In light of recent controversies of race, the meaning of race, and racism in the tea party, I am reminded of an excellent book I read last year: Fay Botham’s Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage and American Law. Botham counterposes the legal structure in the American South, based in Protestantism, with the legal structure of the West, based in Catholicism, by looking at two court cases challenging interracial marriage laws: the more familiar Loving v. Virginia and Perez v. Lippold.
What I loved about this book is how Botham looks at the way biblical interpretation, legal history, and the institution of slavery interact to create ever-evolving notions of the “natural” relationship between the races. She’s interested in how “knowledge” is constructed, that is how people come to “know” what they believe they know. Knowledge that seemed unassailable just a generation ago is now obviously wrong to all but the most tone-deaf among us.
Botham shows explicitly how, as American institutionalized racism evolved from slavery to segregation, people used Bible stories to ground their views on specific issues, and how the stories they used and the interpretation given those stories changed over time with the need to engage new challenges: the curse upon Cain for the murder of Abel (Genesis 4) became the justification for race-based slavery—despite the fact that there is no mention of race in the story. Later, the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) became the rationalization for race-based segregation (if God scattered them who are we to mix them together)? Again, the story isn’t about race but language. This all occurred in a context in which people took these to be the true meanings of these stories.
This exercise does more than show us just how wrong “they” were; it pushes us to recognize the degree to which our own readings of texts (whether those texts be the Bible, the Qu’ran, or the Constitution) can never be as certain as they seem. It’s not my point here to debate the “true meanings” of these texts; I guess that’s a task for believers. I am interested in the power of religion to facilitate meaning-making so effectively that it’s almost entirely hidden. It leaves one wondering which biblical texts taken for granted today will seem absurd in fifty years.
In the epilogue, Botham articulates a “theory of history”:
Almighty God documents a history of meaning making and the use of those meanings to regulate bodies and identities: how Roman Catholics and Protestants looked to their respective traditions to understand marriage and race; how they “knew” their beliefs and their interpretations of texts to be correct; how those beliefs were subsequently encoded into laws that regulated human behaviors; and even how love has been, and continues to be, culturally (and religiously) constructed.
She also offers the prediction that it will be biblical texts thought to refer to gays and lesbians that will seem downright bizarre to another generation.
See also: Anthea Butler’s Tea Party’s Race Issues Surfacing.