The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States

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Eric A. Weed
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , August
     2017.
     176 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498538756.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE.

Eric Weed’s The Religion of White Supremacy is a “theologico-historical” account of the development of white supremacy in what is now the United States. In line with works such as Edward Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Rebecca Goetz’sThe Baptism of Early Virginia (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), and Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), it relates American Christian theology to the political development of race. Stronger when read as theology rather than history, this work leaps rapidly from point-to-point in a 500-year chronology to argue for white supremacy as a “demonic” religion intertwined with white Christianity in the United States. Theologians looking for a text linking majoritarian Protestant interpretations of Christian thought to the history of race in America will find resources here, but scholars trained in religious studies are likely to walk away with more questions than answers about the contours of religious white supremacy. 

Using a conception of religion based in the work of Paul Tillich, in which the primary role of religion is the production of meaning, Weed argues that the “ultimate concern” of much of American culture has historically been the creation and maintenance of white supremacy, apotheosized in a “demonic divine … symbolically manifested in the white Christ” (xix-xxiii). Violent incidents and legal regimes meant to guarantee white supremacy, he argues, can be read as ritual actions in service to this religion, and its system of meaning. 

Weed seeks first to explain how whiteness has been established as an ultimate concern in American culture before discussing the practices that, he argues, result from and reinforce belief in it. The first section of the book elaborates an epistemology, an ontology, and a soteriology of whiteness. By the epistemology of whiteness, Weed means the tendency of Euro-American thought, at least since the 16th century, to position Christianity and European identity as the center from which other kinds of knowledge are judged (4-14). By the ontology of whiteness, Weed means both the foundational importance and the invisibility of whiteness in the American social order. Whiteness, he argues, is presented under this order as a transcendent value by which the personhood of others is judged (18-19). Finally, by the soteriology of whiteness, he means the sense that to be white is already to be saved and to be superior to non-white people, primarily given that white bodies mirror the white body of Christ as depicted in American Christian art (22-33).

The second section of the book elaborates this implicit theology of white supremacy by reviewing key historical moments in the history of race and religion in North America. Drawn from secondary rather than primary sources, the examples used are unlikely to be new to scholars of American religion. Instead, Weed’s contribution is to frame such familiar events as the Valladolid debates of 1550-1551, the United States Naturalization Law of 1790, and the Tulsa race riot of 1921 as results of what he sees as the implicit theology of white supremacy. The epistemology of whiteness, it is argued, allowed “British colonists and their American descendants [to frame] Indianness as simultaneously something to be conquered and revered” (37). As European experiences and history were the epistemic center of American life, America seemed truly to be a “new world” in which a space sacred to whites could be established through warfare, the genocide of Indian removal, and the preservation of symbols of a vanished “Indian” past. The ontology of whiteness, likewise, encouraged efforts to preserve America as a space in which the separateness and superiority of whiteness went unchallenged. Violence against and the exclusion of Black Americans, in this account, preserved that ontological order (85-87). Finally, the soteriology of whiteness encouraged the consolidation of white racial identity, Christianity, and American citizenship so that only those designated as white could be “saved” by full inclusion in the United States. Thanks to this crucial move, discussions of American citizenship from 1790 up to the present often oppose a saved, implicitly white American populace to “heathen,” non-white others (94, 116-117).

While Weed’s arguments are likely to be interesting for theologians, they raise two main problematics for those familiar with religious studies. First, it is not clear that the book’s model of religion is the best for its arguments. Defining religion as orientation toward one’s highest or ultimate belief implies, in this case, that causation begins with an image of the ultimate, and trickles down to the political systems and practices of white supremacism. A model of religion that began from practice, by contrast, would have been a sounder basis from which to argue for the implicit meaning of everyday white supremacy and its entanglement with political and economic realities. Without the regime of race-based slavery, for example, it is difficult to see how the exclusion of Black people would have become such a central concern in white American life. A practice-based model would, furthermore, have allowed for a more flexible discussion of the unreasoning and irrational aspects of white supremacy, rather than a mapping of American racial history onto the author’s categories of epistemology, ontology, and soteriology. It is not clear, for example, how this schematic makes sense of the provisional whiteness of Catholics, Mormons, and Jews of European descent in American history, or of the many complexities of Indigenous and Black Christian identities.

Second, it is unclear what, in this argument, the relationship is between white supremacy and Christianity. At times, it seems that the entire practice of Christianity in America is shot through with white supremacy, and that the two are “inseparable” (xxiv). At other times, the text implies a distinction between the “demonic” (xxiii) or “cultural” (21) Christianity of white supremacy and, presumably, true Christianity unmarked by any other qualifier. Behind this confusion seems to be an unspoken, essentialized notion of Christianity that allows the author to draw—with equal ease—on examples from Spanish Catholic thought, puritan theologies of just war, 19th century “manifest destiny” theologies, and the religious practices of the post-Reconstruction south. Rather than attempting to maintain a general notion of Christianity in America, the argument could have been enriched by closer attention to the specificities of each example used. This would have allowed the book to acknowledge the differences between the forms of Christianity discussed and, therefore, more precisely discuss the common beliefs and practices that gave them a family resemblance to each other and to white supremacy. 

My first thought on reading The Religion of White Supremacy was that it would make a good springboard for discussions of white supremacy in divinity school classrooms. The author visits many of the key moments in US racial history from a theological perspective that students training for Christian ministry would find helpful. Two key facts about the book made me qualify this initial impression, however. The first is the list price. Even in a graduate program, I would be hesitant to assign any book costing this much (list price $90) unless it were the main reader or textbook in the course. The second is the book’s sole illustration: a photograph of a lynching in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. In it, the faces and bodies of the two victims of the lynching—J. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—are clearly visible (71). It is difficult to judge when to use images like this one to discuss the horror of lynching, and when to refrain from using them to allow students a healthy distance from these enormities. In this case, I did not feel that the photograph’s inclusion was necessary for the text’s analysis of the Marion lynch mob as celebrants in a white supremacist ritual, and so would be hesitant to use it in the classroom. Other instructors will, of course, make their own judgments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew W. Doughtery is Flora Jane Baker Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Religion at Queen's University in Kingston, ON.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric A. Weed was awarded his doctorate from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

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