Religious Justifications for Oppression: A Brief U.S. History

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Throughout the ages, individuals and organizations have employed “religion” to justify the marginalization, harassment, denial of rights, persecution, and oppression of entire groups of people based on their social identities. At various historical periods, people have applied these texts, sometimes taken in tandem, and at other times used selectively, to establish and maintain hierarchical positions of power, domination, and privilege over individuals and groups targeted by these texts and tenets.
Proponents of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) recently passed in states like Indiana and Arkansas argue that these laws promote religious freedoms and freedom of speech – two tenets already covered by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court opened the flood gates for the enactment of new and enhanced RFRA laws in its 2014 decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. While human and civil rights anti-discrimination laws primarily have never covered bone fide religious institutions, the Hobby Lobby ruling extended such exemptions to “closely held” (where no ready market exists for the trading of stock shares) for-profit corporations when these owners claim that to follow anti-discrimination statutes would violate their religious beliefs.
Let us be clear, however: these newest incarnations of RFRA (which already exist in approximately 30 other states and on the national level in less encompassing forms and in many states that enumerate “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression” as protected categories) aim to provide legal cover for merchants and land owners to discriminate against people whose beliefs and ways of life they oppose.
The United States of America was founded on Christian justifications for oppression.
A Brief U.S. History:
The foundational spiritual beliefs of the numerous indigenous tribes originally inhabiting the vast territories now known as the United States of America came under challenge with the advent of European expansionism to North America in the 17thcentury of the Common Era (CE), as many imperialists brought with them their forms of Christianity. The Pilgrims, for example, who left England for Massachusetts in 1620, originally had strong connections with the Church of England, but they were disenchanted with what they viewed as the church’s compromises with Roman Catholicism (Lippy, 2004). The Pilgrims came to North America with hopes of establishing a purer form of Protestant Christianity than they had found in their native land. These “Puritans” separated from the Church of England to establish their own religious institutions, but they were not interested or willing to extend to others the religious freedom they were seeking (Lippy, 2004).
The Pilgrims believed that they were a divinely chosen people, and soon established “a biblical commonwealth” (Eck, 2001, p. 36) crafted from their own form of Christianity in which “the church and the state were to support and protect each other” (Corbett & Corbett, 1999, p. 33).
Over the decades after the Puritans first landed on the shores of North America came other nationalities and religious denominations, primarily Christian, from the European continent. These largely included Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalist Puritans, and Baptists (Lippy, 2004). In their attempts to assure religious freedom for themselves, under the leadership of William Penn, Quakers founded the colony of Pennsylvania, and Roman Catholics founded Maryland in the 1640s. In the following decades, however, Protestants established political power in Maryland, and in 1704, Protestant legislators passed a law unequivocally titled “An Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery within This Province” banishing Jesuits from the territory (Eck, 2001).
Adherents to a number of non-Christian religions were scattered throughout the colonies, though they were persecuted, stripped of their beliefs, and at times killed by a colonial Protestant establishment staunchly resistant to any diversity of religious belief or expression within its borders.
In imperialist colonial America, as private farms grew larger and farmers needed more cheap laborers to cultivate the land and tend the crops, many white so-called “settlers” came voluntarily from England and served initially as indentured servants. In order to increase productivity and profitability, landowners turned increasingly to the slave trade for their labor. Race and religion were intertwined as bases for slavery in the Americas where black Africans were stolen from their homelands and forced into slavery for the remainder of their lives, carried by slave ships, some of which were named the “Jesus,” the ” Grace of God,” the “Angel,” the “Liberty,” and the “Justice” (Clifton, 1994; Norman, 2005). Many slave ships had on board a Christian minister to help oversee the passage. In fact, it was not uncommon at this time for religious representatives to offer scriptural justifications for slavery (Hill & Cheadle, 1996).
The issue of slavery became a lightning rod in the 1840s among members of the Baptist General Convention, and in May 1845, 310 delegates from the Southern states convened in Augusta, Georgia to organize a separate Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on a pro-slavery plank. They asserted that to be a “good Christian,” one had to support the institution of slavery, and could not join the ranks of the abolitionists.
Well, either by divine “inspiration” or due to political pressure, 150 years later in June 1995, the SBC reversed its position and officially apologized to African Americans for its support and collusion with the institution of slavery (regarding it now as an “original sin”), and also apologizing for its support of “Jim Crow” laws and its rejection of civil rights initiatives of the1950s and 1960s.
The expansion of the republic and movement west was in part justified by the overriding philosophical underpinnings since the American Revolution. Called “Manifest Destiny,” it was based on the belief that God intended the United States to extend its holdings and its power across the wide continent of North America over the native Indian tribes from the east coast to the west (Spring, 2004).
The doctrine of “manifest destiny” embraced a belief in American Anglo-Saxon superiority. “This continent,” a congressman declared, “was intended by Providence as a vast theatre on which to work out the grand experiment of Republican government, under the auspices of the Anglo-Saxon race” (quoted in Takaki, 1993, p. 176).
During the early years of the new republic, with its increasing population and desire for land, political leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, advocated that Indian lands should be obtained through treaties and purchase. Later, however, when he inhabited the White House, Andrew Jackson argued that white settlers (actually, land thieves) had a “right” to confiscate Indian land. Though he proposed a combination of treaties and an exchange or trade of land, he maintained that whites had a right to claim any Indian lands that were not under cultivation. Jackson recognized as the only legitimate claims for Indian lands those on which they grew crops or made other “improvements” (Spring, 2004). The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830 authorized President Jackson to confiscate Indian land east of the Mississippi River, “relocate” its former inhabitants, and exchange their former land with territory west of the River. The infamous “Trail of Tears” during Jackson’s presidency attests to the forced evacuation and redeployment of entire Indian nations in which many died of cholera, exposure to the elements, contaminated food, and other environmental hazards.
In the 19th century, Robert Lewis Dabney, Professor of Theology at Union Seminary in Virginia, argued: “What then, in the next place, will be the effect of this fundamental change when it shall be established? The obvious answer is, that it will destroy Christianity and civilization in America….” Dabney, who lived from 1820-1898, in his dire warnings referred to women’s suffrage. Dabney used religious arguments to maintain heterosexual male hegemony, privilege, and power over the rights of all women.
Let us look at another parallel case, the issue of prohibiting individuals from different “races” from engaging in sexual relations (miscegenation). The state of Virginia in 1958 arrested and tried a white man and black women for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, its so-called “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924.
The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Loving (born Mildred Deloris Jetter, a woman of African descent) and Richard Perry Loving (a man of white European descent), both residents of Virginia who married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia to evade Virginia’s restrictive statute. Upon returning to Virginia, police stormed their home and bedroom, arrested, and charged them with violating the law. At their trial, the judge convicted and sentenced them each to one year imprisonment, but suspended their sentences on the condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia for a period of 25 years. At the trial, the judge, Leon Bazile, used biblical justifications for his verdict.
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”
Regarding its stands on women in the Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, at their 1998 session,declared that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s guidance, and the denomination has since removed women from top executive posts. According to the 1998 resolution: “…The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ….[She] has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Later, in 2000, the SBC declared that women should no longer serve as pastors.
In 2010, the SBC passed its “Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military,” which stated in part: “RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention…affirm the Bible’s declaration that homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful, and we also affirm the Bible’s promise of forgiveness, change, and eternal life to all sinners (including those engaged in homosexual sin) who repent of sin and trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).”
Discussion:
Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, who traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America (1840). He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating “church and state,” where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America” (Tocqueville, 1840/1956, pp. 303-304).
He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of their political institutions since he observed the enormous influence churches had on the political process. Though he favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs.
In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.” This is a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of minority rights, there is a danger of religious domination or tyranny over religious minorities and Non-believers. The majority, in religious matters, have historically been adherents to mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often imposed their values and standards upon those who believed otherwise.
I want to be very clear that Christianity comprises many sects and denominations in places throughout the world, and, therefore, Christianity cannot be understood as monolithic, for people adhere to or diverge from a strict interpretation of scriptures depending on their denomination and personal beliefs. Some denominations have been welcoming to LGBT people, to women, and to people of every so-called “race.”
In addition, anyone can believe anything they wish, whether others find those beliefs laudable or offensive. When, however, the expression of those beliefs denies other individuals or groups their full human and civil rights, a critical line has been crossed, for they have entered into the realm of oppression.
We are seeing individuals and entire denominations framing themselves as the true victims whenever we challenge their religious justifications in their attempts to perpetuate their already pervasive Christian hegemony and social privileges, and their characterizations of others. My critique, however, does not amount to a simple theocratic disagreement. This is not a “disagreement” at all! It speaks to issues of power and control; it goes to who has the power to define “the other,” and who has the power and control to define “the self”:the individual and members of social identity groups, or rather, the Church with a capital “C.”
With freedom of speech and with religious rights come responsibilities, and with words and actions often come reactions and challenges. Whenever clergy and lay people pronounce and preach their conservative dogma on sexuality and gender expression, on issues of “race,” on women, on other religions and on atheists, and on others, they must expect opposition to their ideas and to their dominant group privileges, to their interpretations of scripture, and to their constructions and revisions of history. Moreover, they must take responsibility for the bullying, harassment, violence against and suicides of these individuals and groups.
Therefore, we have a right, no, an obligation to counter this destructive and, yes, oppressive discourse, and to stand up, to transform ourselves from bystanders into empowered upstanders taking with us our voices, our energy, our unity, our intelligence, our righteous indignation, and all the love of which we are capable.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).