Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not countercultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alterations at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time. Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity (21-22).
I talk about this in chapter 2 of my book. In chapter 3, I consider the thesis of the French philosopher and theologian, Jacques Ellul who, in The Subversion of Christianity, claimed that Christianity was being continually subverted by people who consistently sought to make it fit the larger cultural consensus. This is what happened in regard to race-based slavery and racism. These things did not arise from the Bible or Christianity. They arose in the larger culture based in Enlightenment and Greek thought (as I will soon show) and then adherents of the Christian religion, wanting to be accepted by the larger culture for a variety of reasons, one of which so that they could share the gospel, then acquiesced to the larger cultural ideals.
Audrey Smedley and Brian Smedley, in Race In North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, tell us that (along with the vast majority of scholarship on the history of slavery/racism today) Racism, as we understand it, was a relatively recent invention and it developed progressively. It developed in the Colonies as a way for wealthy English landowners in the mid to late 1600s to justify a labor system that began in the indentured servitude of all kinds of people (poor Irish, English, and other Europeans as well as a growing number of Africans). The economic impetus came first. Then, laws were changed to reflect the new reality and to begin to see "blackness" as a sign of a permanently servile class because it was the African slaves that were the most successful and profitable for the English planters. The African slaves most enhanced the planter "way of life." Along with the changing laws came a culture shift where "whiteness" began to develop as a way to separate the Europeans from the African for the purpose of power and to control the enslaved labor force. Finally, along with all of this came the theological justification that was needed to give the whole enterprise Divine Sanction. Things began to be found in the Bible regarding a need for separation of the races and a defense of slavery that had never before been articulated. But, the Bible was not the source of all of this - not initially, at least. We'll get to the source in just a minute.
First, Smedley/Smedley's explanation of the impulse of the common man in the South, even apart from economic concerns is worth noting:
But colonists of all sorts, slave owners and non-slave owners, did not seek to maintain slavery for merely economic reasons. It became predominantly a social institution, a mechanism integral to the structuring of the colonies’ social system. It evolved simultaneously as a relationship of dominance and power and as a form of conspicuous consumption for the socially ambitious. Europeans of all social and economic classes and ethnic identities learned that they had the right to yearn for the plantation lifestyle, with its comforts, graciousness, elite mannerisms, and luxuries. Even if the economic efficiency of slavery declined or was subject to question at times, the structural relationships and social functions persisted and strengthened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Leaders in the South manufactured a “Southern way of life” that was imbued with concepts of honor and grace and tightly linked to religion. Historians who have treated American slavery as only an economic institution, as a mode of production, have often ignored or failed to perceive the importance of this social-cultural factor. It was this latter reality that generated the greatest resistance to ending slavery, as southerners and other proslavery advocates recognized that the social dimension in all its complexity was critical to what they saw as their way of life (116).
Religion, Christianity, and the Bible was used by the powers-that-be to promote a social system that benefitted those with power so that they could pursue their own prosperity at the expense of others. The source of this idea that one man could own another found its real origin in Greek philosophy, not in Scripture. 20th century Southern novelist, essayist, and philosopher, Walker Percy, explained well the problem in the South with Christianity and the philosophies of the Greeks in his essay, "Stoicism in the South."
The greatness of the South, like the greatness of the English squirearchy, had always a stronger Greek flavor than it ever had a Christian. Its nobility and graciousness was the nobility and graciousness of the old Stoa ... The South’s virtues were the broadsword virtues of the clan, as were her vices, too—the hubris of noblesse gone arrogant. The Southern gentlemen did live in a Christian edifice, but he lived there [as] Chesterton spoke of, that of a man who will neither go inside nor put it entirely behind him but stands forever grumbling on the porch.
Percy says that it was not Christianity that was the primary influence in the Old South. Rather, it was the ideas of the Greek philosophers, which were also the major influence of Enlightenment Thought which promoted man's Reason over God's Revelation and which so affect Britain, France, and the American Revolution. The Bible was used to bolster the Greek ideas and give them a Christian veneer. But, make no mistake. The arguments behind race-based slavery in the South came primarily from the Greeks and using Bibilcal descriptions of the state of Master-Slave relationships while making them prescriptive for all times and cultures as God's ideal. That was an error. I make this case in detail in chapter 4 of my book.
I would posit that the real impetus behind Southern race-based slavery was not Paul speaking descriptively into a situation where Christians were a powerless minority, but rather, it was Aristotle's Natural Slavery argument. Aristotle claimed that there were some who were natural masters and some who were naturally slaves and you could tell who was who by basic observation. Who was superior? Who was inferior? Who was strong? Who was weak? Who conquered and who were conquered? This was unalterable, he said. It just was what it was and people were born this way. It was also, as South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun declared, a "positive good" for the ordering of society and the good of all.
Aristotle, in his Politics, Book I said,
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
And there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects (and that rule is the better which is exercised over better subjects—for example, to rule over men is better than to rule over wild beasts; for the work is better which is executed by better workmen, and where one man rules and another is ruled, they may be said to have a work); for in all things which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts, whether continuous or discrete, a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to fight. Such a duality exists in living creatures, but not in them only; it originates in the constitution of the universe; even in things which have no life there is a ruling principle, as in a musical mode.
That some would naturally be Masters and some Slaves was the natural order of things. It was the only acceptable way of life for Aristotle. And, who would rule and who would be ruled? He tells us:
But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say, “It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.”
Do you see the distinctions that are set in place "from the hour of their birth"? Barbarians. Women. Slaves. The Greeks ruled over the Barbarians, the men ruled over the women, and the free ruled over the slave. As I was researching all of this for the book and trying to figure out why Southern White Evangelicals had failed so miserably on the Race issue, I found this and recognized that the reason that we had failed was because we were living according to the worldly distinctions of Aristotle and the Greeks instead of the heavenly reality laid out for us in Scripture. Paul actually dismantled Aristotle's categories and removed the foundation for slavery being a fixed system. It was Paul who gave us the impetus for freedom, not Enlightenment Reason and Greek philosophy. That only led to bondage.
As we know, Paul addresses these categories in Galatians 3:26-29 where he says that we are all one in Christ if we have been baptized into Him and that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ. In Colossians 3:11, Paul also says that Barbarian and Scythian are also not distinctions that keep us from God or from one another. We are all one in Christ. This teaching was ignored and subverted by Enlightenment and Greek thought that exalted Man's Reason over God's Revelation to promote the "Way of Life" that seemed best to the Southern Mind. In order to be accepted in that culture and gain a hearing for the Gospel and gain prominence, Evangelicals subverted their understanding of Scripture and their practice to a wholly pagan way of seeing the world - a world where it was obvious that the Masters were white Europeans and the slaves were black Africans. I make this case in great detail with plenty of support in chapter 4 of my book - much more than I can get into here.
So, it was not the Bible or Christianity solely that gave us race-based slavery and racism, except where it subverted itself to the larger cultural impulse. For that, the Southern white church bears enormous responsibilty. But, the Bible is clear that we are all one in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 says that we are to no longer regard anyone from a worldly (racial? ethnic?) point of view but that we are new creations in Christ. That is all that matters. Ephesians 2:11-22 tells us that Christ is our peace and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and has made the two into one new man. Revelation 7 tells us that every nation will be worshiping together around the Throne praising God for eternity.
The reason that Southern white Evangelicals erred was not because the Bible was unclear. They erred because they were reading the Bible through their own cultural lens of what made sense to them at the time in relation to racial issues and they were far more influenced by Greek/Enlightenment thought than they realized (if you want to know how much Greek thought influenced the South, just notice the architecture of the public buildings and plantation homes with the Greek Revival columns. That was a philiosophical statement). Race-based slavery and Racism was a modern invention that developed in the 17th and 18th centuries to secure prosperity for wealthy English landowners and, on this issue, Christianity was subverted to its cause. Once racism was seen as evil and once the ideas that we are all created equal actually worked its way through American society, racism as a legitimate perspective was jettisoned, though it still exists under the surface. But, the offspring of Enlightenment Thought, Secularism, then turned and blamed the Church for the affair, conveniently forgetting its own role in developing the problem to being with.
This leads us to the present day. People like Rachel Held Evans and others calling for Evangelical Christianity to consider its mistakes on slavery and racism so that it will then reconsider its stance on homosexuality are trying to prove too much, I believe. Yes, Southern Evangelicals were terribly wrong on slavery and racism. But, the reason for the massive error and heresy that was promoted was not because they derived their position from Scripture, but rather because they were too heavliy influenced by a culture that only wanted to promote its own prosperity and survival and way of life in ways that seemed best according to human reason and understanding. There was little of the power of God in it - none actually - and it was all a devlish affair that led to effects and consequences that we might never recover from as a nation, not to mention the human toil on the individuals and their descendents who suffered through what happened. Also, this assessment diminishes the fact that the Abolition Movement was also a Christian movement rooted in Scripture and a fidelity to the way of Jesus. In addition, it ignores completely the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was a Christian movement led by Christian pastors and largely attended to by praying African American Christians living out a Biblical ethic of non-violence and perseverance. That heritage should be remembered as well as it came from Christians gathering together to interpret and live out Scripture faithfully.
Equating the way that the Bible was used in support of Slavery and Racism and then relating that to opposition to Gay Marriage is a mistake, historically, culturally, and theologically, I believe. Being wrong on one issue does not mean that one is wrong on the other. The best way to determine where the error lies is to actually discern where the winds of culture are blowing, how Christianity is being currently subverted, and to then compare those winds with the overall impetus and focus of Scripture regarding humanity's true purpose in God and the actual freedom that He gives that is only found in relationship with Him through Christ.
For much, much more on this as well as the Better Way of Jesus found through the sacrificial love that flows from the Cross of Christ, check out my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus from New South Books (February, 2014).