The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century
by forrest g. wood
alfred a. knopf 517 pages, $29.95
I remember one of those 2:00 A.M. college bull sessions that gave a much younger me the beginnings of an education. On that night, we were arguing about Catholicism in Western Civilization: a force for good or evil? One roommate—predictably the son of an angrily lapsed Catholic—pointed to Crusader barbarity and Torquemada’s thumbscrews, which proved the Church’s malign influence. Another—predictably still attending Mass—cited monastic preservation of the classical heritage and papal restraint of feudal warfare, which proved its benignity. Within a year or two, both boys had taken some history courses. They learned the puerility of assigning praise or blame to “Catholicism” for everything done in its name in a culture drenched with it.
A career of teaching history has not yet acquainted Forrest G. Wood with that subtle lesson. The “central thesis” of The Arrogance of Faith, he announces at the book’s outset, “is that Christianity, in the five centuries since its message was first carried to the peoples of the New World . . . has been fundamentally racist in its ideology, organization, and practice.” (It is actually the Christianity in which Wood was raised, conservative Protestantism, that takes most of the lumps.) Wood concedes that racism has infected other religions, but, as it were, incidentally. Christianity’s “dogmatic” character and “missionary spirit” have made it bigoted to the core. “Herein lay the fundamental component of the Christian’s racism: his inherent inability to leave other people alone.”
There is substance in Wood’s premises. Christianity is “intolerant” in the sense that (like its monotheistic relatives, Judaism and Islam) it claims to possess a universal truth superior to the teachings of other religions; and it has spread this doctrine with a missionary zeal perhaps exceeding even Islam’s. But for Wood to draw the conclusions he does from these postulates requires a fudging of distinctions that would make a sophomore blush.
As Wood knows, Christianity formed for Europeans (and Euro-Americans) “a fundamental component of culture.” They used Christian language to discuss everything from childrearing to chilblains; they justified their deeds and misdeeds in Christian terms. It does not follow that every word and deed encased in Christian rhetoric derived from Christianity. Christianity was invoked to rationalize everything from pacifism to holy war. But if we blame both on it, then “Christianity” becomes so vast and shapeless a thing as to lose all substantive meaning and (for an historian) analytic usefulness. Even Wood cannot help noticing Christianity’s “supreme usefulness to people of contrary viewpoints”—including slaveholders and abolitionists.
Yet he ignores the obvious inference. Wood assumes that Christianity somehow produced every racist writer who cited a Christian doctrine or biblical text. At his sloppiest he asserts the genetic link simply by referring to bigots and slaveholders as “Christians.” They were. So were their opponents. Generic vileness or benevolence could speak many tongues. The problem is to distinguish between what Christianity could be bent to say (that is, almost anything) and what its particular doctrines encouraged people to say.
This distinction seems too subtle for Wood. And its consequences would distress him. What beliefs or practices might not have existed, absent Christianity? Previous historians have noted that most cultures justified slavery, while the peculiarity of Christian ones lies in also producing a movement against it. But if Wood were to qualify his brief against Christianity, he would be giving up the sole novelty in a book that otherwise travels well-worn highways.
Indeed, The Arrogance of Faith often reads as if a vacuum cleaner had been run through the vast historical literatures on American race relations and on American religion. Wood has taken notes on a lot of books but not chosen them with much intelligence. A claim for the peculiar depravity of Christianity is necessarily comparative; yet Wood’s acquaintance with other religions (partly excepting African) is thin, his comparisons of them with Christianity sparse and superficial. (He does seem to recognize Islam, with its history of racial slavery and its missionary drive, as a particular problem, around which he stumbles and fumbles a bit.)
And this is hardly the only case where the thinness of his research embarrasses his argument. Biblical interpretation naturally absorbs a lot of ink; but “modern biblical scholars” will be surprised to learn that many of them regard miracle stories as fictions “designed to influence the common folk of an ancient and more simple time”: a view closer to old-fashioned anticlericalism of Thomas Paine’s vintage than modern scholarship even of a radical stripe. Wood rightly devotes much attention to nineteenth-century speculation about racial origins, which rested on the Scottish Enlightenment’s “conjectural history”; yet Henry Home, Lord Kames, a key figure in the tradition on which Wood focuses, and hardly an obscure one, appears here as “Lord Henry Homer Kames” and “Lord Henry Holmer Kames.”
If Wood’s knowledge is limited, his epistemology is downright antediluvian. (Perhaps, dealing with so literal-minded a man as Wood, I should add that I mean that last word metaphorically.) Wood espouses a creaky Victorian positivism, indeed claims it as the only acceptable basis for scholarship. His tilting against the windmills of pluralism will, I fear, in this postmodern age offend radical feminists or the disciples of Derrida much more than the “fundamentalists” (broadly meant) who are his targets. But it is wonderfully nostalgic to see this village atheist still doughtily fighting the Warfare of Science with Religion—and undeniably fun. Few recent books have made me laugh out loud, but this one did, and more than once.
A book so bad that it is funny, however, can have an ill effect. So easy to dismiss is The Arrogance of Faith that Christian readers might dismiss with it the awful history of their churches’ complicity with racism. Conversely, those who claim a Christian descent for the good things in our common life—say, democracy and respect for the individual—need to ask themselves what Wood does not: Are they confusing the common Christian language of European culture with uniquely Christian principles?
James Turner is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.