Among the books I read late last year was The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, a historian of American religion at Notre Dame. It’s a truly illuminating book about the ways different groups of Christians in the mid-nineteenth century interpreted the Bible’s teachings about slavery, along with a whole host of interpretational implications for a range of issues related to public theology.
“From the historical record it is clear,” Noll writes, “that the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, how to understand the work of God in the world, and how to exercise the authority of theology in a democratic society.”
What struck me while reading his account of that painful and pivotal time in our country’s history was the way that on the whole it was not the slaveholders but the abolitionists—among whose number I’d certainly like to think I would have belonged—who tended to be quick to dismiss or minimize the authority of the Bible, rather than doing the difficult work of interpreting its teaching for public life. Noll writes:
The primary reason that the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that many biblical attacks on slavery were so weak. To oversimplify a complicated picture, the most direct biblical attacks on slavery were ones that relied on common sense, the broadly accepted moral intuitions of American national ideology, and the weight of “self-evident truth.” They were also the easiest to refute. More complicated, nuanced, and involved biblical attacks against slavery offered more formidable opposition. But because those arguments did not feature intuition, republican instinct, and common sense readings of individual texts, they were much less effective in a public arena that had been so strongly shaped by intuitive, republican, and commonsensical intellectual principles.
Ending slavery seemed like a matter of common sense to the abolitionists, and it seems like common sense to most of us today. We could list a number of issues of which that could be said. But as Noll observes, “common sense” arguments that stand or fall on the basis of intuition or instincts are easily dismissed, rightly or wrongly, by those whose instincts differ.
Noll makes another astute observation about the rather glaring blind spots of Christians on both sides of the slavery debate. For all the theological disagreement over the extent to which scriptural support for slavery exists, few called the country’s underlying racism into question at that time: “So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme authority in adjudicating such matters.”
Eventually, of course, the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. But two issues of immense importance to public theology remained largely unaddressed. Those issues were race and economy.
As Noll puts it, systemic racism of course remained “as the great moral anomaly in a supposedly Christian America” and “theological incoherence in the face of modern economic realities has remained a major problem for Christian thinking ever since the Civil War.”
Public theology has always been a tricky thing, and we need all the help we can get. Faced with this ongoing challenge, the theological crisis that was the Civil War remains an instructive cautionary tale against interpreting the Bible haphazardly. The way we engage with scripture, after all, has enduring public consequences.
[Header image: The Battle of Antietam, by Kurz & Allison, depicting the scene of action at Burnside’s Bridge via eccentricbliss.com]