Jim DeMint, American Slavery, the Bible, and History


Recently, I interviewed Jim DeMint for my radio show to discuss his new book, Falling In Love With America Again. Some remarks he made on the show, especially about slavery, have been burning up the blogosphere. Many of the articles imply or state that Mr. DeMint, former US Senator (R-SC) and now head of The Heritage Foundation, doesn’t know his US history.

In the interview, I asked DeMint about the founding fathers, the Civil War, and slavery. He said:

“The reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. It was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the mind of God.”

Of course, it is the Declaration of Independence he was quoting. But, as anybody who knows the Constitution will recognize, the Constitution is predicated on the Declaration as it makes evident:

“Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth.”

That is, twelve years from the year the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed.

DeMint continued with what became his most controversial remarks in the interview:

“But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.”

The DailyKos declared: “Note to Jim DeMint: Ending slavery was a Big Government police action” [that ended up killing 600,000 Americans]. One blog from MSNBC said of Mr. DeMint: “Don’t Know Much About History.” But just who doesn’t know much about history?

Let’s unpack what he said here and look at faith and slavery, proving DeMint’s key points.

The Bible condones indentured servitude to pay off debts (which has a limited time of service), for which it sometimes uses the word “slavery.” But the Bible condemns chattel slavery (owning slaves as property) in strong terms. The Bible condemned the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews. And it prohibits “man-stealing” (the premise of US slavery) as a capital crime.

Paul preached the radical doctrine that the slave and the free man are brothers in Christ … and that Philemon would be a better Christian if he freed his slave.

Above all, the great historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968) of Yale points out that over the centuries Christianity undermined slavery by dignifying labor.

William Wilberforce was a longtime Member of Parliament in England who engaged in a lifelong Christian crusade against the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire. Even President Obama (not a DeMint fan, I imagine) noted in 2010: “Remember William Wilberforce, whose Christian faith led him to seek slavery’s abolition in Britain…” (Britain abolished the slave trade and slavery without a war because of Wilberforce’s tireless efforts..)

The success of Wilberforce and his evangelical friends who ended slavery in 1833 inspired those in America who were dealing with the terrible issue.

In the American experience, two-thirds of the members of the abolition society in 1835 were ministers of the gospel. Leading practitioners of the Underground Railroad were Quakers. The Christian novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin pricked the conscience of the nation. Abraham Lincoln’s love of the Bible is well-documented; his writings are filled with quotations from its pages.

One of the articles critiquing Jim DeMint’s American history was by Jon Greenberg and posted at Tampa Bay Times/PolitFact.com. In his nevertheless-thoughtful piece, Greenberg notes that “the majority of the leaders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a powerful voice for emancipation in the decades before the war, identified with some branch of faith. They drew their inspiration from the Bible.”

He goes on to quote Christian abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard. Blanchard said that “Abolitionists take their stand upon the New Testament doctrine of the natural equity of man.” Blanchard then cites Acts 17:26, which says that all men came from one man — thus, undermining racism. (Not that Christians have always lived up to that ideal, sadly).

It’s true that some in the South misused the Bible to justify American chattel slavery. But, most importantly, the death knell against slavery came from the Bible. And that’s the key, proving DeMint’s thesis. As culture precedes politics, so abolitionism (often faith-based) among the people preceded the Civil War.

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