I don’t know of a more flagrant example of religion’s routine historical accommodation with evil than Reconstruction, the period of supposed national healing after the catastrophic U.S. Civil War.
Consider the core problem: Christians in the South believed that the Bible and, thus, God, condoned slavery, one of the essential triggers of the war and the heart of the South’s “Lost Cause” in fighting to retain the “peculiar institution.”
Many biblical passages implicitly condone slavery, including 1 Peter, 2:18:
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
Fearing a just God
Yet, even though Southerners before and after the Civil War widely believed the Bible authorized slavery, planters with large slave populations were still fearful that other biblical injunctions (e.g. against injustice) might encourage rebellion among their enslaved negroes.
The website History.com notes that an alternative book of scripture was published in 1807, reportedly in the Caribbean. It was a heavily abridged version of biblical literature known as the “Slave Bible” — with most of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament excised.
“The reason? So that the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua couldn’t read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel,” History.com explains.
This blatantly un-Christian book, also used by U.S. slave-state planters, also informs why Southerners saw no reason after losing the Civil War to cynically, dishonorably and relentlessly work to undermine the conditions of its surrender, including acknowledging and accommodating freedom and equality for newly former slaves.
In a sense, by successfully resisting the terms of its defeat over many decades, Southerners largely ignored the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by which President Abraham Lincoln formally freed American slaves, and they avoided their responsibility as a defeated people. That’s why emancipation was not fully codified until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in the U.S. “based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”
Thus, for a long time after the Civil War, the South acted as if it had not actually lost.
This massive injustice is laid out in a recent Time magazine article titled, “America’s Second Sin: How an overlooked era still shapes our world,” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Gates reports that a more honorable cause was lost by former slaves during Reconstruction than by the South in its failed bid to hold onto its slave-fueled economy. Gates reported that when interviewing prominent American black comedian Chris Rock, the comic broke down when he learned that one of his Civil War-era ancestors — Julius Caesar Tingman — had been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives during Reconstruction.
“It’s sad that all this stuff was kind of buried and that I went through a whole childhood and most of my adulthood not knowing,” Rock lamented to Gates.”How in the world could I not know that.”
He did not know that because such hopeful episodes of civil-rights progress for roughly 4 million emancipated slaves in the South were exceedingly short-lived after the Civil War.
Gates explained that after the war the U.S. government “maintained an active presence in the former Confederate states to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves and to help them, however incompletely, on the path to becoming full citizens.” But political realities eventually intervened.
And then the government abandoned them
In the 1876 presidential election, Gates reports, critical political votes were traded in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana for removal of federal troops from the last Southern statehouses. This effectively undercut the 15th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, thus for the first time enfranchising black Americans.With the federal government no longer securing the gains of the Civil War with an effective presence in the South, Southerners began to purposefully and expansively backslide.
“The issues central to Reconstruction — citizenship, voting rights, terrorist violence, the relationship between economic and political democracy — continue to roil our society and politics today, making an understanding of Reconstruction even more vital,” Gates wrote, quoting contemporary historian Eric Foner.
Noting how the South basically deconstructed Reconstruction, Foner contends that the key take-away is “that achievements thought permanent can be overturned and rights can never be taken for granted.”
The U.S. economic crisis of 1877 further fueled the disintegration of Reconstruction, as the federal government no longer felt it could afford the costs of protecting blacks’ newly won rights.
Welcome to ‘Jim Crow’
What followed was one of the nation’s most ignoble periods, as voter suppression of black in the South resumed in force along with what Gates terms “Jim Crow segregation and quasi-enslavement that was called by white Southerners, ironically, ‘Redemption.’”
“What does it all amount to if a black man, after having been made free by the letter of your law, is unable to exercise that freedom, and, after having been freed from the slaveholder’s lash, he is to be subject to the slaveholder’s shotgun?” asked Frederick Douglass, a free black American writer and social reformer who had been an eloquent proponent of abolition.
Southern retrenchment after barely a decade of Reconstruction was startling.
“What confounds is how much longer the rollback of reconstruction was than Reconstruction itself,” Gates wrote, “how dogged was the determination of he ‘Redeemed South’ to obliterate any trace of the gains made by freed people.”
In the end, Southern states effectively segregated their populations, white from black, and when the Civil Rights Act was ratified and segregated public schools outlawed in the ’60s, Southerners created segregated, private Christian academies to send their children to. Still today, Southern states continue to try and disenfranchise black voters with bald-faced gerrymandering.
So it has come full circle, as Southerners using slavery-endorsing biblical precepts continue to discriminate against blacks as they originally, and falsely, believed God had authorized.