Slavery Back as a Discussion Topic? Thanks, Trump.

On many occasions I’ve engaged with Christians on some aspect of morality—God’s actions in the Old Testament, say, or biblical morality—and I’ve assumed that we agree that slavery is wrong and proceeded from that point of agreement.

Turns out, I was wrong. The moral error of slavery isn’t the universal in the United States that I’d assumed, and Donald Trump’s candidacy is providing cover for racism that had been hidden.

An Economist/YouGov poll in January of likely voters asked about the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln’s executive order that freed the slaves. Did they approve? 53% strongly approved and 17% approved somewhat. Surprisingly, 5% strongly disapproved and 8% disapproved somewhat. And 17% were unsure.

How is this possible? 13% disapproved of the end of slavery, either somewhat or strongly? Barely half strongly approved? And 17% had no opinion? In the United States, in 2016?

Caveats …

Polls can be misleading in lots of ways, and I don’t want to take from this more than is there. Small changes in the phrasing of a poll question can change the answers. The question about slavery was, “Do you approve or disapprove of the executive order which freed all slaves in the states that were in rebellion against the federal government?”

Could respondents have quibbled with the “states that were in rebellion” part and wished that the Emancipation Proclamation simply applied to all states?

Though Trump supporters disapproved of the Emancipation Proclamation most strongly, maybe it’s election year recklessness more than Trump’s I-can-say-whatever-I-want attitude that is bringing this out.

Likelier, respondents had a problem with executive orders—perhaps they were against slavery but wanted it abolished through a Constitutional amendment or a law from Congress.

Nevertheless, those poll results seem to be saying something. In 2016, that troublesome political correctness that kept racists in the closet may be more easily shirked, putting racist ideas back on the menu. And Trump may be most responsible for opening this Pandora’s box. According to a top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, “Trump’s rhetoric is ‘almost verbatim’ what segregationist George Wallace was saying in his third-party 1968 presidential campaign.” (Source)

Piling on

Trump isn’t alone. The Bible gives full support for the kind of slavery we had in the United States, but Christians had at least been hypocritical enough to pretend it didn’t. But not always.

  • Pastor Steven Anderson directly rebuts my complacent assumption that everyone agrees that slavery is wrong:

People will try to come at us—usually atheists or people like that—they’ll come at us and say, “Well, the Bible is wrong because the Bible condones slavery.” We’ve all heard that before, right?

But here’s the thing about that, is that if the Bible condones slavery, then I condone slavery. Because the Bible’s always right about every subject.

  • Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said that biblical slavery would be better than jail for nonviolent crimes.
  • Christian Doug Wilson wrote Southern Slavery as it Was, a defense of American slavery (more).
  • Arkansas State Representative Jon Hubbard said that slavery “may actually have been a blessing in disguise” because slaves were eventually “rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.”
  • History revisionist David Barton also weighs in on the slavery issue. From one analyst:

[Barton] actually said that race relations were better when whites owned black slaves because the whites treated them like members of the family. And whites don’t get enough credit for ending slavery!

  • In a recent Public Policy Polling study, South Carolina voters were asked if whites are a superior race. 10% said yes, and 11% weren’t sure. Trump was again the Republican overachiever, and thirty percent of his supporters either said yes or were undecided.
  • And gay bashing is back. On pastor James Manning’s church billboard: “Jesus would stone homos. Stoning is still the law.” And pastor David Berzinsis also eager to stone gays to death.

The Overton window

To see how Trump providing cover for racist ideas is relevant, let’s look at the Overton window. This is a concept that can help visualize public acceptance of political options that are on the table.

Imagine a bell curve. Along the left side is public acceptance—the ideas in the middle of the curve have the highest acceptance, and those progressively farther out on either side are less acceptable to the public. The bottom axis is government intervention—no government intervention at one end and very high intervention at the other.

Suppose we’re looking at education. At one end is “no government schools,” and at the other, “mandatory indoctrination in government schools.” Along this spectrum (from less intervention to more) might be parents pay for schooling, tuition vouchers, state mandated curriculum, and home schooling illegal.

We can add to this bottom axis labels that describe the ideas along this spectrum. In the center of the curve, with the highest acceptance, is Policy. On either side of that are ideas that aren’t policy but have a decent chance of becoming so—these are labeled Popular. Continue going out from the center, on both sides, with slices of the bell curve labeled Sensible, Acceptable, Radical, and Unthinkable.

Pick a domain of government intervention—civil rights, intervention in a war, gun control, schools—and you have a particular bell curve. The curve for one domain might be quite different—narrower or wider, on the left side or on the right side—than another.

Greta Christina gives gay rights as an example of how conversation has changed. In 1969, with the Stonewall riots, same-sex marriage wasn’t even on the radar. The homosexual movement was focused instead on getting discriminatory policies and anti-sodomy laws overturned. Today, the window has shifted so that all three went from Radical or Unthinkable to Policy.

And that’s the problem with Donald Trump’s “Look at me—I’m so rich, I can say whatever I want!” attitude. He can move or broaden the window. Radical or Unthinkable ideas like whites being superior to other races or slavery being in any way tolerable in twenty-first century America can become Acceptable.

Thanks, Trump.

(For more on the Overton window, Patheos atheist blogger James Croft cautions that it has limitations.)

Why would people in America
want to embrace the religion of the slavers?
— Pat Robertson
(incredibly, he was not referring to African Americans but Muslims)

Image credit: Peter Shanks, flickr, CC

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  • Anne Fenwick

    There’s quite a bit of discussion around today about complementarianism, an evangelical approach to marriage in which men have all the power in the relationship and women do all the submitting. All in a very loving and consensual way of course, i.e. they consent because that’s what God wants for them and it would be sinful of them to reject it. My point being that this is their standard theory of relationships, and that’s why slavery really does seem unproblematic to them.

    Along with that will no doubt come other kinds of dom/sub relationships, of children to their parents for example, or the kind of utter submission Trump keeps hinting at imposing on… just about anyone. Did I forget to mention the love? He didn’t.

    • Leloi

      If anyone want to go look for the article… It’s posted on Libby Anne’s blog.

    • My point being that this is their standard theory of relationships, and that’s why slavery really does seem unproblematic to them.

      Interesting observation.

      Makes you wonder why they were so against 50 Shades of Grey.

      • LadyOfBooks

        They were against 50 Shades because it was about sex and that is always bad, except it’s sort of ok in marriage as long as no one talks about it. If they took out the sex parts, the fundies would have been all over this as the perfect example of how god wants marriage to be.

        • tsig

          Sex is OK as long as it’s done in the dark and no one gets any enjoyment out of it.

      • jh

        because it wasn’t in the Bible. I can just imagine the book… and that grey guy “knew” that college girl with whips and restraints.

      • Anne Fenwick

        I’m going to go with the theory that it’s because the relationship in 50 Shades of Grey didn’t come with institutional reinforcements. Psychological reasons aside, either party could walk away at any time, with no legal or social consequences. That’s just not binding enough.

        Also because its readers were clearly getting off on it.

    • Scooter

      Anne, If you really want to understand Biblical complementarianism you may want to check out 50 crucial questions at

      • Pofarmer

        The problem is, just like Christian Doctrine, everyone is going to understand it differently Libby Anne has done a plethora of posts on it.

      • Greg G.

        So it follows from the 1 Timothy forgery and the interpolations of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-36, plus the pseudo-Paulines, Colossians and Ephesians. It’s not that other parts of the Bible are more reliable, it’s just that it focuses on some of the most detestable parts of the New Testament.

      • Scott_In_OH

        I understand it just fine, thanks:

        * God created men and women with different skills for different roles.
        * Men and women should fulfill those roles in order to get the most out of their lives and to further God’s plan.
        * Men’s role is to lead; women’s role is to support.

        It’s gender-essentialism par excellence, which makes it factually incorrect (i.e., in real life, there are men and women whose skill sets do not fit these stereotypes).

        It is also an open door to abuse (notwithstanding its attempts a pretty rhetoric), and it facilitates institutions that support abusers and shame those who are abused.

  • The_Wretched

    Even without the Overton window, “social permissioning” is a thing and Trump’s not so subtle pro-violence statements are green lighting people who want to be violent to cross the line into actual violence.

    And yeah, it feels like we’re living through a documentary of the bad old days.

    • Christiane

      I used to wonder what it felt like for people living through violent times, or times when there was a lot of social upheaval. Now I know.

      • Myna Alexanderson

        I found the following excerpt by David Dalton in the Gadflyonline
        archives. The quote is actually from a 1998 article on Charles
        Manson, but one which doesn’t lose relevance as an insight into the very core of the psychological mechanism beneath a definition of the word “monster” or what it conjures in the mind…or when or how it appears. Although I think humanity has always been under the shadow of its monsters, the technological media of the present moment in time–from the onslaught of 24 hour news to political punditry–plays on and manipulates our fears en masse…and tears at the very fabric of a world yet, as Yeats once wrote, “anxious in its sleep.” Please understand I am not equating Trump with Manson or even necessarily as a monster, he may simply be another drama come and gone, but the Zeitgeist connection is interesting.

        Quoted material:

        “When you need a monster, one will appear. Perhaps the one
        thing that most determines the way we think about Manson was his timing. He is a demon of the Zeitgeist, immaculate in his terror and confusion. Appearing with almost supernatural precision in the last months of the sixties, he seemed to call into question everything about the counterculture. His malign arrival synchronized so perfectly with America’s nervous breakdown that it is hard not to bestow occult meanings on him.

        The idea that he was merely a projection of our darkest thoughts
        is a card he played ruthlessly. He endlessly toyed with the idea that he was just a mirror, a materialization. Manson’s cobbling together of hippie philosophy—apocalyptic prophecy, Zen paradox, radical politics, pop occultism, acid logic, hipster jargon—was seamless and so mesmerizing that any challenge would ricochet back on you.”

  • smrnda

    With the support of slavery, I think part of this is a consequence of the whole “we follow the Bible more than anyone else” attitude common among some US Protestants becoming a pissing contest. A particular pastor or author gets ‘cred’ by finding the most abhorrent practice which the Bible permits, and then saying ‘if the Bible is for it, then I’m for it!’ Slavery is perhaps one of the more extreme examples. ISIS does the same things, from smashing ‘idols’ to taking sex slaves.

    Though with slavery, I suspect part of it is also just racism. Some might dress up their support with Biblical language, but I think the real deal are white people who think black people (and others) still belong there. The Bible is just a convenient justification.

    • jh

      I was thinking the same thing. I can’t imagine a black person going “Oh yeah – we should bring back slavery”. On the other hand, a people who can’t imagine themselves as slaves will certainly consider slavery as an option.

      Maybe we need to pass a law that people who support slavery and slavery institutions such as the confederacy should be slaves for 7 years (all biblical and such). I suspect a lot of people will suddenly re-think their position on slavery and the Confederacy.

      • Anne Fenwick

        …slaves for 7 years

        Indenturers again, eh?

        Actually, I mentioned in another thread that I became aware of an instance of modern day slavery near where I live. It’s horrifyingly common, and tends to involve psychologically and economically vulnerable people rather than any race in particular. The difference with historical slavery in the US being that it’s criminal and there’s no official paperwork, of course.

      • Greg G.

        should be slaves for 7 years (all biblical and such)

        Don’t believe what you hear from believers about biblical slavery. Fellow Israelites could be indentured servants for 6 years (they go free in the seventh year) and they were not to be treated harshly. But the Bible makes a distinction between Israelite indentured servants and foreign slaves bought with money, obviously excluded from the protection of being treated harshly, and could be inherited by the heirs of the owner. The Bible give explicit instructions on how to turn an indentured servant into a permanent slave, however.

        • No, no. It was more like a voluntary welfare system that preserved the slaves’ humanity.

        • Oh, so actually an improvement, kinda like the predecessor to welfare (which I detest). Makes sense to me!

      • I’ll consider it once the slavery proponents have it applied to them first.

        And BTW, biblical slavery had the option of slavery for life–for people “not like us,” of course. See Lev. 25:44-46.

      • “Whenever I hear a man argue in favor of slavery I have a temptation to try it on him.”-Abraham Lincoln

      • Of the GOP field, Ben Carson voters had the least support for the Emancipation Proclamation.

        Can they not have seen a picture of the guy … ?

  • Rudy R

    The low information voters, or as I call them, stupid voters, would probably hold the view that executive orders are unconstitutional, and certainly evil because anything President Blackenstein does is evil. So I would suspect that the 12% that disapproved of the Emancipation Proclamation was due to their disapproval of executive orders and not as an approval of slavery. That being said, I’d never overestimate the moral fiber of those 12%.

  • L.Long

    Xtians and other religions LOVE slavery. Look at how the talk about it….I am a slave to christ. I am gawds slave to do his bidding. Look at how thier books o’BS state that women and kids should behave. No when anyone says slavery is good they really mean it would be good for YOU to be a slave. And I like Trump talking, he is a perfect mirror on a large part of the ‘merican public!!!! So be afraid, be very afraid!

    • Myna Alexanderson

      Yes, a mirror. I’ve thought that as well. A dancing court jester, holding up a mirror. It’s all very surreal.

      • But in a fable with a jester, there’s usually a moral at the end, and we all walk away a little wiser. I don’t anticipate that at the end of the Trump story.

        • Myna Alexanderson

          We haven’t reached the end of the tale, though. It could be a “beware the court jester holding the mirror” type of fable, a sort of Bradbury tale of, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

          Or, just another tumbler in the circus parade that passes by from time to time.

  • Unfortunately, slavery still exists, we just call it something else.

  • tsig

    The bible says that cutting off your nuts is a good thing so why don’t more real Christians do it?

    • Greg G.

      Jesus says it is better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye than to be condemned to hell, but you don’t see many one-eyed, one-handed, Christian eunuchs.

    • busterggi

      Because their biggest nuts are their preachers.

  • busterggi

    Slavery – it made America great before and it can do it again!

  • RichardSRussell

    Just as a reminder, when referring to THE LIAR David Barton, you should always employ his full, richly earned title, which, to repeat, is THE LIAR David Barton.

    • Makes me think of Marley’s comment on Scrooge’s chain: “It was as full and as long as this seven Christmas eves ago and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!”

      If The Liar has worked so hard on it the title, perhaps it would, as you say, be rude not to acknowledge it.

    • Susan

      THE LIAR David Barton

      I first encountered THE LIAR David Barton in this link to Coffee with Claire which was linked to me by a good friend.

      He won the Dimbulb of the Year, which was quite a feat for the category.

      The rest of her series about him lays it all out.

      • Greg G.

        I was addicted to YouTube for a while and Claire was one of my favorites.

        • Susan

          Claire was one of my favorites.

          I had forgotten how good she is. Every video was loaded with valuable information, and natural charm.

          It almost makes me grateful to THE LIAR David Barton for bringing her to me.

  • Pofarmer

    So, was wondering what the astute commenters here thought of this apologetic.

    “If being hurt by the Church causes you to lose your faith in God, then your faith was in People, not God.”

    • Greg G.

      There are no bad reasons to lose your faith in God or any other imaginary thing.

    • It’s yet another version of the unfalsifiable god hypothesis. If you pray and get it, that was God. If you pray and don’t get it, that was God, too.

      Good things are from God; bad things are from the Fall. God can’t lose.

      And here, ignoring the obvious red flag of what the requirement of faith means, strong faith is God’s doing and weak faith is Man’s doing.

      • Pofarmer

        So if you bought a series of General Motors vehicles that were all lemons. Would you then be justified in losing faith in General Motors? Isn’t that the same argument?

        • If you bought enough cars and considered outside input (to show that all cars aren’t just as bad), then I think you’d be justified in rejecting GM vehicles.

          I don’t see the parallel, though. The argument you raised has a supernatural claim that’s unsupported … but then apologists handwave that it’s all people’s fault. With the GM example, it’s all people and no supernatural.

        • Pofarmer

          Well, I’m just thinking along the lines that the Church is supposed to be the servant of God, and the product is supposed to be all Good, it’s God, right? So, if the product harms you, or one of the dealers of that product harms you, do you blaim the person or the product? I mean, the product is supposed to make people all good, right? But then, like you say, then you’re succeptible to the Fall argument and “We’re all sinners” so, yeah, I suppose the attempted analogy is a bit strained.

        • GM is just a company, and you can find fault with GM. They still might make good (though not perfect) cars. But God is supposed to be perfect, so if God and GM are supposed to be analogs, GM’s not being perfect would be the problem IMO.

        • Pofarmer

          Yes what I’m saying is if you strip the supernatural away it doesn’t make sense. It’s just another case of special pleading.

    • MNb

      Time that that god disowns all those churches.
      I’m waiting.

    • Scott_In_OH

      It’s one of the standards. If you’ve “turned away from God,” it’s because you didn’t understand God correctly, and a common reason for “not understanding God correctly” is because you were too focused on the people you thought were His representatives, rather than on Him.

      While I never turned it on anyone else, it was an approach that allowed me to maintain some version of my faith for a long time. I would see someone I thought was a good Christian role model do something he shouldn’t have, and I would remind myself that all people sin, and I should keep my eyes on Jesus Himself.

      It’s also a line of thinking that lets you move from one church to another or one denomination to another. Some people eventually decide there’s no there there, but others are able to block out the dissonance.

      • Pofarmer

        I should probably know let this meme was posted by a Catholic. I think this is particularly problematic Catholics based on their own theology. The church is supposed to be the body of Christ which is made up of the members. Still I don’t see how you could say that you are hurt by a member of the body of Christ that you weren’t some way hurt by God himself.

        • Scott_In_OH

          That’s a good point, but I think in practice Catholics are capable of seeing other laypeople, individual nuns, individual priests, and even individual popes as having misinterpreted God’s wishes.

        • Pofarmer

          Sure the old everything we do good is because of God everything we do bad because of sin Gambit. But then how do you explain institutional abuse is such as the Magdalene laundry or the institutional cover-up of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s very hard to attribute these things to just individual people being misguided.

        • Scott_In_OH

          Or the systematic cover up of child molestation by priests? It’s a combination of denial (it’s those liberals and atheists spreading the stories to bring down the Church), deflection (the kids dressed sexy, the culture was degrading, and gays went into the priesthood), and compartmentalization + presuppositionalism (I’m sure the Church is right somehow, and God will explain it when it’s time).

          I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m saying it’s possible to sustain one’s faith (or maybe it’s more accurate to say a belief in one’s faith) in the face of what looks like damning evidence to outsiders.

        • Pofarmer

          There’s also the whole “Hell will not prevail against the gates of the one true Church.” Hear that from the true believers. They believe that it is the actual work of Satan.

        • Michael Neville

          They do that all the time. Mention child-raping clergy to Catholics and many will do the “there’s a few bad apples but the church is good and moral even though some members are sinners.”

        • Which presumably explains why the Catholic bureaucracy opted for protecting the church rather than protecting the parishioners.

          Wow–so easy a moral test and yet they got it so completely wrong, and continue to do so.

  • Pofarmer

    Neat. One of the Missouri Republican candidate for governor lifting a major qualification as and I quote leading Christian Missionary groups around the world.

  • Kelly Karoly

    Some respondents to the Emancipation Proclamation poll may have taken issue with the fact that it didn’t actually do anything to free the slaves – it was just words.

    Hey, I’m just trying to be optimistic.