Months ago, there was a small controversy over Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann signing a pledge put forth by social conservatives in Iowa that stated "black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA's first African American President."
However well intended, many people were understandably offended by the implication that black people were better off as property. But this isn't the first time Bachmann has put forth a perspective on slavery that is at odds with the historical record -- previously she "suggested that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to end slavery, before citing John Quincy Adams as an example (he was a child at the time of America's founding).
Ryan Lizza's profile of Bachmann reveals that Bachmann's odd perspective on slavery isn't a series of gaffes, but rather "a world view." Lizza explains that Bachmann is a believer in a kind of Christian conservative reimagining of slavery, where "many Christians opposed slavery" but owned them anyway and didn't free them because "“it might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.” How charitable of them!
She is also a fan of Robert E. Lee biographer J. Steven Williams, whom Lizza describes as a "leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North." Wilkins "approvingly" cites Lee's conviction that abolition was premature because it was necessary for "the sanctifying effects of Christianity” to take their time “to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom.” Not only that but as Lizza reports, Williams hates abolitionists and thought slavery was awesome:
Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.
No, it wasn't an "adversarial relationship founded on racial animosity" because that implies some kind of social parity or dialogue. It was a relationship founded on the idea that black people were not human beings and white people were entitled to own them as property. But while Bachmann has an affinity for historians who think slavery wasn't that bad, she's less bullish on things like taxes and social insurance, which are actually just as bad as owning people as property (even though slavery wasn't that bad).
Wilkins' utopian perspective on slavery is a staple of pro-Confederate, Lost Cause mythology, belied by all the contemporary accounts of actual slaves. It is central to not just to defending slavery as an institution and Americas' failure to eradicate it until the 1860s but to justifying the post-slavery violence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, not as white supremacy reasserting itself, but as a reaction to the lawlessness of former slaves whose primitive nature made them ill-suited to freedom.
That Lee could opine on the necessity of "the sanctifying effects of Christianity" on black people while white people were literally owning them as slaves is part of the cognitive dissonance of antebellum "Christianity." As Frederick Douglass wrote in his memoir, "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference." The Lost Causers of course, pretend this gulf does not exist by filling it with fairy tales about happy slaves.
Douglass's criticisms of American Christianity, particularly of the sort that justifies and minimizes slavery, remains perceptive. He referred to the kind of Christianity that views as acceptable the owning of people as property as "the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels." He was right then, and he still is.
As for Bachmann, who would have thought that a congresswoman from Minnesota would have this much affinity for Lost Cause Mythology?
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