White Christianity in America was Born in Heresy

This statement was made by Yale University theologian Eboni Marshall Turman last year at an academic conference. When the Americas were discovered and explored by white Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, various European nations began their grand history of empire-building. European missionary priests brought Christianity to indigenous peoples around the world. The underlying assumptions in all this conquest and exploration was that the Christian religion was best for everyone, and the specific version of Christianity* was white and European.

This is, of course, a gloss on three-hundred years of history. But along with military and commercial conquest rode the Christian missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, to subdue and conquer indigenous religions, all in the name of Jesus or in the name of empire expansion? I encourage everyone to view the movie, “The Mission” (1986) with Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro and Liam Neeson. It is an historically accurate portrayal of the 16th century missionary process in Brazil. It will make you cry.

Empire building was not a project for the timid. The early explorers, their kings and queens, their financiers and their armies and navies possessed giant egos and a certainty that they were doing God’s will. They believed that Europe was the center of culture and that all things European were superior to all other cultures. This Euro-centrism enabled them to conquer and convert other peoples believing that they (the conquistadors) were improving the lot of humanity around the globe in the name of Jesus.

The oft repeated and totally false statement that “America was founded as a Christian nation” is part of the built-up mythology of European colonial efforts. Correction: The driving force for the founding of the American colonies was financial. America represented vast, untapped financial opportunities. Religion was a minor footnote.

The fusion of patriotism, militarism, large corporate interests, and evangelical Christianity has more recent roots, but it is not hard to connect it with the earlier colonial period as well. The Episcopal Church USA shares some of the same historical roots through its connection to the Church of England and English Colonial efforts. In this regard, we can take some comfort knowing that, in 1839, it was the Church of England that led the British Parliament to become the first nation to abolish slavery in the world. Both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church have been working hard to eliminate racism in our churches ever since.

If we can bring ourselves to understand that modern-day white supremacy and the response to it in Black Lives Matter both descend directly from and a reaction against 16th and 17th century European colonialism, then we have a chance at making things right.

How might we do that? I offer you a few things to ponder and pray about.

  1. The way Christianity evolved over 15 centuries in Europe is neither without error, the only definitive form of Christian belief, nor the best form.
  2. Other cultures will take Christian belief and doctrine and fuse them with their own history and culture. This is natural and a good thing. Christians coming from a Euro-centric (including USA) background should not judge, impede or missionize “over” such developments.
  3. Get rid of the “America was founded as a Christian nation” myth. It belongs with George Washington’s cherry tree.
  4. People from different backgrounds should get together as equals the way Jesus treated everyone. We should share, get to know and celebrate each other’s backgrounds. This is called “Christ-like hospitality.”
  5. These are topics for your spiritual development as a Christian in the 21st
*Other “versions” of Christianity include: Greek Orthodox, the indigenous “Martyrs of Japan” story, the Mar Toma Church of south India, and the base communities of liberation theology in Latin America.

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