George Fitzhugh, John Calhoun, (and Pat Buchanan?): Paternalism is Alive and Well

Check out the Vast Public Indifference blog for an excellent post on the question of whether colonial slaves were Christians.  While the post is worth reading, I was struck by her referencing of a recent syndicated column by Pat Buchanan in which he espouses what I assumed to be an extinct justification for slavery within intellectual circles (Yes, even though I rarely agree with Buchanan I consider him to be an intellectual.):

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It
was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships,
grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian
salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity
blacks have ever known.

As Caitlin points out in the post, it is not at all clear that the first few generations of slaves subscribed to Christianity in large numbers.   For now, however, let's assume that all "600,000" were indeed introduced and accepted Christianity and ignore serious history as Buchanan does.  Does anyone really believe that their being introduced to a new religion outweighs the moral calculus surrounding the trauma of being separated from loved ones, community, and one's very identity?  Would Pat Buchanan accept this as a price for salvation for his own family and friends?   How could anyone justify the suffering and death that accompanied slavery with salvation?  If this bizarre picture of how our moral universe operates is true than God does indeed work in mysterious ways. 

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9 comments… add one

  • Ken Noe Jun 14, 2008

    Kevin: Your posts this morning actually mesh nicely together: Buchanan is an SCV member. See you in Philly–Ken

  • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2008

    Great news Ken. It’s been too long.

  • matthew mckeon Jun 14, 2008

    Pat Buchanan is a tool. And I understand from your post he’s an intellectual too.

    His argument is too stupid for words. The Irish were literally starving to death when they arrived in the 1840s. Were they stuck in slavery for 240 years, Jim Crow discrimination for another 90, and then told they should be grateful?

    Jews escaping from Europe before the Holocaust: were they enslaved in American for centuries, but compensated with the glorious opportunity of becoming Baptists?

    Buchanan’s argument(which I’ve heard in other places)only works when the slave has a black skin.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2008

    Matthew, – Don’t take the “intellectual” reference too literally. I was simply trying to point out in as few words as possible that Buchanan is no dummy. Regardless of whether I agree with him he is able to think, which makes his comments that much more disappointing.

  • Bob Pollock Jun 14, 2008

    If the goal was the Christian salvation of Africans, wouldn’t it have made more sense to just send missionaries to Africa?

    This illustates my fundamental problem with Christianity – Christians can rationalize anything. For example, I’ve heard it said by Christians (My parents became Christians when I was in high school in the early 70’s) that God allowed the Holocaust because Jews had become too complacent in Europe and they needed to be pushed into demanding the right to re-establish Israel in order to fulfill Biblical prophecy.

    It seems to me though that Buchanon’s essential message here is that African-Americans need to overcome the victim mentality and take some personal responsibility for thier own lives and communities. (We touched on this idea of personal responsibility in your post on mental illnesses.) Whether or not this is true, I think it is a widespread perception among white Americans, and as the economy worsens and average Americans struggle to keep up, this sentiment will only be reinforced. Obama’s success seems further proof that, regardless of skin color, America is the land of opportunity.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2008

    I think it’s a problem for any system of thought whose foundation is premised on an article of faith. I assume that we can believe pretty much anything on faith. Yes, I think that it Buchanan’s overall message, but the way he arrives at it is laughable. It’s important to keep in mind that Buchanan’s first work in politics was with Nixon right in the mid-1960s and just as the urban ghettos were in a state of chaos. I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s new book, _Nixonland_ and Buchanan does receive a bit of attention. His perceptions of black Americans were clearly forged during that turbulent time. I don’t know what good it does, however, to assume a mindset of victimization within the black community since different groups of white Americans have equal claim to such a sentiment. Reverend Wright must have reminded Pat of the mid-1960s and the work he did with Nixon to steer the country away from what they perceived to be radicalims as opposed to grievances deeply rooted in the American experience. In other words, I think Wright scared the shit out of Buchanan.

  • While I am a history teacher and an avid reader of Civil War scholarship and the issues regarding race in this country, I am also a Christian and a student of religion as well. I agree that Mr. Buchanan is a “tool,” as Mr. McKeon puts it in his post. Buchanan’s comments make about as much sense as the antebellum arguement that slavery was justified by Genesis 9:25, Noah’s curse on his son, Ham, and grandson, Canaan. If Southern apologists and revisionist historians, including Buchanan, want to subscribe to these types of arguements, what about Exodus 21:2, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years. And in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing,” or Matthew 22:39 where Jesus commands His followers to love their neighbor (in most master-slave settings, how much closer neighbors could people be) and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Like 10? (Samaritans were a minority people in ancient Judea in the time of Christ whom were discriminated against by the Jews.)

    More than people who don’t get their facts right or those who choose to ignore the obvious ones, I have an extreme dislike for people who use religion and the Bible to support a flawed mind-set, both in the past and in the present. This is perhaps the most telling thing in my personal transition from a Lost Cause supporter to, at the very least, questioning the validity of the defense for Southerners.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2008

    Thanks for writing. I guess that is the danger of using religious texts to justify an ethical or any other type of personal belief. The problem, as I understand it, is that the Bible can be used to justify any position. After all, who has a monopoly on interpretation?

  • I’ll concede that religious texts can be used to manufacture support for a wide variety of beliefs, both personal and corporate. Look at what the Fundamenatlist Latter Day Saints of West Texas have done with the Book of Mormon or the militanat Islamists have done with the Koran. However, like all other pieces of “literature” (I use the quotes as an emphasis that we can use religious texts as literature with no link to the religious ideas they actually support), there are overriding themes throughout. When you look at the majority of religious texts, all of them espouse the fair and eqitable treatment of those with whom the adherents come in contact. That being said, the Bible can be no more be used to support slavery than it can be used to support a male-dominated society. Most conservative evangelicals will disagree with this, but one only has to look to Christ’s followers and the importance of women being named (Something not often done in the society in which Jesus lived. Women’s testimony was not allowed in judicial proceedings in the Jewish custom of the day. See Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ,” The Eyewitness Testimony chapter, for more information.) and even St. Paul who often speaks of women, by name, and the work they did in local churches when writing his epistles. In addition, when one looks at the Book of Mormon, one can find far fewer passages espousing polygamy and underaged marriages than those which support treating spouses and children equitably; in reading the Koran, one finds more passages on being kind to the poor and elderly than about jihad. And, yes, I have read both the Book of Mormon and the Koran, as well as Bible.

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