The Historical Roots of America's Christian Fundamentalism
Adherents to America's Christian fundamentalism are concentrated in the Bible-belt which encompasses what was once known as the lands below the Mason-Dixon line along with the border states. In other words, America's Bible-belt encompasses those areas where slavery was deeply entrenched in the years before the American Civil War and the surrounding areas. Many slave states seceded from the Union and engaged in a bloody civil war against their fellow Americans to maintain the institution of slavery.
Let me repeat that last idea in a slightly different fashion: slave holders who dominated the governments of the slave states preferred to destroy the United States, to devastate the lives of millions of Americans, slave and non-slave, combatants and non-combatants, alike, and to kill, maim,and cripple their fellow Americans rather than to give up their institution of slavery. These same slave-owning men who attempted to dissolve the Union were considered by many of their contemporaries to be good, God-fearing men and leaders of the community.
In those slave states, the Christian religion took on a very unique character. None of the slave states were formed as beacons of religious freedom. Maryland was given to Lord Baltimore as a haven for Britain's Catholic population and was as religiously intolerant of non-Catholics as the mother country was intolerant of Catholics. Virginia and the Carolinas were populated by for-profit corporations engaged in the business of transporting people from the Old World to the New. Georgia was a penal colony. Florida was a Spanish colony, while Louisiana was a French colony. Money ruled and the clergy adapted to the rule of gold.
Slave owners and other profiteers from human misery did not want a religion that made them feel guilty about the source of their riches. So the rich, who were mostly rich because they owned slaves and profited from the misery of others, choose not to hire ministers and preachers who taught a message which made them feel guilty. The ministers who were hired were the ministers who preached the message which the rich were willing to hear -- a message which justified the rights of the slave owner to manage his property the way he saw fit, a message which demanded obedience from the slaves, and a message which promoted the subjugation of women, Native Americans, and other peoples.
As the institution of slavery spread, so did this new American religion. As the institution of slavery deepened, so did the church's insistence on the justice of the rich to the fruits of their slaves' labor. America's Christian fundamentalism, then, is descended from the religion of slave owners, slave traders, and slaves.
Long before the American Civil War, an ostensibly Christian religion arose which completely neglected the hundreds of biblical injunctions for social justice. In place of a message of social justice, this new Christian religion demanded only one thing: from the elite, money; from the rest of society, obedience to the established order. To assist the church in supporting the established power, the church demanded two things from the faithful.
First, the true believer must have an unquestioning faith in the religious teachings of their church, usually expressed as an unquestioning adherence to the Bible as most helpfully interpreted by that Christian church, even if that unquestioning faith required one to suspend his willingness to reason and his ability to accept reality and facts. Second, morality was solely defined as (women's) sexual fidelity, augmented at times with an injunction for men to support their wives and children, in return, of course, for their unconditionally obedience. As always, the rich and powerful were exempt from both of these rules.
Gone were the strictures against greed. Gone were the obligations of the elites to ameliorate the plight of the least fortunate among them. Gone were God's demands that humanity be wise stewards of God's creation. Gone were the biblical injunctions to bring justice into the world, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to tend to the sick, to assist the widow, to protect the orphan, and to shelter the homeless. Gone were the stories of God's wrath at Pharaoh for his refusal to let God's people go. Gone were the stories of God liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Gone were the stories of God's mercy and God's love for all of her creation.
Using a theology of Social Darwinism in which it was claimed that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful as a sign of God's blessing, the rich and powerful were seen as virtuous and deserving the riches which were showered upon them by a just God. In reality, nineteenth-century slave owners and robber barons became rich because they were corrupt and ruthless. They had the money to silence their critics, as well as, to reward their flatterers.
The defeat of southern troops in the Civil War was not enough to convince those who rebelled against both the Union and God that God did not smile on their theology. Rather, the system was updated to find legal and quasi-legal methods of subjugating the former slaves. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized the Black community. Black men and women, particularly those who became relatively successful, financially, or who became leaders in the Black community, were lynched with impunity.
No white man in the former Confederacy was convicted of raping a black woman for the next hundred years. Well into the 1960s, white social activists working on behalf of people of color, as well as Black people, were murdered in the deep South. When northerners came south to work on behalf of people of color, doing simple things like registering them to vote, southerners, including those good God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians, virulently denounced the interlopers as "outside agitators."
Yet, in the 1960s, under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, a true friend to people of color and to women, a series of laws were passed and new social programs were instituted which helped to bring women of all colors and people of color into the mainstream of American life. White men, especially rich, white men saw their privileges eroding and struck back, first against civil rights activists and feminists, then against the broader social justice / social responsibility movement.
The rich and powerful found allies in only a few sections of the American people among racists, male chauvinists, the religiously intolerant, the xenophobic, and, of course, the Bible-belt Christians who had long been conditioned to respond to the influence of money, to ignore issues of social justice, and to define morality in terms of sexuality.
Contrary to all of the teachings of their ostensible spiritual leader, Jesus of Nazareth, in their lust for temporal power, fundamentalist Christians allied themselves with the rich and powerful. In doing so, they forfeited every legitimate claim they ever possessed to moral authority. They also imperiled their immortal souls for Jesus of Nazareth himself said, "When I, the Messiah, shall come in glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.
Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, "Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me."
Then these righteous ones will reply, "Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?"
And I, the King, will tell them, "When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!"
Then I will turn to those on my left and say, "Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn't feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn't give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn't clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn't visit me."
Then they will reply, "Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?"
And I will answer, "When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing to help me." And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life." Matthew 25:31-46
America's fundamentalist Christianity, then, is descended from the religion of slave owners, slave traders, and slaves. America's fundamentalist Christianity does not know how to liberate the oppressed, but it does know how to comfort bring comfort to the oppressor. America's fundamentalist Christianity does not know how to bring social justice into the world, but it does know how to subjugate the masses.
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