Skip to main content

Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Marriage & American Law

Fay Botham
Published by University of North Carolina Press in 2012

Just a few decades ago, it was illegal in much of the United States for a white person and a black person to marry. Today, intermarriage is not illegal, and the very term formerly used to prohibit it—miscegenation—seems a distasteful relic of an ugly, bygone era. Frankly, most Americans rarely think about the subject anymore.

It would be easy to attribute this change to cultural events, among them the integration of the armed forces after World War II, the inspiring example of Jackie Robinson and, of course, the dramatic Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1950s and ’60s, all of which contributed to the slow (and by no means complete) erosion of race prejudice in this country. But American law does not work that way. Except when legislatures reverse themselves, laws are changed when lawyers argue that they must be, and judges agree. Lawyers and judges are hardly immune to cultural forces, but in the rarified setting of the courtroom, those broad forces combine with fine points of legal reasoning and precedent in very specific and sometimes surprising ways.

Law, politics, culture, and religion constitute the matrix from which anti-miscegenation statutes arose and in which they were ultimately defeated. These elements also constitute the materials from which Fay Botham weaves Almighty God Created the Races. Botham displays equal confidence whether writing about court opinions, the personalities of key figures, or theology. Her facility with multiple disciplinary languages is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and it allows her to highlight similarities between legal and theological thinking. Both modes of thinking center on exalted texts, the Constitution and the Bible, yet both are more influenced by the social location of the thinker than practitioners typically admit. In either realm, the seemingly simple question “What does the text say?” is actually the first step into an epistemological and hermeneutical thicket, and the direction from which one enters the thicket heavily influences the path one takes through it.

Botham wends her way to this heady territory via historical particulars. Her title cites a widely quoted statement of Judge Leon Bazile, who in 1965 upheld Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute and thereby denied the right of Richard and Mildred Jeter Loving to live together in that state as husband and wife. Botham explores the famous Loving v. Virginia case, America’s last major anti-miscegenation case, at some length, but she is actually more interested in an earlier case, Perez v. Lippold, which was decided by the California Supreme Court in 1948. Perez, like Loving, ultimately allowed an interracial couple to marry, but the two cases reflected different contexts in terms of place, time and, as Botham is eager to point out, religion.

Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis Jr. met while working for Lockheed Aviation during World War II. They also worshiped together at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles. Perez had brown skin and Hispanic ancestry, but for legal purposes she was categorized as “white.” Davis was black. At their interracial parish in multihued Los Angeles, this difference caused little friction until they expressed their desire to get married in the church. Knowing their marriage would contravene California law, some local Catholic leaders did not support the couple. Other local Catholics, notably those in the short-lived Catholic Interracial Council of Los Angeles, did.

Botham makes much—perhaps a bit too much—of the role of religion in the Perez case. The couple’s attorney, CIC member Daniel Marshall, argued not only that the California anti-miscegenation law violated Perez and Davis’s Fourteenth Amendment rights (due process and equal protection) but also their First Amendment rights (free exercise of religion). Marshall grounded this part of his argument in Roman Catholic theology, which recognizes marriage as a sacrament, or means of grace. Thus, California’s denial of the couple’s right to marry was like the state telling them they could not take Communion or be baptized, both clear violations of the First Amendment. Only one of the California Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor of Perez and Davis indicated that he was persuaded by this novel argument, but, as the vote split 4-3, that one justice was enough.

The religious freedom argument would not have worked for the Lovings, who were Protestants. Nor, for reasons Botham explicates, would Protestants in the states of the former Confederacy have been likely to try it. Southern Protestant theology before and after the Civil War considered racial separation an absolutely necessary part of God’s plan for humankind. As Judge Bazile put it during the Loving case, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages” (2).

Botham’s explanation of how this idea became ingrained in American Protestantism, as well as how it was countered by Roman Catholic thought, is very helpful. She first examines British, French, and Spanish colonies in the New World and finds the British to have been most hostile to interracial unions, largely due to intense concern about preserving white, female virtue. As a practical matter, fewer European women lived in French or Spanish colonies, but at least some of the arbiters of marriage there, Catholic priests, also believed strongly enough in the equality of all people to look past or elide racial boundaries. British Protestant tendencies to uphold rigid social categories generally persisted in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, softening in some places and sharpening in others. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic theology articulated ever stronger opposition to any state-sanctioned segregation, on the grounds that segregation both violated human dignity and challenged the Catholic Church’s authority over such matters as marriage. In all of this work, Botham applies the kind of analysis that made Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (a model she acknowledges) a valuable contribution to the field of U.S. history.

For good and ill, Almighty God reads like a classic dissertation-cum-monograph. Its six chapters tackle distinct aspects of the story Botham wishes to tell, and they stand independently enough to be assigned singly or seriatim as the syllabus of a course in American history, law or religion might require. Botham links all of her main points loosely to Perez, the only narrative running through the whole book, but chronological progression and the contrasts between Protestant and Catholic understandings of race and marriage serve just as well to organize the material. The overall argument flags in spots, as readers are goaded along with insistences that before they can understand y, they must first examine x. Botham has a lot of ground to cover, so a few forced marches are inevitable.

It is only after 178 pages of rigorous and straightforward historical analysis that Botham announces, in the epilogue, what she deems the lessons of her book. “As I see it,” she writes,

Almighty God documents a history of meaning making and the usage of those meanings in order to regulate bodies and identities: how Roman Catholics and Protestants looked to their respective traditions to understand marriage and race; how they “knew” their beliefs and their interpretations of texts to be correct; how those beliefs were subsequently encoded into laws that regulated human behaviors; and even how love has been, and continues to be, culturally (and religiously) constructed (181).

This is theoretical language, the kind more often seen in religious studies than in history. The epilogue is far more political than the body of the book, too, as it moves from the fairly safe and settled topic of interracial marriage to the incendiary topic of same-sex marriage. Botham’s assertion that neither the Constitution nor the Bible ever says anything, for they are always interpreted by human beings, marks a solid end point to her history of interracial marriage. By contrast, her concluding speculations on “what hope is there for American Christians to alter their views and recognize the sanctity of same-sex unions” (190) might be a step too far for some readers. Traditionalist Christians are not the audience ofthe book, so it seems odd to make them the target on the final page. Fortunately, this hint of bitterness is not evident throughout the text, which would be suitable for use in upper-division courses at colleges with any, or no, religious affiliation.

Cite this article
Elesha Coffman, “Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Marriage & American Law.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 234-236

Elesha Coffman

Waynesburg University
Elesha Coffman, History, Waynesburg University