11 November 2010

Slavery and religion

The New York Times’s Opinionator blog is running a series on the American Civil War by Jamie Malanowski, tracking the events of 150 years ago. The 11 November 1860 post was interesting, discussing the question of whether the slave states were full of hot air or whether this time (after Lincoln’s election) they would carry through on their threats to secede:

Most assume that past will be prologue. The South seceded last year when the Republicans elected William Pennington as Speaker of the House, jibed pro-Lincoln newspaperman Carl Schurz earlier this year. “The South seceded from Congress, went out, took a drink, and came back. When Old Abe gets elected, they’ll go out, and this time they’ll take two drinks before they come back.”

I like the exercise of going through events this way, as it discourages teleological readings of history: we know what came next, and that always colours our understanding of past events.

A commenter on Malanowski’s post (one “R Navas” from beautiful Bellingham) raised the question of how Southern Christianity dealt with slavery. As some other commenters pointed out, this is the origin of the Southern Baptists: in 1845, they seceded from the national Baptist group over the latter’s insistence that slavery was immoral ‒ they wanted to preserve their right to have slaveholders as ministers and missionaries.

That much isn’t news. But the commenter goes on:

I have often thought there is still some poison of the sin of slavery running in the veins of a few American religions. Terrific contortions of the heart, the mind and the soul were necessary for Christians to justify slavery, Does that poison show up today as Climate Change Denial, Holocaust Denial, etc.?

I must confess I’ve never encountered that perspective before. We latte liberals (I’m actually more of a black-coffee leftist, but whatever) tend to lump things we dislike together as undifferentiated redneckism, uncritically assuming that racism, creationism, gay-bashing, NRA membership, and televangelical faith healing just naturally go together. At best, we just say things like “What do expect from people who think the universe is less that 10,000 years old?”

But what if there really is a common thread ‒ not with the aesthetic issues like NASCAR versus modern dance, or hunting versus yoga, but with what we tend to perceive as shocking intellectual breakdowns, like refusing to believe in scientific or historical fact? Maybe what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance is at work ‒ or, rather, cultural patterns of dealing with it.

It’s a provocative idea: did the “exercise” the ex-slaveholding society gained in reconciling unreconcilables ‒ like “grandfather had slaves but he’s not an evil man” ‒ leave a tendency toward what the commenter called “terrific contortions of the heart, the mind, and the soul”? Is there really an increased tendency in that society to reject ideas that to others are unambiguously true, and is that an intellectual legacy of slavery?

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