“I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

-Frederick Douglass

Religious conservatives looking for the origins of “the war on Christianity” might do well to consult Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, with its resounding volley of scorn for American claims to godliness. Disdainful of his era’s Bible-toting bullies, Douglass reminded churchgoing readers that “the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.” One such master was a certain Captain Auld, who had “experienced religion” at one of those revival meetings. Dissatisfied with the service of a young slave girl, Auld whipped her with a cowskin lash, quoting Scripture as he did: “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Like other gentleman-tyrants, Auld had ample reason to claim, as Douglass noted, “religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.” St. Paul had enjoined submission to masters; and had not God himself established and regulated slavery through the Mosaic Law, thereby providing the seal of divine approval?

Though Mark Noll doesn’t cite Douglass’s remarks, they define the subject of his brief, unsettling, and ultimately disappointing reflection on the theological quandaries provoked by Southern slavery. Now at Notre Dame after a long tenure at evangelical Wheaton College, Noll has authored or edited more than thirty erudite and judicious books on American religious history. Like America’s God, his magnificent study of antebellum Protestant thought, Noll’s new work crosses and at points erases the boundary between history and theology. In doing so, it reinvigorates discussion of the questions arising from religious debate over slavery: the nature of American democracy; the nature of scriptural authority; and-though Noll doesn’t press it-the nature of Protestantism itself.

Before it occasioned the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history, the chattel bondage of 4 million black Americans triggered an imbroglio in the nation’s Christian-which is to say, predominantly Protestant-religious culture. Waged in pulpits, pamphlets, newspapers, and hefty tomes of theology, the controversy over slavery was an angry and fateful “culture war” that in retrospect belies all nostalgia about traditional values and that ole-time gospel religion. Noll argues that slavery and civil war precipitated a theological crisis not simply because they were moral issues, but because U.S. Protestants believed that “the United States stood in a covenantal relationship with God.” Evangelical Protestantism was the covenant theology of the antebellum republic, providing the halo for a mercantile democracy ruled by an ethic of white male proprietorship. In this civil religion, America was more than a nation-state-it was a new Israel, granted a providential destiny to spread the gospel of Protestant republicanism. If the churches fell out over slavery, the Protestant republic would disintegrate into chaos and fratricide, a sure sign that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn-or worse, exposed as a delusion every bit as fraudulent as the Donation of Constantine, said to have given territorial rights to the Vatican in the early fourth century.

America’s covenant theology rested on what Noll dubs “the Evangelical-Enlightenment synthesis” of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura with Scottish “common sense” philosophy. Sola scriptura entailed sole and complete reliance on the Bible, whose meaning Evangelicals considered sufficiently clear without recourse to church or tradition. “Common sense” philosophy-the foundation of those “self-evident truths” in the Declaration of Independence-held that the Bible could be understood with the plain and unscholarly reasoning of the ordinary reader.

But as it turned out, the Bible’s self-evident meaning wasn’t always, well, self-evident, and common sense seemed to depend on one’s location vis-à-vis the Mason-Dixon line. The proslavery argument had, as Noll concedes, an elegant and impregnable “simplicity”: Scripture never condemns slavery, while numerous regulations and admonitions in both testaments demonstrate that bondage is a lawful and even beneficial condition. To proslavery theologians, the Good Book’s blessing on slavery was self-evident to all save Northern heretics and infidels. Antislavery partisans, meanwhile, pursued two lines of argument: complicated exegesis of the relevant passages, and an appeal to the “spirit” of the gospel that, in their view, sanctioned emancipation. When the national debate over slavery reached a crescendo in the 1850s, abolitionists and apologists found the issue impossible to resolve. And so the doctrine of Providence, the belief that all events are discernibly guided by the hand of the Almighty, dissolved in artillery fire, and-its God having failed-the Protestant republic had to rely, as Noll puts it drolly, on “those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”

The impotence of America’s God has had enduring effects on the nation’s culture and politics. Unlike many Evangelicals, Noll traces our contemporary nervousness about religion in public affairs not to secularism but to the carnage wrought by the war. The Civil War, in his view, became the Waterloo of the Protestant republic; once the corpses at Antietam and Chancellorsville discredited the covenant theology, American intellectuals modified or abandoned the Evangelical-Enlightenment synthesis, while politicians avoided grounding policy directly in Scripture-an avoidance that continues to this day.

I’m not wholly convinced on that last point. On the Left, the labor, civil rights, and peace movements have often appealed quite explicitly to the Bible; and on the Right, the star-spangled twaddle of civil religion still warps the American political imagination. Indeed, a century and a half later, the same flatulence that nauseated Douglass-“Christian nation,” “biblical perspective,” “providential destiny”-pollutes the atmosphere more rancidly than ever.

The deaf ear Noll turns to such nonsense disappoints. A book about slavery, war, and theology should be a showcase for prophetic indictment. If Noll refuses to play the part, that’s his right as a scholar, I guess; but on issues this large and timely, such modesty can be a vice. Take “Providence.” The high-minded and callous have long invoked “God’s will” when faced with someone else’s misery. (Consider the typical view of Civil War-era Reformed theologian Philip Schaff, who opined that slavery was “an immense blessing to the whole race of Ham.”) And from Timothy Dwight to Richard John Neuhaus, American warrior-clerics have always seen Providence in imperial brigandage or ruling-class rapacity. Rather than lament, with Noll, the “simplicity” of providential thinking, why not follow Lincoln in advocating an effective moratorium on providential speculation? As for proslavery theologians, Frederick Douglass knew what to make of blowhards like James Henley Thornwell, mint-julep despots whose Christian manliness depended on possession of a bullwhip and a Bible. Noll lets them off far too easily.

Perhaps his punch-pulling derives from an intuition that the antebellum friction over slavery sheds an unflattering light, both on U.S. democracy and on the limits of Evangelical Protestantism. Though he doesn’t cite Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Noll confirms Morgan’s seminal contention that republican ideology tied together whiteness and proprietorship in a way that entailed racism and slavery. The “Negro question” could be a question only in a democracy understood as white, while slavery was quite compatible with a notion of freedom as property ownership.

Noll also demonstrates that Catholics raised the most searching questions about U.S. slavery because they raised the most penetrating questions about both Protestantism and liberal democracy. Echoing and expanding on the insights of scholars like John McGreevy (Catholicism and American Freedom), Noll shows that despite their reluctance to support abolition, most American and European Catholic intellectuals agreed that “the Bible alone” provided insufficient and even incoherent guidance on the issue, and that the individualist assumptions of liberal societies only compounded the intractable theological problem.

A Protestant halo crowned the antebellum republic, in other words; but you don’t have to be a Catholic to think that the demise of America’s God raises inescapable questions about Protestant moralism and sola scriptura. Indeed, unless today’s Protestant conservatives are willing to dilate on the benefits of enslavement, they should, I think, cease lecturing the rest of us about “biblical morality.” For the fact remains that anyone who adheres to “the Bible alone” cannot condemn the fate of those who even today suffer in bondage, from Sudan to India and Malaysia. To recoil from their suffering is implicitly to repudiate sola scriptura; but to abandon sola scriptura is to acknowledge the interpretive authority of church and tradition. Slavery leaves a certain brand of zealous Protestantism in a bind.

And so conservatives who wail about “the war on Christianity” would do well to ask themselves which Christianity they’re defending. If it’s the kind that refers us to what’s “in the Bible,” then Frederick Douglass’s attack on such piety should surely be our own. On the other hand, if it’s the kind that reads the Bible with the eyes of John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa-the two earliest antislavery polemicists in the history of the church-then it deserves our vigorous allegiance. To march under any other banner of faith is to love a misnomer, a fraud, and a libel.

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.