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President Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and Slavery

The controversy over President Obama’s remarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast is a strange one. Noting the horrors carried out by the so-called Islamic State and others around the globe claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, the President asserted that American Christians might want to reflect with some humility upon their own past before they condemn an entire faith based on the actions of its most twisted adherents. After all, he observed, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was [sic] justified in the name of Christ.” The speech enraged former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who claimed Obama’s comments were “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Somewhat less heatedly, Richard Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took issue with Obama’s historical characterization, insisting that “the evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

It is hardly unusual for President Obama to elicit criticism, of course, but the criticisms in this instance are particularly odd because, as a matter of history, the contention he put forth at the National Prayer Breakfast is so obviously true. With regard to the defense of slavery especially, Christian justifications for the institution were so ubiquitous in the American South before the Civil War that the only real challenge is in listing their variations. Slavery’s defenders routinely turned to the Old Testament and observed that the Hebrew patriarchs were all slaveholders and that the laws of the ancient Israelites were rife with rules about slaveholding. Looking to the New Testament, they pointed out that Christ himself never condemned slavery, took comfort from the Epistle to Philemon in which Paul urged the enslaved fugitive Onesimus to return to his master, and regularly cited verses commanding that slaves be obedient and submissive. Some defenders made a case for the notion that people of African descent were the lineage of Noah’s son Ham condemned by God to be eternal servants and thus a divinely sanctioned enslaved race, and others argued that slaveholding was part of white southerners’ religious duty to bring Christianity to African heathens. 

So vital was Christianity to the southern defense of slavery that some historians have estimated that ministers penned roughly half of all proslavery literature in the decades after 1830, though it was hardly only ministers like Baptist leader Richard Furman who one might have heard state that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures.” Secular politicians drew upon such arguments as well. Jefferson Davis, for example, claimed that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God” and was “sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation,” while his contemporary, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, blasted opponents of slavery by arguing that “the doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants” and that “man cannot separate what God hath joined.” 

It is no less the case that the worldview of many abolitionists was deeply shaped by Christianity as well, and that a significant number of them saw their activities on behalf of the enslaved as their moral responsibility as Christians. Their liberationist faith, however, was not nearly so widely embraced in the public sphere. The dozens of instances of antislavery activists in the North and the South being shouted down, warned out, fired, assaulted, attacked by mobs, and occasionally murdered amply demonstrate this, put the lie to Richard Moore’s belief that Christianity served more as weapon against slavery than it did its greatest shield, and bolster President Obama’s fundamental point that any religion is susceptible to being used for good and evil alike. Mr. Moore, in fact, ought to know this better than most people. The Southern Baptist Convention, after all, was in its origins an explicitly pro-slavery denomination. It only exists in the first place because Baptists in slaveholding states insisted upon the allowance of slaveholding missionaries and broke away from their northern brethren in 1845 rather than accept a restriction on or judgment of their “property rights.” That the SBC has since apologized for and repudiated its historical relationship to slavery is surely something supported by Mr. Moore. That it took until 1995 for it to do so may recommend his reconsideration of how “clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity” slavery was in the United States.