Why Obama is Right to avoid double standard about Modern Christian Atrocities

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

President Obama, speaking on Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast, condemned religious extremism in the Muslim world, noting that it is the work of twisted individuals rather than being intrinsic to the religion. He then added,

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

It is actually amazing that Southern Christianity does not get called out more often for its role in slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, especially since its churches are still for the most part segregated! I mean, don’t people know why there is a Southern Baptist denomination in the first place? Why not just “Baptist?” The US History website notes:

“Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, … nor his manservant, nor his maidservant.” In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.”

The southern Christian churches conducted something like a genocide against the slaves. British North America and then the USA kidnapped and enslaved about 500,000 persons from 1600 to 1808. In addition, the North American slavers killed off about 200,000 Africans trying to capture people in Africa or let them die in the unsanitary holds of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Once they were on the plantations, the slaves were often worked to death; in 1830-1860 only 10 percent were over 50 years old. Their children were kidnapped from them and sold. Women and men who formed common law unions were separated and sold. Ten to 20 percent of what became over time 4 million slaves had been Muslim but their religion was stolen from them and they were forcibly converted to Christianity. Southern Christian seminaries produced an endless stream of theological writing upholding all these criminal acts. It was done very much in the name of the Bible.

Other Christians worked for abolition, so all this support for enslavement was not intrinsic to Christianity; it was a matter of a particular interpretation of Christianity. Slavery was widespread in the world, but Southern American plantation slavery was called the ‘peculiar institution’ for a reason– much slavery elsewhere was household slavery, as in most of the Muslim world. It was no fun to be someone’s property in a household either, but plantations (and this was true of Brazilian plantations as well) were particularly deadly, often killing the workers by age 40.

As for Jim Crow, the American version of South Africa’s Apartheid wherein African-Americans could not so much as drink from the same fountain as whites, Colin Chapell writes of Carolyn Renée Dupont’s Mississippi Praying:

“Dupont demonstrates that defenders of Mississippi’s segregated society turned early and often to evangelical theology in order to justify their views on race . . . her work unequivocally shows the religious commitment to segregation among white evangelicals. The white evangelical commitment to individualistic theology also led the way for an understanding of the world in which the disadvantages facing African Americans in the South were a result of their own failings rather than any structural stumbling blocks.”

On the order of 2 to 3 African-Americans were lynched every week under Jim Crow segregation, or up to 12,000 or so wantonly murdered by Christians during these 80 years.

But Obama could have mentioned other modern Christian atrocities. Christians often blame Christian violence on secular nationalism so as to dissociate themselves from the some 100 million persons mown down by those of white Christian heritage from Europe and the US in the 20th century. But many of those millions were killed by believing Christians on behalf of explicitly Christian states. I figure that Muslims killed about 2-3 million in the same period, though again, many of those were killed for secular nationalist purposes, not Islam per se.

Take Croatian Catholic nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s. It gave rise to the Ustashe movement. . (In the former Yugoslavia, Croats are largely Catholic, Bosnians mostly Muslim and Serbs for the most part Eastern Orthodox). If Ustashe had merely been a form of secular nationalism, it would not have demanded that Serbs convert to Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy, which it did. It was a sectarian Christian movement, not a secular one. Catholicism was just deeply intertwined with Croation identity. Ustashe killed 30,000 Jews, 40,000 Roma and about 500,000 Serbs (hint: Yugoslavia was not very populous– these are massive numbers). While the Catholic Church in Croatia was deeply divided on the movement, many in the lower level clergy actively supported it, and [pdf] and Franciscans provided some of the more enthusiastic executioners in the camps.

Or in Spain in the 1930s, the Catholic Church was closely allied with Gen. Francisco Franco and declared the struggle against the Spanish left in the civil war a “Crusade.” Franco’s Crusade against the Left probably left on the order of 200,000 dead (some historians say twice that). These 200,000 individuals were killed (yes, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin) in the name of Christ.

I don’t mean to pick on the poor Catholics. The Dutch Reformed Church was not innocent in the imperial wars in what is now Indonesia nor in the Afrikaners’ Apartheid. There is plenty of killing in the name of Christ to go around.

The outrage on the right about Obama’s entirely correct observations derives from a kind of Christian nationalism, in which Christians can do no wrong or are not responsible for the wrongs done by other Christians. The point is, that may be so, but neither are Muslims responsible for the loonier of their coreligionists. Those complaining about a “false equivalency” are just using a meaningless buzzword. Here’s a better one: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

President Obama Speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast

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37 Responses

    • The difference is, Massachusetts abolished slavery on the basis of a single lawsuit by an enslaved woman based on the language of the Declaration of Independence, and the rest of the North soon followed. The South had that same Declaration, and that same common law. Yet it clung to slavery another 90 years and fought a war against the rest of us to try to keep it going forever and still keeps coming up with new ideologies and excuses for restoring the racist laws of the past. Why is that?

  1. The notion of “what is done to the least of them is done to me” (paraphrase, of course) seems to have been lost on the “righteous”. A typical response of our species to perceived existential threats. I would recommend E. O. Wilson’s latest book The Meaning of Human Existence for a change of pace to fundamentalists of any persuasion.

    This is a post that should be included in American history texts to promote the development of critical thinking skills. Exceptionally well done.

    (Some of the numbers might be cross-checked with Hugh Thomas’ book on the North Atlantic Slave Trade. [Also, local conquerors seemed to be willing sellers to the European slavers — relieved the maintenance burden and provided a source of cash — a not uncommon universal practice throughout history]. However, the point is that it is not exact numbers and precise details that matter, but the accuracy of the overall thesis. Which is right on.)

    Limbaugh and his ilk? “A good story if you can. A bad story if you must. But always a story.” No surprises here. We are all bigoted in our own ways. But in my view, if it cuts flesh, it’s no good.

    • Today’s Kristian* Right thinks “the least of them” meant the 0.1%.

      *Christians believe in and follow Christ’s teachings. Just as “Krab” is a poor imitation of real crab, Kristians are imitation Christians, preaching divisiveness and hate in direct contradiction to Christ’s teachings.

  2. During the 1980’s the Christian Right supported people like Roberto D’Aubisson, Rios Montt, Jonas Savimbi, and the guerrilla group Renamo in Mozambique. I am surprised that so few people seem to remember this anymore,but morally speaking these men were as bad as any modern day Islamic terrorist.

    • …and of course, the christian right was always supportive of butchering the christian left…but they were OUR terrorists, so not the bad kind, right?

  3. osiris322

    Goose/gander: “Christian nationalism.. can do no wrong or are not responsible for..wrongs done by other Christians” but Muslims..

  4. This is the big problem with “religious exceptions” – religions typically encourage tribal-type thinking, which leads to acts which hurt people considered outside the tribe. This is especially true when religion mixes with politics.

    Ask an Irish Catholic about Oliver Cromwell’s behavior, for example – or ask Protestants about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. For that matter, the ongoing battles between the remnants of the Irish Republican Army and the Protestants in Northern Ireland are a modern example of what happens when one mixes religion and politics.

    • There are Christians working to rehabilitate the Crusades right now, all around you. At least Pope Benedict is out of the game. But others like Eric Prince (no stranger to this website) are still working with the mercenary population that the US will use in future interventions. Crusaders indeed.

  5. “Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” – Émile Zola
    I believe this guy was on to something.

    • Replace “church” with “mosque” and “priest” with “Muslim”, and Emile Zola becomes Pam Geller. Also, the context in which things are said makes a difference. Zola’s words would sound different if they came from a jihadi in Iraq.

      • Not if Zola meant all the religions, including in this case his own. Gellar wants only one side to be destroyed, her enemy’s.

  6. Crusades perhaps a stretch; Islam had equivalent “Jihads” at the time (notably in Spain). Killing others for strange reasons is a pastime that unfortunately has not ended with the 19th, the 20th or the 21st centuries. A “Crusade”, for historical accuracy was just a Papal declaration of same, it included complete indulgence and keeping all the loot, slaves etc. found. Many bloody crusades, such as the one declared by Pope Innocent III against the Albigenses (Cathars) in France did not include muslims, it was used to murder some fairly inoffensive people considered “heretics”. “Kill them all, God will know his own” (Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius) has followed Simon de Montfort throughout the ages; in fairness, these words were of some Abbott when discovered that Catholics and Albigenses were a mixed population in the town of Beziers. Several crusades against other Catholics (Venice, Constantinople, etc.) also took place for political or economic reasons. I think the idea of this comment is something like “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”; Ah!
    Now, if we could very quietly and without nonsense eliminate ALL those people that are raping and murdering for whatever reason they have, let us do it.

  7. The greatest atrocity committed by modern Christianity is the systematic, institutionalized rape of thousands of young boys by Roman Catholic Clergy.
    Religion was invented by the ruling class to support the ruling class.

  8. In a 2009 book widely discussed in the Israeli press, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira declared it religiously permissible to kill non-Jewish children because of “the future danger that will arise if they are allowed to grow into evil people like their parents.” However, many rabbis work for a viable peace between Israel and Palestine, so racism is not intrinsic to Judaism. link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  9. Re Croatia:

    The Croats had a pro-Nazi quisling government headed by leadership that included Andrija Artukovic, a lawyer who held several cabinet posts and who settled in California following WWII.

    Dr. Artukovic, due to the influential Croatian-American community, avoided deportation from the U.S. until 1986.

    It was not unusual for the clergy in Eastern European countries to side with Nazi occupiers considering that the alternative was Stalinist communist rule.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted in his book, the Gulag Archipelago, that Nazi occupation forces in Russia during WWII were applauded by Russians for allowing churches to re-open that had been closed down under the Soviet government.

  10. Non-religious ideologies have killed millions also. Remember Pol Pot, Lenin, National Socialism, Maoism, Pinochet’s ‘free market’, Bathism, the Gulf War, …?

    • General Pinochet had opposition from the Archbishop of Santiago over his violent rule – but still had appreciable support from bishops and priests in Chile who were joyous over his overthrow of Marxist President Salvador Allende:

      link to huffingtonpost.com

  11. Juan,

    Where would you place the the Irish Catholic – British Protestant 17th century through 21st century conflicts, in regards to the issues you cover in your article ?

  12. I hope that everybody understands that the slaves transported to the American colonies included numerous kidnapped English children and numerous inmates from British prisons.

  13. Let’s not give Nazism a free ride either. We conveniently have decided that Hitler was an atheist, both to trash non- believers, but also to obscure the fact that Hitler was a Catholic and even an altar boy, and that Mein Kampf contains numerous references to the fact that Nazism will make the world better for Catholics and other
    Christians, and that one of the most virulently murderous anti-Semitic populations was in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland.

  14. It’s started to become more clear that the Danish invasions of northern France and Britain in the 9th century were a reaction against Charlemagne’s brutal proselytizing in northern Germany. These crusades have always provoked dangerous consequences.

  15. More recent examples of murder in the name of Christ can be seen in the Sabra and Shatila massacre carried out by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in 1982 and in the massacres of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Croats and Serbs in the early 90s.

  16. Dr Cole, another good post.
    Question: What ever happened
    to the “Restricted” classification?
    Is it still in use by some?

  17. Is it not obvious that religion is a red herring and human bigotry, greed and tribal politics trumps “god” any old day?

    • Southern Christians get slammed for slavery much more than Europeans Christians even though ten million Africans survived the Middle Passage on their ships. Of those ten million, about 7% (700,000) were brought to North America. Slavery and Sugar were much bigger in the Caribbean and South America than tobacco and cotton were in North America. Of the total, 4 million Africans were transported to Brazil by Portugal, 40%.

      Slavery in the south didn’t really take off until the cotton gin was invented in 1793, almost 200 years after African slavery started in this hemisphere. Africans had a much better chance of survival in North America because of the cooler climate.

      Henry Louis Gates is the real authority on slavery. Over a 250 year period, Gates detailed where the African slaves came from, what European country kidnapped them and where they were taken. Gate’s detailed, scholarly work is remarkable and stunning to read.

    • The devil is in the details. It doesn’t take an idiot to tell when a religion is promoting inequality and injustice. We just don’t want to know.

      • I not defending those racists and traitors in the Confederacy, but slavery in the deep south didn’t take off until early in the 19th century. Spain brought Christianity to the New World almost 300 years earlier. Indians were the first victims. Spain exported the Inquisition. Christians had a nasty habit of starting wars to promote their version of justice and equality.

  18. The Bible say servants. Why do we want to claim the Bible condones slavery? Never does the the bible condone slavery. The police are public servants, not public slaves. Servants are in the white house, not slaves. There is difference between a servant and a slave.

    • The translators render the word ‘slave’ in Hebrew and Greek into ‘servant’ for modern audiences. It says slave.

  19. That was the most enjoyable response I’ve read yet to the hysteria over the president’s comments. It was sort of like shooting fish in a barrel – although I would never condone such brutality.

  20. I’m glad Obama ambushed the National Prayer Breakfast. It was founded by Abraham Vereide, an extremist evangelist who worked tirelessly to curry influence among the powerful and founded The Family, which Jeff Sharlet exposed. I was wishing that Presidents would stop attending the damn thing. So I’m not surprised that the Dominionists are angry to get screwed with cameras running.

  21. I did not see any media pick up the remarks Obama made about southern Christianity and slavery, the most American and immediate example.

  22. Isn’t it also an important point that Islam and Christianity are really branches of the same religion. Thus Islam-bashing is also Christianity-bashing.

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