As I’m laying the groundwork for my research on Mansfield French I’m learning a lot about American slavery, such as, for example, how much of American life in all sections of the country in the first half of the 19th century was affected by it and even depended on it. I’m also learning about the brave people who began speaking out to oppose slavery. For example, I’ve learned that not all people who publicly opposed slavery were considered abolitionists. Many in the North and even in the South publicly opposed slavery; most were in favor of gradual emancipation by some means, and many were in favor of blacks leaving the United States to colonize Africa (which actually happened in Liberia). Only those who demanded immediate, universal emancipation with no compensation for slaveowners were called abolitionists, and they urged this radical solution at considerable risk to their lives.
As we look back on slavery today, it’s easy to view its end as an inevitability. “Of course slavery would end somehow—what, did they think it would really last forever? Of course there would be a civil war during which all slaves would be freed. Of course the United States would follow the pattern of emancipation set by all other nations of the ‘civilized’ world in the 19th century.” But as I read more about the antebellum era, the end of slavery does not seem inevitable at all. It certainly didn’t seem that way to those who fought to end it. In fact, the odds were extremely long. The political and economic might of those who relied on slavery in the South and the North was immense. The bulk of Americans who thought that it should end nibbled around the edges of the problem or thought that it was someone else’s duty to solve it or that it would get fixed in the undefined future. The balance of power arrayed against the first abolitionists could have made the cause seem hopeless.
But the abolitionists weren’t hopeless—in fact, anything but. They had great hope. Some of that hope was, in my view, misplaced. They had hope that God had birthed America with a special mission to usher in a millennial era of liberty, justice, and peace in the whole world and that he would see it through in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Most believed that once God perfected the world through America’s example and action then Christ would return. I think that this is a misreading of biblical prophecy, and as it happens there aren’t many today who still hold this view (a born-in-the-USA version of postmillennialism). But for the most part I think that their bold hope was well-founded, because their hope for the cause of abolition rested in the God who was strong enough to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, the God who enabled David, who defied Goliath, to slay Goliath, who defied God. Because as a matter of fact, although an important number of abolitionists were Yankee Unitarians and liberal Quakers, the bulk of the movement consisted of Bible-thumping evangelicals.
I mention their Bible-thumpingness to correct a common misunderstanding about that era. It is frequently observed that prior to the Civil War, Northerners would quote the Bible to denounce slavery while Southerners quoted it to defend it. This observation—which happens to be true—is used to prove a number of things, like that religious people never agree or that the Bible is self-contradictory or that anyone can make the Bible say anything they want so there’s no point in listening to anyone who quotes it or that the Bible is a tool of oppression and that Christians are always on the wrong side of progress and justice. (Oh yeah, and they’re hypocrites too. People love saying that.) But even though it is true that the Bible was employed both to criticize and to defend slavery, that truth standing alone is misleading.
When Missouri applied for statehood in 1820, a full 40 years before the Civil War, there was an unprecedented debate over slavery so intense that the Union seemed to be in severe danger of rupturing. During that debate, antislavery voices employed the Bible as one of their bases for argument. Proslavery voices did not, however; their arguments came entirely from the Constitution, public safety, and economics. It wasn’t for another ten to 15 years that defenders of slavery would appeal to the Bible, and that was simply to provide a rebuttal to the biblical arguments marshaled against them. Even then, Southern evangelical defenders of slavery argued that slavery was biblically permissible; they did not argue that slavery was a positive moral good. That argument, which emerged in the 1830s, was put forth by other Southerners on dubiously scientific racial grounds. Meanwhile, Southern evangelicals who defended slavery against Northerners simultaneously preached to slaveowners to treat their slaves humanely and with dignity and to teach them to read so that they could read and understand the Bible and be saved. It was not unusual for masters to hear this challenge while sitting in the very same worship services as their own slaves. However, most masters refused to teach their slaves to read (it was even against the law in some places) exactly because they were afraid that by reading the Bible slaves would learn their worth in God’s sight and then refuse to comply with the slave system.
In sum, evangelicals were leaders of the progressive side of the single most crucial moral and social issue in America in the 19th century. Even those evangelicals who fell on the conservative side of that issue took a nuanced position with profound potential consequences if it were implemented. But on the whole, evangelicals pushed America toward progress to become a more free and just nation, to become better than Americans thought they could be.
In light of this progressive heritage, it is truly remarkable how (white) evangelicals today—especially over age 30 or so—are so strongly identified with conservative politics. This is to some extent unfortunate. There are some issues in which I think our biblical faith demands that we stake out a progressive position or at least engage in some criticism of boilerplate conservatism: I’ve written on immigration as an example. Nevertheless, I think that there are other issues in which we are right to be conservative: I’ve written on same-sex marriage as an example of that. But as I compare the 19th-century evangelicals and slavery with evangelicals today, one issue seems more and more curious and paradoxical: abortion.
Are evangelicals truly “conservative” when it comes to abortion? That depends on how you mean it. In common parlance “pro-life” has gotten stuck with the “conservative” label, so in ordinary speech I guess evangelicals are conservative about abortion. But at its root, to be “conservative” means to “conserve” what is, to preserve the status quo. Roe v. Wade has been around for almost 40 years; it’s safe to say that abortion on demand is now the status quo. By that reckoning then, those whom we call progressives are the true conservatives. And obversely, conservatives who annoy and push the nation to be better than it is to the unborn are the true progressives.
In at least one respect, 19th-century defenders of slavery and 20th-/21st-century defenders of abortion/“a woman’s right to choose” are very different, and that is their convictions about the Constitution. The 19th-century planter aristocracy championed a strict construction of the Constitution, which would keep the federal government (especially the legislative branch) weak enough that it could not impose its will on the states and alter their slavery-based societies. Today, by contrast, pro-choice advocates believe in an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment so that the federal government (especially the judicial branch) might be strong enough to impose its will on the states and prevent them from altering women’s access to abortion. The one thing that these utterly opposite constitutional theories share is that in both cases they fit conveniently with the policy objectives of the people that profess them.
In some other respects, however, these two groups, separated by a century and a half, are disturbingly similar. They both employ the natural-rights language of liberty to justify their use of power to revoke the liberty of people who are weaker than they are. The two groups are not exactly alike in how they do this. Revolutionary-era planters did not claim that their practice of slave ownership was in itself an act of defiance against oppressive tyranny the way that pro-choice advocates claim that aborting a baby or the right to do so if one wants constitutes a stand against the patriarchy. But the heirs of the Southern patriots did argue that a government that would deprive them of slaves—whose bodies generally made up the largest portion of planters’ wealth—would be a tyrannical government that unjustly tramples citizens’ freedoms. In other words, the naturally self-evident freedom won in the Revolution and enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom to dominate the destinies of certain other people if one so chooses. This is essentially the position of defenders of abortion as well. Moreover, in both cases the argument is buttressed by the contention that those who are thus dominated are not quite human, and that’s what makes the domination acceptable. Finally, all but the most extreme in both groups maintain(ed) that in a perfect world the thing defended wouldn’t exist, that it isn’t ideal, and that there should be less of it. Yet in this imperfect world they do not tolerate the slightest limitation placed on it though they express hope that somehow, someday, there will be no need for it so that in future generations it will fade away with no sacrifice required.
Meanwhile, evangelicals locked in an exhausting and frustrating struggle against bitter odds persist in making the same case as our spiritual ancestors. A human is a human. No just law grants a person the liberty to revoke liberty from another, and neither does the Constitution. Oppressors can’t justify oppression by pleading that they themselves are being oppressed. We cannot make our nation better by clinging to what is wrong. God is watching and will judge.
I pray to God that someday people will look back and think that the abolition of abortion was inevitable. They’ll say, “How could they have been so barbaric? How could they have argued that preserving the constitutional rights of women justified denying the constitutional rights of children? How could so many have gone about their lives and not taken a stand?” But those who look closely will also note the irony that evangelicals, called by their contemporaries “conservatives,” were the progressive voice of their time, the ones calling their nation to be better than Americans believed it could be.