President Obama has received a lot of well-deserved criticism for his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. After condemning terrorists who “professed to stand up for Islam,” he told the largely Christian audience:
“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. … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
Obama’s comments were patronizing and somewhat beside the point given that almost all of today’s religious violence is committed by radical Muslims and almost none of it by devout Christians.
His remarks about slavery and Jim Crow also left out an important fact. While many Americans did attempt to use Christianity to justify slavery and Jim Crow, true Christian teachings played an important role—and I would argue an essential role—in eradicating those two scourges.
Christianity was the driving force behind abolition. Many American abolitionists were inspired by the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, which outlawed slavery thirty-one years before the United States.
Nobody played a bigger role in that movement than William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Conservative Party minister of parliament who for decades was a lonely voice for abolition. He was also an evangelical Christian who drew strength from his faith.
At a time when many argued that slavery was the will of God, Wilberforce believed he had been called upon by God to help end slavery.
Wilberforce’s case against slavery was unabashedly Bible-based. And he wasn’t afraid to invoke a little fire and brimstone to drive his point home. “We must believe,” he wrote in an open letter published a month before the House of Commons voted to abolish slavery, “that a continued course of wickedness, oppression and cruelty, obstinately maintained in spite of the fullest knowledge and the loudest warnings, must infallibly bring down upon us the heaviest judgments of the Almighty.”
The American anti-slavery movement was similarly animated by Christianity. Most of the early abolitionists were northern white and black churchgoers (though there were some “free thinkers” involved as well).
Rob Rapley, who wrote a PBS series on the abolitionists, has said, “Every one of the abolitionists was shaped very much by their faith. In fact, they would have defined themselves first by their faith before any other category.”
The Civil Rights movement was also rooted in an abiding Christian faith. Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, once said, “Throughout the epic freedom struggle of African Americans, our great sustainer of hope has been the power of prayer.”
Many of the principal civil rights organizations—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to name two—were essentially coalitions of churches. And many of the movement’s leaders—King, Joseph Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth—were Christian pastors.
King was a Baptist minister who regularly stressed that the battle against inequality and bigotry was at its core a spiritual one.
In his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King addresses “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” invokes “God” fifteen times, “lord” twice, and “Jesus” five times, and uses the word “Christian” seventeen times. He quotes Saint Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, along with Jesus Christ himself.
King signs off not with an appeal for his release or even by encouraging his lieutenants to keep up the fight, but rather with “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith.”