Review Essay: Magda Teter’s Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism
The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013 to protest anti-Black racism, especially the killing of Blacks at the hands of the police, was arguably the largest protest movement in the history of the United States. It created a tectonic shift in the understanding of the systemic character of racism in American society and has generated chasms in the political landscape, shaping the politics of segments on the left and reactions by the right. It is a major fault line exacerbated by Donald Trump that is consuming the contemporary political moment.
It is against this background that historian Magda Teter has written Christian Supremacy, subtitled Reckoning With the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism. It is a monumental treatise, rigorously researched and annotated, that illuminates our current condition by placing its origins in the broadest possible historical context.
Magda Teter is an unusual scholar. Born and raised in Poland, she is an expert on Jewish history and Jewish-Christian relations. She is not Jewish herself, but taught at Wesleyan for more than a decade and is currently the chair in Judaic studies at Fordham University. Her written corpus reveals an extraordinary number of scholarly articles and half a dozen texts. The current volume, published this year by Princeton University Press, well exemplifies her prodigious scholarship. This is a relevant and important book, and though replete with detailed information and citations supporting her thesis, remains eminently readable.
Teter’s thesis is compelling and persuasively argued. Anti-Black prejudice and discrimination, as well as the recrudescence of white supremacy, did not originate with the American experience. Its roots run very deep. Its beginnings can be found in Christian antisemitism, traced back to St. Augustine and even further to the writing of St. Paul. In briefest terms, her premise is as follows:
“…the ideology espoused by white supremacists in the US and in Europe is rooted in Christian ideas of social and religious hierarchy. These ideas developed, gradually, first in the Mediterranean and Europe in respect to Jews and in respect to people of color in European colonies and the US, before returning transformed back into Europe. That vision of social hierarchy is built on the foundations of early Christian supersessionist theology that negated Judaism as it claimed to ‘replace’ it and sometimes called replacement theology or replacement theory. Ancient and medieval Christians developed a sense of superiority over Jews, whom they saw as carnal and inferior, and rejected by God…For Christians, Jews became necessary ‘contrast figures’ created and used to validate Christian’ claims of theological replacement and superiority.”
“…Christian supremacy predated white supremacy and has left its mark on the legal and mental structures that continue to reverberate in what is now commonly called white supremacy.”
“…the modern rejection of equality of both Jews and Black people in the West is the legacy of Christian supersessionism.”
It is a mainstay of Teter’s thesis to highlight what she claims is frequently omitted by historians, namely how norms of Christian superiority at the expense of the subordination and humiliation of Jews were strengthened by their reification and codification into law.
Teter notes that the biblical phrase cited in Genesis, repeated in the book of Romans, “an elder shall serve a younger,” and augmented by the authority of St. Augustine, became the paradigm for Christian dominance and the entrenched subjugation of Jews. It is well known that Augustine spoke about the needed survival of the Jews in order for them to bear witness to the superiority of Christianity. Teter’s takeaway from Augustine’s views lies in his persistent emphasis on Jewish inferiority and the establishment of an ideal Christian-Jewish hierarchy. She notes that this Augustinian hierarchy was not merely theological. It was embedded in the social and political reality of the times and became an influential basis for enduring Christian supremacy that, in the early modern period, was transferred to white Europeans in their relations to Blacks.
Inclusive in the transition from Christian structural antisemitism throughout the Middle Ages to the emergence of Black enslavement by Europeans in the era of colonization was the linkage fostered by Islam. Slavery was absent in Europe, except under Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula and was greatly predated by Islam. “Iberian history,” she notes, “is…key to understanding the legal cultural, economic foundations that would help establish slavery in the Americas.” Quoting the historian Timothy Lockley, there is “a clear lineage of negative racial imagery from Arabic (Iberian) to English thought.” Teter further states, “The connection between slavery and Black Africans was first made in Islamic thought, when Muslims conquered parts of Africa and amassed dark-skinned captives, by reinterpreting the curse of Ham as both the curse of slavery and Blackness.” The British went on to imitate the systems of enslavement in their colonies that had earlier been put in place by the Spanish and Portuguese.
As Europeans began their colonial expansion across the Atlantic, they firmly developed their sense of religious and political superiority, a superiority which had long been established through their convictions regarding the inferiority of Jews. What emerged was the slow evolution of the identification of Christianity with whiteness. That evolution was at first hampered because Catholicism held to the doctrine of universal conversion. One could become Christian through baptism regardless of color. By contrast, in Protestant colonies, English, Dutch, and Danish, slave owners prevented Black conversion or allowed free Blacks to convert. But in time, as Teter notes, “Christianity, freedom and whiteness came together.”
In recent decades, the Enlightenment has become a subject for critics who view it as responsible for the evils of colonization, slavery, and genocide. In my view, despite the personal racist sentiments held by Enlightenment luminaries, the critique is generally misplaced. To her credit, Teter treads lightly in taking the Enlightenment to task, though she notes that it was eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, with its interest in taxonomy, that developed a scientific classification of the races that aided in solidifying racial hierarchy.
The modern period saw the emergence of democracies, and with it came the ideas of equality and citizenship. The question of who counts as a citizen, therefore, became a contentious, long-lasting issue both in Europe and in the United States. In Europe, the status of Jews, the “Jewish question,” was front and center. In the United States, the subjugated status of Blacks was enduring and not legally settled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The French Revolution created The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen. But the two were not the same; which rights accrued to “man,” and which to “citizen” was contested, and analogous arguments persisted in the United States pertaining to Blacks through much of the nineteenth century.
Abbe´ Sieyes, a major theoretician of the French Revolution, maintained that all persons have passive, natural rights, such as protection of their person and property. But not all should have an active right to participate in governmental affairs, and those, including women, children, and foreigners, should be excluded from citizenship. Jews, who throughout the Middle Ages were construed to be an alien nation within Christian lands, were the consummate foreigners. The French Declaration banned discrimination on grounds of religious belief, and so Huguenots and other Christians were admitted as citizens. Jews remained banned as a foreign national group. Christians of every denomination could assimilate, but Jews presented a unique problem. After much debate, Jews were eventually granted active citizenship in France, but the question of their rights and citizenship spread to other parts of Europe.
These debates continued in Holland, Germany, and Great Britain. Often at stake was the notion that if Jews were granted equality, such would endow them with excessive power, leading to Jewish hegemony over Christians. Such reasoning reflected the depth of the theologically grounded notion that Judaism, by rejecting Christ, was an eternally inferior religion and needed to be confined to a subordinated status. This false identity of equality with mastery also found its analog in white supremacist initiatives to deny Blacks equal rights in America later in the century.
It was not until 1869, and the unification of Germany, that Jews attained full German citizenship. But this achievement was quickly followed, as such advances often are, by an immediate backlash, in this case with the emergence of political antisemitism.
Teter elaborates a pivotal discussion on the contested legal status of free Blacks in the United States. Neither enslaved nor white, their presence placed in high relief the issue of color in a way in which slavery itself did not. In principle, one could oppose slavery on the grounds of justice or economic pragmatism without referencing skin color. Nothing raised this issue to a higher pitch than when the people of Haiti, in 1804, overthrew their French colonial masters. In a historic irony, we may conclude that the Haitian struggle for freedom was inspired in great measure by the principles of the French Declaration. The Western Hemisphere now contained two newly independent nations, one sustained in great measure by slavery, the other without slavery under Black sovereignty.
As Jill Lepore noted in her history of America, These Truths, slave rebellions in the colonies were frequent, but nothing placed fear in the hearts of slave owners as did the Haitian revolution. When America was founded, the concept of citizenship was new, and, as noted, not clearly defined until a century later. Full citizenship was tied to being white, and,as a result, free Blacks were subjected to humiliating distinctions, as Teter notes, with regard to the ownership of property and guns, and to giving testimonies in court.
Teter explicates in great detail the debates and ensuing laws relating to race, religion, and citizenship as those presented to deny Blacks equality in nineteenth-century America. She notes,
“The 1820 debate over the admission of Missouri into the Union put on display clashing visions of what the United States is and who belongs, while regional court cases and religious debates, in a slow-moving backlash against the ideals enshrined in the US Constitution against established religion, began to clarify a sense of dominant religious identity. Both Jews and people of color challenged, in different ways, American white Protestant hegemony in what was beginning to shape as a white Christian republic.” Teter concludes that the issue regarding the admission of Missouri as a slave state was not pivotal in that the admission of Maine provided a compromise. It was rather the heated debate that resulted from an article of the Missouri constitution that would ban the residency of free blacks in the state, a provision that ostensibly violated the US Constitution. It also suggested that Blacks who could freely reside in some states could not in others.
The inequality of Blacks can be readily illustrated by the reasoning employed in major Supreme Court decisions, one prior to the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and those that were argued in the backlash of the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution.
Dred Scott was born into slavery in Missouri and was taken to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, both free jurisdictions, and then brought back to Missouri, where he was again enslaved. Dred Scott sued to assert his status as a free citizen under the Constitution. By a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court denied his appeal, in what was arguably the worst ruling in the history of the Court. Teter provides an extensive elaboration of the case, quoting at length from the prevailing decision of Justice Roger Taney. Taney invoked what today would be deemed an originalist argument, claiming that at the time of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and passage of the Constitution, Black people were not considered to be citizens. Taney’s unabashed racism would, by today’s standards be cringe-worthy. With regard to Blacks, he wrote:
“…(they are) beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
“…they (i.e.Blacks) at that time considered as a subordinate, and inferior class of beings who had been subjected by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” “…this opinion was at the time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the ‘the white race.’” “…a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power and which they looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings.”
The reference to a “perpetual and impassible barrier” speaks to the depth of Taney’s racism. It may strike us as astounding, but it was validated by the science of the times and, we may conclude, was the prevailing view of Americans in that era.
There were those who argued that the United States was founded as a white republic and such was the meaning of “We the people.” Questions emerged as to whether the United States was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant civilization struggling to preserve its purity against the incursion of Blacks and foreign hordes. Or, was America meant to be diverse with regard to race, religion, and ethnicity? As Teter observes, the former reflected “a kind of Protestant nativism grounded in a package of Christianity and whiteness that began to crystallize in the early decades of the nineteenth century. And though in the earliest iterations Christianity may not have been explicit, it became increasingly so from the 1820s onward.”
The arguments in America concerning the place of Blacks paralleled arguments in Europe in regard to Jews. Many argumanrs when related to matters of principle (conceptual and legal) appear hairsplitting. Yet, as Teter points out, they reflected the prevailing attitudes of the time. Many who argued for a status less than equal for Blacks and Jews explicitly made reference to feelings of belonging with their own, degrees of discomfort with others, and conclusions that people who are different, as Blacks and Jews are from whites, and Christians simply could not live together as equals. Many validated this inequality in religious terms. Opposition to slavery was increasingly cast by proslavery Christians as anti-Christian. The backlash against the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was enormous. And, as Teter concludes, borrowing from the historian Luke Harlow, “The racist religion of the antebellum period became ‘racial unity’ that paved the way for the emergence of a white Democratic political bloc.”
Intimidation, violence, terror, and the gradual disenfranchisement of Black voting rights established by Reconstruction, became the hallmarks of the Jim Crow era. As we painfully know, those phenomena, at times relatively latent and at others painfully manifest, have not disappeared, rather they have dramatically reemerged in our current political moment.
The 1870s saw several civil rights cases that promoted the unqualified equality of Blacks and intended to put substance behind the post-Civil War amendments. These cases were declared unconstitutional on the dubious distinction that segregation in private, but not state, settings, was legal. A major milestone was the Plessy V. Ferguson case of 1896. Homer Plessey, a one-eighth African-American, was denied a first-class railroad ticket. His defense rested on the argument that such segregation violated the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Thirteenth in that it perpetuated the “essential features of slavery.” The court’s majority held that while the Amendments may have abolished political inequality, they did not intend to abolish distinctions based on color or to enforce social equality. Legal equality, in short, did not mean social acceptance.
There was pushback. Teter elaborates in detail the arguments of the sole dissenting justice in Plessey, John Marshall Harlan. He noted that the Thirteenth Amendment did not merely strike down slavery but “…prevents any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude.” He noted that “there is in this country no superior, dominant ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates among classes of citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful.” Harlan’s was an expression of American ideals that, with minimal reflection, should be understood as self-evident. Harlan grasped how structural racism was factored into law. He was ahead of his time in that it was not until Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 that the law began to align with Harlan’s dissent.
The 1870s marked the decade in which political antisemitism emerged with a renewed force both in Europe and the United States. As mentioned, Jews had attained citizenship in France in the aftermath of the Revolution and were accepted as citizens in Germany in 1869. By then, the number of Jews in Germany exceeded half a million, but in France, the population was less than one percent. Yet when the lid of legal antisemitism was removed, Jews moved rapidly into positions of prominence in the professions, commerce, finance, and the press, and held positions in government. Though many German Jews were highly assimilated, and intermarriage was common (they frequently identified themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion”), their status as ostensible outsiders deepened feelings of contempt. Their stepping out of their theologically sanctioned position as subjugated people in the Christian society, revived stereotypes. Their social climbing and success were seen as marks of insolence and ill-gained power. Jews were condemned as being “carnal” and “materialist.” The attainment of equality was felt as usurpation and, as Teter notes “encroachment on the rights of others.” German nationalism, which later was transmogrified by the Nazis into the ideology of “blood and soil,” stood in opposition to the ideals of liberalism, pluralism and cosmopolitanism, which the prominence of Jews represented. In France, antisemitism culminated in the infamous Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Jewish officer was falsely accused and convicted of treason. The affair extended for twelve years and was indicative of antisemitism’s wide acceptance.
The situation in Eastern Europe, especially tsarist Russia, was much different and far more severe. Jews were not citizens, and salient expressions of anti-Jewish hatred were not political; they were fiercely violent and deadly. The years 1881-1882 saw over a hundred pogroms in the Russian empire, with violent outbreaks repeated in the early decades of the twentieth century. These attacks on Jewish villages, often by the army with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, bear on my own life story in that my father, as a child, was a witness to a pogrom in his native Ukraine. It caused him to flee to the West, as it did countless other Jews during that dark period. The effects of Russian antisemitism were ongoing. One of its lasting contributions to perennial antisemitism was the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fictitious tract that alleged Jewish aspirations toward power and conspiracies aimed at world domination. It became a deep-seated trope that was aggressively appropriated by the Nazis and has been a mainstay of anti-Jewish bigotry employed to the current day.
The fate of the Jews in America, as Teter states, was in some ways more complex. Jews were full citizens and never enslaved. Yet, beginning in the 1870s there was an upsurge of antisemitic discrimination. The 1870s just preceded the waves of millions of European Jews, many impoverished, that extended from 1881 until 1924 when the doors of immigration were closed.
Teter describes at great length and in detail an incident in 1877 in which Joseph Seligman, the head of an elite banking family, was denied access to the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he had vacationed many times before. Seligman was a noted public figure. He was president of Temple Emmanuel in New York, and President Ulysses Grant had previously invited him to serve as the Secretary of the Treasury. The cause was blatant anti-Jewish bigotry and was accompanied by derogatory depictions of Jews as gluttonous, loud, and smelly. In short, Seligman did not reflect the class that the patrons of the hotel allegedly chose to associate with. It is clear that Seligman was not rejected for who he was personally but as a construct of the white Protestant imagination.
The Seligman incident was followed by a succession of other hotels and resorts prohibiting Jewish entry – in Coney Island, Lake Placid Club, and at the Mohonk Peace Conference, somewhat ironically organized by Quakers.
The discriminatory exclusion of Jews extended beyond exclusive hotels and resorts. Though there is passing mention of restrictive covenants, it was a form of antisemitic discrimination that, in my view, deserves more extensive description. Neighborhoods where Jews were barred from residence were a common feature of American society, especially in the decades prior to World War II. Such exclusion tangentially touches upon my own life. I grew up in the Forest Hills section of New York City. Before the War, the older section of Forest Hills, festooned with tidy Tudor homes and private streets, barred Jews from living there. Teaneck New Jersey, where I worked for almost half a century and now harbors a large population of Orthodox Jews, in the 1940s excluded Jews from residence.
Also significant, but omitted in Teter’s narrative, was the restrictive quotas placed on Jews attending American universities, especially the elite schools. The first such restriction was imposed in 1919 at Columbia University, enacted by its famed president, Nicolas Murray Butler. Here too, the history becomes personal. I received my three graduate degrees from Columbia. This discrimination has long been a source of resentment for many Jews and has caused some, who have traditionally been at the forefront of progressive causes, to balk at the adoption of affirmative action initiatives even as they have otherwise supported programs to leverage equality and greater opportunities for Blacks. The exclusion from clubs and universities was also paralleled by the rejection of Jews from selective law firms, which caused them to create their own.
Of historical significance is that antisemitism in late nineteenth-century Europe, anti-Jewish discrimination in America, as well as anti-immigrant nativism and the violent suppression of Blacks all occurred more or less simultaneously, and all emerged as backlashes against movements toward greater equality, liberalism, and democratic pluralism. Within the American context, this convergence, as Teter, concludes “…helped bolster that ‘true’ Americans were white Protestant, while others were undeserving of citizenship and equality.”
But, of course, the Black experience was different from that of Jews. Discrimination against Blacks was structural, not exclusively cultural. It was baked into the law and the justice system. Though difficult to contemplate, American race laws served as a model for restrictions on citizenship and anti-miscegenation laws that went beyond our borders. The Nazis sent their legal scholars to the United States to learn from us how they could justify the legal disenfranchisement of Jews.
After the Second World War, the enormity of the Holocaust led, for a while, to the mitigation of antisemitic outbursts. But Blacks who fought Fascism in Europe in defense of freedom found themselves, upon returning home, still confronting
discrimination, bigotry, and violence. It is well known that the much-vaunted G.I bill excluded Black home buyers, whose political deprivations have long been augmented by structural economic inequality and plunder. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the experiences of the War, as well as decolonization transpiring in Africa and Asia, helped to inspire the Civil Rights movement, and put an end not to racism but to legal segregation and disenfranchisement.
Beyond Magda Teter’s primary thesis that the Christian degradation and subordination of Jews, extending back to biblical times, was transferred to the enslavement of Blacks at the hands of Europeans in the early modern period, a secondary narrative describes how each advance by Jews and Blacks has precipitated a backlash, pointing to the reality that these prejudices remain deeply entrenched in American society. Sitting atop this historical dialectic and providing its justification has been the phenomenon of white Christian supremacy.
Teter ends her book with the insurrectionary assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. In line with her thesis, White Christian supremacy was clearly in evidence; some rioters were donning antisemitic slogans, while others carried crosses and Christian symbols.
It’s a powerful narrative, rich in detail, and rigorously argued. But there are also notable omissions. Christian nationalism is ominously present on the Trumpist and extremist agenda. It is the American component of what is a more expansive religiously based nationalism that is making inroads internationally. Arguably inaugurated by the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, we see variants of religious nationalism in Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s Hindutva in India, in Israel under Netanyahu, and elsewhere. Magda Teter’s study points to the emergence of a Christian nationalist movement in the United States. Its conclusions would be enhanced if she provided elaboration, perforce speculative, as to what precisely Christian nationalists in this country want. How is their movement organized? What would a Christian nationalist America look like?
Acknowledging white Christian hegemony, I found it surprising that she has little to say about the role of evangelical Christians specifically. Claiming tens of millions of Americans, the evangelical movement since the late 1970s has moved the political landscape far to the right. During the George W. Bush administration, they had hundreds of members of Congress in their pockets. Arguably, evangelicalism is no longer a religious movement, but a political one spewing extremist positions riddled with misogyny, anti-gay rhetoric, and a contempt for Democrats, liberalism, and pluralism. Donald Trump would not have been elected without their support. Their putative love for Israel is based on the theological presumption that Jews need to be regrouped in the Holy Land in order to jump-start the Second Coming of Christ. At that time, Jews will either convert to Christianity or die. Their ostensible philo-semitism is anything but. It is a blatant expression of Christian supersessionism played out on the contemporary political stage, and as such is a prime expression of Teter’s thesis.
The author might have given more attention to the role of the Ku Klux Klan, and such noted antisemites as Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Charles Coughlin. But perhaps she concluded that these subjects have been amply explicated in other texts dealing explicitly with antisemitism, and it better to unearth lesser-known figures.
In closing, Christian Supremacy has done a masterful job of explaining how deeply rooted racism and antisemitism have been baked into American history and endures. It goes far in clarifying the extremism of white supremacy and explains how what has in recent decades been confined to the lunatic fringe, is more mainstream than we would otherwise wish to countenance.
We need history to understand the present. But in this critic’s view, Magda Teter’s prodigious work requires a response that looks to the future. As a progressive, I believe in the possibility of moral and social progress. As a humanist, I believe in an open future, and while our future may be shaped by the past, it is not determined by it.
It’s important to note that renewed expressions of white Christian supremacy, as Magda Teter so amply documents, have been responses to advances in the status of Jews and Blacks, both in Europe and the United States. Those advances have been as real as the endurance of racism and anti-Semitism, and provide the foundations on which to build a more benign future marked by greater equality and justice.
Antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high in recent decades, and we have just seen the conclusion of the trial of the assailant in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most devastating antisemitic incident in American history. But this time, the government is on the side of the Jews and not their persecutors as was true in ages past.
Anti-Black racism is still very much with us. We have far to go. But there has been real progress. The Great Society programs of the 1960s helped to leverage more than half the Black population into the middle class. And while the election of Barack Obama has been met by backlash that has unearthed the extremism that so ominously confronts us, electing an African-American to our highest office speaks to a reality that stands against the perdurance of racism.
We are at a precarious moment and our democracy and freedom stand at a precipice. We need history to help guide us to an unknown future, and Magda Teter’s far-reaching explanation of where we have arrived is essential reading. It is a book for our time, and I strongly recommend it.
When it comes to our choices in this difficult moment, we must remain as inspired by the future as we are enlightened by the past.
Dr Joseph Chuman teaches Human Rights at Columbia University and Hunter College, CUNY. He recently retired as leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ. You can follow his writing here.