The website lowendtheory.org created this brilliant flow chart. Read their commentary below. “Class Prep: Trying to map—in a vulgar but systemic way—the biopolitical structure and gendered techniques of Latin-Christian Europe’s (post-Doctrine of Discovery) approach to enslavement and settler colonialism in Africa and the Americas. Emphasis here is on the ways in which the mission of saving souls and the mission of accumulating wealth (in the form of lands and of bodies-as-commodities) operated as two sides of the same coin as the mode of producing wealth converged with the mode of producing, and reproducing, Christianity as an imperial project.”
What follows is a recent submission from a supporter of the project, Anna Baltzer. She writes,
Check out these nice Christian Hegemony pix in central Illinois. It’s like a welcome monument to Effingham, IL as you drive north from St. Louis.
The Western economic system, what we now call capitalism, grew out of a Christian culture whose prime focus was individual salvation and the fulfillment of God’s plan.
In the 13th century, the Church declared that only those who voluntarily renounced wealth to become poor were deserving of charity. Renunciation was labeled a sign of rejection of the comforts and temptations of the material world and of a person’s humility before God. The Church designated those who were “just poor” as unworthy of assistance and possibly sinful. Thus, the concept of the deserving poor justified denying most people any form of social support. There was no longer any moral reason for individual Christians or civil institutions to feel obligated to take care of those in need; it became easy to blame people for their poverty as an excuse for not assisting them.
Ruling elites use overpowering force and violence to dominate a people. For the long term however, they also strive for cultural domination so that their rule comes to be seen as normal, natural, and inevitable. Over the centuries dominant Christianity has used systems of violence such as inquisitions, crusades, witch burnings, genocide and slavery to not only intimidate populations, but also to instill in them a worldview in which Christian dominance is accepted. In the 20th and now the 21st century, films have become one of the primary vehicles for actively promoting a Christian worldview, extolling certain people and behavior as virtuous and demonizing those deemed Other.
Although practically any movie in a Christian dominated society will refract a Christian worldview, some explicitly proselytize a Christian agenda (The Passion), others mirror a deeply held Christian world-view (movies about Christmas, saviors, and Armageddon), and still others provide a critical look at Christian institutions of power and wealth (Jimmy’s Hall, Spotlight). A final category of films presents alternative worldviews, offering a glimpse into other ways to understand and live in the world (Princess Monosuke, Samsara).
I recently watched the movies Jimmy’s Hall and Spotlight, two powerful movies that reminded me that films can be excellent discussion starters on the topic of Christian hegemony. Movies, especially those produced by Hollywood or its equivalents are always complex. But the best of them can reflect aspects of our experience and communities of resistance, help us see our world more clearly, and push us to ask critical questions about how we want to live together. These often are made in other countries reflecting worldviews that are quite divergent from the one taken so for granted in our mainstream society.
The movies on the following list reflect a wide range of relationships to dominant Christianity and a wide range of quality. Use your critical faculties to take what is useful from them and leave the rest. They are listed in alphabetical order. Please send me suggestions of other films to add to the list.
After Tiller (2013) Story of the doctors who, after the Christian motivated murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas, have fought to keep third-trimester abortions available to women in the US.
Still from After Tiller (2013)Amazing Grace (2006) William Wilberforce maneuvers his way through Parliament, working to end the British transatlantic slave trade.
American Indian Holocaust: When it’s all over I’ll Still be Indian (2000) This hard-hitting documentary reveals the link between Adolf Hitler’s treatment of German Jews and the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians, depicts disturbing parallels between these two Holocausts and explores the historical, social and religious roots of America’s own “ethnic cleansing.”
An American Mosque (2014) Story of how a Muslim community in a rural area of California builds a mosque and when it is burned down in a hate crime, the community comes together to support its rebuilding.
Amistad (1997) About a 1839 mutiny of the enslaved Africans aboard a slave ship. Much of the story involves a court-room drama about the free man who led the revolt and economic and religious forces maintaining the slave trade.
Antonia’s Line (1995) Multigenerational story of a non-conformist Dutch woman’s life in her village.
As It Is in Heaven (2004) Story of a small Swedish town and the townspeople’s use of Christian values to subvert Christian dominance in their lives.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) Two U.S. missionary couples in Brazil end up destroying the indigenous people they are trying to save.
Band of Sisters (2014) Story of activist Catholic nuns in the U.S. over the last 60 years. Battle for the Minds—Documents the rise of fundamentalism in America’s largest Protestant denomination and the subsequent impact on women. (New Day Films)
Beloved (1998) Complex and moving story of the deep scars and trauma that slavery created in those enslaved.
Beyond Good and Evil: Children, Media & Violent Times (2003) Looks at how the portrayal by politicians, cartoons, and comic books of a cosmic battle between good and evil resolved by violence teaches children to dehumanize the enemy, justify their killing and condone the deaths of innocent civilians as collateral damage.
Black Robe (1991) Story of a Jesuit priest who travels across 17th century North America to bring Christianity to the Hurons.
Bonhoffer: Agent of Grace (2000) A bio-pic of the German Christian theologian who helped Jews escape Germany, was active in the anti-Nazi resistance, and was executed for plotting the overthrow of Nazism.
Still from But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)
But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) The story of a high school cheerleader who, when discovering that she hates kissing her boyfriend, concludes with her parents that she is a lesbian, prompting them to send her to camp to be rehabilitated.
Citizen Ruth (1996) The portrayal of a poor, young, pregnant White woman delivered by the criminal justice system into the hands of anti-abortion and pro-choice forces.
Cloud Atlas (2012) An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
The Color Purple (1985) A poor Black young woman fights for her self-esteem when she is separated from her sister and forced into a brutal marriage.
Still from The Color Purple (1985)Constantine’s Sword (2008) James Carroll, the author of the book by the same name, takes the viewer through a history Christian anti-Semitism and ties that history to current fundamentalism in U.S. foreign policy.
Contradiction: A Question of Faith (2013) Jeremiah Camara travels the country examining the paradox of Black neighborhoods saturated with churches in the midst of poverty, deprivation and despondency to find if there is a correlation between high-praise and low-productivity.
The Crucible (1957) Film version of Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials in colonial New England.
Departures (2008) An unemployed Japanese cellist moves back to his village of origin to become a funeral profession, becoming a gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed.
Elisabeth of Berlin (2008) The story of a Christian woman who was one of the only voices of resistance to the Nazis in the church.
Even the Rain (2010) When a Spanish film crew comes to Bolivia to shoot a film about Columbus because it is cheap they become involved in the Indigenous communities struggle over control of the city’s water system.
Still from Even the Rain (2010)
Follow Me Home (1996) Four young people of color drive across the country to paint a mural on the white house.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007) A compassionate and insightful documentary about the contemporary face of the conflict between Christian fundamentalists and lesbians and gays.
Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action (2008) Looks at the burgeoning movement of spiritual activism around the planet, and the powerful personalities who are igniting it.
Full Circle (1993) Explores contemporary manifestations of women’s spirituality in the western world.
Gandhi (1982) The life of the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolt against the British rule through his philosophy of nonviolent protest.
God Loves Uganda (2013) An account of the American Evangelicals’ attempts to export their anti-gay beliefs in Uganda.
Still from God Loves Uganda (2013)
God on Our Side (2010) A look at the impact of Christian Zionism on the Middle East, particularly in Palestine/Israel.
Goddess Remembered (1989) documents ancient women-centered spirituality, linking the loss of these societies to current environmental crises.
The Golden Compass (2007) An orphaned girl lives in a mighty fantastical parallel universe in which a dogmatic theocracy called the Magisterium threatens to dominate the world. When her friend is kidnapped, she travels to the far North in an attempt to rescue him and rejoin her uncle.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) In a future dystopia and rightwing religious tyranny, a young woman is forced into sexual slavery on account of her now rare fertility.
Still from The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
Heart of the Beholder (2005) Based on the true story of a family who opened the first videocassette rental stores in St. Louis but were subsequently ruined by a corrupt prosecutor who had been blackmailed by a religious group because the family refused to remove Martin Scorsese’s controversial film, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” from their stores.
Hearts Divided: Baptism and the Jews in the Third Reich also released as
Storm Troopers Of Christ (2008) During the Third Reich, German Jews to be sent to concentration camps and death camps were parsed from “Aryan” Germans mainly through their presumed racial heritage – as attested to, on their baptismal certificates, by their pastors. Simply by definition, people without baptismal records were in an “illegal” category amounting to state-imposed Christianity.
Hopi: Songs of the fourth World (1983) A documentary on the function of art and religion in Hopi culture and everyday life based on the symbolic planting and growing cycle of corn.
In God We Teach (2011) The story of a Kearny (NJ) high school student who secretly recorded his history teacher in class, and accused him of proselytizing. When the story hit The New York Times all hell broke loose.
In the Light of Reverence (2001) Tells the story of three indigenous communities and the sacred lands they struggle to protect: the Lakota of the Great Plains, the Hopi of the Four Corners area, and the Winnemem Wintu of northern California.
Inherit the Wind (1960) A defense attorney defends a schoolteacher for teaching about evolution in a small religious town.
Iron Jawed Angels (2004) Alice Paul and the women of the 1917 Women’s Suffrage movement fight for future generations right to vote and run for office.
Jesus Camp (2006) A documentary on kids who attend a summer camp hoping to become the next Billy Graham.
Jimmy’s Hall (2014) During the Depression, Jimmy Gralton returns home to Ireland from the US. Seeing the levels of poverty and oppression, the activist in him reawakens and he looks to re-open the dance hall that led to his deportation but he meets resistance from church and state.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) A collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity and the relationship between them.
La Ultima Cena (1976) a pious plantation owner during Cuba’s Spanish colonial period decides to recreate the Biblical Last Supper using twelve of the slaves working in his sugarcane fields, hoping to thus teach the slaves about Christianity.
Lagaan (2001) The people of a small village in Victorian India stake their future on a game of cricket against their ruthless British rulers.
The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today (2010) Tells the story of the case that established the separation between religion and public schools.
The Magdalene Sisters (2002) Three young Irish women struggle to maintain their spirits while they endure dehumanizing abuse as inmates of a Magdalene Sisters Asylum.
The Matrix (1999) and sequels. A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. Heavily Christian themed savior story.
Still from The Matrix (1999)
Milagro Beanfield War (1988) Members of a small New Mexico town organize to oppose land development and save their water rights.
The Mission (1986) A Jesuit priest in 18th century Brazil tries to fight against the Portuguese slave trade.
Narnia (2005) and sequels. Four kids travel through a wardrobe to the land of Narnia and learn of their destiny to free it with the guidance of a Christ-like mystical lion.
The Nasty Girl (1990) A docudrama about a bright young German high school student who uncovers the Nazi collaboration of her fellow townspeople and faces their wrath.
Older Than America (2008) A woman’s haunting visions reveal a Catholic priest’s sinister plot to silence her mother from speaking the truth about the atrocities that took place at her Native American boarding school.
The Only Good Indian (2009) Set in Kansas during the early 1900s, a teen-aged Native American boy is taken from his family and forced to attend a distant Indian “training” school to assimilate into White society.
Our Spirits Don’t Speak English (2008) This documentary gives a voice to the countless Indian children forced through the boarding school system of the US government.
Still from Our Spirits Don’t Speak English (2008)
Philomena (2013) An Irish woman has her baby adopted out without her knowledge by the Abbey she lived in in the early 1950s and then decades later goes searching for her child.
Pilgrim’s Progress (2008) An allegory of the life of a believer on a journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.
Princess Monozuke (1997) Complex, non-eurocentric, non-binary story about power, violence, and ecological destruction and renewal.
Prisoner’s of a White God (2008) This documentary explicitly reveals undercover work of missionary agencies and individuals in the destruction of an ethnic group, the Akha people of South East Asia under the guise of bringing aid and salvation.
Quilombo (1984) Palmares is a 17th-century quilombo, a settlement of escaped slaves in northeast Brazil. This is the story of their culture and their resistance to Portuguese attacks.
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) Three young native women are kidnapped by the Australian government and sent to boarding school but they escape and travel across Australia to return home.
Red Hook Summer (2012) A middle-class boy from Atlanta finds his worldview changed as he spends the summer with his deeply religious grandfather in the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Still from Red Hook Summer (2012)
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006) The film explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in US history, and why they matter so much today.
The Revisionaries (2012) The theory of evolution and a re-write of American history are caught in the crosshairs when an unabashed Creationist seeks re-election as chairman of America’s most influential Board of Education.
Romero (1989) A biography of the Salvadoran Archbishop who stood up for the poor against the ruling class and military.
Roots (1977) mini-series. A dramatization of author Alex Haley’s family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte’s enslavement to his descendants’ liberation.
The Ruling Class (1972) A satire of the British upper class about an earl who believes he is Jesus Christ.
Still from The Ruling Class (1972)
Saladin or El Naser Salah el Dine (1963) Story of how Saladdin, leader of the Muslim forces defeats the Crusaders and then subsequently faces another Christian crusade to retake Jerusalem.
Samsara (2011) A nonverbal, guided meditation, through powerful images the film illuminates the links between humanity and the rest of nature, showing how our life cycle mirrors the rhythm of the planet.
Sankofa (1993) A Black American fashion model on a photo shoot in Africa is spiritually transported back to a plantation in the West Indies where she experiences first-hand the physical and psychic horrors of chattel slavery, and eventually the redemptive power of community and rebellion as she becomes a member of a freedom-seeking Maroon colony.
Saved! (2004) When a girl attending a Christian high school becomes pregnant, she finds herself ostracized and demonized, as all of her former friends turn on her. She re-establishes community with the other outcasts at the school.
Scared Sacred (2004) Visiting the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, the director unearths unforgettable stories of survival, ritual, and recovery.
The Scarlet Letter (1979 or 1995) Adaptation of Nathanial Hawthorne’s story of a young puritan woman who commits adultery and the reverend who is the baby’s father.
School Ties (1992) A story about what happens when Christian private school classmates find out that the football star on campus is Jewish.
Still from School Ties (1992)
Selling God (2009) a satirical perspective on the many absurdities that arise when the contemporary Evangelical movement collides with popular culture.
The Smith Family (2002) chronicles one family’s struggle to endure the physical and emotional trauma surrounding the death of a husband, father and pillar of the Mormon community. The wife’s life is shattered by the revelation of her husband’s homosexual infidelity, her resulting HIV infection, and condemnation by the church.
Spotlight (2015) Docudrama about how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) On an isolated lake, an old monk lives on a small floating temple. The wise master has also a young boy with him who learns to become a monk. And we watch as seasons and years pass by.
Standing on Sacred Ground (2013) 8 part series. With ancient wisdom and modern courage, threatened indigenous cultures around the world protect their sacred lands for future generations from corporations, Christian groups, and government takeovers. The films expose threats to native peoples’ health, livelihood and cultural survival and highlights their struggles to defend their human rights and restore the environment in their sacred places.
The Tailenders (2005) Documents the efforts of the missionary group Global Recordings Network to use low-tech audio devices to evangelize indigenous communities facing economic crises caused by globalization (New Day Films)
Theologians Under Hitler (2005) Introduces the viewer to three of the greatest Christian scholars of the twentieth century, men who were also outspoken supporters of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Unrepentent (2006) A documentary about the genocide of First Nations People in Canada and the coverup by the churches and the government.
When the Moors Ruled in Europe (2005) The eighth century Muslim invasion of the Iberian Pennisula was largely welcomed by the locals and rejuvenated the area with advanced technology, agriculture and a construction boom. This program describes these innovations and the subsequent period of war between Moors and Christians.
Still from When the Moors Rules Europe (2005)
Where the Spirit Lives (1989) A young Native Canadian fights to keep her culture and identity when she is abducted to a residential school.
Waiting for Armageddon (2009) America’s 50-million strong Evangelical community is convinced that the world’s future is foretold in Biblical prophecy – from the Rapture to the Battle of Armageddon. This film explores their world and looks at the politically powerful alliance between Evangelical Christians and Israel.
Pope Francis and Father Junipero Serra: Sanctifying slavery and genocide
In Washington, DC. on September 23, 2015 Pope Francis canonized Father Junipero Serra as a saint. At the same time, outside of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores I stood with approximately 100 Native Americans and their allies gathered for a protest and prayer vigil to decry the Pope’s canonization of Serra. We stood for the fifty different tribes in California who have condemned the sainthood being conferred that day.
Despite the rosy image painted by the Catholic Church to cover up his reign of terror, Father Serra was a key figure in the destruction of Native communities from Baja to Northern California. He carried out the church’s policies established in the Papal Bulls of the 15th century (the Doctrine of Discovery) that gave Christian colonizers divine permission to dispossess, enslave, rape and kill anyone who resisted their efforts to claim land and resources and establish Christianity.
Father Junipero Serra, traveling north from Mexico with the Spanish Army, established a series of missions in which the military imprisoned Indigenous peoples. The missions were concentration camps. Soldiers indiscriminately rounded up Indians and brought them to the missions where they were enslaved, whipped, and tortured. Large numbers died, many from diseases that they were vulnerable to because of harsh working conditions, constant punishment, malnourishment, crowded and filthy living conditions, and being cut off from community and culture. So many were starved or worked to death that the priests continually complained they did not have enough workers to grow food. Spanish soldiers raped Native women; children were separated from their parents; people were not allowed to speak their native languages, wear indigenous clothes, practice their cultural rituals, or to leave. Running away was brutally punished—sometimes by Serra himself. Tens of thousands were killed as a result of this military/church alliance that exterminated entire Native peoples and cultures. “The Native American population of coastal California was reduced by some 90% during seventy years under the sole proprietorship of Serra’s mission system.” Some of the soldiers and priests involved with the mission were so appalled by the level of violence that they spoke out against it. According to historian Alvin Josephy, what happened in California “was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent.” Over 150,000 California Indians died under this system that Junípero Serra developed and supervised. As just one example among hundreds, at the beginning of the mission period, from Monterey to San Francisco there were 30,000 Ohlone Indians. At the end of the mission period, there were less than 100.
These are not claims or allegations—there is ample documentation by native peoples and by the church itself about what happened, although the Catholic Church continues to justify the canonization of Father Serra. And now this man, who referred to Indians as savages and celebrated the deaths of Indian children as harvests for God, has been declared a saint by the Catholic Church. This is the same Father Serra who collaborated with the Inquisition and at one time was an inquisitor himself. The same Father Serra whom Pope John Paul II beatified in 1988 describing him as “…. a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit.” Father Serra was indeed a perfect example of the missionary spirit that has pervaded the Catholic Church for centuries leaving an ongoing legacy of death and devastation throughout the world. To canonize this man is not only to bless his memory and hold him up for adulation but also to continue the history of lies, omissions, and disinformation by the church about its complicity with genocide and to reinforce its refusal to take accountability for past and current missionary practices.
Pope Francis has garnered much praise for his speeches on climate change and poverty, but his actions have yet to match his rhetoric. He has not made changes in the church under his control. As far as we know, he has neither divested nor supported divestment of the church’s assets from fossil fuel companies. He has not returned land to indigenous people nor opened up the coffers of the church to the poor. He has not pursued reparations for those sexually abused by Catholic priests or opened up Church records about the abusers. In fact he continues to protect them and allow some of them access to children. He continues to deny women’s reproductive rights and allows the weight of the Catholic empire to fight against the complete access to health care, including reproductive rights that women and people who are LGBTTQ have a right to. In his canonization of Father Serra, Pope Francis has issued a slap in the face to indigenous people throughout the world, supporting not only the church’s historical leading role in genocide against them, but contributing to their ongoing colonization. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
Castillo, Elias. A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. Craven Street Books, 2014
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2015.
Fogel, Daniel. Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology. ISM, 1988
Miranda, Deborah A. Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday, 2013.
Tinker, George E. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Fortress, 1993.
Unsettling Minnesota Collective. Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality. Unsettling Minnesota Collective, 2009.
West, Naida. The Eye of the Bear. Bridge House Books, 2001.
The Royal Road, 2015
 “Pope Francis canonizes controversial saint Serra,” by Daniel Burke, CNN 9-23-15. Viewed at http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/23/us/pope-junipero-serra-canonization/index.html on 9-27-15. Many of these tribes are scattered remnants, have little to no land, and are denied federal recognition because the Mission system was so effective in decimating their ranks, stealing their land, and destroying their culture that they cannot “prove” that they exist by federal standards.
 George E. Tinker. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Fortress, 1993, p. 5.
 “Native Groups Protest Pope Francis’ Canonization of Junípero Serra Over Role in California Genocide,” by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now! 9-23-15. Viewed at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32936-native-groups-protest-pope-francis-canonization-of-junipero-serra-over-role-in-california-genocide on 9-27-15.
 The last padre presidente said, “We are going to be judged very harshly. All we have done was consecrate, baptize and bury the Indians. There are no Indians along the coast of California. We have killed – they’re all dead.” “Native Groups Protest Pope Francis’ Canonization of Junípero Serra Over Role in California Genocide,” by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now! 9-23-15. Viewed at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32936-native-groups-protest-pope-francis-canonization-of-junipero-serra-over-role-in-california-genocide on 9-27-15.
 Daniel Fogel. Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology. ISM, 1988, p. 69.
 “Denouncing Serra Canonization, Mother and Son ‘Walk for the Ancestors’:
650-mile journey of remembrance will stop at each of California’s 21 missions,” by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 9-23-15. Viewed on 9-27-15 at http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/09/23/denouncing-serra-canonization-mother-and-son-walk-ancestors?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=email_this&utm_source=email.
 “A year long investigation by the Global Post, found that the Church has allowed priests accused of sexually abusing children in the United States and Europe to relocate to poor parishes in South America.” “Looking Beyond the Francis Frenzy” by Frederick Clarkson, Talk to Action, 9-22-15. Viewed at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2015/9/22/23847/5754 on 9-27-15.
The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
We live on the Earth as part of a vast, interdependent web of life. But dominant Christianity sees the Earth not as sacred but as something to be ruled over as God commanded—i.e. discovered, occupied and made productive. This article describes some of the direct results of the Christian belief in God-sanctioned dominion.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This section of Scripture is known as the Great Commission. As the last recorded personal directive of Jesus to his disciples, it holds great significance to all his followers. It is the theological foundation for Christian evangelism, Crusades, and the Doctrine of Discovery. Christians have read this statement as God’s mandate to convert the world to Christianity so that the millennium could begin.
Many Native Americans, when speaking about Western civilization, Christianity and colonization, will immediately name the Doctrine of Discovery as the root of the colonization, dispossession and genocide they have experienced from the western colonial powers throughout the Americas. The roots of the Doctrine of Discovery lie in the two biblical quotes above but it took a long time to coalesce into official western Christian policy.
The Doctrine of Discovery
The Doctrine of Discovery, formalized in the Papal Bulls of the 13th and 14th centuries, specified that the entire world was under the jurisdiction of the Pope, as God’s representative on earth. Any land not Christianized, i.e. not under the sovereignty of a Christian ruler, could be possessed on behalf of God. All time and space was considered empty until Christians arrived with God’s truth; until then it was Terra Nullius. Previously it existed in a dark, wild and timeless existence of absolutely no significance.
In 1455 (Romanus Pontifex ) and then again in 1493 (Inter Caetera ) the Pope, claiming dominion over the entire world, issued statements which gave European rulers the sanction to colonize all of the non-Christian world. Speaking as God’s representative on earth, the popes anointed these rulers and their representatives as sanctified conquerors of anything they discovered not already claimed by Christian rulers. The Bulls gave Columbus, Cortez, Pizarro, Cook, Hudson and the rest both legal and moral license to do whatever they wanted to the people and lands they encountered, including dispossession, enslavement, and murder. They were granted
“free and ample faculty…to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit. Romanus Pontifex, 1455
US legal doctrine is based on the Doctrine of Discovery. For example, in the 1835 Tennessee Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Forman, the court ruled:
The principle declared in the fifteenth century as the law of Christendom that discovery gave title to assume sovereignty over, and to govern the unconverted natives of Africa, Asia, and North and South America, has been recognized as a part of the national law, for nearly four centuries.
The Doctrine of Discovery remains a major tenant of our legal system referred to by recent US Supreme Court Justices citing John Marshall’s Supreme Court Johnson v. M’Intosh decision in 1832. According to Chief Justice Marshall the United States, upon winning its independence in 1776, became a successor nation to the right of ‘discovery’ and acquired the power of dominion from Great Britain. Therefore all Native American land claims were null and void. As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in rejecting land-claims by the Oneidas, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee. Robert Miller, Native American professor of law, has written, “… The deed to almost all real estate in the United States originates from an Indian title that was acquired by the United States via Discovery principles.”
Native peoples in the Americas are still fighting to resist western colonialism and reclaim their land and sovereignty. The Doctrine of Discovery still stands in their way. And the entitlement, arrogance, and righteousness it is based on is evident in the common use of the word discovery in this colonizing sense. People discover new restaurants, bars and hotspots. They discover other people’s rituals, sacred texts or sites, music or art and then feel entitled to possess them. They discover new neighborhoods with inexpensive prices and move in. This contemporary doctrine of discovery, labeled gentrification, carries a presumption of entitlement to invasion and possession just from the fact people now recognize something they were previously unaware of. They often don’t see or are oblivious to the prior residents of a neighborhood (or they may be seen as a nuisance to avoid or get rid of just at Native Americans have been). The privacy, sovereignty and rights of the people whose space they are invading are disregarded as they appropriate land, culture or spiritual practices.
Colonization: Crusades in the “New” World
Another root of the Doctrine of Discovery lie in the Crusades, a long series of religious wars spanning a period of 600 years (1095 to 1699) that have left a deep mark on western thinking. When Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade to compel Christians to conquer Jerusalem, a land settled and ruled by Muslims for centuries, his imperial battle cry was “God wills this!” (Deus hoc vult!). As Christians remodeled a theological edifice built on Jewish foundations, they adapted the concept of the Chosen People for themselves and claimed the Promised Land to be anywhere they settled, providing a convenient justification for the conquest and enslavement of other peoples.
By the end of the Middle Ages the word “crusade” had come to refer to all wars undertaken on God’s behalf. Crusading – God commanding Christians to wage pre-emptive war – became a controlling idea. Because people must be evil (controlled by the Devil) to oppose the will of God, the non-Christian enemy was always deemed intractable and had to be exterminated for the safety of the community. Any people judged barbarian, not living by civilized (i.e. Christian) standards, were subject to colonization for the same reasons. The white Christian man’s burden was to colonize in order to save every human being in the world.
The Conquistadores, who went forth to discover “new” (non Christian-ruled) lands considered themselves to be soldiers of the cross on holy crusades. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortez all wore the cross on their breast, on their sails and, besides their commercial goals, hoped to attack Islamic rulers from the rear by circumnavigating Africa or reaching Asia. The popes strongly encouraged these expeditions.43
Columbus’ ships were named the Nina (baby Jesus), the Pinta and the Santa Maria (holy Mary); he called the first two islands he came upon San Salvador (holy savior) and Santa Maria de Concepcion (Saint Mary of the Virgin Birth). On every island he placed a tall cross “as a sign that the land belongs to your Highnesses and especially as a sign of Jesus Christ and the honor of Christianity.”44
The Spanish, including Columbus, did not use the word conquer, much less invade. All pronouncements and laws issued by the throne used discover and pacify, even when referring to armed intervention.
Religious repression was even harsher for those indigenous peoples who were able to organize serious resistance. Idols were destroyed, temples burned and those who celebrated Native rites were punished by death; festivities such as banquets, songs and dances, as well as artistic and intellectual activities (painting, sculpture, observations of stars, hieroglyphic writing) – all suspected of being inspired by the devil – were forbidden, and those who took part in them mercilessly hunted down and enslaved or murdered.
Through this long, violent period of consolidation of control over much of Europe, Africa and the Americas, the rationale for conquest slowly secularized. At first, people were attacked because they were not Christian. Then, they were attacked because they were not reasonable, because any reasonable person would be a Christian. Finally, they were attacked because they were not civilized, because any civilized society would embrace Christianity and Christians’ attempt to civilize them.
Protestants colonizers were no different than Catholic ones. For example, the Puritan patent (charter) for land from the Massachusetts Bay Company stated explicitly:
The principall Ende of this Plantacion is to Wynn and incite the natives of [the] country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Savior of Mankind, and the Christian Fayth.
Legislation passed in 1644 outlawed the practice of Native religion and committed the entire colony to the missionary effort.
Manifest destiny was the continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery adapted to the needs of 19th century US colonial aspirations.
The 1840s was a time of tremendous transformation in the US. With the opening of the Oregon Trail, the Mexican-American War, and the gold rush in California, much of the public’s attention was on western expansion. Many white Americans were eager to take more land from Native Americans, establish new territories and states, and increase their economic and political power. Popularized in 1845 by influential journalist John L. O’Sullivan, the term “Manifest Destiny” became a national rallying cry for proponents of further westward colonization. It captured and consolidated longstanding concepts from the Crusades and the Papal-sanctioned colonization process such as holy war, divine sanction, chosen people, promised land, terra nullis, and the proselytizing and conversion of heathens. As originally used in the US, Manifest Destiny was the idea that God had given the United States a mission to expand their territory throughout North America.
Three basic ideas underlie the concept of manifest destiny. First is a belief in the righteousness and superiority of the Christian moral values and institutions of the United States. The second is a belief in the responsibility of the U.S. to spread these for the benefit of the world and to fulfill God’s wishes. The third is the faith that God has blessed the country to succeed and every success confirms that blessing.
The US Homestead Act of 1862 continued and quickened the long-term appropriation of indigenous land and its distribution to white Christian settlers. The Act, which continued in force until 1976, distributed 270,000,000 acres – about 10% of the land in the US. This Native American land was given for free, in 160-acre allotments, to any white person who built a house, fence, and well on the land and tilled at least 10 acres of it. Though legally open to anyone who filed the papers and made the required improvements, few white women, free blacks, Jews or others who were not white Christian men were allowed to gain homestead status.
The term Manifest Destiny was revived in the 1890s as a justification for US international expansion. By the end of the 19th century, most white Christians in the US held the commonsense belief that their country had a mandate from God to spread Christianity not only over remaining Native American lands, but also anywhere in the world not already Christian-controlled. And most felt, in addition, those conquered would be better off because of US intervention. After the defeat of Spain, the US invaded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and claimed them as colonies under this worldview.
Continuing this legacy, Henry Luce, enormously influential publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote a 1941 editorial titled “The American Century” declaring that the US “was destined to be the Good Samaritan and the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice.” Luce argued the United States had, “the right to go with our ships and ocean-going airplanes, however we wish, when we wish, and as we wish.”8
Today Christian imperialism is visible at every level of US foreign policy from the concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil to a belief in our Manifest Destiny to bring various kinds of salvation to benighted peoples. As religious historian Andrew Preston has extensively documented,
“American foreign relations retained core features developed early on … not merely over decades but down through the centuries. In the American context, this has often meant waging war in the name of God, or at least in the name of serving him and fulfilling his will. This is familiar rhetoric in the history of American exceptionalism: the stuff of providence, manifest destiny, a New Jerusalem, and a shining city upon a hill.” 
Commonly paired with the phrase “manifest destiny” and with the same roots in the Crusades and the Papal Doctrine of Discovery, American exceptionalism has been described as “a pervasive faith in the uniqueness, immutability, and superiority of the country’s founding liberal principles, accompanied by a conviction that the United States has a special destiny among nations.”
Today this missionary zeal is still linked with what the US considers its responsibility to bring US-defined modernity, democracy and most recently, free markets, human rights, civil society, and humanitarian intervention to other peoples – almost always against their will and with the use of overpowering force. Those who lose in struggle with us (the Russians or Saddam Hussein) are confirmed as evil, and our every victory is taken as a sign of divine providence and the country’s exceptional goodness.
Of course, if a government sees itself as anointed by God and carrying out God’s mandate, then there is no moral or legal standard it need accept about its actual behavior. As cultural historian Robert Jewett has noted, this leads to “a problematic sense of innocence, moral superiority, and entitlement … [because] … If you believe you are already virtuous, you feel automatically entitled to reform others.”
There is no end of statements from our most powerful leaders confirming that manifest destiny, American exceptionalism and millennial beliefs are foundations of US foreign policy. In 2003, US General Boykin, who, while in uniform, gave talks at churches around the country, declared that in his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” and that George Bush is “in the White House because God put him there.”18 President Obama regularly emphasizes the belief that the United States is an exceptional, God-blessed country. In a national address on Syria on September 10, 2013 for example, he said,
Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman… But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
US domestic and foreign policy is an extension of a thousand years of Christian holy wars against Muslims, heathens, heretics, indigenous peoples, Jews, and others. These wars were carried out by military forces, “explorers,” traders, missionaries, settlers, law makers, court officials, and individuals imbued with the belief that they owned what they “discovered” and it was their God-given right to grab anything and everything that those who are inferior possessed. The doctrine of discovery is still used by law makers and judges to deny indigenous peoples rights to their lands, manifest destiny is still used to justify “humanitarian” invasions of other countries to bring them if not explicitly Christianity, then such benefits of our superior Christian society as freedom from “evil” dictators, democracy, free markets, material aid, and human rights. American exceptionalism is still the oft-used phrase to remind us that we should be unconstrained by international law because anything we do is blessed by God and therefore, by definition, beneficial and above critique.
Native peoples have been working for centuries to defend themselves against attack and dispossession justified by the Doctrine of Discovery. They are demanding that the US adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which explicitly repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery. Recently some faith-based groups in the US have stepped up to support their efforts and to support local sovereignty struggles. The Episcopalians (2009), Quakers, (Pennsylvania, 2009), Anglicans (Canada, 2010), the Unitarian Universalists (2012), and the World Council of Churches (2012) have passed resolutions rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on their congregations and members to work with local Native American groups on issues of land and sovereignty.
There are many ways to resist Christian Hegemony. Working in solidarity with indigenous groups to reject the Doctrine of Discovery, working to stop all wars, invasions, and interventions justified by the concept of manifest destiny, and rejecting all attempts to circumvent international law and human rights based on beliefs in American exceptionalism are necessary and useful ways for every one of us to get involved.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2014.
Kivel, Paul. Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony. New Society, 2013
Miller, Robert J. Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Miller, Robert J. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Newcomb, Steven T. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Fulcrum Publishing, 2008.
Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. Hill and Wang, 1996.
Williams, Robert A., Jr. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Christian Resolutions rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery
The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code (2015) directed by Sheldon Wolfchild
“Indigenous Reflections on Christianity” available at https://christianhegemony.org/resources. Viewed on 7-8-15.
Professor Robert Miller: The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny
Viewed on 7-8-15.
Chief Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery Viewed on 7-8-15.
Discovered? Or Stolen! Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery Viewed on 7-8-15.
The Doctrine of Discovery: True Story of the Colonization of the United States of America (UU educational video). Viewed on 7-14-15.
 Genesis 1:28, King James Version.
 Matthew 28:18-20, New International Version.
 Native American legal scholar and activist Steven Newcomb refers to it as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.
 See, for example, “Indigenous Reflections on Christianity” available at https://christianhegemony.org/resources.
 Land belonging to nobody or “no-man’s land.” The concept of empty land parallels that of static time. Only Christians could bring progress (advancement in time) through development (advancement in space).
 Robert J. Miller. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska, 2008, p. 4.
 Emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 “NY Tribes In Decades-long Battle With Gov. Cuomo, Lawyers For Rights To Their Land” by Chrstine Graef, 9-3-14. http://www.mintpressnews.com/ny-tribes-in-decades-long-battle-with-gov-cuomo-lawyers-for-rights-to-their-land/195998/. Viewed on 7-11-15.
 Robert J. Miller. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska, 2008, p. 6.
 Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. 2nd ed. Anchor, 2001 p. 67.
 Claude Baudez and Sydney Picasso. Lost Cities of the Mayas. Abrams, 1992, p. 21 quoted in Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Autonomedia, 2004 , p. 226.
 George E. Tinker. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Fortress, 1993, p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Homesteading continued in Alaska until 1986.
 The appropriation of indigenous land continues today throughout the Americas.
 Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. Anchor, 2012. p. 7-8.
 Deepa Kumar. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket, 2012, p. 114.
 Robert Jewett. Mission and Menace. Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal. Fortress, 2008. p. 101.
 Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Common Dreams http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/09/11. Viewed on 7-8-15.
Atheists in the United States
I recently returned from the 2015 American Atheists National Convention. Atheists now comprise about 28 million people or 11% of the U.S. adult population (among 18-29 year-olds it’s 17%) and they are steadily gaining new members. This vast national constituency is complex, diverse and on the front lines in the fight for the separation of church and state and for the rights of those who are not religious (secularists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, etc) or who are under attack from Christian institutions such as women and those who are LGBTTQ and trans. These struggles create more space for all of us to be less dominated by Christianity in our lives and communities. Besides a range of community building work for their constituencies, atheist organizations engage in a wide variety of political advocacy including billboards, press interviews, debates, lawsuits, rallies, protests, and social media campaigns such as #AtheistVoter.
Atheists, like other groups who are not Christian, face constant discrimination, marginalization, harassment and attack. At the conference I heard many accounts of such marginalization and attacks from Christians. These are experienced not just by people who live in the South (where we were—in Memphis, TN in the buckle of the Bible Belt and on Easter weekend no less) or Midwest, but also by folks in rural areas and large cities across the country. I did not have to convince anyone at the conference that Christian Hegemony is harmful and dangerous – and conference goers were very interested in the Christian Hegemony Project and my book “Living in the Shadow of the Cross.”
Below are some resources for finding out more about Atheism and the Atheist community.
Some of the major organizations
Center for Inquiry (publisher of Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines)
Dogma Debate (radio podcasts)
Books about Atheism
Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America
Hecht, Jennifer. Doubt—A History
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
Paul Kivel is the director of the Christian Hegemony Project and author of Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony (New Society, 2013). He can be reached at https://christianhegemony.org/contact-us.
The Impact of Catholic Hospitals on Women’s Reproductive Rights
At a time of widespread media coverage attacks on women’s reproductive rights by state legislatures, a less noted source of such attacks are Catholic hospitals – which are expanding their reach and adopting policies that deny ever increasing numbers of women access to reproductive justice. Except for for-profit hospitals which are growing at an even faster clip, Catholic-sponsored and -affiliated hospitals are buying up, or merging with, other hospitals during a period when the number of secular non-profit, public, and non-Catholic religious hospitals are declining significantly. According to a December 2013 report, “Miscarriage of Medicine: The Growth of Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Reproductive Health Care,” authored by MergerWatch and the ACLU, the number of Catholic hospitals has increased by 16 percent between 2001 and 2011 – and now account for 10 of the 25 largest health-care networks in the U.S. Since the report was published, the two largest Catholic health hospital networks, Ascension Health and Catholic Health Care Initiatives, have grown by another 30 percent or more according to one of the report’s authors.
These hospitals are accountable to the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) issued by The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which govern medical care at all Catholic Hospitals and influence care at their affiliates. Journalist Nina Martin at Propublica reports:
“The directives ban elective abortion, sterilization, and birth control and restrict fertility treatments, genetic testing, and end-of-life options. They may also be interpreted to limit crisis care for women suffering miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, emergency contraception for sexual assault, and even the ability of doctors and nurses to discuss treatment options or make referrals.”
The impact of these policies on women and their families, especially on poor women, young women, women of color, and women in rural areas is most acute in areas where a Catholic hospital is the sole or most affordable provider of health care. Catholic provided health care is heavily subsidized by public (our) money. For example, Catholic hospitals took in $115 billion in gross patient revenues from Medicare and Medicaid in 2011.
Catholic hospitals were originally established by nuns and monks to minister to the poor – Catholic dominance in health care delivery is often justified by the contention that it is a community service and much charitable care is provided for the indigent. However, Catholic provided charitable care is no greater than that provided by secular non-profit or for-profit hospitals (between 2-3%) and is only half of what public hospitals provide (5.6%). “Miscarriage of Medicine” concludes that today Catholic hospitals “…have organized into large systems that behave like businesses — aggressively expanding to capture greater market share — but rely on public funding and use religious doctrine to compromise women’s health care.”
One clear impact of the role of Catholic controlled health care concerns the unwillingness to provide emergency contraception. An extensive survey of emergency rooms at U.S. Catholic hospitals in 2002 by Ibis Reproductive Health found that 55 percent did not provide emergency contraception (EC) even for rape victims, 23 percent provided EC only to rape victims, some with major obstacles like the requirement a police report be filed first. This single area of intrusion of Christian dominance into the provision of medical services has a huge collective impact; it is estimated that the use of emergency contraception could prevent an estimated 1.7 million unintended pregnancies and 800,000 abortions in the U.S. each year.
Another source of attack on women’s reproductive rights comes from the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The Vatican has a complete prohibition on sterilization for the purposes of birth control. The Bishops consider the procedure “intrinsically immoral.” In November 2014, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tightened its rules on partnerships and collaborations between Catholic and non-Catholic health care providers, which has major implications for women in communities across the country. The group is currently considering revising the ERDs to eliminate all birth control related tubal ligations. The CDC calculates that tubal ligations are the second most common form of birth control and an estimated 700,000 are performed in the U.S. every year. Half of those are conducted in hospitals after the birth of a baby.
Catholic hospital systems are not the only major Christian players in the health care arena. In every area – reproductive health, LGBTTQ health access, healthcare worker rights, and end-of-life issues – dominant Christian healthcare institutions continue to restrict people’s rights, to lobby aggressively on the state and national level for roll-backs of women’s health choices, and to attack and further undermine women and their family’s overall health care options.
Kivel, Paul. Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony. New Society, 2013. pp. 157-64.
Martin, Nina. “The Growth of Catholic Hospitals, By the Numbers.” Propublica, December 18, 2013. Viewed at https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/growth-of-catholic-hospitals-2013.pdf on 1-9-15.
Martin, Nina. “U.S. Bishops Take Aim at Sterilization.” Propublica, January 2, 2015. Viewed at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28310-us-bishops-take-aim-at-sterilization on 1-9-15.
Nunn, A., K. Miller, H. Lampert and C. Ellertson. “Contraceptive Emergency: Catholic Hospitals Overwhelmingly Refuse to Provide EC.” Conscience, Vol. 24 #2 (2003), pp. 38-41.
Rodrigues, Isabel, et al. “Effectiveness of Emergency Contraceptive pills Between 72 and 120 Hours After Unprotected Sexual Intercourse.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 184 #4 (March 2001), pp. 531-7.
Uttley, Lois, et al. “Miscarriage of Medicine: The Growth of Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Reproductive Health Care.” ACLU and MergerWatch, December, 2013. Viewed at https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/growth-of-catholic-hospitals-2013.pdf on 1-9-15.
Why Black Lives Haven’t Mattered: The Origins of Western Racism in Christian Hegemony
Dominant Christianity developed categories of people labeled “Other” going back to the year 381 C.E when the Roman Emperor Theodosius declared that Orthodox Christianity would be the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire. At that point all pagans, Jews, and Christian heretics lost their civil rights and became targets of systematic violence. In the succeeding centuries, and especially after the first Crusades, able-bodied and healthy European heterosexual males with wealth developed a sense of themselves as the only fully legitimate Christians. Muslims, Jews, Pagans, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and the poor were relegated to the category of Other—inferior, polluting, dangerous, and capable of being used by the Devil to undermine God’s work in the world.[i] As historian Winthrop Jordan wrote, “Christianity was interwoven into [an Englishman’s] conception of his own nationality…. Being a Christian was not merely a matter of subscribing to certain doctrines; it was a quality inherent in oneself and in one’s society. It was interconnected with all the other attributes of normal and proper men.”[ii] The major division in the west was between legitimate Christians and others.
It was in Spain during the 14th and 15th centuries, because of concern about the sincerity of Jewish and Muslim conversos (former Jews or Muslims who were forced to converted to Catholicism), that the church developed a theory of biological purity defining who was Christian. For example, Marcos Garcia preached in 1449 that:
“All converts who belong to the Jewish race or those who have descended from it – that is, who were born as Jews, or are sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, or great-great-grandsons of Jews who were baptized … including those [converts] who descended newly and recently from that most evil and damned stock, are presumed, according to the testimonies of the Scriptures, to be infidels, and suspect of the faith. From which follows that the vice of infidelity is not presumed to be purged until the fourth generation.”[iii]
The racialization of Jews and Muslims soon became legalized under the concept of limpieza de sangre (blood purity).[iv] Jews and Muslims were believed to be separate races than Christians. Even if they converted, the church claimed the taint of their Jewishness or Muslimness took generations to become diluted and to disappear. The policy of the Spanish crown eventually became the complete elimination of all Jews and Muslims, and even of Christians who had a drop of Jewish or Moorish blood in their veins. It was the task of the Inquisition to turn Spain into a pure Christian society by eliminating all inferior races.
Throughout Europe – not just isolated to Spain – the Inquisition became a popular phenomenon orchestrated and enforced by religious authority and state power and with widespread public participation. Crowds of thousands would turn out for hangings, burnings, beheadings and various forms of torture, much as crowds of white Christians turned out for lynchings in the US centuries later. Many times, mobs would apprehend people accused of heresy and murder them on the spot, sometimes destroying entire communities of Jews.
This theory of blood impurity/racial inferiority was subsequently used to justify the inferior treatment, murder and enslavement of Africans, indigenous peoples in the Western hemisphere. For example, after Bacon’s Rebellion when Virginia decreed in 1667 that converted slaves could be kept in bondage because they had heathen ancestry, the justification for Black servitude changed from religious status to a racialized one.29
A series of Papal Bulls declared that Christian nations were free in law and by divine approval to lay claim to what were called unoccupied lands (terra nullius) or lands belonging to so-called heathens or pagans. Slavery was divinely sanctioned in these statements. Again the intertwined economic and religious motivation is clear. Slavery would be of economic benefit to the colonizers, but this was justified by their responsibility to convert and thereby civilize the enslaved people.
As Africans and Native Americans began to be converted to Christianity, such a simple distinction between Christian and non-Christian was no longer useful – at least as a legal and political difference. In addition, because Europeans, Native Americans and Africans often worked and lived together in similar circumstances of servitude, and resisted and rebelled together against the way they were treated, the landowning class began to implement policies to separate European workers from African and Native-American workers. Even in this early colonial period, racism was used to divide workers and make it easier for those in power to control working conditions. Drawing on already established popular classifications, whiteness, now somewhat separate from Christianity, was delineated more clearly as a legal category in the United States in the 17th century, and the concept of life-long servitude (slavery) was introduced from the West Indies and distinguished from various forms of shorter-term servitude (indenture). In response to Bacon’s rebellion and other uprisings, the ruling class, especially in the populous and dominant territory of Virginia, began to establish a clear racial hierarchy in the1660s and 70s.4 By the 1730s racial divisions were firmly in place legally and socially. Most blacks were enslaved and even free blacks had lost the right to vote, the right to bear arms and the right to bear witness. Blacks were also barred from participating in many trades during this period.
Meanwhile, whites had gained the right to corn, money, a gun, clothing and 50 acres of land at the end of indentureship. In other words, poor whites “gained legal, political, emotional, social, and financial status that was directly related to the concomitant degradation of Indians and Negroes.”[v]
Subsequently, slavery in the US became so widely accepted by Christian institutions, and so deeply intertwined with the economic interests of all whites, that for a long time it was dangerous to challenge. Few white Christians did so.
Some abolitionists used Christian texts to decry slavery, but they were countered by other texts sanctioning it, mostly written by ministers who, by one estimate, wrote nearly half of all pro-slavery tracts published in the US.[vi] Christian denominations, with only a few exceptions, supported slavery or claimed to be neutral.
“La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir 1741” by Anonymous, 18th century
Christianity blessed slavery at every step of the trade. For example, in present-day Ghana,a small church for baptizing Africans before they were taken onto ships was situated above Elmina Castle’s slave pens. Many of the ships had names such as Jesus, Good Ship Jesus, Angel, Grace of God,[vii] Christ the Redeemer, Blessed, John Evangelist, The Lord Our Savior and Trinity.[viii] In the early days of the slave trade the Portuguese branded every woman on her right arm with a cross.[ix] As Frederick Douglas so concisely explained:
“Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealer in the bodies and souls of men … gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.”[x]
Eventually more Christians, including some denominations as a whole, joined the struggle against slavery. But even today, the lack of acknowledgment of and reparations for slavery continues to plague US society and the integrity of dominant Christianity. While slavery ended as a legal system after the Civil War, the enslavement of African-Americans in the US continued by another name, Jim Crow: a system of legal, social and economic bondage violently enforced, most notoriously by chain gangs, white race riots and lynching.
During the post Civil War era incidents of racial violence were sometimes spontaneous actions carried out by small groups of people. However, in the tradition of the Inquisition, more often lynchings were deliberate, organized, public Christian spectacles lasting days or even weeks. Flyers were printed, newspapers advertised them, and thousands attended, bringing families and friends, picnic food, cameras and buying memorabilia and souvenirs. Businesses closed down, public officials and church leaders were present and local police kept order.[xi]
Lynchings, as well as the white riots that murdered African-Americans and destroyed their houses and businesses (especially when they thrived) were a form of collective terrorism occurring periodically throughout the US. Just like witch burnings and Christian riots against Jews centuries earlier, they served to bond white communities to white Christian supremacy, reminding them as well what might happen if they protested its norms.
White Christian men are still in control and state-sponsored and sanctioned racial violence continues today in the form of police murder of African Americans and others, the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, lack of access to health care, educational and work opportunities, land grabs, residential segregation and gentrification, the elimination of communities of color from areas that whites desire to live in. The roots of racial and other forms of exploitation, discrimination, and violence today lie in the centuries of demonization of all those considered Other by dominant Christianity. The assertion that Black Lives Matter by African Americans and their allies is one current and powerful attempt to disrupt business as usual and claim full participation in our society. Now is the time for each of us to challenge this dominant Christian narrative because truly silence equals complicity.
Further resources on Christian hegemony please see christianhegemony.org
Resources on #BlackLivesMatter can be found here.
Social justice books and resources from Paul Kivel can be found at paulkivel.com
[i] For more on the development of Christian concepts of the “Other” see Paul Kivel, Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony (New Society, 2013 pp. 21-3) and Robert Ian Moore. The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Blackwell, 1987.
[ii] Quoted in Ronald Takaki. Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Penguin, 1989, p 47.
[iii] Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. Random House, 1995, pp. 505-6.
[iv] The Strictures of the Purity of Blood was adopted in Spain in 1449 and prefigured various laws defining blackness under slavery and operating in the US until the late 1960s, and also the Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor adopted in 1935. See: Jonathan Kirsch, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God. HarperCollins, 2008. p. 15 and Anouar Majid, We are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and other Minorities. University of Minnesota, 2009. p. 34.
[v] Thandeka. Learning to be White. Continuum, 1999, p. 43.
[vi] Larry E. Tise. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. University of Georgia, 1988, quoted in James A. Haught. Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness. Prometheus, 1990, p. 223.
[vii] Ibid, p. 223.
[viii] Saidya Hartman. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p. 64.
[ix] Ibid, p. 63.
[x] Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Signer, 1968, pp.121-3.
[xi] Max Elbaum. “Washington’s Wars and Occupations: Month in Review #32” War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, December 30, 2007. [online]. [cited March 9, 2013], war-times.org/sites/war-times.org/files/PDFs/MIR/WT%20 MiR-Dec07.pdf. For an excellent detailed description of the history and practice of lynching see: Philip Dray, At the Hands of Person Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. Modern Library, 2003.