- Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law
Campaigns to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples have inspired activists, journalists, scholars, and others to look to the history of interracial marriage for comparisons. Fay Botham’s new book appears as one consequence of these interests. Frustrated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s refusal to countenance marriage for same-sex partners in the early twenty-first century, Botham details the Roman Catholic Church’s relatively progressive attitude toward interracial marriage in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. She notes as well the pernicious influence of southern Protestant beliefs about racial differences to the history of interracial marriage in the United States. Historians need works that probe these intersections among religion, race, sexuality, and American culture. Unfortunately, this book’s flaws limit its usefulness.
Almighty God Created the Races tries to answer two related but distinct questions: First, how did religious ideas and arguments shape antimiscegenation laws in the United States? Second, what role did American ideals of religious freedom play in the campaign to end restrictions on interracial marriage? Botham argues that religion was determinative in both cases. Southern Protestant ideas about racial separateness undergirded the defense of slavery and subsequent rationales for banning interracial sex and marriage. “The attorneys and judges who argued for antimiscegenation laws,” she contends, “employed Protestant theologies of marriage and separate races to bolster their legal arguments” (131). Given the overwhelming predominance of Protestants on the bench, that claim hardly seems surprising, but Botham’s contribution is to tease out how deeply certain Protestant theological [End Page 163] interpretations penetrated American jurisprudence on marriage. Botham argues that, by contrast, Roman Catholic doctrines of racial equality and marital freedom proved crucial to a court case that laid the groundwork for the eventual dismantling of state bans on interracial marriage. These arguments give too much causative weight to theology at the expense of social, cultural, and political history, but they nevertheless result in some insights.
Botham begins with an intriguing premise: that we owe the ultimate dismantling of antimiscegenation laws in the United States to Roman Catholic theologies of marriage and race. In 1947 a county clerk in Los Angeles denied Sylvester Davis Jr. and Andrea Perez a marriage license because Davis was identified as African American and Perez, whose family was of Mexican ancestry, was considered white. Davis and Perez, who were Catholic, hired Daniel Marshall, a lawyer who was both Catholic and liberal, to take their case to the California Supreme Court. Marshall argued that California’s antimiscegenation law denied the religious freedoms of interracial Catholic couples who wanted to participate in what Catholic theology defined as the holy sacrament of marriage. Chief Justice Roger Traynor, who wrote the majority opinion in Perez v. Sharp (which Botham identifies by its less common name, Perez v. Lippold), largely ignored Marshall’s first amendment argument; Botham concedes that “religious freedom . . . did not even make a ‘blip’ on Traynor’s ‘radar screen’ in terms of having any real importance to the case” (42). Botham is intrigued, however, by a concurring opinion, in which one justice agreed with Marshall that the first amendment protected the rights of interracial Catholic couples to marry. Botham argues that because the concurring opinion tipped the court to a 4–3 majority, the case “pivot[ed] on the axis of religious liberty” (49).
More plausible is the argument that Peggy Pascoe made in What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America: that Marshall prevailed in Perez in spite of his religious liberty arguments.1 Marshall instead piqued the court’s interest when he pointed out that most of the cases that the state of California cited as precedence for its antimiscegenation law were steeped in the increasingly discredited logic of race science. As Botham notes, Marshall pressed this point with comparisons to the race science employed in Nazi Germany; the lawyer for the state strained to explain why interracial marriages produced offspring characterized by...