Questionable Sources

I’ve been reading J. Phillip Wogaman’s Christian Ethics textbook, as well as George W. Forell’s Christian Social Teachings reader, and find both of them completely underwhelming. I understand that it’s difficult to sum up 2,000 years of (Western) Christian ethics in a single volume that’s under 400 pages, especially when you try to create the illusion of natural progression among a variety of warring parties, but maybe this is a sign that this is a topic that requires more than a single volume. The case in point is the glib and disingenuous way slavery is depicted in both books.

Readings in Christian Ethics didn’t provide any examples of pro-slavery Christian literature, even though copious examples exist and remain influential in shaping the views of neo-Confederate white Christians like Thomas Woods and Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese. In fact, the Catholic church traditionally taught that slavery isn’t against natural law, and that slavery can be justified in some instances, although this teaching has been downplayed in recent years. The Civil War didn’t end the controversy among Christians about slavery, as it remained legal in Latin America until the late nineteenth century and various forms of involuntary servitude would be devised in the Jim Crow South to return blacks to as close a state of slavery as could be imagined within constitutional limits. Furthermore, the Dunning school of Reconstruction that was ascendant in the United States during the Jim Crow era and the cult of the Lost Cause not only convinced many white American Christians that slavery was fundamentally benign, but that blacks had been happy as slaves and continued to be content in their disenfranchised state under segregation. The continuing battles over the Confederate flag and antebellum history illustrates that many white American Christians are still in denial about the legacy of slavery. Yet, if one is to believe Wogaman’s account, most white American Christians were either abolitionists or eventually came around to accept the abolitionist view back in the nineteenth century.

Similarly, the portion of Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro” speech in the Forell book left out the sections that most strongly castigated white American Christianity for its acceptance of slavery. For example, passages like this are completely missing:

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those [pro-slavery] Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!…The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in its connection with its ability to abolish slavery.

Perhaps Forell thought that such language would be too incendiary and not “Christian” enough. Given that Forell, like Wogaman, is trying to give an overview of almost 2,000 years of Christian thought, it would be impossible to present Douglass’ speech in its entirety, but the way the piece was edited and presented in the book almost completely changes the meaning. The inclusion of Douglass is also interesting, since I’m pretty sure he did end up embracing deism at the end of his life, frustrated by the nonchalant attitude of white Christians towards white supremacy.

A more truthful account of Christian ethics would have to account for the many ways in which the established Christian churches have failed when pressing moral and ethical questions have arisen. Christian apologists will often mention how the slave trade was ended by Christians without mentioning that it was also Christians who started, profited, and maintained the slave trade. In one of his many howlers, Hilaire Belloc claimed in The Servile State that medieval Christendom ended slavery in Europe (spoiler: it didn’t) and blamed the resurrection of slavery in the New World on Protestantism. I wonder if anyone ever asked Belloc how sizable African populations ended up in traditionally Catholic countries like Brazil and Cuba. Indeed, the entire notion of “biblical inerrency” was devised by pro-slavery Christians to effectively shut up Christians of an abolitionist bent. Catholics were discouraged from getting involved in abolitionism because the movement was filled with *gasp* Quakers. While some Christians were abolitionists, they were very much a minority and many of them tended to be Quakers, Unitarians, transcendentalists, and other non-conformists.

Since both Wogaman and Forell are white Protestant ethicists, they have an interest in making mainstream “orthodox” Christianity look good. However, neither are very good at pointing out the times in which “orthodox” Christianity failed to live up to its own ideals (neither volume mentions the long history of Christian anti-semitism either). A true history of ethics, Christian or otherwise, has to mention how these ideals did or did not operate in the real world.