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Can Gays And Christians Coexist In America? Part II


In part I yesterday, I addressed two of the three most common efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Christian doctrine on marriage and homosexuality. Part II deals with the third.

The third major avenue of attack on Christian teachings on same-sex marriage and homosexual sex, and a particular favorite of anti-religious progressives, is to compare Catholics and other Christians who defend the New Testament’s teachings on marriage and sex to the defenders of Jim Crow and American slavery.

This argumentum ad Wallace, mainly advanced by people whose limited grasp of Christian history is very provincially American, has been trotted out repeatedly, most egregiously by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in its early 2014 campaign against the Arizona religious-liberty bill:


As examples of the genre, you can read lengthy efforts by Ron Fournier in National Journal (“Religious Liberty Is a Just Cause—Except When It’s Used to Justify Intolerance”); Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress (“When ‘Religious Liberty’ Was Used To Justify Racism Instead Of Homophobia”); and Mark Joseph Stern of Slate (“I’d love to hear a strong argument as to why religious homophobia is so much more acceptable than religious racism”). Chris Matthews is also fond of this shtick.

Millhiser, in particular, delves into the rhetorical hobbyhorses of Jim Crow defenders. While this argument will take us far afield of the topic at hand, its prevalence as a “framing” device in this debate requires exploring it at some length. There are two very serious problems with this analogy, which illustrate its uselessness.

Christians Led the Anti-Slavery and Civil Rights Movements

The first and most obvious problem with this line of reasoning is that defenders of Jim Crow and slavery mounted Biblical arguments in their defense because they were contending with powerful religiously-based Christian critiques. The abolitionist movement in the United States was predominantly a Christian movement, driven by passionately Christian figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, and it arose in the wake of the Great Awakening of the 1830s, as did most of the antebellum South’s subsequent efforts to construct a Biblical defense of its longstanding “peculiar institution”:

We now realize that few in the early Republic believed that the Bible sanctioned slavery and that the Protestant churches generally adopted antislavery principles. As Robert Forbes has persuasively argued, the Evangelical Enlightenment produced a consensus against slavery, albeit without a program for ending it. Initially, therefore, instead of developing a proslavery ideology, Southerners defended their peculiar institution by opposing a strong federal government and an established religion, which were ‘the essential elements of any effective challenge to slavery,’ as inimical to republican principles. With the slave revolts of Denmark Vesey and then of Nat Turner and the rise of abolitionist activism in the 1830s, Southerners began to mount a defense of slavery that came to include a scriptural defense. Initially conceived as a defense of Christianity, an assurance to slaveholders that they need not abandon their religion, religiously grounded proslavery arguments had, by the 1850s, thoroughly undermined the moral consensus against slavery. (emphasis added)

Probably the leading treatise on the ideology of slavery, “The Mind of the Master Class,” by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, carefully tracks the growth of such arguments, and notes that the South was not even particularly religious before the Great Awakening, which of course came a century and a half after American slavery was established. If you were looking for a “Bible Belt” in early America, you would look to the North.

The Genoveses’ book covers in exhaustive detail the extent to which the contention over slavery’s role in the Bible was a battle among Christians, in which there was great social and political pressure to construct a response to Christian abolitionism. Even current progressive political writers like Greg Sargent of the Washington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic grudgingly concede these were intra-Christian battles.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of a Biblical scholar and probably the most influential woman in American history, went to great lengths to marshal the Biblical case against slavery in support of her epochal novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a novel that was saturated with Christian imagery. Her nonfiction companion volume, “A Key To Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” contained chapters detailing subjects like the treatment of slaves in the Old Testament, the political context of Paul’s letters, and the historical anti-slavery teachings of various American churches, concluding that, while churches could fairly be faulted for not doing enough to act on their consciences, “almost every one of the leading denominations have, at some time, in their collective capacity, expressed a decided disapprobation of the system, and recommended that something should be done with a view to its abolition.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of a Biblical scholar and probably the most influential woman in American history, went to great lengths to marshal the Biblical case against slavery in support of her epochal novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

The Christian critique of slavery went back even further and far beyond American shores, ranging from the Spanish Catholic Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who battled Native American slavery in the Spanish colonies in the early sixteenth century (more below on las Casas and the Catholic critique of slavery) to the English evangelical William Wilberforce (who spearheaded the campaign against the slave trade and slavery in British Empire from the 1780s to the 1830s). Indeed, many centuries before las Casas, Christianity played an early, recurring and vital role—if often a fitful and slow-moving one—in the decline of slavery from its pervasive place in the pre-Christian world to its abolition in the late modern world.

The civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was likewise headed by outspokenly Christian figures, many of them (like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) ordained Christian ministers, who drew powerful rhetorical and popular support from their appeals to common Christian moral teachings, and who mobilized large numbers of Christians as a result. A reading of King’s speeches and letters with all the Christianity and scripture taken out would result in a comical bowdlerization (to say nothing of his views on homosexuality).

While there were non-Christian and non-religious figures of importance in both the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, these were fundamentally debates within Christianity, in which the side playing defense had to scrounge for a way to respond in kind to their Christian interlocutors. They were not efforts to raise Christianity as a shield against secular judgment, but to engage in a debate on commonly-agreed moral premises derived from a Christian understanding of basic human dignity, creation in God’s image, and equality before the Lord. Everyone involved in those debates understood that winning the argument within Christianity would result in political victory.

Both Same-Sex and Pro-Slavery Forces Lead with Secularism

The debate over same-sex marriage, by contrast, is overwhelmingly a debate between Christians and non-believers in Christianity. The arguments in favor of recognizing same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual relationships, whether raised by Christians or not, almost all begin with the premise that the Bible, the Catholic Church, and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian tradition are wrong, should be discarded, and perhaps should be suppressed.

The tools of secularism were, if anything, abused even more severely by the defenders of racial inequality than Scripture was.

Yet the tools of secularism were, if anything, abused even more severely by the defenders of racial inequality than Scripture was. Pseudoscience and bad Constitutional law were every bit as prominent as pseudotheology in the debates over slavery, segregation, racial equality, and white supremacy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were great volumes of racist pseudoscience in the forms of Darwinian-influenced eugenics and phrenology. To pick one notorious example, the pro-evolution textbook in the Scopes Monkey Trial (that great monument of resistance to Biblical teaching) preached eugenics.

On the legal front, consider the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which not only denied Congress’ clear power to make laws in the territories (which it had done on the subject of slavery as far back as 1787) but also—for the first time—elevated to a “substantive due process” right the ownership of human beings under state law, ignoring in the process the commonplace rule that property laws may vary from one jurisdiction to the next. Or consider the court’s 1873 decision in the Slaughter-House Cases, which eviscerated the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only five years after its passage (an error the court has yet to repair).

Some of the theology was laughably bad. As the Genovese book notes, the pro-slavery faction had no Biblical basis whatsoever for racial slavery, so fell back—to the astonishment of their Christian abolitionist interlocutors—on the Genesis story of Noah cursing his son Ham to service of his brothers, complete with efforts at “scientific” proof that Africans were the descendants of Ham.

If anything, the rhetorical sophistry engaged in the 1840s and 1850s in the effort to somehow square Christian doctrine with racial chattel slavery has a good deal more in common with contemporary arguments, especially efforts at biblical argument, in support of same-sex marriage. For example, although they drew from it the opposite theological conclusion, the pro-slavery forces were fond of the same line of reasoning as the “God hates shrimp” crowd: they argued that slavery was practiced in the time of Abraham and Moses and had not been mentioned by Jesus, so therefore it should be treated as an institution ordained by God without reference to the coming of the New Covenant.

What The Universal Church Believes

Second, and related, not everything that has ever been said, done, or taught by a Christian church is of equal importance or legitimacy to Christians as a doctrine. In the hierarchy of Christian thought, there have always been some teachings that by their nature and origin are central, categorical, and unchanging, and others that have changed over time.

It is profoundly ignorant of Christianity to suggest that any defense of racism offered by this or that Christian has anything like the support, much less the importance, of the explicit teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the church on marriage and sexuality.

This is not an arbitrary or hypocritical distinction: teachings grounded directly in scripture, for example, are obviously not subject to revision, while particularly in the case of the Catholic Church, teachings about government and social institutions have tended to be less absolute and more changeable with the world around them than theological dogma or individual morality (for example, the catechism still treats the death penalty as a legitimate tool of public justice, but the church’s teachings on executions have become more stringent based on practical assessments of the modern world). As discussed in Part I, church teachings on marriage and sexuality, like those on abortion, fall into the former category.By contrast, it is profoundly ignorant of Christianity to suggest that any defense of racism or racial segregation offered by this or that Christian has anything like the support, much less the importance, of the explicit teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the church on marriage and sexuality—precisely the opposite. You will note from articles like Millhiser’s (or this Jamelle Bouie piece on lynching) the paucity of New Testament (or indeed, any explicit biblical) citation, or anything like authoritative Catholic doctrine, offered in defense of Jim Crow, and there is a reason for that.Jesus, St. Luke, and St. Paul could hardly have been clearer in offering a message against racial divisions and distinctions, and in transforming the previously exclusive-to-the-Jewish-people Old Law into a universal (or, to use its synonym, “catholic”) faith open to all peoples. Jesus’ birth was attended to by the Magi from the East, a sign from the outset that his kingship would transcend Israel. The parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ transgressive meeting with the Samaritan woman had an unambiguous “everyone is my neighbor” moral. The Tower of Babel in Genesis had divided men by language; the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost allowed the apostles to speak in many tongues at once to deliver a single message to a crowd whose ethnic diversity was recited at length in Acts.

Paul defended fiercely the idea that Jesus’ message was for all—that was the whole point of his travels and epistles outside the Jewish heartland—and as the Letter to the Colossians (3:11) memorably puts it, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” No honest reading of the New Testament admits of an interpretation that some races or nationalities are, or could be, less than others in the sight of God or man. Even those church leaders and theologians who found justifications for slavery, or who in their personal weakness viewed some racial groups as less than others, had to find some way to deal with the central Christian message that we are all equally children of God, equal in his sight. The history of Christian racism is like the history of any sin in Christendom: a subset of the sinful nature of man, notwithstanding its scandalous efforts to dress up sin as virtue.

Christians and Slavery

Unlike racism, the Bible’s message on slavery as an institution—and its historical treatment by the Catholic Church in particular—is a more complex story, one that touches on the longstanding debate over Christian priorities in choosing to focus on saving individual souls over reforming society. The Bible never says explicitly that it is, or is not, a sin to own slaves, and abolitionism was a relatively late development in Christianity’s 2,000-year history.

Christian principles were vital first to improving the lives of slaves in a world where slavery was endemic; then to curtailing the slave trade, and finally ending it.

But, as with racism, it requires willed ignorance of history to twist that story into one in which biblical teaching created or sustained slavery against a secular onslaught. It is, instead, a story in which Christian principles were vital first to improving the lives of slaves in a world where slavery was endemic; then to curtailing the slave trade and restricting the enslavement of previously free people; and finally (as noted above) to the major, leading Christian role in the great crusade to abolish the institution itself across Western Christian society.

The early books of the Old Testament deal with humanity still emerging from primitive brutality, so all sorts of immorality—slavery, polygamy, incest, rape—is commonplace. The pre-Christian world, outside of the Mosaic Law, saw comparatively few moral restraints on slavery, just as it saw comparatively few moral restraints on homosexuality.

Even in this context, the central origin story of God’s chosen people in Israel invokes the moral sense of Scripture against the enslavement of one’s fellow man in a way that has little parallel in the ancient world: it is impossible to read Exodus as a pro-slavery tract. For many thousands of years, it has been the most powerful anti-slavery story known to man, which explains its enduring popularity with African-American slaves and their descendants. The justice of the Exodus, even to the point of God’s terrible vengeance on the children and soldiers of Egypt, derives from the enslavement of one people by another. Yet the Israelites themselves, after their liberation, would employ varying types of servitude regulated under the Mosaic Law, the details of which were much disputed in the debates of the 1840s and 1850s (you can read here some of the arguments against considering the servitude condoned in the Old Testament to be at all similar to American race-based chattel slavery).

The New Testament mainly treats slavery as a feature of the landscape of a Roman society beyond Christian control—by some historical estimates, depending on the time period and the portion of the empire, as many as a fifth to a third of Rome’s population were slaves—resulting in teachings such as that in 1 Peter 2:18-24, which drew on Jesus’ example to counsel slaves to bear their oppression:

Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse. For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

The fact of this passage itself is a reminder that the early church recruited much of its membership among slaves. While passages such as this were grasped as straws by subsequent slavery apologists, their tone was, deliberately, evocative of Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (the suffering slave is compared to God incarnate). Turning the other cheek has never been understood as an endorsement of the initial act of violence, but in its time was actually a form of provocative nonviolent resistance. (There’s a whole separate debate here over the proper balance for Christians between the Christian tradition of nonviolence and the use of force to end injustice—obviously, American slavery was ended only by the sword). Other passages, like 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, are ambiguous enough to provoke endless debate.

Slavery and its close cousin, serfdom, were the lot of a vast proportion of the human race in Jesus’ time and for well over a thousand years after.

The most direct commentary on slavery in the New Testament is Paul’s Letter to Philemon, in which an imprisoned Paul sends a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master Philemon—both master and slave now being converted to Christianity—with an injunction to welcome him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.”

It is easy to see why this letter was often cited by both critics and defenders of American slavery. On the one hand, it left the institution in place (of course, Paul had little leverage to do otherwise, as he was in prison and Onesimus was presumably penniless, given that Paul was offering to pay any debts the slave owed). On the other hand, it insisted on Onesimus’s equality before God and man not only with Philemon but with Paul himself. This is by no means a defense of slavery, but it is an accommodation with its reality.

Why didn’t Jesus and his apostles go further? Why did God not send us a more forceful message against the enslavement of men and women made in his image? This is, like all the questions asked by Job, unanswerable, but maybe it’s because the world was not yet equipped to act on it, any more than it was ready to forswear war (Jesus preached against Roman soldiers abusing their positions; he didn’t tell them to quit their jobs).

Slavery and its close cousin, serfdom, were the lot of a vast proportion of the human race in Jesus’ time and for well over a thousand years after. The fact that neither Jesus nor Paul condemned it expressly is of a piece with the fact that Jesus came to preach the salvation of individual souls in the world they lived in—a world in which the church began as a persecuted minority and would often, in its history, lack the power to control the course of government and the economy—and not a wholesale social revolution leading to a kingdom of heaven on earth. Rather, the important thing was to meet people in the economic relationships they already had, and beseech them to treat even slaves as equals in Christ, already a radical idea at the time.

Changing the world has always taken a back seat in Christian morality to the demand that individuals act with morality and justice in this life in order to gain the next.

The fact that it would take 19 centuries to rid the world of slavery testifies to the realism of this. That does not mean God was unconcerned with social injustice, but injustices may last many lives of men, and those who live those lives are the church’s concern, too. Changing the world has always taken a back seat in Christian morality to the demand that individuals act with morality and justice in this life in order to gain the next. Individuals who are set a high bar and fall short of it can seek repentance and salvation; but setting impractical standards for societies as a whole can be a recipe for chaos and disorder.

The history of Christian and especially Catholic teaching on the institution of slavery, like most Christian movements for social reform, is thus one of gradual progress from the individual out to society, one that runs parallel to the growth of church influence from its beginnings as a sapling in the vast forest of the Roman Empire to its spread across Western society. Early church fathers focused on practical issues facing slaves while treating slavery as one more fixed aspect of a fallen world, to be endured and ameliorated rather than abolished.

The Church Begins to Address Slavery More Directly

But after the fall of the Roman Empire, the church gradually began addressing slavery more directly; one early milestone, which reflects as well the longstanding centrality of marriage in Church doctrine, was Pope Adrian I’s ruling in the late eighth century that slaves could not be barred by their masters from marrying (Louis XIV of France would eventually incorporate this protection of the right to marry into the Code Noir governing slavery in the French colonies).

Pope Adrian I’s ruling in the late eighth century that slaves could not be barred by their masters from marrying.

Over the next several centuries, Christendom was largely turned inward, and the combination of the Christian influence in Europe with economic and social progress led to the decline of slavery on the continent and eventually its virtual disappearance by the fourteenth century, replaced by a feudal order that treated peasants and serfs, however lowly, as having basic rights recognized by church and state alike. The principal exception was at Christendom’s contested borders—in Christianity’s defensive and later offensive wars with Islam, even the papacy itself tended to emulate the widespread Islamic and pre-Christian practice of enslaving captured soldiers of the enemy, for example for use as galley slaves.

Then, in the fifteenth century, began the Age of Exploration, and with it the new challenge of Christians as conquerors of non-Christian peoples. The church reacted inconsistently at first to the spectacle of Christians encountering and enslaving the peoples of weaker and less-developed societies. On the one hand, popes issued a series of denunciations of enslavement of previously free peoples, beginning in 1435 with Pope Eugene I’s issuance of Sicut Didum, a landmark bull denouncing the enslavement of the black native people of the Canary Islands, under pain of excommunication.

Further papal statements would follow, with major pronouncements in 1462 (a letter from Pius II to the ruler of the Canary Islands describing slavery as a “great crime” and forbidding the enslavement of Christian converts on the islands), 1537 (Sublimus Deus, a bull by Pope Paul III denouncing enslavement of Indians in the New World and describing slavery as the work of Satan), 1639 (Commissum Nobis, by Pope Urban VIII, which strictly prohibited slavery of any kind among the Indians of Paraguay, Brazil, and the entire West Indies) and 1741 (Immensa Pastorum, a bull by Pope Benedict XIV again denouncing the enslavement of native peoples, particularly in the New World, and at least strongly implying an attack on the institution of slavery itself).

The faults of the church in that era came not from an excess of following the words of the New Testament—the charge it faces today—but from the more prosaic fact that, as a human institution, it has in every age had human failings of moral courage and bureaucratic inertia.

But like papal statements of the same era against anti-Semitism, some of these had less teeth than others, and many were ignored in practice, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, the church’s efforts to push back against the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the New World between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries has been fairly criticized for neglect of the plight of African slaves imported to the New World and their descendants.

Indeed, the original Catholic anti-slavery crusader in the New World, Bartolome de las Casas, made the case for ending enslavement of the Indians in large part by contending that (in his view) physically hardier laborers should be imported from Africa to take their place. Las Casas, who was centuries ahead of his time on slavery, would eventually regret his role in encouraging the African slave trade, but too late to do anything about it. But the faults of the church in that era came not from an excess of following the words of the New Testament—the charge it faces today—but from the more prosaic fact that, as a human institution, it has in every age had human failings of moral courage and bureaucratic inertia. This was not the lot of Christianity so much as the lot of humanity before the American Revolution:

As Seymour Drescher, one of the finest historians of abolition, puts it, just 200 years ago ‘personal bondage was the prevailing form of labor in most of the world. . . . Freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.’ Servitude stretched from serfdom in Russia to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean to the indigenous slave systems in Africa that supplied both the Arabian and Atlantic trades.

Of course, slavery in a variety of forms would persist outside the Christian world for years after the American Civil War (it was not de jure abolished in the nations of the Arabian Peninsula until 1962), and persists to this day in some such places.

Anti-Slavery Enters America

Formal movements for the abolition of slavery finally started in the late seventeenth century, and began to gain influence by the late eighteenth century. While some of their origin was sparked by the Enlightenment, it was a Christian sect—the Quakers—who first made abolition a political cause. In the United States, Quakers were behind the first bans on slavery (in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and the 1794 federal ban on exporting slaves (Ben Franklin, a not-particularly-devout Quaker, was a late-in-life convert to abolitionism and submitted the first anti-slavery petition to Congress just before his death).

Christian leadership was crucial to early abolitionist movements in England and France, as well. England’s most influential abolitionist was William Wilberforce, a Tory Parliamentary leader and ally of Prime Minister William Pitt. After a mid-life evangelical Christian awakening, he dedicated his career to fighting slavery, and was the driving force behind Britain’s 1807 outlawing of the slave trade—at a time when British ships ruled the waves—and its 1833 abolition, just before his death, of slavery throughout the bulk of the British Empire. Even in anti-clerical Revolutionary France, the 1794 abolition of slavery (later reversed by Napoleon, but influential in Haiti’s slave rebellion) owed much to the work of Abbé Grégoire, a Catholic priest.

The most prominent and fiery opponents of American slavery were vocal Christians of a sort that would horrify today’s supporters of same-sex marriage. William Lloyd Garrison was one of the earliest and loudest voices:

From the beginning, his abolitionist crusade would be a religious one. In his very first anti-slavery speech at the Park Street Church on July 4, 1829, Garrison called slavery a ‘national sin’ and urged churches to lead the struggle in the ‘holy contest.’ When he penned the founding document for the American Anti-Slavery Society a few years later, he listed the organization’s goals as ‘the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption — the destruction of error by the potency of truth … and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.’

John Brown, the radical abolitionist who would end up being hanged for trying to instigate a slave rebellion, was an even more apocalyptic Calvinist fanatic.

As for the Vatican, in 1839, drawing explicitly on the authority of each of the papacy’s prior pronouncements on the issue, Pope Gregory XVI issued In Supremo Apostolatus, an apostolic letter denouncing the slave trade and the enslavement of black and Indian peoples. In a global sense, the letter came late in the day, three decades after Wilberforce set the British Navy against slavery, and it was noticeably vague on the subject of the existing institution of slavery in the Christian jurisdictions where it was still thriving, mainly the United States and Brazil.

John England, the Irish-born Catholic Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, seized upon the ambiguity—as liberal bishops have done in recent years with theologically conservative statements from the Vatican—to reassure local authorities (and President Van Buren) that the pope had done nothing to denounce the peculiar institution itself. But in the context of the burning American debate on slavery, In Supremo Apostolatus—coming 13 years before “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (and cited by Stowe in her companion volume as evidence of Catholic denunciation of slavery)—could plausibly be read only as proof that the papacy saw slavery as a relic of ancient barbarism, rather than (as some of its more creative defenders were beginning to argue) an institution positively sanctioned by the Christian faith

[I]t naturally follows, not only that Christians should regard as their brothers their slaves and, above all, their Christian slaves, but that they should be more inclined to set free those who merited it; which it was the custom to do chiefly upon the occasion of the Easter Feast… There were not lacking Christians, who, moved by an ardent charity ‘cast themselves into bondage in order to redeem others,’…In the process of time, the fog of pagan superstition being more completely dissipated and the manners of barbarous people having been softened…it at last comes about that, since several centuries, there are no more slaves in the greater number of Christian nations. But – We say with profound sorrow – there were to be found afterwards among the Faithful men who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries, did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples, or else, by instituting or developing the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, to favour their unworthy practice. Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their charge, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those engaged in the traffic and a shame to the Christian name; they foresaw that as a result of this, the infidel peoples would be more and more strengthened in their hatred of the true Religion. (emphasis added)

A full examination of the history of Catholic and other Christianity and slavery would cover a lot more ground than this, but the key point for these purposes is that, while Christians could be found trying to justify themselves with scriptural references on both sides of most any debate, the long-term influence of Christianity on a world that had long practiced slavery before Christ was to push in the direction of recognizing first the human dignity and equality before God of slaves, then a principled argument against enslavement of free people and the slave trade, and finally abolition. “Bible-thumping” Christians on both sides of the Atlantic were the primary drivers in making this happen.

This is hardly a basis on which an educated reader of history would conclude that biblical Christianity should be considered an invalid source of moral authority, especially to Christians. Rather, it counsels for a recognition that there is a difference between core, widely and long-accepted Christian doctrines and movements that are politically selective in cobbling some scripture together to suit their own needs. Even the Devil, we are reminded, can quote scripture.

Supporting Marriage Is Not Jim Crow

Christianity survived the demise of slavery and segregation without the slightest harm to any doctrine, teaching, or passage of scripture of any significance. Indeed, the end of those unjust institutions freed Christians from the temptation to construct embarrassingly flimsy scriptural defenses of them. By contrast, from a Christian theological perspective, the consistent and longstanding teaching on marriage and homosexual sex, speaking to individual morals, could hardly stand in starker contrast to the New Testament’s condemnation of racial distinctions and its relatively laissez-faire approach to the existence of slavery and the resulting gradualism of Christian opposition to slavery. As noted in Part I, Jesus and St. Paul are both explicit and insistent on the subjects of marriage and sex.

Economic and social arrangements like slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, monarchy, and feudalism have come and gone, marriage has always had a central place in Christian moral teaching and Christian community life.

In fact, if you read the Gospels and the epistles, you will note that several of the critical themes are, to a modern ear, liberalizing. Jesus rails against the excessive focus of the Pharisees on ritualistic rules at the expense of care for one’s fellow man, and declares the old Mosaic Law to be superseded. He preaches engagement with sinners and mercy towards the repentant. He reaches out across cultural and gender lines to elevate the basic dignity of all people.

But if there is one area of moral teaching in which Jesus is more rather than less strict than the Mosaic Law, it is in the area of sexuality and, in particular, marriage—the abolition of permissive divorce, the insistence on elevating lust to the level of adultery. He explains the comparative laxity of earlier teachings on marriage and sex as a nod to primitivism: “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Thus, the Mosaic Law’s regulation of divorce, like its “eye for an eye” principle of proportionate vengeance, sought to take the world as it was and improve it. Thus too did the New Testament and the early church do for slaves.

Down through the unbroken chain of centuries of Christian teaching and practice, while economic and social arrangements like slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, monarchy, and feudalism have come and gone, marriage has always had a central place in Christian moral teaching and Christian community life.

To Catholics, it is one of the seven sacraments, along with baptism, communion, confession/reconciliation, confirmation, holy orders (i.e., joining the priesthood or other religious orders) and anointing of the sick; it is the equal of any of those in the solemnity of the vows made before God and before the community and Christian witnesses. Society at large can no more properly punish Catholics for their view of the definition of marriage than for their view of the definition of baptism or communion. Comparing such a central cornerstone of the faith—handed down directly from the mouth of Jesus and preserved unchanged for 2,000 years—to Jim Crow or American slavery is an ignorant obscenity.

TOMORROW: The difference between sin and scandal and the difference between liberty and equality.