Southern Baptists are the religious right’s most powerful component.  Yet at one time Baptists were considered one of the most progressive Protestant denominations.    Early in our history, when the principles of our Declaration still lived in the hearts of many, America’s Baptists were key allies in Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s efforts to establish separation of church and state in Virginia.  With crucial Baptist assistance they succeeded.  Many American religious denominations support these principles today, even ones that originally opposed them.  But somewhere something happened to America’s Baptists. It happened in the antebellum South.

Dixie is the only region of our country ever to have explicitly repudiated the principles of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  I know this claim reads strangely to many readers, as it once sounded strange to me.   I was born in Virginia and raised in a family with strong Southern sympathies.  As a youngster I learned the common Southern line that the Civil War was not really fought over slavery, but primarily over states’ rights.  Those who taught me this history spoke as honestly as they knew.  But they didn’t know. It was many decades later that I discovered the depth of the Southern elite’s rejection of our country’s founding principles.   The most effective falsehoods are spread by people who think they speak the truth.  The spread of lies is parasitic on honest but misinformed people in a long chain of sincere people who trusted liars. We cannot understand America’s founding principles or the Confederate alternative without first becoming free from these falsehoods.

America’s liberal Declaration of Independence asserted all people had inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  For the men who wrote it, this was much more than a slogan.  They were risking their lives taking on the world’s strongest military power, with death the certain penalty for failure.  In their view the Declaration pointed to the core of what it was to be a human being.  People have a right to be governed by consent.  No one can legitimately rule a peaceful person without meaningful consent.  It says much about the sad state of our understanding of our own origins that today few Americans comprehend what these words meant when they were written.

It has long been fashionable among many Progressives to criticize America’s Founders for not having abolished slavery, and in some cases for owning slaves, and it is true their failure to abolish this evil institution is a permanent blot on their efforts.  Slavery directly contravened the Declaration’s assertion that our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were inalienable.  But when war broke out, a united front against the British was necessary.  The South was economically dependent on slavery, and so to win Southern support slavery could not be explicitly attacked. Initially Thomas Jefferson had attacked slavery in his first draft of the Declaration but he was overruled.  Even so, most Southern leaders themselves opposed slavery as wrong. Consequently language incompatible with slavery but not referring to it by name was used.

There is always a tension between wealth and ethics, but fortunately slavery was not as economically critical as in states farther to the south.  People were better equipped to consider the moral issues along with the financial.  As Founding Father John Jay of New York explained:[1]

“Prior to the great Revolution. . . . our people had been so long accustomed to the convenience and practice of having slaves, that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.  Some liberal and conscientious men had indeed by their conduct and writings, drawn the lawfulness of slavery into question. . . . Their doctrines prevailed by almost insensible degrees, and was like the little lump of leaven which was put into three measures of meal.”

Jay was describing the Revolution’s substantial cultural and political impact. In the decades immediately after the Revolution a majority, eight, of the original thirteen states did peacefully abolish slavery. Vermont, the first state to join after the original 13, explicitly banned slavery in its first constitution.

Even after removing words explicitly condemning slavery from a draft Declaration of Independence, the Founders still emphasized we possessed “inalienable” human rights, not simply the rights of English subjects.  By our very nature as human beings we could not give them away.  They could be overridden by injustice, but never legitimately lost.  As I explained in chapter four, the Declaration’s authors knew their terminology would forever put slave masters on the defensive by illuminating a falsehood central to any argument that people could be property.  Our inalienable moral responsibility meant we required liberty and life to pursue happiness in whatever way we thought best, and also to be held responsible for our actions.[2]

Later, explicitly keeping slavery in the proposed new Union was the price demanded for Southern membership.  Having two or more independent countries invited European meddling, which was universally feared on all sides.   Meeting Southern demands seemed the lesser of the two evils to Americans opposed to slavery and also fearful of European meddling.

Although most Southern leaders of the time disapproved of slavery, they did not know how to get rid of it. Many hoped that with the eventual abolition of the slave trade, (postponed for a while as the price South Carolina exacted for joining) it would wither away on its own.  Once the constitution allowed it, the slave trade was abolished.

Slavery was rightly seen as incompatible with our country’s founding principles.  It was a regrettable compromise at best,  a deal with the Devil at worst.  This incompatibility was not lost on later generations of slaveholding Southerners.  They had come to believe slavery was good and therefore America’s Founders were wrong.

In the beginning the South had contributed disproportionately to our country’s greatest leaders. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason were all Southerners.  All also strongly opposed slavery.  Nor was this disapproval a view held by only a tiny minority of the most enlightened Southerners.  Until around 1840 even Southern Courts would argue slavery violated Blacks’ natural rights.  In 1818 the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled:  “Slavery is condemned by reason and the laws of nature.  It exists, and can only exist, through municipal regulations, and in matters of doubt . . . courts must lean [in favor of life and liberty].”[3]   These judges lacked the constitutional power to over turn bad law constitutionally passed, but they believed they could try to limit its reach.

America’s Founders were remarkable, as was the generation of which they were a part.  But with independence too many of their descendents failed to come close to their example.  Many rarely if ever risked their lives or fortunes, or even their convenience, for any powerful moral principle.  Not every one after the War of 1812 began to explore the full possibilities of living in a free society.  The lure of Mammon spoke too powerfully, as it continues to do for many self-proclaimed ‘patriots.’ Before the Civil War Natchez, Mississippi, major slave-trading hub, was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country.[4]

In the North the compatibility of making money within the framework of liberal principles moderated the tension between seeking wealth and respecting other people, at least until the time of mass wage labor.  (Although, to be fair, many wealthy New Englanders continued making money from the slave trade even after it became illegal.)  In the South slavery made this adjustment between Mammon and morals impossible.  The contradictions were too obvious.

When the combination of slavery and cotton led to great wealth for plantation owners, Southerners had to choose between the principles their forefathers believed in and fat wallets.  For too many, especially those at the top, fat wallets won and America’s founding principles were explicitly abandoned. By 1845 publicly anti-slavery Southerners were fleeing for their lives.  Thus the children of our Southern founders dishonored their heritage.

John C. Calhoun was perhaps the most insightful of those Southerners who turned their backs on their country’s founding principles.  Calhoun had been a senator from South Carolina and Vice President of the United States.  He deeply understood the incompatibility of the Declaration with the servitude he celebrated.  In 1838 Calhoun argued[5]

“This [antislavery] agitation has produced one happy effect at least; it has compelled us to the South to look into the nature and character of this great institution, and to correct many false impressions that even we had entertained in relation to it.  Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone, we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Calhoun’s view was Hobbesian rather than Lockean.  His argument had no use for the liberal concept of human rights, which underlay the principle of government by consent of the governed.[6]  In resting government on elite economic self interest the principles of a free society were undermined, no matter what that economic form might be.  But with slavery the conflict was as great as if it had been serfdom.

Later  Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s first and only Vice-President said in 1861:[7]

“The prevailing view entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen of the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature, that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. . . . These ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  That was an error….

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.

“Thus our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Calhoun and Stevens spoke for many. That is why they were regional leaders.  In 1861 George Williamson of Louisiana argued in the Texas Secession Convention that Louisiana and Texas both have uncultivated lands “peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity.”  Williamson concluded by saying “With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.”[8]

Texas’s secession convention agreed, arguing[9]

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

“That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.”

When a government exists first to protect an economic elite and their institutions, and only then to serve citizens, political freedom is always secondary.  As the 19th century progressed in order to defend slavery it was increasingly necessary to deny liberty to Southern Whites as well as enslaved Blacks.  Even before secession northern papers were banned in many states.  In Kansas a pro-slavery legislature forbade anti-slavery citizens from serving on juries while advocating slavery’s abolition was made a felony, and by some interpretations, a capital crime.[10] So much for the Constitution’s guarantee to each state of a “republican form of government” or Calhoun’s praise of the “free institutions” slavery supposedly made possible.  Having rejected liberal values, the planter aristocracy did not find suppressing political equality, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech particularly high prices to pay for maintaining their rich mansions and opulent life style.

Ironically, “states’ rights” also suffered from the existence of slavery, for the slave states were responsible for expanding federal intervention into northern states who did not recognize slavery and in the case of Vermont had entered the union with slavery already explicitly abolished.  The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 dramatically limited the independence of states’ legal systems and imposed federal control over the actions of local law enforcement officers.

Under its provisions law-enforcement officials nation-wide had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a sworn testimony of ownership. Suspected slaves could not ask for a jury trial or testify on their own behalf. Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery.[11] Until after the Civil War “states rights” had not been a powerful Southern principle, quite the opposite. They opposed it.

The Confederacy was a true counterculture in the American context, rejecting its founding principles and ultimately the Western Enlightenment itself.

The Transformation of Southern Religion

Slavery’s impact on American Christianity was as destructive as its impact on the principles justifying American independence and political liberty.  Going South to evangelize the Gospel, Methodist and Baptist missionaries from the North encountered a culture very different than what they had experienced to the north. As Kevin Phillips observes,  “Before the Baptists and Methodists could make evangelical religion dominant below the Mason-Dixon Line, they had to – and did – shed notions that were perceived as radical, such as opposition to slavery and enmity to social hierarchies. . . .”[12] Southern religion changed to mirror the South’s growing rejection of American principles.

In general, Southern religious leaders interpreted religion only after assuming the goodness of slavery. In Southern religion slavery came before God.  Making the principle of domination and mastery take the place of equal rights and respect for basic humanity as society’s foundation shaped their view of God and Christianity.

Shortly before the Civil War Southern Baptists split from their Northern brethren.  They never rejoined.  The same split happened to Methodists and Presbyterians.  More than slavery was at stake.  The stakes were whether or not the principle of domination was ultimately the leading role in human affairs.

A God of arbitrary domination fit a culture based on domination and legitimated it by ‘divine’ approval whereas a God of love could not.  Phillips quotes historian Christine Heyrman that these efforts meant “altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black. . . . As a result, evangelism looked much different in the 1830s than it had in the 1790s.” [13]   This impact long survived the Civil War.  In 1890, out of 1 million Southern Baptists, none were Black.[14]  The dominant white Southerner’s conception of God was increasingly in terms of having omnipotent power and demanding total obedience. It has not changed much since, as the influence of ‘Christian’ dominionists attests.[15]


Today racism in most Southern religion is rejected or downplayed.  Many conservative churches are seeking to move beyond their racist past by recruiting Black and Hispanic religious conservatives into their ranks, with what success time only will tell.But ultimately race is not central to their message, mastery and domination is.


Creating a counter-culture

Before the Civil War Southern churches pointed to Biblical passages supporting slavery as evidence they were right and that abolitionists were not only wrong, they were heretics. In the process Southern religious leaders crossed a crucial cultural divide.  Up to that time Protestants had contributed disproportionately to the rise of Western modernity.  More of the greatest scientists and liberal political thinkers were Protestant than their percentage in the European population as a whole would have suggested.  A belief in the competence of every human being was far more compatible with Protestant teachings than with those of the Catholic Church, whose leadership remained openly hostile to democracy into the Twentieth Century.

As the great thrust of Western freedom and thought pushed towards a further unraveling of human relations based on domination and unmerited hierarchy, Southern churches and those influenced by them began moving in the opposite direction.  In order to justify slavery, increasingly nothing mattered but an alleged and carefully parsed Biblical literalism.  For many in the South, Christianity became the strongest moral bulwark justifying the domination of some by others.  It served pocketbooks and pride, even if it did not serve souls.

When Christian Fundamentalism arose in the early 20th century it was especially welcome in Southern churches because it strengthened this attitude of selective literalism in service to domination.  Their view of God was characterized more by His arbitrary will and power than by love and Jesus’ death.  These themes were emphasized over anything Jesus reportedly said. Today’s “Christian dispensationalists” deny that Jesus’s words are even relevant.  Only their interpretation of his death and Biblical prophecy matters.[16]

The rise of Southern Baptists is intimately connected with the South’s moral and intellectual repudiation of America’s founding principles.  Slavery birthed the Southern Baptist Convention.  It is slavery’s child through and through, though a child now embarrassed by its parentage, at least in public.  For people embedded in this tradition to claim they represent American principles is a denial of history, both ours and theirs.

Thomas Jefferson saw the core problem clearly, writing[17]

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other.  Our children see this and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal. . . . The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.  The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manner and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”

Jefferson never claimed to be a prodigy.  I take these words to have been self-criticism as well as a worry that ultimately slavery would be incompatible with a free society. Whatever Jefferson’s personal failings, he was right that a slave society incorporated into its core principles and behaviors antithetical to America’s founding principles.  This was also true for its effect on religion.

Poisoned by the cultural impact of slavery based on race, the South was America’s first and remains its most radically different “counter culture.”

[1] Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, (NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).  p. 6; see also Thomas Jefferson to Edward Coles, August 25, 1814. The Portable Thomas Jefferson, Merrill Peterson, ed., NY: Penguin, 1988. 544-47.

[2] See David Ellerman’s important paper,  Translatio versus Concessio:  Retrieving the debate about contracts of alienation with an application to today’s employment contract. Politics and Society, 33:3, 2005. 449-82. The paper may be downloaded at http://www.ellerman.org/Davids-Stuff/Econ&Pol-Econ/Econ%20and%20Pol%20Econ.htm .  More discussion of the paradoxes of trying to treat people as property can be found in Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, (NY: Vintage, 1976), 25-49.

[3] Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, (NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

[4] Ta-Nihisi Coates, Brad Paisley and the Politics of Offense and Offense-Taking, The Atlantic, September 20, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/09/brad-paisley-and-the-politics-of-offense-and-offense-taking/279870/

[5]  John C. Calhoun, Senate speech, January 10, 1838, in Eric L. McKitrick, ed., Slavery Defended, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), p. 18.

[6] John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, H. Lee Cheek, ed., (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007).

[7] Alexander Stephens, “Corner-stone speech,” March 21, 1861. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1861stephens.asp

[8] George Williamson, Address of George Williamson to the Texas Secession Convention, March 9, 1861. http://americancivilwar.com/documents/williamson_address.html

[9] A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union., Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html#South

[10] An Act to Punish Offenses Against Slave Property, Legislative Assembly, Territory of Kansas, August 14, 1855. http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/6835/page/1

[11] Meltzer, Milton. Slavery: a World History (New York: Da Capo Press 1971). 225

[12] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, op. cit., p. 109.

[13] Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross, New York: Knopf 1997, p. 27.

[14] Joe Maxwell, Black Southern Baptists, Christianity Today, May 15, 1995.  http://ctlibrary.com/ct/1995/may15/5t6026.html

[15] Forrest Wilder, Rick Perry’s Army of God, Texas Observer, August 3, 2011. http://www.texasobserver.org/cover-story/rick-perrys-army-of-god

[16] For an evangelical critique of dispensationalism, see Stephen Sizer, Orchestrating the End: The prophetic Quest of Dispensationalism, SCP Journal, 31: 4-32;11, 52-70.

[17] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, in Merrill D. Petersen, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson, NY: Penguin, 1988, p.214.