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The slaveholding South touted itself as devoutly religious--what do we do when Christianity embraces or ignores sinful practices for political reasons?

Frederick Douglass: Corrupted Christianity

This is the sixth installment in a series on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The last post, on the danger of becoming slaves to vice, can be read here


Today we pick up with Douglass’ indictment of Christianity in the slaveholding South, as he asserts:

most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Though true Christianity is characterized by hope and charity, the Christianity that Douglass encountered is a mere vehicle for wicked men to exercise their corrupted wills.

This is a far cry from the Christianity of the early Church, whose experiences with persecution and martyrdom made her anything but a tool of power. This is, instead, a function of the church connected to political power. This is a church that has been marginalized in order to suit the needs of those who would wield it to their own ends. And as we still live in a country wherein Christianity—or some form of it—is intertwined with political power, we must investigate the nature of corrupted Christianity and be prepared to repudiate and fight against it.

Corrupted Christianity breaks its own rules.

The first mark of Christianity corrupted by political power is that it breaks its own rules. While it remains steadfast in attacking sins that run contrary to its political interest, it ignores the sins in which its members enjoy indulging. The churches of the slaveholding South were quick to denounce the evils of disobedient servants, but slow to condemn the brutality of taskmasters or even preach the full gospel to slaves. In fact, Douglass found that:

It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.

Corrupted Christianity picks and chooses its moral stances based on the desires of the tribe. The treatment of slaves (or freeing of them) deserved more time in the Southern pulpit than the slaves’ supposed need to be obedient to their masters. The locus of political power in the South, though, demanded Christianity break its own rules in order to pander to those in power.

If your church has spent years attacking lustful homosexuality, but has never so much as mentioned sloth or gluttony, you might have a problem. If your church spends time discussing the nuances of proper Biblical gender roles but does not condemn rape in all forms, you definitely have a problem. Corrupted Christianity will ignore the sins of its own to attack the sins of the other, sacrificing justice and humility on the altar of political expediency. This brings us to our next point.

Corrupted Christianity is utilitarian.

Those involved with corrupted Christianity generally have what they would deem to be good reasons for their suspiciously selective repudiation of sin. They view control of the culture as the dominant role of ethical discourse, abandoning any tenets of Christianity necessary in order to maintain power.

While many in the South probably felt uncomfortable with slavery, they supported it for the sake of their “team.” The South—a supposed last bastion of virtue and good old-fashioned values—was supported in all its vices by the local church. The promotion of the South was more important in the minds of Southern Christians than the promotion of true Christianity. Rather than calling the slave-holding elite to the mat, the church cozied up with them in order to gain power.

The problem, however, is that the ends never justify the means for the true Christian. Each individual action matters, and every sin is a sin regardless of what we perceive its outcome to be. We are not cleverer than God and we do not do Him any favors when we ignore His Word to try to fulfill what we think His plan must be. We don’t have the right to stoop to wickedness in order to fight the wickedness from outside the church that we think might be worse.

Corrupted Christianity, however, disagrees. It is willing to sell its soul so that the other “team” won’t win. In the process it disfigures itself, becoming unrecognizable to those who love the real Church. Worse, it disfigures those caught inside it, making them unrecognizable as the Christians they believe themselves to be.

May I be on watch against the corrupted church. May I never sell out true Christianity for the sake of fleeting political power. May Goodness, Truth, and Beauty mean more to me than political expediency. May God have mercy on me, a sinner.

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