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The speech is titled "The Church and Prejudice," so yeah, that's one of the main themes. And in this case, we're talking about racial prejudice. Douglass is saying that racial prejudice has carved itself out a comfy seat, or maybe even a padded pew, in the powerful institution of the Church. And since power plus prejudice equals racism...the church is racist.
Douglass' examples of prejudice in the church support his argument in other writings that the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of America need to get to know each other a little better.
Douglass seems to think that the churches of his day got around the issues of real Christian values by claiming that slavery was a Christian value.
Religion takes a beating in this speech. Not religious faith itself, but religious hypocrites: people who claim to be believing Christians and still condone slavery and racial discrimination. Douglass spends the first half of the speech discussing his experiences in Northern churches—where Christians aren't necessarily pro-slavery, but they aren't necessarily pro-black people, either.
They can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk.
In the second half of the speech, Douglass calls out pious Southerners who use the Christian Bible to justify slavery. Northern and Southern churches may differ on exactly how to practice their prejudice against black people—but they're bound by that prejudice nonetheless. What makes Douglass effective in rebuking the churches is that he knows his Gospels, too, and he's not buying.
Both Northern and Southern churches appear to interpret the Bible as condoning racial prejudice.
Slavery and prejudice wouldn't have survived as long as they did without the complicity of the Christian church.
About the final third of the speech deals with prejudice in the Southern church. Slavery is the cause of prejudice in the North, Douglass argues, but in the South—well, slavery's a way of life, and slaveholders and ministers use the Bible as a means of justifying slavery.
The fact that the entire economy of the South was completely dependent on the institution of slavery was just totally a huge coincidence, we're sure.
Southern churches used religion to argue that slavery is fine by God—in fact, God invented slavery as a means of keeping everyone happy, content, useful, and fulfilled in their right place. If you want to please God and go to heaven, say slaveholders, be a good slave and make life easy for your masters. Be grateful you don't have to do any thinking or worrying like your poor masters who lose sleep over thinking about how to take care of you.
Chew on that, Shmoopers.
Religious freedom doesn't give Americans the right to deny basic rights to other Americans; slavery was Exhibit A.
Shakespeare wrote that "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." He wasn't kidding.