Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Sunday declared that all slavery in the world had been eradicated thanks to the Christian faith.
At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, conservatives accused President Barack Obama of comparing Christianity to the Islamic terrorist group ISIS when he observed that many religions had been used to justify violence throughout history.
“So we’re responsible for the Crusades a thousand years ago?” Carlson complained. “Who’s ‘us’ anyway? And by the way, who ended slavery and Jim Crow? Christians. The Rev. Martin Luther King. Christians.”
“Christianity is the reason we don’t have slavery in the world today,” he added. “I mean, talk about ahistorical.”
Good thing none of those slaveholders were Christian. Because there’s no way that Christians would hold slaves or create a Christian doctrine around defending slavery.
While countless Union soldiers and northern civilians depended on theological narratives to sustain them, a providential view of history particularly influenced how Southerners reacted to and interpreted the events of the war. After all, the preamble to the Confederate constitution, unlike the federal one it replaced, explicitly invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” They were, Southerners believed, a people chosen by God to manifest His will on earth. “We are working out a great thought of God,” declared the South Carolina Episcopal theologian James Warley Miles, “namely the higher development of Humanity in its capacity for Constitutional Liberty.”
Miles held, though, that divine mandate extended beyond simply the Confederate interpretation of states’ rights, and that Southerners were bound by the Bible to seek more than merely “a selfish independence.” The Confederacy must “exhibit to the world that supremest effort of humanity” in creating and defending a society built upon obedience to biblical prescriptions regarding slavery, a society “sanctified by the divine spirit of Christianity.” In short, as the Episcopal Church in Virginia stated soon after the war began, Southerners were fighting “a Revolution, ecclesiastical as well as civil.” This would be a revolution that aimed to establish nothing less than, in the words of one Georgia woman, “the final and universal spread of Gospel civilization.”
This “Gospel civilization,” many believed, didn’t just permit slavery — it required it. Christians across the Confederacy were convinced that they were called not only to perpetuate slavery but also to “perfect” it. And they understood the Bible to provide clear moral guidelines on how to properly practice it. The Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jewish law clearly assumed its permissibility and the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters repeatedly compelled slaves to be obedient and loyal to their masters. Above all, as Southerners never tired of pointing out to their abolitionist foes, the Gospels fail to record any condemnation of the practice by Jesus Christ.
There is consequently a fascinating, if unsettling, paradox in the efforts of slaveholders to fulfill what they considered divinely imposed duties toward their slaves. Southern Christians believed that the Bible imposed on masters a host of obligations to their slaves. Most fundamentally, masters were to view slaves as fully members of their own households and as fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. Therefore, as the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared before the war, masters sinned against their slaves by “excessive labor, extreme punishment, withholding necessary food and clothing, neglect in sickness or old age, and the like.”
Of course, like everything else in Christianity, slaveowners decided for themselves to what extent they would adhere to this ideology, so throwing an old slave out into the swamps to die or beating a slave to death, well, these things just happen. Praise Jesus.