Another TV history professor that I really admire is Simon Shama. I was totally engrossed by his “History of Britian”, both the series, and later the book. So when I saw a new audio book in the library, “The American Future: A History” by Shama, I pounced. By last Thursday night, I had listened to about half of it, and was surprised to look in the TV guide for the evening and see that the first episode of a TV series based on the book (or is it the other way around?) was showing that night. As it turns out, the book and the TV series seems to begin differently (probably because the book concentrated on Obama’s election, and his presidency is not exactly hot news at the moment), but it appears that from next week’s episode, the book and series will be back in sync with a concentration on the history of American beligerance… (it is very interesting, and a story well told, I assure you!).
Any way, yesterday, I was listening to the end of disc 7 – I don’t know what chapter or page that is in the book – and I came across this passage at the end of his treatment of the emancipation of the slaves:
The fervour of the abolitionist evangelicals complicates the way we might feel about the wall of separation erected by the Virginia Statute and the First Amendment between morality and politics.
Of course, it was entirely possible to arrive at an abhorrence for slavery from rationally derived ethics, the degradation of man to commodity, the violation of natural right to sovereignty over person and so on.
Historically though, both in the early nineteenth century and again in the 1960s, the force of shame directed at slave holders and segregationists was religious. Realistically, it was unlikely that the propagation of enlightenment views of humanity would have swayed millions of nineteenth century white Americans against slavery. After all such moral principles convinced Jefferson and Patrick Henry of the infamy of the institution, but still failed to move them to liberate their own slaves. So what hope was there of persuading less high-minded Southerners to make sacrifice of their property, or what Henry described as “inconveniencing himself”.
Both in the 1830’s and 1840’s and then again in the 1960’s, it was the determination of the Rankins and Finneys and Fanny Lou Hamers to cross the line between religion and politics and appeal to the country’s Christian conscience that brought white Americans into brotherhood with persecuted blacks.
For secular humanists like this writer this is an awkward historical truth to acknowledge, accustomed as we are to equating evangelical fervour with illiberal reaction. The abolitionist argument that some enormities were so vicious that they had to be made accountable to the principles of the gospel, even if that meant breaching the establishment clause of the first amendment in the interest of a higher good, is not all together different from the way that “right to life” evangelicals argue today
History sets such snares to make us think harder.