The Good Book Gone Bad: On Prejudice and ‘Religious Liberty’

Deeds of the Antichrist, 1501 © Luca Signorelli

On April 5, Mississippi became the latest state to enact a law seen by many as sanctioning bigotry against LGBT citizens. The so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” declares:

The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that:

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

The law, which some have compared to the “Jim Crow” laws of an earlier era, protects individuals who refuse to provide services to same-sex couples, unmarried couples, and transgendered individuals. This blanket protection also extends to state employees.

Under the Freedom of Conscience law, a baker could refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, a state official could refuse to license a marriage between a gay couple, and a business could block access to bathroom facilities for transgendered individuals, all without fear of legal repercussion. Anyone sexually active outside of a heterosexual marriage could also be subject to the same kinds of actions. The law also provides for the education of foster children in the same beliefs.

The law might be shocking, but religion has been used as a justification for oppressing marginalized groups since before the founding of the United States, even before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his men raped and tortured the native peoples they encountered in the Bahamas, all under the auspices of Christianity. Bartolomeo de las Casas, a priest who accompanied them on their voyage, recorded, “They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”

Scholar and activist Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States wrote that it was a little-known religious doctrine, the Doctrine of Discovery, that provided a moral justification for European expansion, both in the New World and beyond. The doctrine had its roots in a tangle of Papal Bulls and Vatican-supported treaties issued in the wake of Columbus’s voyage.

In short, the Doctrine of Discovery stated that non-Christian lands were more or less up for grabs by European powers, with little to no regard for the people already living there. The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny, the idea that the rise of the United States was mandated by divine providence, set the stage for centuries of genocide, broken treaties, stolen lands, and the annihilation of ancient cultures.

Manifest Destiny - American Progres

Ongoing religious conflicts in Europe followed colonists to the New World. In 1565, French and Spanish forces clashed at sea over the establishment of a French settlement near modern day Jacksonville, Florida. The battle was interrupted by a hurricane that sent the Spanish scurrying for the shore and destroyed the French fleet in its entirety. The Spanish claimed the disputed settlement and the majority of its would-be defenders drowned at sea.

The few Frenchmen who made it back to shore surrendered with the expectation that they would be held as prisoners of war. Unbeknownst to them, King Philip II of Spain, a devout Catholic, had ordered his forces to convert the Protestant French at sword point. The majority of them refused to embrace Catholicism and were executed. The place where it happened is still known as “Matanzas,” Spanish for “the massacres.”

While the French protestants who died there may have been forgotten by many, author Tony Horwitz wrote in A Voyage Long and Strange that there are those in the modern day evangelical community intent on keeping their memory alive, and with it, their centuries-old hatred. They consider St. Augustine, founded by the same Spaniards responsible for the French massacre, to be “the enemy’s (Satan’s) land.”

Although it’s usually downplayed, anti-Catholicism played a role in the witch trials of the 1600s. In The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood, author Alex R. Goldfeld shares the tragic story of Ann Glover: the last “witch” to be tried and hanged in Boston. Glover, an elderly housekeeper of the Roman Catholic faith, was accused in 1688 of making her mistress’s children sick with witchcraft. At her trial, Puritan minister turned witch hunter Cotton Mather instructed her to recite the Lord’s Prayer to prove she wasn’t a witch. Glover could scarcely speak English, and could only recite the prayer in her native Irish and Latin. This was proof enough for Mathers, who found her guilty of being, among other things, “a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry.”

Tragically, religious zealotry had already claimed the life of Glover’s husband decades before she made her way to the United States. Under English rule, the Glovers, like so many other poor Irish families, had been transported from their native land to the English colony of Barbados. Her husband, whose name has been lost to history, was executed after refusing to renounce the Catholic faith. (Those interested in exploring this tragic chapter of Irish history might wish to read To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O’Callaghan.)

Christianity continued to exert a very strong influence on state laws after the founding of the United States, by varying degrees from location to location. According to Dr. Warren Blumfield, an associate professor at Iowa State University and author of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States, only Christians could hold public office in Massachusetts, but Catholics could only do so if they renounced the authority of the Pope.

America’s Jewish population faced severe, state-sanctioned discrimination. Dr. Michael Feldberg, Executive Director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, and former director of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote in his essay collection Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History that until the passage of an 1826 act known colloquially as “the Maryland Jew Bill,” Jews could not hold office due to the requirement that elected officials believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The bill passed against the vocal opposition of those who worried that it would allow not only Jews, but “Turks and infidels” to hold office as well. In any case, the Jew Bill did not dash the requirement: instead it made an exception for Jews who professed a belief in an afterlife. State laws aimed at preventing Jews from holding office are a thing of the past, but in eight states, it remains technically illegal for atheists to hold public office.

In the South, Christian plantation owners used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. In 1851, Josiah Priest published The Bible Defense of Slavery, in which he posited that not only was the enslavement of Africans scripturally sound, it also gave them a better way of life than what they had in their homelands. These kinds of arguments weren’t exclusive to the South, either. Adrian Thatcher’s The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, quotes one Episcopalian bishop in the diocese of Vermont:

“The Bible’s defense of slavery is very plain. St. Paul was inspired, and knew the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was only intent on obeying it. And who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God…and invent for ourselves a ‘higher law’ than those holy scriptures which are given to us ‘a light to our feet and a lamp to our paths,’ in the darkness of a sinful and polluted world?”

The Catholic church apparently concurred. In 1866, the Vatican issued a statement that “Slavery itself…is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law…The purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave.”

Arguments over slavery led to rifts between several large white Christian denominations, including the Baptist church. Southern Baptists believed that the Bible provided for the ownership of slaves, whereas northern Baptists did not. This, plus arguments over whether slaves could serve as ministers and missionaries within their own communities, led to the birth of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.

Religion’s role in denying the rights of minority populations could not be any more apparent than in the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, a loosely organized network responsible for countless murders, bombings, and other terrorist acts identifies itself as a Christian organization, and its members claim that its most infamous symbol, the burning cross, is a symbol of their faith in Christ.


Those claims are more than likely disingenuous, or at best, only partly true. In an interview with PBS, sociologist David Cunningham, author of Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan described these kinds of claims as “grandiose rhetoric.” The cross burnings served a practical purpose, thinly disguised in a cloak of religiosity:

“[Carolina Clan leader Bob Jones] emphasized cross burnings as ‘driv[ing] away darkness and gloom… by the fire of the Cross we mean to purify and cleanse our virtues by the fire on His Sword.’ Such grandiose rhetoric, of course, could not dispel the reality that the KKK frequently deployed burning crosses as a means of terror and intimidation, and also as a spectacle to draw supporters and curious onlookers to their nightly rallies, which always climaxed with the ritualized burning of a cross that often extended 60 or 70 feet into the sky.”

If there’s a lesson to be found in all of this, it’s that once one’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” are enacted into law, there’s no telling who they’ll be used to oppress: It could be gay men and women one day, Catholics the next, and African-Americans after that. The considerable latitude offered by this kind of hateful legislation brings to mind the words of another religious thinker, Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.