, which is as White Christian an institution (for good or bad) as you can get.

    No, I think it is false that anti-slavery movements represent majority secular forces against religious ones, although it was Christians pursuing moral innovations versus “traditionalists” (to some extent) that fought the battle, so you could view them as proto-secularists I suppose. [The truth is that a lot of the anti-slavery resistance came from white wage laborers who worried about white laborers wages due to competition with slave labor.] Of course, the reverse is to acknowledge that cultural norms are basically arbitrary (although over time, only the strong survive), religion is a system for getting people to cling to a set of arbitrary norms, and secularism reflects the dying of the old set of norms, but that secularists are basically still operating with essentially the same set of norms (based on socialization) that are simply rationalized by appeals to reason or utility, even though no one has ever agreed on the dictates of either reason or utility.

  11. By the early 1800s slavery in the north was gone. Even in Virginia some were freeing their slaves but not many. The cotton gin had already been invented and any delusion that slavery would eventually fade away was a dream. Southern States were more stuck in slavery in 1860 than ever before. Gentlemen farmer/planters like Jefferson were so intrenched in slavery they could not consider freeing the slaves. Instead he went broke. So broke that by the time he died he owned no slaves or land. It. all belonged to the creditors ….Hamilton won after all. Stay on the land and farm until broke – that is the American way.

    1. “Stay on the land and farm until broke – that is the American way” – Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath suggests that the alternative is not much better, of course.

      1. Well, my recollection of that story was, after the dust bowel conditions wiped them out the Okies piled into the pickup and headed west. To do what – work in the fields harvesting crops. That is not much better but it is still farming. The farming vision of people like Jefferson was a false economy. He thought that is what would sustain and be the future. Today not 2% of the population makes a living on the farm. They moved to the city to find jobs and work. Take away all the farm subsidies today and more people would leave farming. The places where they grow the food we eat, like California are running out of water. What are we going to eat then.

        1. Sorry, Randall – my comment made no sense! I should have engaged my brain before posting (and not for the first time, sadly).

  12. I must confess that ritualistic bashing of the 1619 Project, based almost solely on Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay, bothers me tremendously. The concerns I have with this are similar to those of Alex Lichtenstein, professor of History at Indiana University and former editor of the American Historical Review (read petty good history creds). See his commentary piece at the link below; two points he makes that resonate with me are

    1) By focusing on the one essay, critics overlook the 19 or so other essays, many of them by well respected historians and scholars.

    2) The problems with the NH-J essays are matters of overemphasis rather than error. In fact Lichtenstein suggests how the claim objected to by Wilentz et al. (preservation of slavery as a motivation for the American Revolution) could be restated to more accurately reflect what we know. The same, I would posit, is true with respect to the decision to bomb Hiroshima.

    Bottom line – the issues or race, racism and American history are complex and need to be addressed with nuance. Examples of books that do this are Jill Lepore’s (Harvard) “These Truths” and David Blight’s (Yale) “Race and Remembrance”. For those troubled by The 1619 Project, I would strongly recommend reading one or both of these to get a broader sense of how two themes of American history – liberty and racism – have interacted throughout our history.

    https://academic.oup.com/ahr/article/125/1/xv/5714757

    1. The unrelenting focus on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay is likely to be because it won her the Pulitzer and the NYT later walked back one of its central claims somewhat surreptitiously?

      1. And it stated unequivocally that the American revolution was fought to preserve slavery. Obviously such an essay is going to get most of the attention and controversy. The historians who critiqued that part of the 1619 project didn’t have a problem with a majority of the other essays because they based on sweeping claims. The 1619 Project would have had greater acceptance without Hannah-Jones’s contribution.

        1. As Lichtenstein points out, one of the major objections Wilentz and company have to NH-J’s essay is the sentence “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Then he provides three alternative ways this could have been worded, including simply deleting the word “primary.” Lichtenstein argues, and I agree, that “While Hannah-Jones may be guilty of overstatement, this is more a matter of emphasis than it is of a correct or incorrect interpretation.”

          Do read this piece (it’s freely available). It is, I think, an excellent example of first rate scholarly discourse.

  13. Warren, a white Texan, was taught in school that the Civil War was not about slavery. I doubt that was taught in schools of the North after WWII, certainly not mine. Nonetheless, some of the “lost cause” mythology was in the ether, as she says, even in the North. The ether, in this case, meant Hollywood films, from “Gone with the Wind” through umpteen oaters with Randolph Scott as a gallant Confederate veteran. I have long wondered how this line of mythology entered Hollywood. Few film personalities (other than Randolph Scott himself) were Northerners, yet there it was. ??? Could D.W. Griffith have had that much influence, even after he stopped making films in 1931?

    1. I actually doubt that she was taught that slavery was not a major issue for the conflict. I went to her bio, expecting perhaps someone raised in Texas in the 50s, but she is very much younger than that.
      Having attended Texas schools much earlier than she did, I call shenanigans on her statement.

  14. Trump is a professed Presbyterian, although recently he said “I now consider myself to be a nondenominational Christian.”

    Joe Biden is a rather more observant Roman Catholic, apparently.

    Does their faith inform their actions? Do you want their religious views to influence the Presidency?

  15. When it comes to Christianity and tolerance, Emo Philips had it nailed:

    Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”
    He said, “Nobody loves me.”
    I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
    He said, “Yes.”
    I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
    He said, “A Christian.”
    I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
    He said, “Protestant.”
    I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
    He said, “Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.
    I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

  16. “…God designed the specific amount of melanin in my skin. ”

    I see she’s not just a creationist, but in addition a maintainist, or perhaps a ‘celestial exterior designist’. Not sure if she has freckles, but if so each freckle is special in gods eye???

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