My fellow Quaker, Mark Helpsmeet, creates internet radio programs relating to spirituality and activism. He recently interviewed me about my book idea, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.”
My fellow Quaker, Mark Helpsmeet, creates internet radio programs relating to spirituality and activism. He recently interviewed me about my book idea, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.”
We cannot substitute a mere collection of identities for the saturated generic identity of the working class. I think we have to find the political determination that integrates the identities, the principles of which are beyond identity. The great difficulty is to do that without something like the working class. Without something that was a connection between particularity and universality, because that’s what the working class was. The particularity of the working class was its location in a singular place; the working class was generic. The solution of the problem for Marxism was the human group which is not really an identity, which is beyond identity.
We have to do the same thing, but probably without that sort of solution. We cannot say that today this group is the generic group and that the emancipation of this group is also the emancipation of us all. – Alain Badiou, Interview with Diana George
Identities are nothing but ideological coherence maps of resemblances. – C. Derick Varn, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on The Formation of Identity:“
(This posting was written sometime in 2012 and posted on the now extinct “Symptomatic Redness” blog. I might approach it differently today, but the general thrust still rings true.)
The struggle for freedom and justice in our world is still necessary, despite centuries of modern democracy. Political domination and economic exploitation still hold sway over the vast majority of humanity, with their ecological degradation pushing the entire planet towards catastrophe. In such a situation, the question to be asked is still how can a revolutionary movement be constructed to avert the impending catastrophe? And, moreover, be able to transform the impasse of the present into a fulfillment of the authentic needs and desires of all beings?
Marxism, which Badiou references above, proposed that the industrial proletariat of early industrial capitalism would coalesce over time under revolutionary leadership to finally emancipate humanity. This hopeful vision came to a disastrous impasse in the emergence of Stalinism and the Cold War. Its most visible success, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is all but buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
However, perhaps credit must yet be given to Marx for thinking quite concretely about just how emancipation would progress and which social agents in particular would lead this forward motion of history. His anointing of the “industrial worker” was hardly an obvious choice in his era, but this idea has electrified millions over the past century and a half. There is a compelling logic to this choice, in that the workers still have their hands on the real wealth of the planet in a more direct manner than their capitalist employers. It is still quite conceivable that if only the workers of the world would become conscious of their strategic location within the economic engines of capitalism, and for even just a short time unite wholeheartedly with one another against the rule of capitalism, the shock to the system still seems a glorious possibility.
And yet, today we are easily skeptical of such a revolutionary moment occurring. Every revolution has degenerated back into a new system of domination and exploitation, as the weapons and sanctions of the ruling classes routinely recuperate all resistance. The faith that Marx had in revolutionary leadership now seems quite misplaced and his confidence in working-class militancy a naive wish.
Is there a new emancipatory subject to discovered/constructed, as Badiou proposes? Does his hope of finding the “political determination that integrates the identities” merit anything comparable to the faith of proletarian revolution? The explorations that I’ve been carrying out on my political philosophy blog, “Radical Progress” have addressed this question in an attempt to get past the impasse of the death of Marxism. That said, the main absence I see in the contemporary situation is the lack of unity and intersubjective solidarity within the working-class, or their possible successors to the mantle of revolutionary agency.
Badiou speaks of that which “integrates the identities” and this certainly connects to my conception of how identities work, they are not exhaustive concepts, but rather aspects of a variety of social determinations. Being a worker does not negate whether one is also a woman or a person of African descent, to name two of the most common alternative subject identities in current radical theories. We are all identified with multiple characteristics of the social orders within which we live and move and lose our being. The Marxian hope was never that the workers as workers would revolt against capital, but that they would come to know that they were fraternal humans who could reject the alienated existence in which they lived and, fight for something different.
And yet, today, despite an array of identity politics, most of us don’t seem to have any clue how to come together to fight for emancipation. When we do create an assembly, it dissolves into disorder as we each assert our individuality, perhaps for the first time, to the detriment of finding a way forward to a united goal. This is the tragedy of the Occupy Wall Street general assembly, that even as OWS felt as if it was the dawning of a magnetic and energizing movement, it predictably fell back into the clutches of egoic disconnection that frustrates yet again the possibility of uniting the radicals against the 1%.
It will likely offend many radicals to assert the fact, but the most successful attempt at the sort of intersubjective unification envisioned by Marx in history is religion. The Roman Catholic church alone claims millions of adherents, dwarfing virtually all other identity groups, including Marxism. In fact, to the degree that the historic function of religion was that it sanctioned the social order of its host society, it was perhaps a massive error for the Marxists to believe that they could unite humanity without religion’s practices. Apart from Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, only Marx himself has ever commanded that sort of mass appeal. The slim chance that Marxism may yet return to its privileged position as the central ideology of the revolutionary left however seems unlikely, the world has truly changed in so many ways that we have to press beyond the conception of a proletarian revolution towards a new integration of identities.
In the face of global warming, ocean acidification, and mass species extinctions, perhaps the most integrative identity we can claim today is that of “earthling.” The late Murray Bookchin proposed that Marxism be replaced by an anarchist and communalist philosophy of “Social Ecology.” The logic behind this seems compelling until we consider the possibility that this identity of ecological beings is barely more tied to a radical vision than is “humanity” in general. A radical agency that emerges from within the struggle for emancipation cannot be identical with an identity that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Perhaps we do not need a revolutionary subject as Marx and, apparently, Badiou believe. Perhaps, the revolutionary possibility isn’t predicated on a single antagonism such as economics or politics and the identities that they construct. While I do believe in creating a unified intersubjective organization that will take aim at the death-systems that threaten our very existence, the experience of Occupy Wall Street coming just a year before the 2012 presidential election has elevated my awareness that mass radical mobilizations do not behave in a linear manner. There is no single subject position that is privileged as the revolutionary agent. The complex character of society diffuses and coalesces human actions into unpredictable configurations.
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.
Marx’s Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
[These comments originated in a discussion of Hegel on Facebook.]
My motives for possibly returning to a study of Hegel – which I dropped in the late 80s – are hopefully constructive, though they feel ambiguous. I am not convinced that I would learn anything helpful, and yet, Hegel often comes in at relevant points of discussion.
To take a very crucial example, when I try to discuss religion and socialism especially with Marxists, they often try to reformulate the points I raise into a “dialectical analysis” that results in atheism being the only logical conclusion of the historical evolution of humanity. I find that conclusion fails to grapple with the sources of religion that seem to go back into the earliest glimmers of culture. Human beings seem unable erase religious thinking, which I find true of even the most ardent atheists.
My theory is that our “religious orientation” is built into our relational drives, such as affection, aggression, curiosity, and creativity. Now, I am not talking about either supernaturalism nor theism proper. Those are specific forms that the religious orientation took in ancient societies, and I already see those forms being drastically abandoned in modern times. A post-theistic naturalistic religion is possible and has already begun to emerge within every religious tradition. Rather than discarding Jesus or Buddha, leading religious thinkers transcend the outdated myths surrounding each figure, while reinterpreting the crucial distinctive contributions each made to human culture. That may be called a dialectical process. Ken Wilber calls it “integral development.”
My personal view is that the process of reshaping human relationships into a global communion can be provisionally characterized as a differential convergence with unpredictable, but imaginable, outcomes.
Question from 1st respondent: Please elaborate on how our “‘religious orientation’ is built into our relational drives… [as a] post-theistic naturalistic religion.”
Human beings’ lives and mental stability depend on affectionate caregiving that we call parenting. We are helpless at birth and unable to feed or clean ourselves for many months of our early conscious lives. This predisposes us to desire affectionate nurture and to reciprocate it. Freud also points out that we come to resent our powerlessness and therefore develop an aggressive drive as well.
As we develop our relational circles beyond our core family, we extend the circle of affectionate caregiving (life-drive) and our circle of feared enemies (death drive). Religion is the projection of these drives onto the natural world as polytheists create invisible agents who created the world and evil gods who create our enemies and diseases. Monotheists simplified this scheme into one all-powerful life-drive agent Jehovah and a subordinate death-drive agent Satan.
A post-theistic evolution of religion will accept that these invisible supernatural agents are not actually non-physical deities, as science and atheism have discovered, but the projection of our life-drive onto the cosmos itself compels us to view it as a divine gift, both the source of life and death. Thus, pantheism, not atheism is the mature expression of the religious impulse.
Comments and questions from 2d responder:
You seem to be confusing symbolic kinship with “religion”
And also there are a lot of stagist presumptions which are basically circular in this.
“Religion is the projection of these drives onto the natural world as polytheists create invisible agents who created the world and evil gods who create our enemies and diseases. “
Is that what religion is? Or is that an element of religion? (For example for what I mean by stagist assumptions that are circular).
The core of religion, I maintain, is web of human desires that create our social relations. Theism is the projection of these desires onto the powerful natural forces that we could not control. Science has effectively depersonalized and disenchanted the natural world, yet our emotional make-up persists as an irrevocable part of our mental health or disease.
We cannot become rational Vulcans who entirely repress our emotions. Thus, the war between reason and emotion in matters of truth is adjudicated by science. However, science cannot decide which of a number of achievable ends is most desirable, as science has no grounds for determining what is of the highest possible value to humanity as a whole.
Capitalists believe that a world economy structured for the profit of the elite is the end of history, the rational organization of aggregate human interests. Socialism denies this and aims to transcend the class domination of this rational order. To do so, socialism must place the interests of the many over the interests of the few. This ethical decision is motivated by the elevation of the life drive over the death drive, as capitalists do the opposite.
I realize that my schema appears stagist, and in its oversimplified form of polytheism<monotheism<atheism<pantheism it is not complex enough to take in the whole of human religious development. Of course, I would argue that Hegel and many socialists make similar sequences out of history. Such as primitive communism<slave society<feudalism<capitalism<socialism<communism.
I am open to being schooled in proper Hegelian historical theory. Earlier, I offered the hypothesis that the future will be a “differential integration” of the diverse (religious and secular) cultures of humanity. As someone born and reared as a Christian, my intellectual development has taken the form of monotheist<nontheist<pantheist. However, I also retain a fascination with neo-paganism and Buddhism, which I have yet to integrate into my developmental analysis. Over time, I hope to continue working on the incompleteness of my approach.
1st Responder: If religion is defeasible because it is a merely human the product of ‘relational drives’, then it would seem that, a forteriori, any notion of reality that emerges from amidst human relations to be projected upon the world must be defeasible. However, since this very naturalistic critique of religion is, in some sense, a product of human relations and is no less projected upon the world, then so must this naturalistic critique, which aims to defeat religion, defeat itself in the critical endeavor. Since this criticism is self-defeating it amounts to no criticism at all. How, to the contrary, might we imagine that we can we know that “the projection of these drives onto the natural world” in religion to be more than merely a projection, and, for this reason, not equally defeasible?
I would not use the term “defeasible” but rather hold that religion is not fixed nor static, but dynamic and open to new truth. The split between nature and supernature was premised upon ignorance, not actual verifiable knowledge of nature.
One common form of dogmatic theology holds that only divine revelation is absolutely true. Human knowledge is viewed as hopelessly fallible, since it cannot penetrate to eternal truth. However, for those who hold to a more naturalistic worldview, science has been steadily increasing our knowledge of the world over time, and indeed, it has done so far more successfully than any previous model of truth-discovery.
However, science is inherently incomplete, since it relies on abstract intellectual knowledge, and has no basis for integrating all knowledge within a unified worldview that contains a great deal that is not abstractly factual, such as love and the arts. Religion in its pre-modern form tried to integrate all truth, arts, and ethics into one whole. We moderns accept that this task can never be completed in any single lifetime, but can only be advanced as each person contributes their distinct experience to the advancement of the whole.
It is possible that all our naturalistic knowledge might just be the dim perceptions of a brute animal. However, if that is one’s view of human knowledge then how do the dictates of revelation, which are themselves produced by talking apes, hope to claim to be a divine exception?
[Reposting from Disloyal Opposition to Modernity here.]
(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)
1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:
Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)
2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.
3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.
4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.
5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.
For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.
6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.
[Reposting from Disloyal Opposition to Modernity originally here.]
It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity. Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.
Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.
On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.
As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.
One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?
If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:
In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.
My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.
Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.
There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.
We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.
Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?
[I’m in the process of consolidating all my blog posts under two pages, Radical Progress and Radical Righteous Love. Here is a blog I originally wrote for Disloyal Opposition to Modernity.]
from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou
Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.
Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.
If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.
I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.
The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.
Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.
“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Ephesus
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Galatia
Politics in the United States of America predictably falls into an all-too familiar opposition between conservative and progressive causes. Champions of a former era of lost grandeur fill the ranks of the Republican Party and its rightist milieu. Advocates of a better future for all by correcting the injustices of the past and present tend to support the Democratic Party or other elements of a leftist social terrain. American religion divides along similar lines with Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and other conservatives facing off against “liberals and leftists” both religious and secular. This bifurcation is ultimately an over- simplification as anyone familiar with the further reaches of both the American far left and far right can attest, as well as the existence of a persisting “centrist” or moderate constituency, who play a key role as “undecided voters.” The enduring strength of this polarization nevertheless has deep historical roots within U.S. institutions. The bloodiest conflict over these sharply opposed politics was the Civil War of the 1860s. The broad social upheaval of the 1960s echoed much of that earlier era’s catastrophic warfare with issues of race, war, and economics triggering a multi-systemic crisis that touched upon seemingly disparate domains such as gender, sexuality, and perhaps most broadly, the relation of humanity to the earth itself as a new ecological consciousness developed. Even today, the divide in US politics between left and right falls along lines that were most vividly drawn in the Civil War era.
That this polarity is fundamentally tied up with religion is less well understood. Our exploration will examine the conflicts within and around religious life that permeated the Civil War. Of all modern industrial nations, the United States of America has one of the highest levels of religious identification. Opinion polls routinely find that over 90% of the populace believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Church membership statistics and attendance at religious services are remarkably high compared to other similar nations. Surveys also find that a significant correlation exists between degree of religious adherence and identification with a conservative political agenda. This close connection is not a recent phenomena and as our study will find, much of the contemporary American religious and political landscape was profoundly shaped by the Civil War and the wider social context of that era.
As religious historian Mark A. Noll documents, religion and politics in the Civil War period were tightly interconnected. He writes,
“…the evangelical Protestantism that dominated public life at midcentury had gained its place because it successfully clothed the Christian faith in the preeminent ideological dress of the new Republic. In particular, it had vivified, ennobled, and lent transcendent value to republican political assumptions, democratic convictions about social organization, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States.”
Noll highlights in particular four features of the dominant US Protestant tradition that were departures from the Christian nations of Europe: Anti-traditionalism, Republicanism, an emphasis on written instruments of government, and an ideological evolution in the doctrine of original sin’s effects on human virtue. Anti-traditionalism in Christian thought grew out of developments following the Protestant Reformation in which private interpretation of religious doctrines and texts were elevated over the past pronouncement of Church authorities. While continental Catholics and Protestants emphasized the authority of tradition as a bulwark of theological orthodoxy, US Protestantism became dominated – after the Revolution of 1776 and the adoption of the federal Constitution’s disestablishment of all churches – by a counter-tradition that rejected such a view of authority. The largest denominations at the time of the Civil War were Baptists, Methodists, Restorationists, and Presbyterians, which had substantive anti-traditional orientations. These bodies grew exponentially between 1790 and 1860. This contrasts with much slower growth among the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
This rejection of tradition generated in the US context a greater anti-intellectualism than was found in Europe. Particularly in proslavery churches, the Bible was regarded as literally true and if the Bible had a single reference to slavery as a positive good, such passages were considered as eternal truths needing no interpretation by Biblical scholars. In contrast, Catholic and Protestant Europeans deployed far more complex hermeneutics that drew on history, tradition, and formal learning. This resistance to critical thinking accounts for some of the difference between European and Canadian efforts at abolition among Christians. Their respect for tradition and scholarship allowed for a more deliberative and gradual approach to the abolition of slavery in England, Canada, and other European nations. The rigid anti-intellectualism of Southern slaveholding culture elevated the political stakes into a fundamental question of religious fidelity which made the recourse to armed warfare much more unavoidable in the US. The proverbial unmovable object met an irresistible force.
However, the story isn’t so simple as Bible-thumpers on one side opposing apostates and unbelievers. Many Christians did join the abolitionist cause and cited Holy Writ as their justification. One familiar interpretive tactic was to draw a line between the Old and New Testaments, with the latter held up as a gospel of peace, charity, and freedom and the latter as a violent record of human sin and ignorance. The cause of abolition was undoubtedly aided in the Northern States by successful antislavery legislative victories in England, the struggle for which had produced a bold and sophisticated Christian theology of abolition especially in the writings of William Wilberforce. His writings fairly bristle with piety and conviction:
“Is it not the great end of religion, and, in particular, the glory of Christianity, to extinguish the malignant passions; to curb the violence, to control the appetites, and to smooth the asperities of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties?”
In contrast, the works of the leading abolitionist in the US, William Lloyd Garrison, adopted a more critical stance towards religion:
“To say that everything in the bible is to be believed , simply because it is found in that volume, is equally absurd and pernicious… To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth.”
From the proslavery perspective, Garrison’s views enabled his opponents to stand their ground on a source of authority that was widely regarded as above all human reasoning about “the truth.” That American Christianity was in many respects even more authoritarian than its Continental counterpart is one of the social ironies of modern history. The US Baptist tradition in particular incorporated into its foundational narratives stories of persecution in Europe driving sincere, simple, and faithful believers out of an apostate society into a divinely “promised land.” This desire to worship and obey God free from human traditions and institutions was also part of the founding ideals of Quaker and Puritan colonists, though Quakers came to abolitionism over a century before the Civil War. That the quest for religious and civil freedom could be appropriated into a religious defense of brutal enslavement of African human beings boggles the modern mind.
A key aspect of the power of proslavery biblicism was the widespread reliance on a single translation of the Bible by most preachers and lay Christians, the King James Version (hereafter KJV) published in 1611 which became the standard text throughout the English-speaking world. When opponents of slavery attempted to formulate careful arguments based on a historical analysis of ancient practices that were called “slavery” in the KJV, their arguments rang hollow in the anti-intellectual culture of much of American Christianity. Again, a great historical irony is that a translation created under the auspices of one of the same European governments that were demonized in standard American narratives of State-Church persecutions became the standard translation used by anti-intellectual church leaders and believers to defend an authoritarian institution.
A deeper cultural factor plays into this milieu of biblicism when considered from the standpoint of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of mass communication, notably his “Gutenberg Galaxy” hypothesis. The printing of books as a mass reproduction of ideas and language produces a shift in human culture that McLuhan characterizes thus, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such.” Further, “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.” And, “Print, in turning the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralizing forces of modern nationalism.”
McLuhan’s theory provides a lens on the biblicism of the proslavery culture. Bibles had become the most easily accessible books in the US than in any prior society and given the dominant theological view that these texts were infallible and inerrant, these portable objects became an external authority that stood over against the private opinions of “sinful men” and “human reason.” One could discover what God’s eternal view on any subject was by consulting this book. Such intense emotional investment in an external object calls to mind Freudian theories about the super-ego. Freud postulated that as a child grows to fear the punishment of its parents for its misbehaviors, it begins developing an internal system of self-protection that can turn into a toxic internal critic. The fear of punishment from an external authority is turned into an internal self-punisher. In the cases of exceptionally troubled personalities, an external object can be invested with this authority to punish, most notably a religious ideal, whether embodied in priests or a sacred inviolable text.
Tying Freud’s superego theory to McLuhan’s Gutenberg hypothesis leads us to another element in Mark Noll’s analysis of the religious culture of Civil War America, that of an emphasis on written instruments of government. The US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights assumed the character of infallible documents in the popular mindset, much as the Bible itself. In our time the current debates over the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” seems to carry a similar religious cast of mind as that of the study of scripture for many religious conservatives. Not only could one not challenge the Biblical authors, one could not challenge the august phrases of the American Constitution, least of all the passages that defined slaves as 3/5s of a person!
A further level of analysis is suggested by Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. If the Bible and the American political texts are sacred documents, their mass production as objects of commerce plays into their roles as markers of value.
“[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world … the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.“
If the transformation of human labor, including the labor of writing sacred texts and perpetuating their existence over two millenia from the ancient “cradle of civilization” to deliver them into the hands of millions as the infallible word of God isn’t the perfect example of commodity fetishism, what else could be? This text potentially judges every social interaction with moral rules that are considered timeless. Little wonder that proslavery theology flourished in the South.
However, the Civil War did happen and slavery was forcibly abolished in the entire United States despite the solid support that existed for it in some quarters. This brings us to face one of the unresolved aspects of the Civil War era, the role of racism as a systemic devaluation of human beings based on perceived ethnic membership. The aftermath of the Civil War is characterized by a sustained struggle over the human and civil rights of the newly emancipated slaves. Simply ending the basic institutional forms of slavery did not resolve a whole host of problems that were directly or indirectly connected with that system.
This history of US racism also reveals that to a significant degree, Northern society participated in the dehumanizing practices of segregation, economic discrimination, educational rationing, and excessive police force directed at African-Americans. Despite the overt victory over the slave system, racism lived on.
Cornel West identifies three cultural sources for American racist attitudes, a
“…Judeo-Christian racist logic, which emanates from the biblical account of Ham looking upon and failing to cover his father Noah’s nakedness, thereby provoking divine punishment in the form of blackening his progeny, links racist practices to notions of disrespect for and rejection of authority, to ideas of unruly behavior and chaotic rebellion. The “scientific” racist logic, which promotes the observing, measuring, ordering and comparing of visible physical characteristics of human bodies in light of Greco-Roman aesthetic standards, associates racist practices with bodily ugliness, cultural deficiency and intellectual inferiority. And the psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers.”
Of course, our analysis to this point has focused on the biblical theology of slavery, but West points to a specific theology of racism that is today quite discredited. The “Curse of Ham” was identified by white Christian racists during the Civil War as black skin. Thus, the oppression of Black persons was merely carrying out the will of God. This viewpoint survives in more subtle fashion among Christians today when the history of the faith is told through a trajectory from Judea to Rome to Germany to England to the USA. Missing from this history are the stories of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and other African forms of Christianity. Africa is religiously characterized as a dark continent of tribal superstitions and Islamic strongholds. Even today one can find Evangelical Christians who reject slavery, yet wonder whether there would be such vibrant American Black Churches without that experience. In an odd twist, this analysis seems to suggest that Blacks are in fact a modern type of the Hebrew slaves in Pharoah’s Egypt.
West’s second source, “scientific” racism is also still present in society, most notoriously in the 1994 publication of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. They wrote, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” In the Civil War era, Samuel George Morton theorized that it was possible to judge intelligence by cranial capacity. Many prominent Western intellectuals held perhaps less crude, but nevertheless comparably racist ideas of biological inferiority.
The final form of racist logic West identifies is both highly suggestive, but also perhaps more difficult to establish as true. Earlier, this field was hinted at in the brief remarks on Freud and the superego. West elaborates,
“… psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers. This logic—rooted in Western sexual discourses about feces and odious smells—relates racist practices to bodily defecation, violation and subordination, thereby relegating black people to walking abstractions, lustful creatures or invisible objects. All three white-supremacist logics view black people, like death and dirt, as Other and Alien.”
To return to the Civil War era, Mark Noll notes that while proslavery biblicists were quite willing to defend slavery as divinely ordained, they were unwilling to consider that slavery might be an appropriate system to apply to whites. This discriminatory aspect of US slaveholding is very likely the critical flaw that spelled the end of favoring slavery in Northern states. The rise of industrial production and capitalist waged labor produced an enormous demand for hourly workers in a variety of growing businesses. Slave labor simply had very little utility in an industrial economy.
The growth of capitalist industry carried with it new conceptions of individualism that weakened the racist assumptions of American society, though subsequent history proved that they never fully disappeared. The calculating logic of modernizing society was ultimately incompatible with slavery.