The ‘white Christian problem’: the doctrine of discovery that encouraged enslavement and lynchings

Rosie Dawson in conversation with author Robert P. Jones. Image credit: RMC

By Rosie Dawson

Is America a divinely ordained promised land for European Christians, or is America a pluralistic democracy where all stand on equal footing as citizens? This question lies at the heart of The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future,the latest book from Robert P. Jones.

Dr Jones is the founder and president of Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, a non-partisan research organisation exploring the connections between religion, politics and culture in the US.

In his day job he is conducting polls which show, among other things, that nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants are sympathetic to Christian Nationalism. In this book he attempts to explain why.

“Origin stories are really important,” he says in an interview with Religion Media Centre. “Our ‘in the beginnings’ determine a lot about how we see ourselves today, and how we got here, and they are one of the reasons why we’re fighting so much over our history, right now.”

The Declaration of Independence, signed by five white men in Philadelphia in 1776, is a pivotal moment in America’s self-understanding, declaring the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. Yet it refers to the “merciless Indian Savages” and the inalienable rights it speaks of did clearly not extend to enslaved African Americans.

The 1619 project, created by The New York Times to mark the 400th anniversary of the forced transportation of Africans to the British colony of Virginia, sought to provide Americans with a new birth year, centring on the experience and legacy of slavery in the nation’s story. But Dr Jones wants to go back still further to the early interactions of Europeans with indigenous peoples.

For him, 1493 is a crucial year. “That’s the year that Columbus returns to Spain,” he says. “He is needing a political and ultimately a religious justification for further exploration and colonisation of these lands he so-called discovered.

“He needs a moral justification for how to treat the people who are on those lands. And so who does he reach out to? It’s the closest thing that we have to international law at that time, and that is the head of the western Christian church, the Pope in Rome.”

Columbus is given a papal bull that gives him divine authorisation to occupy lands that are not already held by Christians, to steal from and kill the people who already live there and reduce them to perpetual slavery.

This “doctrine of discovery” sets the moral template for European engagement with indigenous people across the Americas. According to Dr Jones, “it is still with us today, and is at the heart of some of our deepest political conflicts”.

Understanding the role that the doctrine plays in justifying the seizing, settling and exploitation of the land enables Dr Jones to connect two histories that are often separate — that of Native Americans and that of enslaved African Americans.

“The Christian white supremacy, entitlement and superiority, that led to enslavement of African Americans, also justified the genocide, and forced removal of indigenous people that came before that. If we look upstream, from what even good, well-meaning people have called the Negro Problem, or the Indian problem, we see what I call the white Christian problem.”

Robert Jones goes on to look at the connections between infamous cases of the lynching and murders of African Americans and the treatment of indigenous populations in three states. He begins in his home state Mississippi with the killing of Emmett Till in 1955 and acquittal of his killers by an all-white jury.

“The guiding question is, how do we get a society that acquits two white men who murder a 14-year-old African American boy, for whistling at a white woman in a store?” Jones says.

He answers his question by telling the stories of the disenfranchisement of African Americans, of slavery, and of the forced removal of Native American tribes from the land.

“I trace it all the way back to the Hernando de Soto. He was the first European to set foot in that area of the country and claim the land for Spain in 1541. That’s 400 years prior to the birth of Emmett Till. And yet this logic of the superiority of Christianity and the superiority of European civilisation was still operative in keeping African Americans off the jury, and in terrorising, kidnapping and torturing and killing a young African American boy.”

The second half of Dr Jones’s book lays out the work of commemoration, reconciliation and repair being done in Mississippi and elsewhere. He says the work of commemorating Emmett Till only really began in the early part of this century.

“There was this intrepid group of people, black and white. And one of the reasons why I have this more hopeful tone in the book is because of these efforts at the local level. It is the great, great grandfathers of enslavers and the great, great grandfathers of the enslaved and tenant farmers, getting together, deciding to do something to have a better future.”

The work in relation to indigenous peoples is even less advanced. “There’s only a very small indigenous community left in Mississippi, but even there, there’s starting to be the repatriation of remains, for example, that were sitting in museums and private collections.”

Dr Jones says he finds hope and inspiration in the fact that many Christian organisations, including the Episcopal Church in America and the World Council of Churches, have officially rejected the doctrine of discovery.

Pope Francis and the Vatican issued a “sort of half repudiation” of the doctrine this year, he says. “I think the Catholic Church has still not quite gotten there. But I put it this way — if this were an apology that I gave to my spouse, I think we’d still be talking.”

But controversies such as the banning of the teaching of Advanced Placement African American Studies — a course designed to elevate African-American history and education — in Florida suggest America’s identity crisis will not be resolved any time soon.

“Our biggest fights these days are over banning books that have certain kinds of histories in them. Things like abortion, immigration, and healthcare are important, but they’re actually not the biggest drivers of the divisions in the country any more. It really is all about American identity.

“Particularly with this next presidential election cycle, I think maybe we ought to put on our seatbelts, it’s going to be rough.”


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