Jake Meador has offered a thoughtful and challenging piece concerning the relationship between Christianity and the United States. Meador’s most salient point is that he has “become very suspicious of accounts of Christianity’s place in American life that leave out questions related to justice.” Issues of justice as they relate “to race and class have vexed the church for nearly our whole history in these lands. Indeed, they have vexed the church to such a degree that many Christian critics—Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, Jemar Tisby, etc.—have suggested that it is more accurate to call the prevalent forms of Christian practice in America something other than plain Christianity.” Douglass, Meador notes, “called it ‘slave-owners Christianity.’ Tisby uses ‘compromised Christianity.’”
The main deficiency in framing the interaction of Christianity in the United States in this way is that there was not—and is not—a unitary religious institution in the United States that interacted with race and slavery in a unified way. To suggest that Christian support for the slaveholding regime—and we should be honest enough to admit that there was Christian support for what was a brutal regime of human bondage—made Christianity something other than Christianity is not overstating the severity of the failures of Christians in the United States, but to turn both religion and slavery in to abstractions in the pursuit of totalizing moral or religious rhetoric instead. There was and is not an American church. There are and were Christian churches in the United States.
Another and perhaps more salient point is that there exists a tendency to treat the United States on self-refractory terms, which may work when talking about politics, but doesn’t work with religion. The United States was not the only slaveholding polity in the 19th century. Slavery was tolerated and supported in the in the British Empire until 1833, in the French Empire until 1848, in Peru until 1854, in Argentina until 1859, in Cuba until 1886, in Brazil until 1888, in Egypt until 1895, in Thailand until 1897. Does this mean that Catholicism in Latin America was not really Catholicism until slavery ended? Or Islam in Egypt until 1895? Buddhism in Thailand until 1897? Both religions also had stipulations against man-stealing. A response might be that these were more mild forms of slavery, but contemporary polemics regarding bound human labor have dismissed this out of hand. There isn’t any such thing as a mild form of slavery. If America is judged differently, and judged to be particularly deviant on the world stage, this appears to answer the old hagiographic form of American exceptionalism with a new inverted form of censorious American exceptionalism.
The actions of abolitionists are also seemingly dismissed as immaterial in this framework, which is a historical and historiographic mistake. Since the Constitution was signed, anti-slavery northerners believed that that Constitutional regime had set in motion the eventual death of slavery and the creation of a more just milieu. Most of the authors Meador mentions in his piece are not historians. That’s not a criticism of their hopes or aspirations, but it does suggest that they are not interacting with history as it happened not simply in the United States but across the Western World. Yes some Christians in the United States failed to be just; and some Christians across the Western World did as well.
Meador rightly identifies the problems with American exceptionalism, and the problems with its Christian permutation. I don’t disagree, for example, with the assertion that “the African slave trade was, in addition to being an abomination against God, also an act of persecution against Christians by those who blasphemously and falsely took God’s name in vain.” But, as Gordon Wood recently noted, most Americans in public life believed the same thing when the created the American republic in the 1780s; the United States abolished the slave trade in 1808, and the proposition from South Carolina in the 1850s to restart the slave trade elicited a violent reaction from across the North and even from southern states. By any measure, a sizable number of Christians in the United States conformed to their co-religionists in Western Europe and in Latin America regarding the iniquity of the American racial and slavery regime. The United States was not the only polity that tolerated slavery, and pro-slavery southerners were not the only Christians in the United States.
The writers mentioned in Meador’s piece might understandably argue that their critique is less about individual Christians and more about rituals and practices societies allow. But a rituals and practice paradigm is actually less conducive to the framework, because there was in fact different societal practice in the North and South. By the 1850s local customs and rituals included popular defiance of pro-slavery and racist federal laws. Sheriffs found it increasingly difficult to seize runaways. Slave catchers ran the risk of being killed (which is why the work was so lucrative). African Americans became integral parts of their towns and hamlets. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, northern Illinois and Indiana, as well as New England, all ended up making rituals out of chasing slave-catchers out of town and practiced open defiance of fugitive slave laws. Abraham Lincoln agreed. This was one of the major justifications the South offered for secession, as James Oakes noted in his Freedom National: the North was so opposed to the Fugitive Slave Law–only passed in 1850–and so committed to dismantling slavery and even racial caste that the South could not coexist any more with them.
The legacy of the anti-slavery North cannot be dismissed easily. They founded colleges and universities like Kenyon, Oberlin, Hillsdale, and Wheaton across the North and later the West that led to a commitment—however imperfect—to increased racial equality throughout much of North America. Byron Sutherland, the first president of Howard University, believed that American was a Christian nation. Dismissing antislavery northerners is ahistorical and anachronistically nationalizes the South.
I agree with Meador that dismissing exceptionalism would be a boon for American churches and historians. I would nonetheless caution against dismissing the tradition of what might be called Christian nationalism. This tradition included Northern abolitionists and eventually defined 20th century figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. To replace this vision with a reading of history that views Christianity in the United States as uniquely iniquitous would be a mistake.