Planning a scheme of work on religion and prejudice, the words of Dean Jonathan Swift seemed apt, “just enough religion to make us hate and not enough to make us love.” Swift’s comment was made in 1711, more than three hundred years later, it still has an incisive relevance.
Was Christianity always a religion that could inspire hate when the command of Jesus was to love? The history of anti-Semitism points to the Christian church as having a deep capacity for hatred rather than the love that was expected of it.
Jewish people were not the only victims of those with just enough religion. Many Christians in the 18th and 19th Centuries supported slavery. George Whitefield, the 18th Century cleric who is a major figure in evangelical history actually campaigned for the legalization of slavery in the state of Georgia because he believed it necessary for the economic success of the state. While the 19th Century abolitionist movement had strong evangelical roots, it also met strong opposition from Christians. Richard Furman, a Baptist leader in South Carolina in 1822 published an “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States.” Furman’s works was a defence of slavery that would be used up until the end of the American Civil War
Among the Christians who opposed the idea of democracy was the 19th Century Methodist leader Jabez Bunting. When the question of adopting democratic procedures in church governance, Bunting was unequivocal in stating, “Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as to sin”. Churches since Bunting’s time, particularly those led by bishops, have often been reluctant to accept democratic principles.
Many Christians in the United States actively embraced racist attitudes, seeing no incompatibility between discrimination and their faith. Bob Jones University refused to allow admission to African Americans until 1971. The Religious Right emerged through government interventions to remove charitable status from institutions that practiced segregation.
Similarly, the idea of equality women was opposed by churches. Jesus treated women as equals. He stepped outside the norms of society in his interactions with women. Yet there are Christians who insist that whatever Jesus might have done, the whole Bible must be taken into consideration; verses from Genesis are adduced to argue woman is subordinate to man. Even Bible translations are vetted to ensure they comply with the theme of male dominance.
Every step forward in human rights, every struggle for equality and dignity, has been opposed by many Christians. Scripture has been quoted in defence of oppression and degradation. The church has supported slavery, autocracy, racism and sexism, and the Church of England still opposes equality for gay and lesbian people.
Swift would have recognised such religion.