“WHITE CHRISTIANITY IN America was born in heresy.”
This statement was made by Yale University theologian Eboni Marshall Turman last year before a large gathering of religion scholars. Marshall Turman, a formidable leader in African American theology, did not explain her meaning. In that room, she did not need to do so.
But as I heard her, I thought dolefully about how very long it took me as a white American Christian ethicist to be ready to engage or even to understand such a statement. I wondered doubtfully how many white American Christians today would be prepared to discuss it rationally. After all, part of what is so deeply wrong with white evangelicalism has to do with race. If what comes “after evangelicalism” does not address our racism at its roots, we shouldn’t bother.
To say that white Christianity in America was born in heresy is to make a theological statement about racism prior to any moral evaluation. It is to suggest that our local racism problem is ultimately rooted in heresy, a violation of central tenets of Christian doctrine. It is also to say that this heresy was present from the birth of American Christianity. There was no original innocence—the heresy and its resulting sins were there from the beginning.
This begs the question of whether the ultimate historical source of such heresy can be identified. It seems to me that a compelling starting point is 15th century Europe as it began conquering and colonizing the world in the name of Christ. The story begins with those first imperial powers, Spain and Portugal, but soon after extends to Britain and other European colonial nations, including Holland, France, Belgium, and so on. These were empire-building nations on the cusp of their grand adventures. They confidently believed themselves to be the center of the world, superior to all other cultures, entitled to conquer and colonize, and in doing so actively advancing God’s will. The European powers believed this for many centuries. Some would say that they, and their descendants, believe it still.