PAGE BY PAGE: DOUG WILSON’S SUPPORT FOR RACIAL SLAVERY
By Nick Gier, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Idaho
Writing for the board of Christ Church, Doug Jones states that his church believes that slavery is a sin, but his pastor Doug Wilson and his co-author Steve Wilkins never say this in their “Southern Slavery, As It Was” (Canon Press, 1996). The thesis of the essay is clear: using the Bible as sanction and guide, white slave owners were righteous Christians who were forced to fight a war against wicked Unitarian Yankees and Bible-hating abolitionists (pp. 12-13).
In Wilson's first response to "Slavery Revisited" (Moscow Pullman Daily News, Oct. 11&12), he made no corrections about his quoted comments about slavery. Here he had a chance to retract his support for slavery, but he did not do so. (In a column on November 21, he had yet another chance to retract his views.) In that article Wilson says that slavery is not a sin if the owner treats his slaves humanely. Then comes a passage, not disputed by Wilson and contained in the essay: “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world" (p. 24). This is unequivocal support for racial slavery, unless you want to make the ludicrous claim that Southerners were not racists. Besides, the U.S. at that time was a racist nation by law. Not only did the constitutional provision that blacks were partial persons make racism legal, but also the indirect voting power of slaves in apportioning congressional districts made any legislative abolition of slavery virtually impossible.
Wilson and Wilkins do not mention one of the most important differences between biblical slavery and Southern slavery. For the most part the ancient world was color blind: people were not barred from worship, work, or marriage because of the color of their skin. (See my article “The Color of Sin/The Color of Skin: Ancient Color Blindness and the Philosophical Origins of Modern Racism.”) Institutionalized racism, discriminating on the basis of color, is actually only about 400 years old, and it is coincides with the importation of millions of African slaves to the Americas. Christ Church’s Doug Jones is right that the biblical God hates racism and that is the reason why Southern racial slavery deserves our strongest condemnation.
Wilson makes a big point of disagreeing with Jerry Falwell on slavery. You have to admire Wilson for his consistency: If the Biblical God sanctions anything, it is for all times. In direct response to Falwell, he concludes if slavery was OK in biblical times, then it is OK in the American South. (Wilson did not correct this part of the article either.) Wilson clearly supports the Bible's sanction of slavery and not, as most Christians believe, as just something that was OK "back then." (Wilson/Wilkins [W/W] explain their biblical hermeneutics on p. 11 of their essay.) When Wilson says that he is not ashamed of what the Bible says about slavery, that means that he supports it. How else are we to read his position?
Now to the essay, which is not a book or even a booklet.
Page 8: "Slavery is open to criticism because it did not follow the biblical pattern at every point." Note that W/W do not condemn it as a sin; rather, it is an integral part of a righteous Christian life if it follows biblical guidelines. Racism is condemned on this page, but not slavery. Since most Confederates were racists, then W/W's argument about racism starts to crumble right at this point. As I argue above, one cannot separate the two issues: support for Southern slavery is also support for racism.
Page 12: The Christ Church’s board appears to agree with "humanistic and democratic culture's" condemnation of slavery in itself as a "monstrous evil," but W/W do not condemn it in this universal way. W/W's position is slavery OK then, in the American South, and, by logical implication and biblical sanction, anywhere in the world today. As moral absolutists, they cannot return to contextualist and cultural relativistic arguments.
Page 13: The South was "right" and "Christian," but there is no condemnation by W/W of the owning of other human persons.
Page 13: Direct and praising support for R. L. Dabney, who supported slavery, was a racist, and condemned race mixing, of which Christ Church is rightly proud. Dabney is quoted favorably (without any qualification) throughout the essay. Dabney admits that Southerners sinned, but owning other persons was not one of those sins. By the way, Steve Wilkins is an instructor at the Dabney Center for Theological Studies in Monroe, Louisana.
Page 14: Even with racist Dabney was a main source, W/W condemn race hatred but do not condemn slavery. W/W do talk about the possibility of the economic death of slavery, but they never answer the obvious question. If the Confederate South was the best multiracial society in world history and the Confederate Army was the most evangelical ever, then why should such a glorious culture ever have to change? If Southerners thought they had biblical sanction to own slaves, and W/W agree that they did, why should they give up slavery? Should a Christian give up something biblically sanctioned just because of economics? That doesn’t sound like good evangelical Christianity to me!
Pages 15-22: This section on "The Bible's View of Slavery" supports both biblical and southern slavery and does not take the universal stand against that Christ Church does. W/W make the incredible claim that since the Bible condones slavery but condemns kidnapping, it was not sinful for people to own Africans that they themselves did not ship from Africa. This is as absurd as Buddhists who rationalize meat eating because they claim they were not involved in the slaughter of the animal itself.
Page 35: “Slavery was attended with evils,” with the clear implication that the institution was biblically sanctioned and that the evils were the result of not following the Bible.
Page 38: After such section headings as “The Stability of the Slave Family” and “The Strength of the Slave Family,” and general support for southern slavery “as it truly was,” the first sentence of the “Conclusion” that “none need lament the passing of slavery” is an incredible non sequitur.
Why should one grieve that passing of the greatest multiracial culture in history? Why should we not work to bring back its glories? This is indeed the goal of Steve Wilkin’s League of the South, which calls for the secession of 15 states to form the Confederate States of America where its view of Christianity will reign supreme. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls this organization “a white supremacist hate group,” and Mark Potok, the editor of the Center’s Intelligence Report, will be giving us more details on the League of the South on February 6, 2004 at the University of Idaho. Christ Church’s conference may not be about slavery, but many of us will be reminding our community of the two main speakers’ (Wilson and Wilkins) support for it.