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Slavery Back as a Discussion Topic? Thanks, Trump.

Slavery Back as a Discussion Topic? Thanks, Trump. March 16, 2016

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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