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Racism and Religion

Racism and Religion

Where The Church was and Where it is Today 

By Matthew Peinado 

Historically, the Bible has been used by some to justify slavery, discrimination, and racism. Conversely, it has also been used by abolitionists and civil rights leaders to advocate for the opposite. When considering where the Christian church stands today, it is important to understand its history of racism and religion. 

In an article for the Washington Post, Dr. Tisa Wenger, an associate professor of religious studies at Yale Divinity School, wrote about Christian racism throughout history in the United States. “In battles over slavery and racial segregation, religion and scripture were often cited as justification for maintaining inequality. Until the civil rights era, refusals to serve African Americans were often cloaked under the guise of religious freedom,” wrote Dr. Wenger. [1] 

Slaveholders in the United States would point to slavery in the Bible or the curse of Ham as justification for the enslavement of Africans. According to Wenger, as abolition and anti-slavery movements became popular in the United States, many slaveholders and their sympathizers would use religious freedom as appeasement for why they should be able to own slaves. Those who found themselves ‘neutral’ would often agree that religious freedom superseded the freedom of slaves. [2] 

Just after the civil war, some Christians would continue to use the Bible to uphold discriminatory beliefs and practices. Dr. Wenger wrote, “Much like their proslavery predecessors, 20th-century segregationists argued that the civil rights movement was trying to impose an alien, anti-Christian, even communistic ideology that would destroy the Christian racial order of the South.” [3] 

Throughout the Civil Rights era, lawsuits like the infamous Bob Jones University versus the United States came about as segregationists claimed it violated their religious freedom to take away their tax exempt status for not allowing interracial marriages among staff and students on their campus. The Supreme Court made the decision that religious freedom never gives one the right to discriminate against someone of a protected class. [4] 

Conversely, many Christians were at the forefront of the abolitionist and Civil rights movements.  

The Seventh-day Adventist church was explicitly against slavery. According to the North American Division Ministerial Association, “The second advent movement was inseparable from the abolitionist call for the immediate and total destruction of slavery and demand for equal rights for the oppressed.” Ellen White herself along with other church leaders spoke directly against slavery and advocated for abolition. [5] 

Though significant progress has been made, there remains serious issues of racism in the churches studied by Dr. Robert Jones. In an NBC opinion article, Dr. Jones wrote about a study he conducted to find whether religious white people hold racist attitudes at the same rate as non-religious white people. With 1 being the highest score, the average score for those who called themselves religious was 0.73. The average score for those who were religious not was 0.42. A group of black protestants who also participated had a score of 0.24. [6] 

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“The results point to a stark conclusion: While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity,” wrote Dr. Jones. [7] 

Dr. Jones made it clear that this does not mean all religious individuals are racist or hold racist attitudes. He also makes it clear that he is not attempting to villainize white Christians. Rather, there are prejudices that exist within Church culture itself and these prejudices can only be changed by first accepting they exist. [8] 


  1. Wenger, T. (2021, October 28). Perspective | Discriminating in the name of religion? Segregationists and slaveholders did it, too. The Washington Post.  
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Bobic, M. P. (n.d.). Bob Jones University v. United States. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.  
  1. Burton, K. M. (2020, June 19). The Seventh-day Adventist pioneers and their protest against systemic racism. NAD Ministerial.  
  1.  NBCUniversal News Group. (n.d.). Opinion | Racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious. Here’s why. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 

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