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What Ghana taught me about religious extremism in the U.S.

My trip was a reminder of just how central the Christian churches were in the Atlantic slave trade — and what we can learn from religious extremism today.


It sure feels good to be back. My husband and I spent three days in Spain’s Madrid and Toledo before embarking on our dream weeklong trip to Ghana, where we both have ancestral origins, as many people with Jamaican and Guyanese backgrounds do. 

One of the interesting things about heading to Europe and Africa back-to-back is that it really brought home what friend of the show Robert “Robbie” Jones wrote in his book “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy,” which we discussed on the show last week.

And that is, just how central the Christian churches — the Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans, etc. — were in the grisly enterprise of the Atlantic slave trade. 

Many of those gorgeous churches in Europe were built in the 15th century during the vaunted Age of Exploration, when Christopher Columbus and other European explorers were funded by European royalty, like Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, to get out there and find gold, to finance and gild those massive churches and build the fortunes and castles of the monarchs. And also to build slave castles in places like Elmina and Cape Coast in the Gold Coast, which is present-day Ghana. They were also built in the 15th century.

And as for any Indigenous people the explorers encountered — the so-called Indians in the Americas, or Black Africans — all the explorers had to do, per the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery, was attempt to convert them to Christianity. 

And if they resisted in any way, the explorers had the permission of God himself to conquer them, kill them, enslave them for life, and, most importantly, dispossess them of their lands — with or without a treaty. 

Conquerors enslaved large groups of the newly encountered peoples in the Americas, working many of them to death. And then, a Spanish clergyman, who noted the high death rates from European illnesses among the Indigenous slaves in the Americas, suggested using Africans instead.

Churches were literally — deliberately — built directly on top of the dungeons where the captured Africans were kept.

The arms race was on with the European kingdoms to set up slave trade bases in Africa and buy prisoners of tribal wars or use slave catchers to kidnap as many people as possible. Europeans literally fought mini-wars with each other to hold on to these slave castles to ply their grisly trade. They protected them with literal armies and cannons. That is how valuable the slave trade was.

One of the wildest facts about those slave castles in Cape Coast and Elmina is that churches were literally — deliberately — built directly on top of the dungeons where the captured Africans were kept. The godly governors running the place and their soldiers could contemplate the Almighty — while literally below their feet, men and women packed into the crowded, pitch-dark cells were loudly suffering and often dying, having to eat, sleep, defecate, urinate and everything else on the same dank floors.

And any of them who didn’t go blind or die were forced at gunpoint through the "door of no return" and onto slave ships bound for the New World, never to be heard from again. Those who did die in the slave dungeons did not receive Christian burials, despite the churches overhead. Their bodies were pitched into the sea.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic as human property. The Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced human migration in world history. Millions never survived the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic, their souls lying beneath the sea between Africa and the Americas. And these right-wingers act all shocked that there would be Black mermaids!

Among those who did survive was my own maternal ancestor, a Fulani Muslim woman named Yhaba Waboosia, later a converted Christian renamed Mitchie Johnson. She was born in 1800, and as a 6- or 7-year-old was incarcerated in one of these slave castles in Ghana and shipped to present-day Guyana with her mom. (She actually lived to be 106 years old!) 

She died in 1906 — 23 years before my mother was born. The point is that this stuff is not ancient history. And history is fascinating, right? They should consider making it legal to teach in schools here.

Organized religion has, shall we say, a colorfully mixed history.

And when you look at the sometimes violent history of organized religion — from the slave trade to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials, to the religion-based conflicts and conquests in places like Israel and Palestine, or the emergence of right-wing Christianity-based white supremacy here in the U.S — it should not surprise you that the base of support for far-right policies on banning books and distorting history, on abortion, on LGBTQ issues, and even support for cults like QAnon and the cult of personality around Donald Trump, are all grounded in religious extremism.

I’m not saying religion is always bad. Sometimes it does beautiful things. But organized religion has, shall we say, a colorfully mixed history. And right now, in this country, religious extremism mixed with white nationalism and that Trump cult of personality is straining our society and our democracy to the breaking point.

The question is: What do we do about it?

This is an excerpt from Tuesday’s episode of “The ReidOut.” It has been slightly edited for length and clarity.