Henry Brinton: The dangerous roots of our American obsession with who’s “in” and who’s “out”

Originally posted on ReadtheSpirit.com, reposted with permission. Visit the website for more resources.


One hundred years ago, cattle were put on trial in the United States. They were led into courtrooms to be sorted out by judges and juries. The cattle were divided into purebred bulls and scrub bulls.

In one case, the defendant’s name was “Mr. Scrub Bull.” According to Duke Magazine, he was escorted by policemen into a makeshift courtroom in South Carolina in October 1922. He stood on his own four legs in front of a magistrate, while a court officer read the charges. “The defendant works in a very underhand way,” the officer declared, “stealing the profits from every dairyman and butcher who has common cows, robbing the unsuspecting, the careless, and the ignorant alike.”

And what was the charge being leveled at Mr. Scrub Bull?

Genetic impurity.

He was not a purebred bull, an animal believed to produce more food than a scrub bull. This “Court of Bovine Justice” was designed to convince farmers that they should choose only purebred bulls when they were looking for an animal to breed with their cows.

Such trials were strange, for sure. But they were endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture, and they became quite popular. Across the country, cattle were routinely put on trial in front of crowds that could number in the thousands. The trials had real judges and real lawyers, witnesses and jurors, and verdicts were issued about whether an animal was fit to breed. The judge might conclude that the animal was an “unworthy father,” one whose very existence was “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”

In the end, the convicted bull would be led away, shot, and then used as barbecue meat. The poor scrub bull would be turned into lunch.

These cattle courts were bizarre, no question about it. But they were connected to an even darker movement in American history.

About the same time, a eugenics movement was on the rise, one that aimed to limit the reproduction of people who were deemed unfit. According to Mother Jones Magazine, due to this obsession with eugenics, “more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.”

Sixty thousand Americans—all were declared to be scrub bulls, unfit for reproduction.

Clearly, when you talk about purebreds and scrubs, this division involves people as well as animals. And, unfortunately, it is nothing new. For thousands of years, we’ve had a problem with scrub bulls.

Go back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after a time of exile. Ezra the priest rejected marriages between Israelites and foreigners, saying to the people, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel … separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10-11). In other words, separate yourselves from the scrubs!

This concern for purity was found in the New Testament as well. When the apostle Peter was on a journey, he went up on a roof to pray, and there he became hungry. He had a vision of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds” (Acts 10:12). Scrub bulls!

Then a voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (vv. 13-14). For a religious man like Peter, only purebred food would do.

But then the divine voice offered a game-changing insight: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 15).

Suddenly, all the “Courts of Bovine Justice” were disbanded, and Peter realized that he could have relationships with people beyond the nation of Israel. He met with a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, and came to the conclusion that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-35).

Purebreds and scrubs. Suddenly, by the power of God, there was no distinction between the two.


Unfortunately, we still have a problem with making distinctions. Political polarization is growing in America today, and the problem may be worse than tribalism.

“It’s not just that people only trust or associate with their own side,” says Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “It’s that they’re contemptuous of the other side, whom they see as ‘other’ and less moral—an existential threat. This rise in ‘out-group’ hate is what we find so alarming.”

Looking across the aisle, we are seeing scrub bulls instead of people.

On the local level, I am seeing that immigrants are coming to church, just as they always have. But where previous waves of immigrants were largely European, these new arrivals are coming from non-Western countries with cultures and skin colors more alien to white Americans than that of Europeans.

Sometimes, these newcomers rattle established churches by introducing new worship styles and beliefs. This is not always well received. When I was serving as pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, we had an African-style service led by new members of the church from Ghana.

One of the older white members said, “If they want to worship that way, fine with me. But don’t bring it into my sanctuary.”

She saw herself as a purebred, and the newcomers as scrubs. She failed to understand that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”


So, what is the solution to the scrub bull problem?

In a word: Hospitality.

This means sitting down at tables and actually talking with people of different races, cultures, religions, and political perspectives. Instead of posting opinions online, we need to have face-to-face conversations. Hospitality is a practice central to the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three trace the activity back to the decision of Abraham to welcome three strangers to his tent by the oaks of Mamre. When he did, he discovered that they were, in fact, the LORD (Genesis 18:1-8).


Although hospitality has been difficult during the pandemic, table conversations are now resuming.

One successful approach is being offered by the organization Braver Angels, which offers Red-Blue workshops. These workshops bring together a small, evenly divided group of conservatives and liberals to talk, clarify disagreements, move beyond stereotypes, and discover common values. The goal is to get beyond scrub-bull thinking.

The organization was created after the 2016 election, when its founders gathered a group of 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio. They wanted to see if Americans could disagree respectfully and perhaps even find common ground. The first gathering was successful, and the approach was then replicated across the country. A podcast was added in 2018, along with a national convention, all designed to reduce polarization in politics.


Another group, working with faith communities, is called Resetting the Table.

The organization recently facilitated a conversation among nine United Methodist pastors from South Carolina, helping them to talk about flags in the church sanctuary and the separation of church and state. United Methodists are currently polarized around a number of issues, including the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people.

Rabbi Melissa Weintrab, founding co-director of the group, said to The Washington Post_, “Listening to those who disagree with us is part and parcel of what it means to listen for God’s voice. We need to investigate our differences courageously.” Founded eight years ago, the group has now trained 43,000 people in a process that includes speaking, listening, and challenging each other respectfully.


The jury is still out, although participants in a recent Braver Angels workshop in La Grange, Texas, were hopeful. Maxine Coppinger, a real estate agent and Democrat, said to NPR: “Well, I found that we are more alike than we are different and that’s the bottom line for me.”

Chuck Mazac, a broker and Republican, said in the same story about Braver Angels: “I found this very, very helpful, and I’m glad I came, even though I was reticent.”

In The Post story about Resetting the Table, Ron Miller, the online dean for the School of Government at Liberty University also expressed optimism. “The idea of looking at the other side of the issue and interpreting it more generously is a game changer if we apply that as a daily discipline.”

As a pastor, I am always trying to encourage face-to-face conversations in the life of the church. This is especially important when we talk about race or climate change or gender identity, or when we struggle with misunderstandings or controversies in the life of the church. We are living in a time in which people find so many things to be offensive, or inappropriate, or profane. These issues are never handled well through Facebook postings or emails or online messages, where outrage gets rewarded and arguments spiral out of control. Such online forums are no better than the Courts of Bovine Justice from a hundred years ago.

Instead, we need to sit down and have conversations with each other, as Abraham did with the strangers by the oaks of Mamre. When we do, we may find that our conversation partners are not scrub bulls.

In fact, as Abraham discovered—they may actually be holy.


MORE ABOUT THE EUGENICS MOVEMENT—PBS in 2018 aired an award-winning documentary The Eugenics Crusade. You can rent-to-stream this documentary via Amazon, or purchase a DVD copy. PBS also has a transcript of the episode available online.


HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post. A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. Henry also is an author of cozy mysteries. You can learn more about his debut cozy, _City of Peace, in our own earlier coverage of that novel. Then, in 2021, Henry added a second mystery novel, Windows of the Heavens. Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.