Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race: Part 2 [Old Testament Politics]

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race: Part 2 [Old Testament Politics]

In Part 1 of this series I observed that southern Presbyterian defenders of segregation emphasized the Old Testament as the authority for biblical norms regarding race over against the more New Testament oriented arguments of their opponents in the civil rights movement. The most prominent version of the southern Presbyterian argument was not the caricatured appeal to the mark of Cain, let alone to the curse of Ham, as we might like to imagine. It was much more sophisticated than that. It usually ran something like this: 

In constructing the Tower of Babel human beings attempted to establish a socio-political unity in defiance of the natural law of God. God defeated this attempt by dividing human beings on linguistic and national lines. He then called Abraham out from the nations, and in his law he demanded that Israel likewise be separate. When the people of Israel intermarried with other nations, God punished them severely. The segregationists maintained that nothing in the New Testament suggests that God's views have changed. To be sure, the Gospel is now universal; Pentecost is proof of that. But the unity of the church is purely spiritual and does not extend to temporal, social institutions. Thus the Old Testament remains a valid testimony to the natural law of God with respect to social institutions such as segregation.

The most influential example of this argument was G. T. Gillespie's 1954 speech to the Presbyterian Synod of Mississippi, delivered shortly after the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Gillespie's argument was endorsed by the Synod of Mississippi, published in the Southern Presbyterian Journal, and widely disseminated by Mississippi's citizens' councils. At its foundation Gillespie's argument depended on an extrabiblical racial ideology that he, like most of his fellow southern Presbyterians, believed reflected the will of God as revealed in natural law. Gillespie argued that just as various species of animals do not interbreed, so different races of human beings had historically avoided racial amalgamation. The most successful peoples in human history had fiercely protected their racial purity - Gillespie refers to the Jews and to the Anglo-Saxon race as the best examples - and wherever racial maxing had taken place the inevitable result was cultural decline. The only reason racial differentiation was now under attack, Gillespie argued, was because of the godless ideology of Marxism, with its ideal of a unified human race that transcended boundaries of nation, race, gender and class. Gillespie warned that forced desegregation would have one of two results. It would either provoke a state of "constant friction and tension" between the two races, "or, on the other hand, it would lead to the cultivation of such attitudes and social intimacies as would normally and inevitably result in intermarriage."[1] Gillespie recognized that no respectable southern Presbyterian - whether segregationist, integrationist, or moderate - would sanction that.

Such extrabiblical ideology may have provided the foundation for Gillespie's defense of segregation, but the real force of his argument (and presumably the reason why it was endorsed by the Synod of Mississippi) was its claim to the support of Scripture. Gillespie began his appeal to Scripture with the coy admission, suitable to a good Presbyterian, that "While the Bible contains no clear mandate for or against segregation as between the white and negro races, it does furnish considerable data from which valid inferences may be drawn in support of the general principle of segregation." Presbyterians "dare not be dogmatic" on the point, but an "open mind" would at the very least demonstrate that segregation was not unChristian.[2]

Gillespie went on to argue that from the very beginning God segregated the line of Cain from the line of Seth, and that it was intermarriage between these two races that caused the moral collapse in the years preceding the flood. After the flood God thus divided the human race into the "three distinct racial groups" associated with Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The Tower of Babel witnessed yet another attempt by "godless men to assure the permanent integration of the peoples of the earth," but this effort also failed because "Divine Providence" once again intervened.  

God then proceeded to call Abraham and his family out from the nations on a segregated basis. The consequent zeal of the patriarchs to ensure that their sons did not marry women from among the Canaanites demonstrates "the importance which is attached to the principle of segregation, and doubtless paved the way for the emphasis given to it in the Mosaic economy."[4] Under the Mosaic Law God prohibited the mixing of diverse things, warned the people against intermarrying with other peoples, and punished them severely when they disobeyed (Numbers 25:1-8). The same prohibition was enforced after the return from the Babylonian exile. "The drastic steps which were taken to purge out this evil practice emphasized anew the vital importance which was attached to the preservation of the purity and integrity of the racial stock by the leaders of the nation and by their Divine ruler."[5] 

All of this was no doubt plausible enough to Gillespie. Reformed political theology had always emphasized the ongoing usefulness of the Old Testament as a means to determining what is God's natural, moral will. As Gillespie sums up his case, 
Since for two thousand years the practice of segregation was imposed upon the Hebrew people by Divine authority and express command, and infractions of the command were punished with extreme severity, there is certainly no ground for the charge that racial segregation is displeasing to God, unjust to man, or inherently wrong.[6]
But Reformed theologians had also traditionally maintained that what is unique to Israel's circumstances - such as Israel's segregation from the nations - is no longer binding on Christian societies. The real difficulty for Gillespie's argument, then, lay in the counter-argument that Pentecost has removed the ethnic barriers between Israel and the nations. Here Gillespie played the spirituality of the church card, observing that while Pentecost affirms the universalism of the Gospel and the "oneness of believers in Christ," the New Testament affirms such principles "without demanding revolutionary changes in the natural or social order."[7] If the New Testament does not set aside the social implications of differences of gender or class, why would we imagine it sets aside differences of race? 

Here PCA founders Morton Smith and John Richards were in solid agreement with Gillespie. Pentecost established a purely spiritual unity among Christians, one which has no relevance for social structures. As Richards preached from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, on July 25, 1965, all attempts at temporal, earthly unity among human beings, even among Christians, are alien to the Christian faith, misguided attempts to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Richards did not invoke Israel's separation from the nations, as did Gillespie, but he did view the story of the Tower of Babel as confirmation of what human beings know from natural law. "There are those who assume great piety as they propound the doctrines of the oneness of man, frequently saying that the merging of all men is 'the Christian way' and falsely implying that those who believe in diversities among men are 'unchristian.' I would rather read the Christian's Book and see the way that God has set." After quoting Genesis 11:6-8 he went on, "The question for us is also clear: Shall we believe the arrogance of men who declare the natural oneness of man; or shall we believe the sovereignty of God and the natural diversity of men? In this day men must choose whom they shall serve.[8]

Morton Smith didn't hesitate to invoke the example of Israel. Southern Presbyterians had rightly refrained from condemning slavery as sinful because "slavery had been legislated in the Bible" and "The same can be said of the matter of segregation. The fact is that God Himself segregated Israel from the Canaanites."[9] How could segregation be "immoral" or contrary to "Christian ethics" if it was "distinctly commanded by God"?[10] Smith was not unaware that Israel's segregation from the nations had a basis in something other than race. That wasn't the point. The point was that if a form of segregation was not wrong in Israel's case, it cannot be inherently wrong. "It should be noted that this segregation of Abraham's seed was done by God ultimately for the purpose of preserving their religious purity, yet it was done by means of racial segregation." It is therefore clear that "at least the principle of segregation ... is not inherently evil." In any case, the story of Babel had nothing to do with the uniqueness of Israel. "It is certain that in the combined accounts of ... Noah and ... the Tower of Babel we find God's direct action of separation of different elements of the human race into different groups.... [Therefore] it would seem that the principle of separation of peoples or of segregation is not necessarily wrong per se."[11]

The problem with the political theology of southern Presbyterian segregationists, then, did not consist in their refusal to address what they saw as socio-political matters. It consisted in their use of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to leverage a use of Scripture that prioritized the exclusive politics of the Old Testament over the inclusive politics of the New, Law over Gospel, Babel over Pentecost. This use of Scripture enabled them to muzzle the arguments of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights activists who appealed to New Testament ideals of liberty, equality and the "beloved community" to justify holding southern society to a higher ideal. Whereas the segregationists hid behind appeals to law, order, and authority, King and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee adopted nonviolent tactics inspired by Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. They identified their beatings and imprisonment with that experienced by Jesus and the apostles, rejoicing that they were considered worthy to suffer for what they saw as the cause of Christ and his righteousness.[12]  

It is fascinating how closely the defense of segregation from the Old Testament mirrors the argument once used by John Calvin and his contemporaries to defend the state's role in punishing idolaters and heretics. The church is the spiritual kingdom of God, the true Israel, Calvin argued, and for that very reason the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness, peacemaking, and nonviolence cannot be used to overturn what the Old Testament teaches about God's natural will. Like the kings of Old Testament Israel, therefore, Christian magistrates are to punish religious crimes as they occur in the temporal realm. For both Gillespie's argument with respect to segregation and Calvin's with respect to religious coercion it was the Old Testament and its law that played the primary, positive role. For both Gillespie and Calvin, likewise, the emphasis when exegeting the New Testament was primarily on why the new covenant's radical graciousness and inclusivity did not extend to temporal society. 

I would submit that the real problem with the way in which southern Presbyterians used the doctrine of the spirituality of the church was not the insistence that the Church should only proclaim what God's Word teaches. The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of 'spirituality' through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society. They did not have trouble admitting that the Old Testament did not say anything specifically about race because that was not the point. The point was that the Old Testament clearly justified an exclusive kind of politics, a politics that highlighted division over unity and judgment over grace.

The vast majority of contemporary Reformed believers reject these old arguments for religious coercion and racial segregation, of course. Most evangelicals insist that the New Testament's teaching regarding the nature of the kingdom of God does have concrete social and institutional implications that support religious liberty and racial equality (a point to which I return in part three of this series). But have we come to grips with why our Reformed forbears were wrong to use the Old Testament in the ways that they did? Have we clarified our understanding of the appropriate interpretation and use of the Old Testament in contemporary Christian social thought? It seems to me that we have not. Even in the twenty-first century we have our own tendencies to appeal simplistically to the Old Testament's authority to justify our favorite political positions as necessary. We rightly emphasize Christian social and political engagement as a vocational expression of our witness to the lordship of Christ, but is that witness shaped by the Gospel? The church's complicity in segregation is a powerful warning of the moral and political confusion that results when it is not.

Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at 


[1] G. T. Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," November 4, 1954, (, 4.
[2] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 8. Emphasis added.
[3] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 9.
[4] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 10.
[5] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 10.
[6] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 13.
[7] Gillespie, "A Christian View On Segregation," 13.
[8] John Edwards Richards, The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America (Liberty Press, 1987), 57.
[9] Morton H. Smith, How Is the Gold Become Dim! The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., As Reflected in Its Assembly Actions (The Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church, 1973), 153. 
[10] Smith, How Is the Gold Become Dim!, 171.
[11] Morton H. Smith, "Bible Study.... Lesson 8. Brotherhood and Race" (Women's Work sec.), Southern Presbyterian Journal (July 3, 1957): 17-21. Cited in David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 252-253.
[12] As John Richards put it in another sermon in the same volume, echoing the Apostle Paul, to love is to fulfill the law, by which Richards meant both the Ten Commandments and the civil law of the land.