On this site, I am interested in ideas and in the exchange of ideas. Dr. Thomas Krannawitter, one of my instructors during my time as a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute, has a different opinion of the president’s prayer breakfast remarks. I offer them here for your enjoyment and discussion. There is a reason LIBERTY is in the title of this site.
Conservative outrage, whether real or feigned, continues to boil after President Obama’s speech the National Prayer Breakfast. But here’s the rub: Much of what he said is true. Or at least, not false.
Let me be clear: I am no apologist for Islam. I do not for a moment believe that the Qur’an is some holy book revealed to man by Allah or any other allegedly divine being. Further, I see little moral reasoning in the dogmatic tenets of Islam. Allah, so far as I can discern, represents sheer power, or might. Allah’s alleged authority, so far as I can discern, is rooted in nothing but his own will, which is the source of his might. And I, for one, reject the idea that might makes right.
More, it is far from clear whether Muslims seeking to spread their religion through violence, terror, or deceit are guilty of “distorting” or “perverting” the teachings Islam, as President Obama suggested yesterday. It is arguable, based on the text of the Qur’an, that Muslims seeking to spread their religion through violence, terror, or deceit are pious, faithful followers of the book they believe is holy and the religion built around it.
That said, let me add a few thoughts about the President’s remarks regarding Christianity, slavery, and Jim Crow. As someone who has spent years studying and teaching the problem of slavery in American, I can say that Obama certainly is correct that Christianity was used to justify both slavery and Jim Crow in the United States. Slavery benefited from many justifications, defenses, explanations and excuses, but none were more prominent than those drawn from Christianity.
As some have already pointed out, many Americans who most opposed to slavery in the 19th century, including some leading abolitionists, tried to argue AGAINST slavery by arguing FOR Christianity. But that was not the tactic of the man who waged the greatest and most successful campaign against slavery: Abraham Lincoln, who rarely mentioned Christianity at all in his public utterances as well as most of his private correspondence.
Further, it is far from clear that the Christian justification for slavery and later Jim Crow represented departures from Christian tradition or from Christian Scripture. Those who made the Christian case FOR slavery were deeply devoted, learned, well-read churchmen. And they made the case so strong and so coherent that some Christian abolitionists abandoned Christianity altogether, convinced that slavery was wrong while failing to find fuel for their abolitionist beliefs in Scripture. (Here, the work of Mark Noll is instructive, especially his book “America’s God” published by Oxford University Press in 2005.)
The Christianity in America leading up to the Civil War was greatly influenced by the 2nd Great Awakening and its philosophic roots in the anti-Enlightenment thought of Rousseau and his philosophic followers. Thus the Christianity in America in the mid-19th century, by and large, rejected the authority of reason. Certainly the American Christians of that day largely rejected what they saw as the corrupt, prideful, rationalistic doctrine of the “natural law,” thereby laying the enthusiastic and romantic foundations for what would become latter day American Evangelical Christianity.
But if American Christians refused to reason, morally, about a subject such as slavery, where then did they turn for instruction? Answer: The Bible. The American Christian argument for slavery can be distilled down to this:
- Christians believe sin is whatever their God declares to be sinful.
2. The God of the Christians nowhere in sacred Scripture or anywhere else declares slavery to be sinful.
3. Ergo, slavery is not sinful.
4. The God of the Bible does, however, offer regulations about how slavery should be conducted, including instructions about how a master should treat a slave, when it is appropriate for a master to punish a slave and what that punishment might be, as well as how a slave should treat a master, all of which seems to indicate that if anything, slavery is a Biblical institution.
Others can make what they want of such arguments. Here, in my role as a teacher, I offer merely the ideas of some prominent thinkers and influential men, all of whom were Christian:
“[Lincoln] holds that the negro was born his equal and yours, and that he was endowed with equality by the Almighty, and that no human law can deprive him of these rights which were guaranteed to him by the Supreme ruler of the Universe. Now, I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended the Negro to be the equal of the white man. If He did, He has been a long time demonstrating the fact. For thousands of years the Negro has been a race upon the earth, and during all that time, in all latitudes and climates, wherever he has wandered or been taken, he has been inferior to the race which he has there met. He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position.”
–Stephen A. Douglas, first joint debate with Abraham Lincoln, 1858
“Sir, I come now to the Bible argument. I begin at the beginning of eternity! WHAT IS RIGHT AND WRONG? That’s the question of questions. Two theories have obtained in the world. The one is, that right and wrong are eternal facts; that they exist per se in the nature of things; that they are ultimate truths above God; that he must study, and does study, to know them, as really as man. And that he comprehends them more clearly than man, only because he is a better student than man. Now, sir, this theory is atheism. For if right and wrong are like mathematical truths-fixed facts-then I may find them out, as I find out mathematical truths, without instruction from God.
“The other theory is that right and wrong are results brought into being, mere contingencies, means to good, made to exist solely by the Will of God, expressed through his word.
“These two theories of Right and Wrong—these two ideas of human liberty—the right in the nature of things, or the right as made by God—the liberty of the individual man, on the one hand, of Atheism, of Red Republicanism, of the Devil—or the liberty of man in the family, in the State, the liberty from God—these two theories now make the conflict of the world. This anti-slavery battle is only part of the great struggle: God will be victorious, and we, in his might.”
–Rev. Frederick Ross, “Slavery Ordained By God” (1857)
“In answering this question, as a church, let it be distinctly borne in mind that the only rule of judgment is the written word of God. The church knows nothing of the intuitions of reason or the deductions of philosophy, except those reproduced in the Sacred Canon. She has a positive constitution in the Holy Scriptures and has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth. She is founded, in other words, upon express revelation. Her creed is an authoritative testimony of God and not a speculation, and what she proclaims, she must proclaim with the infallible certitude of faith and not with the hesitating assent of an opinion.
“The question, then, is brought within a narrow compass: Do the Scriptures directly or indirectly condemn slavery as a sin? If they do not, the dispute is ended, for the church, without forfeiting her character, dares not go beyond them.
“Now, we venture to assert that if men had drawn their conclusions upon this subject only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy, or poverty. The truth is, men have listened to what they falsely considered as primitive intuitions, or as necessary deductions from primitive cognitions, and then have gone to the Bible to confirm their crotchets of their vain philosophy. They have gone there determined to find a particular result, and the consequence is that they leave with having made, instead of having interpreted, Scripture. Slavery is no new thing. It has not only existed for aged in the world but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.
“Indeed, the first organization of the church as a visible society, separate and distinct from the unbelieving world, was inaugurated in the family of a slaveholder. Among the very first persons to whom the seal of circumcision was affixed were the slaves of the father of the faithful, some born in his house and others bought with his money. Slavery again reappears under the Law. God sanctions it in the first table of the Decalogue, and Moses treats it as an institution to be regulated, not abolished; legitimated and not condemned. We come down to the age of the New Testament, and we find it again in the churches founded by the apostles under the plenary inspiration of the Holy Ghost. These facts are utterly amazing, if slavery is the enormous sin which its enemies represent it to be. It will not do to say that the Scriptures have treated it only in a general, incidental way, without any clear implication as to its moral character. Moses surely made it the subject of express and positive legislation, and the apostles are equally explicit in inculcating the duties which spring from both sides of the relation. They treat slaves as bound to obey and inculcate obedience as an office of religion a thing wholly self-contradictory if the authority exercised over them were unlawful and iniquitous.
“But what puts this subject in a still clearer light is the manner in which it is sought to extort from the Scriptures a contrary testimony. The notion of direct and explicit condemnation is given up. The attempt is to show that the genius and spirit of Christianity are opposed to it that its great cardinal principles of virtue are utterly against it. Much stress is laid upon the Golden Rule and upon the general denunciations of tyranny and oppression. To all this we reply that no principle is clearer than that a case positively excepted cannot be included under a general rule.
Let us concede, for a moment, that the law of love, and the condemnation of tyranny and oppression seem logically to involve, as a result, the condemnation of slavery; yet, if slavery is afterwards expressly mentioned and treated as a lawful relation, it obviously follows, unless Scripture is to be interpreted as inconsistent with itself, that slavery is, by necessary implication, excepted. The Jewish law forbad, as a general rule, the marriage of a man with his brother’s wife. The same law expressly enjoined the same marriage in a given case. The given case was, therefore, an exception, and not be treated as a violation of the general rule. The law of love has always been the law of God. It was enunciated by Moses almost as clearly as it was enunciated by Jesus Christ. Yet, notwithstanding this law, Moses and the apostles alike sanctioned the relation of slavery.
“The conclusion is inevitable, either that the law is not opposed to it or that slavery is an excepted case. To say that the prohibition of tyranny and oppression include slavery is to beg the whole question. Tyranny and oppression involve either the unjust usurpation or the unlawful exercise of power. It is the unlawfulness, either in its principle or measure, which constitutes the core of the sin. Slavery must, therefore, be proved to be unlawful before it can be referred to any such category. The master may, indeed, abuse his power, but he oppresses, not simply as a master but as a wicked master.
“But apart from all this, the law of love is simply the inculcation of universal equity. It implies nothing as to the existence of various ranks and graduations in society. The interpretation which makes it repudiate slavery would make it equally repudiate all social, civil, and political inequalities. Its meaning is not that we should conform ourselves to the arbitrary expectations of others but that we should render unto them precisely the same measure which, if we were in their circumstance, it would be reasonable and just in us to demand at their hands. It condemns slavery, therefore, only upon the supposition that slavery is a sinful relation that is, he who extracts the prohibition of slavery from the Golden Rule begs the very point in dispute.
“We have assumed no new attitude. We stand exactly where the Church of God has always stood from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, from Christ to the reformers, and from the reformers to ourselves. We stand upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”
–James Henley Thornwell, “A Southern Christian View of Slavery” (1861).
I am no apologist for Islam. I am a lover of freedom. I am free and I intend to remain so. And I do not understand freedom to mean submission to the alleged commands of divines who seem unreasonable.