The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Marler, Scott P.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Kidd, Colin
Accession Number: 209577966
Full Text: The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000. By Colin Kidd (Cambridge, U.K., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii plus 309 pp. $30.99).

Among the many strengths of Colin Kidd's book on the relationship between Protestantism and race from the seventeenth century to the present is his extended prologue, in which he coolly but methodically lays out the key points of the antiracist consensus that now embraces the full spectrum of scholarly practice, from the humanities to the hard sciences. Yet despite this broad agreement, there are still many issues to be addressed, and Kidd's study is predicated on his belief that the 'social-constructedness' school of race has yet to pay sufficient attention to what he calls "the dominant feature of western cultural life," Christianity--a neglect he attributes mainly to a scholarly tendency to subsume race within the "social relations of power" (p. 19).

Seeking to "re-centre narratives of race" around scriptural rather than political encounters (p. 2) in order to prove that Christian theology was "the primary cultural influence" on the development of racialist ideas (p. 19), Kidd, an intellectual historian, skillfully leads readers through the thickets of often-arcane theological disputes that cover nearly half a millennium. While some of this journey follows well-trodden ground (like his chapter on proslavery racial ideologies in the nineteenth-century American South), Kidd is clearly most sure-footed in the early modern and Enlightenment periods. The most recurrent theme in these chapters is his discussions of the ways that orthodox defenses of monogenesis (the doctrine of mankind's common descent from a single ancestor) "promoted the notion that ... race was a matter of delusive appearances" (p. 27). Although many historians might find the idea that Christianity served as a "negative inhibitory influence" (p. 26) on the development of racialism to be counterintuitive, Kidd marshals a great deal of convincing evidence to advance his arguments. Similarly, he later bucks conventional wisdom by maintaining the Enlightenment has been too simplistically equated with secularism and thereby held overly responsible for the emergence of so-called scientific racism during the mid-nineteenth century.

These and other parts of his book reveal Kidd to be a thorough, judicious historian of ideas--but that said, there are a few problems with his study. For example, the very "culture of hermeneutic freedom" inherent to Protestantism (p. 53) frustrates Kidd's attempts to distill consistent positions among his subjects. The protean nature of intellectual history (like 'nailing jelly to a wall,' as one practitioner famously put it) allows him to declare without apparent fear of contradiction that Christian doctrines "tended to inhibit a full acceptance of racial diversity," yet then to also insist, on the same page, that "theology constrained the expression of racialist sentiments" (p. 25). While the drift of Kidd's analysis emphasizes the latter statement, the former also held true at times in the writings of disparate biblical exegetes.

The most serious problems, however, arise from Kidd's seeming aversion to historical context. His doggedly internalist perspective on the history of ideas leaves him determined to engage theologians on their own terms, yet such an approach not only threatens to overwhelm us with a cacaphony of competing voices (somewhat akin to the Babel myth he so deftly deconstructs), but they also make Kidd's discrete studies more valuable as descriptions than for their overarching explanatory power. Thus his offhanded admission that "Christianity has rarely been sufficient in itself to prevent acts of racial oppression" (p. 25) seems to acknowledge the inability of his thesis to grapple with what is surely European racialism's most enduring legacy. Ultimately, it seems hard to deny that racial oppression is best understood as a political question--just the sort of issue Kidd abjures.

Kidd's avoidance of power relations may also account for his failure to link Scripture-based racialism to colonization and diasporic processes. For example, many recent historians have emphasized the importance of protoracialist rationalizations that undergirded the brutal Tudor and Stuart subjugation of Ireland, but Kidd makes only passing reference to the bestialization of Celtic peoples (pp. 77-78), attitudes that persisted deep into the nineteenth century among English Protestants. Nor does Kidd comment on persistent controversies over the conversion of African slaves, which were a revealing measure of the institutional toothlessness of the Anglican Church and its missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in the Americas. Finally, even though Jews were frequently subjected to differential racial treatment and harsh persecution in Protestant strongholds like England and Germany beginning in the early modern period, Kidd pays only tangential attention to anti-Semitism, which most scholars agree constituted one of the main strands of modern racism.

All of these examples highlight the degree to which discussions of Protestantism and race cannot easily be considered apart from the Catholic spectre that haunted the emergence of European modernity. Since racialized anti-Semitism first took shape in the sixteenth-century Spanish doctrine of limpieza de sangre, Kidd might justify his inattention to it as a function of his caveat, buried in an endnote, that "the story of the Iberian and Catholic Atlantic is a very different one" (p. 282 n.71). But the defense of monogenesis, so central to Kidd's arguments, was equally pronounced among Catholic theologians, and Church punishments for pre-Adamite heresies were also severe. Moreover, given the Church's institutional monopoly and relative doctrinal unity, both of which were precluded by Protestant sectarianism, the lines of influence between biblically derived ideas and racialist practices should be clearer and more consistent among Catholics. Yet in fact, apart from their relative tolerance toward racial intermingling, the treatment of indigenous peoples in the French and Spanish Catholic empires in the Americas diverged greatly. That these differences are difficult to explain by reference to theological imperatives casts comparative doubt on Kidd's efforts to portray scripture as the "primary ... influence" on racialist ideas among highly disputatious Protestant countercultures.

As is evident in the writings of Eurocolonial apologists from Hakluyt through Defoe, the Ibero-Catholic experience in the Americas was, at a minimum, contrapuntal to Anglo-Protestant constructions of racially based slavery, so to consider these developments more or less in vacuo, as Kidd does, risks leaving the impression that English attitudes toward Indians and Africans were generated by a logic internal to Protestantism. Moreover, since no such unitary doctrine existed, even Kidd's decision to situate his arguments within a "Protestant Atlantic World" is problematic. If the Atlantic paradigm has shown us anything in recent years, it is the error of treating national, imperial, or religious cultures as semi-autonomous spheres rather than as porous zones of exchange. Since European racialism developed at the ground-level within dynamic borderland contexts like cultural syncreticism, international political rivalries, and transatlantic commerce, it is questionable whether crucial issues connected to racial ideologies--most notably, the rise, expansion, and eventual abolition of African slavery--can be reasonably divorced from the social relations of power throughout the Atlantic World and approached instead mainly as intellectual problems.

In his conclusion, Kidd deals with such objections by adamantly insisting that "doctrinal preference was a crucial determinant of racial attitudes, albeit not in any ... straightforward way" (p. 272, emphasis in original). But while such honesty is admirable in a highly ambitious work that Kidd modestly calls "suggestive rather than exhaustive" (p. 53), it does seem to undermine any broader potential claims about the relationship between Protestantism and race that could be verified empirically or applied comparatively by other historians.

Scott P. Marler

University of Memphis
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