During Michele Bachmann’s brief-but-very-evangelical campaign for president, she signed a pledge ‘to protect the family’ that included a line suggesting that slavery was better for the African American family than the current status quo. In case you missed it – either late last year or in the previous sentence – a politician publicly identified as an evangelical and actively courting evangelical votes (well, obviously not African American evangelical votes) affixed her name to the suggestion that about 1/5 of America’s population would be better off as property.
And she wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. It was, after all, a pledge that other candidates signed, and it was put forward by a Christian group in Iowa. The whole slavery apologist scandal in question was an evangelical creation.
Still, if this was an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be writing about this a year later; Bachmann may have been a high-profile candidate for president, but one could dismiss her as an outlier, and the Iowa group behind the pledge (which I shan’t dignify by naming) dropped it when the controversy hit. Unfortunately, this month in Arkansas, it came to light that another political candidate – Loy Mauch, an Arkansas state legislator – has also been espousing a mix of evangelicalism and pro-slavery rhetoric. Not content merely to bash Abraham Lincoln, Mauch has instead invoked Paul and Jesus in his explicitly pro-slavery rants. Once again, evangelical political action is linked to the belief that people of a certain ancestry should be property.
That slavery apologists are imbeciles and their views execrable will be uncontroversial among those who read my writing. More controversial is the notion that this is Evangelical Culture’s problem. Please note, however, that this link between evangelicalism and slavery apologists has been made in more than one incident this election cycle, and touches at least four states (Iowa; Mauch’s Arkansas; Bachmann’s Minnesota; and Santorum’s Pennsylvania – he’s not evangelical, but he signed the pledge too). Put another way, the last year has seen evangelical candidates for offices high and low – as well as at least one evangelical lobbying group – trying to curry favor with evangelical voters in multiple places by pining for the days of slavery. That makes this an evangelical problem.
If there’s one glaring issue when it comes to sensitive topics in the evangelical world, it’s the question of ownership. If an evangelical succeeds anywhere in life, we claim that individual and own their success; athletes are the best example of this, but there are others too. As soon as an evangelical does something stupid (or dramatically worse than stupid, like being an apologist for slavery), however, we act like our community has nothing to do with that person’s views or behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true, and the surreal rise of slavery apologists is a great time to address this.
Ignoring Loy Mauch – since his views don’t warrant rational discourse – let’s focus on the Iowa incident, in which slavery was discussed as being preferable to the current status quo for most African Americans. Such a dismissive view of slavery seems to be contingent on ignorance of at least three things. In the first place is total ignorance of precisely how immoral and comprehensively dehumanizing American chattel slavery was (I’m not writing a history lesson here; if you’re not clear on this, Google it).
The second ignorance is probably even less excusable, since it’s ignorance of the fact that African Americans are, um, Americans. Problems confronting African American communities are not African American problems; they’re American problems, and they have no causal link to race whatsoever (outside of racism, obviously), let alone slavery. Still more damning, of course, is a fact that would be inescapable if only these slavery apologists knew more evangelicals: millions of African Americans are evangelicals, and it’s hard to believe these apologists know any of them at all. Therein lies the biggest problem with this ignorance: evangelical candidates and groups that claim to have political solutions to America’s problems are totally ignorant about a huge portion of the evangelical church and 1/5 of the electorate.
The final area of ignorance for the slavery apologists is pretty straightforward: Jesus didn’t come to dominate anyone. If we’re supposed to be like Jesus – and if you’re evangelical, you’re ideologically committed to this idea – we’re not in the business of dominating anyone. Obviously, enslaving Africans was a form of unacceptable domination. But domination can take other forms, too, and one of those forms is via excluding people from another group. More concretely, when the Iowa group treats African Americans as a social problem, that’s domination by exclusion. When political actors talk about evangelicals as though African American evangelicals don’t count, that’s domination by exclusion too. And when it’s done in the name of defending families in the name of Jesus, let me suggest that makes it blasphemous.
So there’s the rub. Evangelical Culture may not want to give everyone a history lesson, so maybe ignorance #1 isn’t the church’s problem. But ignorance #2 is inexcusable for Evangelical Culture, because evangelicals come in every race in the United States, and the white part of the evangelical family has no excuse for not knowing who the larger evangelical church are. Ignorance #3, meanwhile, is a fundamental teaching problem within many evangelical churches, and it’s one that has an easy fix, if only we’d do it: teach people who Jesus was, and then kick people who choose to live the opposite way out of your church. Almost every church has a procedure to do so, but it almost never happens. It’s time for individual evangelical churches to own their responsibility to kick these crazies out so that the rest of the evangelical movement doesn’t have to own their views.
Until that happens, however, admit this: if we want to own the success of all our evangelical heroes, we also have to own the shame of having these other nuts in our midst. That’s not really something about Evangelical Culture that makes me uncomfortable; it’s something about Evangelical Culture that makes me apoplectic.