by Craig Martin
Last semester I taught Fay Botham’s Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). I enjoyed teaching the book, and the students reported liking it as well. However, as I organized my lectures on the book, it became clear to me that there might be a tension between two of the book’s central claims. The tension was of interest to me particularly because I think the same tension runs through my own work.
First, the book: Botham looks at legal challenges—some successful, some not—to the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws in the 20th century. Some challenges were made on the basis of the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, which purportedly guaranteed equal protection and due process under the law for all citizens. These challenges typically failed because courts ruled that anti-miscegenation laws did apply fairly to both white and black people: neither a white person nor a black person could inter-racially marry.
However, in 1947 Daniel Marshall came up with a novel legal approach and filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sylvester Davis and Andrea Perez in the state of California. Marshall argued that as Davis and Perez were Catholic, and as marriage is a sacrament in Catholic theology, prohibiting their marriage was actually a violation of their freedom of religion, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. They were successful in their challenge, and the state’s Supreme Court overturned the anti-miscegenation law in 1948.
Along the way Botham explicates the differences between Protestant and Catholic theologies of race and theologies of marriage, and how each ideology contributed to how these things worked themselves out. Botham demonstrates that Marshall’s legal argument would not have worked for Protestants, as Protestants, unlike Catholics, tended to see marriage as primarily a civil rather than a church matter.
Catholic sacramental theology thus raised religious freedom issues in Marshall’s case in a way that Protestant theologies could not (25).
Of particular interest to me was her commentary on how Protestants in the American south read the Bible during and after slavery. During slavery they tended to read the passages in Genesis about Noah’s sons as proof that God had ordained racial differences and had consigned the dark races to slavery. After slavery ended, however, they shied away from the Noah story but nevertheless held on to the tower of Babel story, which they read as implying “that God had created separate and distinct races and intended them to remain that way” (107). So they turned away from the Noah story as a justification for slavery and turned toward the Babel story as a justification for segregation and anti-miscegenation.
And these justifications not only appeared in church—they appeared in legal arguments and judicial rulings.
The Protestant theology of marriage as a civilly regulated matter and a theology of separate races constituted a kind of cultural religion that permeated the hearts and minds of attorneys and judges throughout the courts of the South for a hundred years after the civil war (156).
In fact, this theology or ideology was so much “in the water” in the Protestant south that it was a Catholic judge in the south who penned the infamous line from the title of this book—“almighty God created the races.”
Catholics, by contrast, tended to pry a theology of race out of humanity’s monogenesis in Adam and Eve; if humans were later separated into different racial groups, that was as a result of the fall into sin, and we should be reunited under Christ.
All of this brings Botham to note how incredibly variable interpretations of “foundational” texts can be:
[B]asing one’s beliefs about racial hierarchy or about the constitutionality of segregation, for example, in something as variable as a text—open, as texts are to multiple interpretations—paves the way for the demise of interpretations we sometimes take as ‘certain.’ … [O]ther readers came along and perceived different meanings in the biblical texts that white supremacists claimed as the basis for the separate races theology (178).
Here’s the tension: Botham maintains both that “Christian beliefs were centrally important to the motivations of lawyers and judges on both sides of the contentious issue” (177) and that “Bible readers do, in fact, read their historical context and personal values into their interpretations” (189). The former implies that ideology directs people’s motivations and the latter implies that people’s motivations direct the manipulation of their ideology. Can readings of the Bible be the “basis” of Christian behavior if Christians can make the Bible mean whatever they want it to mean?
I suppose we’re back to the old question of base and superstructure: does our ideology drive our interests or do our interests drive our ideology? It seems clear to me that ideology is in part constitutive of behavior and interests, but also that people retool their ideologies when their behaviors and interests change. Is this a theoretical tension, or just a recognition that the relationship between culture and society is complex?
Either way, Botham’s book is excellent and I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter!