In 1946 Democratic Senator Theodore Bilbo wrote a tragic book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, which argued for purity of the races. He suggested that both black and white should wish to maintain segregation in order to protect their distinct races. Bilbo illustrated how important racial purity was to him, saying,
“Personally, the writer of this book would rather see his race and his civilization blotted out with the atomic bomb than to see it slowly but surely destroyed in the maelstrom of miscegenation, interbreeding, intermarriage and mongrelization. The destruction in either case would be inevitable – one in a flash and the other by the slow but certain process of sin, degradation, and mongrelization.”
Bilbo’s sentiment was not uncommon in his day, and even in this one there are voices of agreement. But where does Bilbo’s “purity” concept come from? What is the root of this desire for racial separateness? His use of the Bible provides some help in answering the question. Bilbo justifies the segregation idea as rooted in God’s own design: “The fact that God did ordain the division of the people of the earth into separate races as a part of the Divine plan is sufficient for our purpose…God saw fit to segregate and separate the different races by placing each in different lands. He located the white races in the middle northern hemisphere, and placed the Negro in Africa, and the brown and yellow peoples in other spheres, as far as possible from each other. He divided them by color lines as well as by territorial lines so that each race would maintain its racial integrity.”
In Bilbo’s view, God set the distinctions, thus to “mix and mingle and intermarry with white people” is “to defy the laws of God and man.” Consequently, the contemporary struggles to advance segregation were justified, in the minds of Bilbo and others. Bilbo illustrates this when he asks, “Since God set the example, why should Southerners be so severely criticized for following His footsteps?”
What Bilbo is referring to as God’s ordaining of the division is found in Genesis 11. In this chapter, all humanity had failed to obey God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). Instead they were remaining in one place, lest they “be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” God confused their language “so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7). It is clear from the context that this scattering had to do with forcing humanity to obey God’s earlier command, and thwarting human attempts at centralizing (in this case in direct disobedience to God). Unlike as in Bilbo’s interpretation, this division had absolutely nothing to do with race. It was the languages that were confused, not the skin colors, and not the blood.
Bilbo proclaims that, “nothing is more sacred than racial integrity. Purity of race is a gift of God. But it is a gift which man can destroy. And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.“ Yet there is no Scripture that would agree with the statement that purity of race is a gift of God, nor that racial integrity is sacred. These are not Biblical concepts.
Bilbo even appeals to Jesus as a supporter of separateness: “Racial integrity and the purity of the blood are in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ who set the standards for high and noble living some two thousand years ago.“ Yet again, there is no statement of Jesus that can be used to support these assertions.
Bilbo moves further into the New Testament, explaining that Paul shouldn’t be interpreted literally, lest we misunderstand how God intends us to handle race: “Paul’s statement that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth’ is as much spiritual as his other statement that God “dwelleth not in temples made with hands” and his assurance that the Lord “be not far from every one of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being…for we are also his offspring.” It may also be pointed out that in the same verse which made reference to the “one blood” of all nations of men, the great Disciple said that God “hath determined…the bounds of their habitation.” Until some men migrated and others were moved by force by their conquerors, who can say that it was not in the Divine scheme of things that the different races should be on the separate continents with physical barriers to prevent their intermingling?”
Specifically, Bilbo is referencing Acts 17:26, in which Paul addressing the men of Athens explains how God is worthy of worship and how He had interacted with humanity in Jesus Christ. Bilbo emphasizes Paul’s mention that God has “established the boundaries of their habitation” as a design for racial separateness. Clearly, Paul has no racial issues in mind, as he agrees with the Athenian poets who said “For we are also His children” (Acts 17:28). Further, Paul presents the universal need and opportunity for repentance (Acts 17:30). Later Paul would explain that all are in need of salvation (Rom 1:17-20), it is a universal that crosses racial distinctions.
Bilbo seeks to protect the races from intermarriage that would destroy their uniqueness, and he offers an interpretation of history that would agree with the negative impact of intermarriage. He concludes that viewing intermarriage positively doesn’t allow for a proper view of God: “Those who are attempting to implant the doctrine of social equality of the races throughout this land and seeking to promote the intermarriage of the races must indeed think that Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, made a mistake…”
According to Bilbo, there are sobering consequences for viewing God this way. Engaging in any joining of the races is highly problematic: “The very fact that separate and distinct races of mankind have been created makes it impossible for anyone to claim that God did not ordain the racial distinction. When man breaks the laws of God and brings about the mixing of the blood of the different races, he and his posterity will pay the penalty.”
Bilbo wants America to avoid this penalty, and thus advocates strongly for segregation and racial separateness. The logical conclusion of Bilbo’s views, played out especially in the last two centuries of American history, is oppression and disunity.
I find Bilbo’s error symptomatic of three deeper failures.
First, Bilbo has a theological precommitment favoring segregation and racial separateness, so when he invokes the Bible he does not do so in a literal grammatical-historical way. In other words, he is not handling the text objectively, but rather he is reading into the text concepts that are entirely foreign to it. Bilbo has failed to interpret the Bible well, and has made it say things it doesn’t say, and in so doing has made God the scapegoat for Bilbo’s errant views. The Biblical God is not a racist. Certainly He commanded Israel to remain separate from the nations around it – even avoiding intermarrying with them. But this was for a very specific reason having nothing to do with blood and race: “For they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods…” (Deut 7:4). Bilbo doesn’t acknowledge that purpose, nor does he acknowledge that God’s commands in this context were for Israel alone, and not for America or any other nation.
Second, Bilbo perceives Darwin as a “great scientist,” along with Spencer, Haeckel, Mendel, and Pearson – particularly in discussing the power of heredity. Bilbo betrays a Darwinian assessment on racial superiority. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life went a long way in encouraging humanity in the view that some races were “favoured” genetically over others. Even Darwin’s own experience in viewing “savage” peoples caused him to view his own culture as so far superior that the two groups could have only distant relation. Darwin once remarked, “Viewing such men, one can hardly make one’s self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world…Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, whence have they come? What could have tempted, or what change compelled a tribe of men, to leave the fine regions of the north…? I believe, in this extreme part of South America, man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world.” The inferiority of races is a Darwinian idea, not a Biblical one.
Finally, Bilbo – like all of us – is beset by the selfish, envious, and dark flaws of fallen human nature. “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). When we hold views that elevate us over others, we are being deceived by our own brokenness. James offers a simple warning to believers that we are not to “hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus with an attitude of personal favoritism” (Jam 2:1). James also identifies the source of our disunity and conflicts: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (Jam 4:1-2a). The problem is our own brokenness. The solution James prescribes is to “Submit therefore to God…Humble yourselves in the presence of God and He will exalt you” (Jam 4:7a, 10). Paul echoes these words in Philippians 2:3, when he says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” To suggest that one race is superior to another is an empty conceit. How can we possibly regard one another as more important than ourselves if we are claiming that we are more important than others? These are mutually exclusive ideas.
Better to serve one another, to love one another, in honor of our Lord who died and rose again so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. Let us never forget that people of all races will dwell together forever.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thes 5:9-11).
 Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, edited by Charles Eliot (New York: PF Collier and Sons, 1909), 228-246.