Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Much Goodness Does the Image of God Lend Us? State Rights, Autonomy and Slavery

As in all times of war, particularly in the United States, religious pulpits become ideological rallies for the cause. Though our nation was very Christian at its inception, though there was no established state religion, prior to the “War of Northern Aggression,” even the Unitarian pulpits reflected our nation’s Christian nature. Thomas Jefferson who drew heavily from the writings of John Locke in his works concerning our independence from England had a deep and thoughtful prayer life which openly acknowledged God and drew our inalienable rights from God and not from the State. How did the Calvinistic Puritans cope with the religious tensions posed by the differing views of the theistic Unitarians? They did so under a natural and unavoidable tension, but one that our founding fathers provided for through representative government.

Young America comprised a group of different people with different beliefs, yet our common respect for one another and our liberties that were granted by God (and not man or the state) and observed by the government afforded a milieu of religious freedom and protected private convictions in matters of faith. Here, too, the significance of states rights plays a role, because each local state could determine their own laws and inject their unique religious beliefs into their states and local governments as they saw fit. I was raised in Pennsylvania’s Quaker country and within a community of Moravians, both evangelical Christian groups that are classified as pietisic groups. Massachusetts contained many Puritan communities as well as Unitarian groups. The Puritans often exiled those they found to be in violation of their Calvinistic based beliefs to Rhode Island where many Anabaptists dwelled, giving Rhode Island a negative connotation for some. Religious interpretations were delegated to local governments, and the federal government possessed only a limited role and limited power.

From the many diverse peoples and groups, we relied upon respect for one another’s rights, avoiding the tyranny of the state in specific matters touching on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson’s reiteration of enlightenment thinker John Locke’s “life, liberty and property” statement). In so doing, our founding fathers did advocate some degree of faith in the goodness of man, an ideal of the Enlightenment that many Christians believe was an outgrowth of and was fostered by the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. The Constitution delegated all these matters to the discretion of the individual states, attesting that majority rule resulted in a type of tyranny that is unavoidable in purely democratic systems. For this reason, our founding fathers gave us a system of representative government – a republic – by which to govern our affairs, though this process worked by means of the principles of a democracy on a local level. By this unique process of representative government that was utilized both house and senate that voiced both the concerns of each state and balanced by representation by population also, through a system of checks and balances, one nation that truly represented the people could emerge from many diverse beliefs and peoples. E pluribus unum – "from or out of the many, one." Representative government then held back the tendency for tyranny of the mob based on sheer numbers, fleeting popular opinion and other such trappings of collectivism.

Religious creatures by nature, man creates religion out of any system of belief that helps him transcend the problematic factors of the human condition. For this reason, nationalism or a love and devotion to one’s homeland and country proves a type of religion for those who strongly identify with their peoples and nations. God created us in this manner, and when we displace Him, we easily find ourselves making religion of our nationalism. In America before the Civil War, our religious Protestantism mixed fairly well with our nationalism, though this created tensions because of our political system that counted upon man’s higher reason and capacity to respect one another. From this perspective, men like John C. Calhoun wrote extensively about privileges that were afforded to men, not arbitrarily (based only on an assumption of the inherent goodness of mankind) but based upon that which each man merited. When studying some of his writings (with the League of the South), the phrase “If a man does not work, neither shall he eat” crossed my mind, something I offer here to give the reader a general flavor of a portion of his arguments. I’m also reminded of a quote from Harold O. J. Brown from “Heresies” wherein he says that our pietisitc religions aided our national efforts in America’s early history, but in some sense, America may not survive because of our religious beliefs. America will then always suffer an unavoidable degree of perpetual tension and conflict because we afford citizens this right to diversity. We are human after all, and our system was not perfect, and our greatest strengths also create reciprocal weaknesses – an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

In very general terms, the Southern States based their economy on agrarian means, a system that relied upon slavery as an integral element in a way that the Northern States did not. Though the North utilized as many or more slaves as the South did, their economy was more diverse, drawing increasingly more revenue from industrial sources in their growing cities. For many Southerners, this industrialization and the growing cities were an outgrowth of the religious idealism of Unitarianism, Transcendentalism and even the increasingly popular Spiritism. I would like to briefly mention that transcendentalism has nothing to do with the unrelated “meditation” but refers to an idealistic movement that developed in response to rationalism that stressed social responsibility (eventually birthing the social gospel). The transcendentalist viewed man’s degree of inherent goodness by virtue of the imago dei and by virtue of man’s ability to reason as sufficient for reasonable conduct within government. In contrast, the higher numbers of Confederate Presbyterians in the South held a far more pessimistic view of man based on the principles of Calvinism, eventually stereotyping the North as a group of religious individuals who followed an heterodox Christianity that they found highly offensive if not outright heretical.

Slavery advocates like Robert Lewis Dabney railed against Enlightenment thought while arguing against the North, though he seemed to ascribe to a view of the Enlightement as a monolithic movement rather than a general category used to describe a vast variety of convictions and beliefs. I find this ironic, for without the Enlightenment thinkers, Dabney and Virginia would not have their rights to state sovereignty and autonomy. It was the Enlightenment concepts – the best of the Enlightenment that avoided the pitfalls of other nations by deriving rights from God and not from man’s goodness – that gave Dabney the very platform from which he spoke, the idealistic foundations of which he railed against quite vehemently. Dabney then characterized the North as a group of collective Jacobins, a group of godless, self-determined zealot Arminians who rejected God and God’s ordained order. Other minsters also stereotyped the whole of the North in this same manner. . J.W. Tucker, a Methodist minister said in 1862 that “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is conflict of truth with error – of Bible with Northern infidelity – of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” ( cited in Mark Noll, pg 39).

Within the South, not all but many believed that slavery was both a religious and economic matter over which the federal government should have no control. In Benjamin Palmer’s autobiography of James Thornwell, he points out that the tensions and arguments regarding slavery were most notable as early as two years after the first U.S. Constitution was ratified. Mark Noll cites James Henley Thornwell as “not only the South’s most effective defender of slavery on the basis of the Bible but also one of the South’s most powerful defenders of secession as a strictly constitutional step” (pg 23). In general, the advocates of slavery in the South argued that slavery was advocated in the Bible and was not condemned as an institution. It was seen as a type of “Christian philanthropy” that the whole counsel of the Bible taught as a very natural institution and a means of controlling poverty when carried out benevolently. The Presbyterian advocates also relied heavily upon the arguments that God sovereignly placed slaves in their station, the place that divine providence chose for the slave for justice and reasons beyond our understanding but for the overall benefit of man. The whole of the country and the activities in the war were believed to be God’s sovereign plan on part of both North and South, though the South held that God also sovereignly ordained slavery and social hierarchy as well. Though Heman Humphrey spoke strongly against the errors of his cousin John Brown, he also advocated agrarianism and believed that the hierarchical system of slavery was God’s providential care of those whom God ordained to their social station, an institution that should not be challenged or transcended as to do so would amount to rebellion against God’s natural order. The slavery system demonstrated a high degree of paternalism for those within the lower ranks of hierarchy based on race (and upon gender).

In contrast, the North held that the full counsel of the New Testament worked toward freedom for all men in a general and overriding sense in great opposition to “Patriarchal Servitude.” Many founding fathers believed that slavery was not God’s ideal and that all men should be free, all based upon a broad American ideal supported by self-evident truth and common sense. In 1776, Samuel Hopkins, one whom Noll describes as a close friend of Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, argued that the “whole divine relvelation argued against slavery,” and that tyranny and slavery were both moral evils that “the Gospel thoroughly opposed” (pg 40). Noll also includes a very telling argument offered by Rabbi Raphall in 1861, one strongly influenced by a Catholic commentary on the subject that maintained that the American system of slavery dehumanzied the slave. “The slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights” (pg 47). This also adds to the weight of the argument that the modern so called “Biblical patriarchy” movement draws more of it’s ideals from the pagan Roman paterfamilias than it does from Scripture. It also reflects the testimony of Stan Gundry who observes that the arguments made in today’s gender debate do not differ from those once made in defense of slavery, arguments that do not derive purely from the Word of God.

Sadly, these same arguments and a similar war still rages today, mostly played out in the arena of the ongoing evangelical gender debate. Noll states that though the Northern and Southern theologians of the past largely agreed on God’s providence, “they were in almost all cases powerless to convince others that they were correct, unless the others already shared the partisan perspective on events” (Noll, pgs 92 -93). I believe that part of this rings true today, and certain camps and cadres within evangelical Christianity are very much engaged in this very same argument. Full or partial Arminian-oriented Christians still deeply offend some Calvinists, though now it seems as though the Calvinists have become more like “Southern fanatics” who argue for the old hierarchies that characterized the Confederate South. Many groups of evangelical Christians rage against individualism, argue for paternalistic views of salvation and sanctification by means of hierarchy and seek to establish these ideals as the only acceptable interpretations reflective of proper Biblical Authority. These same ideologies also play out in paternalistic politics, both in those who desire the state to assume the social gospel concept of serving as one’s “brother’s keeper” (as in Obama's campaign) and in those who oppose Sarah Palin, advocating servitude and their family religious issues as just another, different type of social gospel. Both amount to a type of an American national folk religion with zealous goals for saving mankind.