Slavery, Segregation and Biblical Literalism
September 17, 2013 By Fred Clark
In his review of Carolyn Dupont’s Mississippi Praying, a history of white evangelical support for segregation, John Turner arrives at Dupont’s unavoidable conclusion and balks a bit: “While I agree with Dupont that one cannot simply blame a ‘culture’ while absolving a ‘theology’ … I hesitate to label ‘evangelical theology’ the problem.”
Why not? Evangelical theology certainly didn’t prove itself to be the solution.
Turner notes that, “One could take a rather literalist approach to scripture and arrive at very different conclusions about race and social justice.” And that is true, in theory. But the problem is that in practice, it didn’t happen.
I’m posting this picture of Orlando Jonathan Blanchard Bloom because he’s much prettier than the 19th-century abolitionist he was named after.
Some of my heroes are white evangelical Protestants who began with evangelicalism’s “rather literalist approach to scripture” but who rejected its arguments in defense of slavery or segregation to arrive at such “very different conclusions about race and social justice.” Donald W. Dayton tells the stories of many such justice-driven 19th-century Christians in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage — folks likeJonathan Blanchard or the Tappans. Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis includes the stories of many other abolitionist evangelicals. And I’ve posted excerpts here from the journals of evangelical missionary and abolitionist newspaperman Nathanael Brown.
In the more recent period discussed in Dupont’s history of “Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975″ we can look at people likeClarence Jordan, Will Campbell or Jimmy Carter.
All of those folks started out as evangelical Christians in the Bebbingtonian sense. They began with a typical white evangelical commitment to a proof-texting biblical literalism. But none of them stayed there. They all progressed to, in Turner’s phrase, a “more complicated view of scripture.”
They did so because they had to. Not because they went “liberal,” or because they exchanged a commitment to the Bible for a commitment to justice (as though the Bible has nothing to say about justice). They had to move on from biblical literalism because biblical literalism, when honestly pursued, falls apart.
The white evangelical abolitionists started with the same approach used by the white evangelical defenders of slavery: citing proof-texts and clobber texts they regarded as definitive. For every “slaves obey your masters” quoted by slavery’s defenders, the abolitionists could recite an opposite “break every yoke” and “let the oppressed go free.”
But unlike slavery’s defenders, the abolitionists came to realize that this theological dispute could not be solved by biblical literalism and a proof-texting approach to scripture. Both sides could cite proof texts. What was needed, then, was some approach that could adjudicate between those competing and conflicting claims from scripture. Biblical literalism is no help there because it refuses even to acknowledge that such conflicting views within scripture exist.
The white evangelical opponents of slavery thus adopted a “more complicated view” because biblical literalism was inadequate — incapable of offering wisdom, guidance or truth. As an approach to reading the Bible, it was not profitable for doctrine, for reproof or for instruction in righteousness.
What they required, sought and found, was some way to account for and weigh the competing claims of contradictory proof texts. One of the weaknesses of Noll’s mostly excellent history of the theological argument over American slavery is that he doesn’t fully appreciate this problem of contradictory proof texts — and since he’s unimpressed by the problem, he’s unimpressed by the solution to that problem.
Here’s a bit from Noll’s essay “The Battle for the Bible,” which summarizes much of his argument in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis:
In October 1845, two able theologians debated the Bible’s view of slavery in a public event in Cincinnati that went on for eight hours a day through four long days. Jonathan Blanchard spoke for the abolitionist position, Nathan L. Rice for the position that while the Bible pointed toward the eventual, voluntary elimination of slavery, it nowhere called slavery evil as such.
While Rice methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the proslavery implications of specific texts, Blanchard returned repeatedly to “the broad principle of common equity and common sense” that he found in scripture, to “the general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible,” where to him it was obvious that “the principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness.”
… Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the U.S., as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.
Rice’s claim that the Bible “nowhere called slavery evil as such” is transparent bullshit. In some “specific texts,” the Bible certainly does commend and command slavery. But in other specific texts, the Bible also condemns and rejects slavery. It does both. Blanchard addressed this contradiction. Rice pretended it wasn’t there.
Would Blanchard have been a more persuasive debater had he adopted the mirror image of Rice’s strategy of defiant denial? Should he have abandoned the necessary project of discerning between conflicting claims of scripture and just resorted to a populist approach of repeating the clobber-texts one favors ever-louder while ignoring all the texts that contradict them?
Noll dos an excellent job of explaining why Rice’s simplistic literalism was attractive to a culture conditioned to accept such simplistic literalism, but, like Turner, he seems to “hesitate to label ‘evangelical theology’ the problem.”
It was the problem. It is the problem.
The white evangelical theology of biblical literalism is a device that functions to allow white evangelicals to claim a reverent devotion to biblical literalism while simultaneously refusing even to look at huge chunks and huge themes of the Bible. It is a mechanism that does exactly what it was designed to do: provide an excuse for “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” It allowed people like Rice to make a “biblical” defense of “serving their own interests on their fast day and oppressing all their workers.” It is a tool that is used to defy, deny and disrespect scripture. That’s what it’s for. That’s why it was so effective as a defense of slavery and later as a defense of segregation — defending injustice was its intended purpose all along.
If you love the Bible, you cannot love a theology designed to distort, deform and disrespect it.
Noll is masterful at describing how this distorting, deforming device of biblical literalism was employed in 1860:
The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the scriptures and read — at, say, Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.
The exact same process was used by Southern White Evangelicals, 1945-1975, in defense of segregation. The exact same process is used today — daily — by white evangelicals who oppose women’s equality and the full equality of LGBT people.
Let’s not hesitate to label that as the problem.