The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Religion can do Horrible Things

Connor asks, “What is the worst thing that has ever been done in the name of your religious tradition?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“The Methodist Episcopal Church was established in this country in December 1784. Methodist congregations were in all thirteen colonies. The organizing conference stated that any Methodist who owned any enslaved persons must grant them their freedom by 1788. If they failed to do so, they could no longer retain membership in the Methodist Church. 

“However, to appease the southern congregations, that rule was quietly dropped. In the interest of church growth, denominational leaders chose to tolerate slavery and white supremacy. The Methodist Church grew rapidly while leaders debated whether it was acceptable for Christians to own and exploit the labor of other human beings. 

“The argument was resolved at the 1844 General Conference when the church split. The Northern church would follow the directions of its founder, John Wesley. It prohibited slave-holding and advocated for abolition of slavery. 

“The Southern church (known as The Methodist Episcopal Church – South) accepted slavery. It was established in the states that would in a few years secede from the union and become the Confederate States of America. Many historians believe the split of The Methodist Episcopal Church north and south helped set the stage for the Civil War.

“Finally, in 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church-South, and Methodist Protestant Church merged to become The Methodist Church. The new denomination created five regional jurisdictions in the USA. They also maintained Jim Crow segregation by creating a separate Central Jurisdiction for all Black Methodist congregations. 

“The Central Jurisdiction was abolished when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968 to create The United Methodist Church. But the church continues to live with the heritage of racism and white supremacy. One of its manifestations today is discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“American Presbyterianism’s worst sin to date was the 19th century attempt to defend chattel slavery, or at least to accommodate it; and when that evil institution was abolished, to promote segregation of the races and a system of ‘Jim Crow’ laws and customs that disadvantaged and oppressed African American citizens for many decades. 

“In both cases, Presbyterian theologians wrested the Scriptures in their attempt to defend the indefensible. The American Civil War, bloody and destructive as it was, did not change their minds but only hardened them in their racist attitudes. The list includes many of the best and brightest leaders in the Presbyterian Church. Church members were left to live comfortably with their own racist attitudes and practices until well into the 1960s.

“Not all Presbyterians were so inclined, however. Smaller denominations such as the Reformed Presbyterians (RPCNA) and the United Presbyterians (UPCNA) were early in the field in the fight to abolish slavery;, and after emancipation, they came to the aid of the ‘freedmen’ of the South. Both denominations were rooted in the ‘Covenanter’ tradition of Scotland, and the fight for a free church in a free state. They regarded the US Constitution as immoral because it accommodated slavery, thus defecting from the truths asserted in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator’ with ‘unalienable rights’ to life and liberty.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“While Unitarians and Universalists faiths go back centuries the merger of these two religious traditions happened in 1961. In that time, I believe our greatest failure or sin occurred in 1968/69. We were strongly active in the civil rights movement and the number of Black and People of Color joining our denomination was steadily increasing. Black leadership asked for financial support to create new programs and we as an Assembly voted to approve the funds. The following year with a budget shortfall our Association withdrew the funds from our Black leadership to balance the budget. The entire handling of this betrayal and crisis was a failure to live out our values and reeked of white supremacy culture. To this day we continue to try to heal this painful wound. We are beginning to truly own our failures of the past and make positive systemic change going forward. We still have so much work to do around racial equity.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Please remember that any Church is a human creation. Human beings are finite. Institutions created by humans are imperfect by nature.

“Spiritual difficulties arise in each era of religious history, both in the Church and in society. One may only look at the persecution of members of the faithful of Christ, or the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, or the spiritual split between the Orthodox and Latin Churches, or the Reformation, or the human slavery of Black men and women, or the abortion of babies, or even the sexual abuse crisis in modern-day. Humans have allowed many awful things to happen.

“My opinion: is that there is a commonality in the history above. The basis for the worst things that happen is the human act of a compromised relationship with God. The result is the creation of a split between fellow human beings. These divisions often include the dehumanizing and the spiritual denigration of other human beings. All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. When we choose to be silent about human rights, the atmosphere is ripe for the worst to occur.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“In ancient history, the Crusades. Today, although there is a notable shift, denying LGBTQI the fullness of their humanity and participation in Christian community.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.