American Monotheistic Polytheism:A Retrieval of George Kelsey’s Theological Anthropology of Race

A leading theological anthropology question is, ‘what does it mean to be human?’ But is this question sufficient by itself in a racialized society where Christians struggle to grapple with race and its impact on humanity theologically? Perhaps more important questions are: what does it mean to be human in a racially dehumanizing society? Can a person be both an evangelical Christian and a racist? Have traditional notions of ‘racism as sin’ proven sufficient, or is there a better alternative for imagining race, its being, and its functioning in American Christianity?

This paper seeks to answer these questions by retrieving the theological anthropology of early 20th-century theologian and ethicist, George Kelsey. Kelsey, considered “the only [20th century] theologian in America to offer a thorough analysis of the root causes of racism and the resultant social malaise,” contended that racism, as animated in American society, was both a phenomenon of modernity and a product of secular culture. As a result, he theologically reimagined how race and racism functioned within American Christianity.

Rather than only viewing racism as a sin, Kelsey claimed racism in America embodied all the characteristics of a complete faith system. Furthermore, Kelsey believed this faith system, also called the Racist Faith, contained its own theological anthropology which distorted accurate Christian understandings of humanity and held Christians captive to their distorted imaginations. (Thesis) An analysis of the Racist Faith reveals a work of constructive theological anthropology doctrinally centered in Creation and Christology, theologically rooted in H.R. Niebuhr’s socio-religious analysis of western culture, and philosophically grounded in Martin Buber’s I-Thou framework.

First, this paper will briefly introduce and situate Kelsey within his theological traditions. Next, it will analyze Kelsey’s conception of the Racist Faith and its anthropological implications concerning H. R. Niebuhr’s analysis of western culture, Martin Buber’s I-Thou framework, and the doctrines of Creation and Christology. Lastly, this paper will explore anthropological solutions to the Racist Faith Kelsey identified within the “Renewal of Man,” and their helpfulness, if any, in contemporary Christian dialogue about race and the racial imagination.

4 thoughts on “American Monotheistic Polytheism:A Retrieval of George Kelsey’s Theological Anthropology of Race”

  1. Kelsey was MLK’s prof / never heard a paper on him
    The paper’s topic is George Kelsey, one of MLK’s professors at Morehouse. I read the recommendation letter, and the paper has been reviewed by a fellow ETS member. Kelsey’s work is largely unknown among ETS and this would be a fresh topic.

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