White supremacists have long associated themselves with Christianity, despite the fact that Jesus was not a white man. U.S. Representative Steve King provided a high profile example of such white supremacy on July 18, 2014, in a televised panel discussion about the current Republican Convention.
Representative King, responding to a comment that this will be "the last time that old white people would command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face," burst out: "This whole 'old white people' business does get a little tired…. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?"
King added, "Western civilization itself … rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world."
King's views align closely with the dominant paradigm of Christian European colonialism. An 1837 British House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines stated, "True civilization and Christianity are inseparable: the former has never been found, but as a fruit of the latter."
In fact, for more than 500 years Christian powers have relied on this coupling of civilization and Christianity to define and defend their colonial operations. In the process, they subjugated and assimilated (or eliminated, when they could not assimilate) non-Christian peoples around the globe.
American Indians are a prime example. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the colonial powers—as "Christian discoverers"—owned Native peoples' lands and Indians were "mere occupants." Indian lands the colonists didn't want were called "reservations" and U.S. "reservation policy" was handed over to churches.
The agenda of Christian civilization was established centuries before the "discovery." In fact, the 500 years of Christian colonialism in the "new world" was preceded by an earlier half-millennium of "discovery" and war in the old world, to create "Western civilization" under the auspices of Christian theology.
Richard Fletcher wrote an excellent history of that earlier period, "The Barbarian Conversion," subtitled, "From Paganism to Christianity." Fletcher said the Christian agenda was to re-shape "savage" societies as a process of wealth maximization: "Commerce was an agent of critical importance in the diffusion of Christianity. ... Become a Christian and get rich: this was at the heart of the arguments commended ... by Bishop Daniel of Winchester in his [8th century] letter on missionary tactics."
Fletcher described the conquest of the Saxon pagans in the late 8th century as “a state-sponsored mission [that] used the faith quite unashamedly as an instrument for the subjugation of a conquered people." He added that the measures taken to Christianize Saxony became a “blueprint” for later centuries of Christian imperialism:
"The measures ... adopted in Christianization ... destabilize[d] and dislocate[d] the social texture of Saxon life at the most intimate levels of family existence, touching birth, marriage and death. ... It seems reasonable to infer that this tearing apart of Saxon society was deliberately intended.... It is well to bear in mind that even small numbers of determined missionaries can leave an abiding impression on a defeated and demoralized population when supported by secular imperial power. The Spaniards were to rediscover this truth in Mexico and Peru."
In the long view—from which Representative King purports to speak—Christianity and civilization do proceed hand-in-hand, and the hands are primarily white; but the historical record does not look pretty, unless you like imperialism, domination, and destruction.
By the 12th century, the Christian powers in Europe had attained immense institutional and economic resources and were prepared to destroy any opposition. Wars against "pagans" and "heathens" were supplemented by wars against "heretics"—people who deviated from or resisted Papal subjugation.
The papacy of Innocent III (1198 - 1216) waged war against the "heresy" of Catharism in what is now known as southern France. Morris Berman, in his history, "Coming to our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West," tells the story:
"Whole towns ... were put to the sword.... The military agents of the king and the pope went on a killing orgy... When [the] Bishop of Citeaux was asked by the crusaders what they should do with the (Catholic) citizens of Béziers, he was reported to have replied: 'Kill them all, God will recognize his own.' The …papal legate was quite happy to report to the Pope that twenty thousand people were put to death—the entire population of the town."
The fact that the Catharist “heresy” focused on "the Great Mother" and the "Earth Goddess" demonstrates how Earth-centered peoples around the world present a target for the church. Upon Christianity’s "discovery" of the "new world," non-Christian peoples were given a "choice": assimilate to the church system of civilization and give up their independent self-determination, or maintain their traditional ways and be destroyed. The underlying assumption of the white colonists was that there is only one reality and it is Christian.
Vine Deloria, Jr., explored the choice offered to traditional leaders:
"Christianity served to transform ... a tribal chief (dux) into a king (rex). Once converted to Christianity, the king no longer represented only the deities of his tribe: he represented, in addition, a universal deity whose authority extended to all tribes.... He became, in effect, the head of an empire. ... As stated in the laws of Ethelred (about 1000 A.D.), 'A Christian king is Christ’s deputy among Christian people and he must avenge with utmost diligence offenses against Christ.'"
When a people's spiritual bond to their land breaks or becomes subverted; when their leaders no longer rely on powers arising from the people, but assume a stance of power from above, disconnected from the land, the opening act of colonial extraction has already begun.
"Christian civilization" at the start of the 21st century continues in the form of a global framework of profit-maximizing corporations attacking the earth itself in a quest for material wealth. The system treats people and all other beings as commodities. White people are not spared, though they are generally relatively privileged.
The question of religion involves the question of what it means to be human. One view is that humans are economic actors, for whom the primary, if not sole, meaning in life is wealth maximization. This view dominates the 21st century discourse of those who command the institutions of capitalism.
Whether one celebrates this "civilization" or not depends on whether one profits from the destruction inherent in the system.
Meanwhile, those who trumpet "white civilization" would do well to consider the words of Judge Lowell interpreting the definition of "white person" in a 1909 naturalization case, In re Halladjian:
"It is misleading… to speak of a European race, of a European or white race to which substantially all inhabitants of Europe belong, or of an Asiatic race, of an Asiatic or yellow race which includes substantially all Asiatics. … If the statutory classification should be any wise rested upon ‘mental development,‘ or upon ‘ideals, standards, and aspirations,‘ as suggested by the United States, a reasonable modesty may well remind Europeans that the origin of their letters was in Phoenicia, the origin of much of their art in Egypt, that Asia Minor claimed, at least, the birthplace of the first great European poet, and that the Christian religion, which most Europeans believe to have influenced their civilization and ideals, was born in Palestine."
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhii?na be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.