Were Christians in Mississippi opposed to integration in the 1950s and 1960s merely due to their cultural influences? No, argues Carolynn Renee Dupont in this fantastic piece of history. Against the common assumption that religious beliefs were incidental and mostly unrelated to their racism, Dupont shows that it was the religious beliefs of these people that fueled their fight for segregation. They believed God blessed segregation and opposition to the institution was something only liberal types would pursue.
This is a tremendously important book, on the level of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. These historical debates inform the debates we are having today, because though the issues have changed the hermeneutics of the two sides have not. As Noll showed in his book, it was conservative religious people who wanted just a plain reading, a literal reading, of scripture who supported slavery. Abolitionists, for the most part, were seen as on a slippery slope away from orthodoxy.
One hundred years later and the echoes are obvious. Those who supported segregation read the Bible in the same way as those who supported slavery. Orthodox conservative Christians had a tradition and felt it was liberals who were straying from orthodox belief who opposed God’s desire for races to be separate.
Perhaps most disturbing is how Dupont points to the roots of contemporary conservative religious politics. Those who supported segregation continued reading the Bible in the same way, even after segregation was off the table. They found new battles to fight, though their weapons were the same. Which leads me to wonder, if this way of reading the Bible has been on the wrong side twice in the last 150 years, in two of the most major moral debates in our nations history, perhaps that ought to be a bigger strike against it today then it often is.
I suspect we simply don’t know our history. Saying we believe the Bible is literal and the truth is plainly there in the proof-texts is much easier. It is important to know this past, to know that how we interpret the Bible is not neutral or new but has hurt people and simply been wrong in the past. Which then leads to the question, how do we read and interpret the Bible today?