Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Confirmed: Douglas Wilson, Slavery Denier

After all the criticism that Douglas Wilson has received, he persuaded his publisher to offer a temporary free download of his "book" on slavery and the civil war. It's really a disjointed collection of unfocused essays. But unable to restrain my morbid curiosity, I read it.

It was deeply weird and fascinating. He has toned down some of his most obviously offensive statements from the 1990s, and is careful to repeatedly talk in general terms about the horrors of slavery, but after reading it I am more assured that my harsh critique of him last week was more than justified. I called him a "slavery denier," which is true, but it doesn't really get at the heart of what drives him.

There appear to be two main obsessions. One is a deeply held belief that, somehow, Roe v. Wade and the tens of millions of subsequent abortions in this country would not have happened if the South won the Civil War. He is so convinced of this that he never bothers to explain what the connection is or why nearly every other developed country has similar abortion laws to ours despite not having a civil war like ours. The second obsession is the need to defend the Bible in its entirety so as not to lose ground to the gay rights agenda, and that means defending slavery. He repeatedly states that if the Bibles instructions on slavery can be ignored, then there isn't ground to stand on in the modern battles over homosexuality and abortion.

Armed with these two obsessions, Wilson proceeds to make breathtakingly groundless historical claims because he has little interest in what was actually happening in 1850s-1860s America. The whole point is to defend scripture and win the modern culture wars. Not surprisingly, he doesn't bother engaging any mainstream scholarship. You know you're in trouble when your whole case is built on the work of one or two authors along with some choice morsels from a publishing house known as "Southern Heritage Press."

Let me see if I can trace his argument with some degree of coherence:

1) The Bible tells Christians to deal with a sinful system of slavery by transforming it from within. Masters are to treat their slaves well, and slaves are to honor their masters. Unless the American South was some kind of mass death camp, this teaching applies.

2) The American South was not some kind of mass death camp and was in fact more of a Christian society than the North. Southern slavery was sinful but much more benign than has been portrayed. The transforming process was occurring and slavery would eventually end.

3) Anti-Christian northern abolitionists rejected the Bible's instructions on slavery and through propaganda and agitation started the Civil War. The 620,000 deaths are the responsibility of sinful abolitionists.

4) Despite being more Christian than the North, God used the wicked North to punish the South for its sin, such as it was, just as in the Old Testament God used wicked nations around Israel to punish his people.

5) As a result, federal power increased leading (somehow) to Roe v. Wade over 100 years later.

Along the way, Wilson assures us that slave sales separated slave families only "sometimes," the South was right on all the major constitutional issues of the war, the 14th amendment was bad, there were 40,000 black confederate soldiers, and so on. How do you even begin to untangle all the lies?

Wilson fails to realize that saying over and over again that racism is indefensible and slavery was bad is not good enough. People who actually believe those things rather than just saying them don't call a fourth to a third of slave families destroyed by sale a "sometimes" event. They don't call the side that fought to keep a constitution of white supremacy "right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war." They don't call slaveowner Robert E. Lee "a gracious Christian gentleman, a brother in Christ, and an honorable man," while reducing emancipator Abraham Lincoln to "the most famous white supremacist of the nineteenth century." They certainly don't bemoan the 14th amendment, which enshrined the principle of racial equality in our constitution for the first time, as a federal power grab.

Add to that all the utterly unserious historical claims. The horrible abolitionists bear all the responsibility for the war? The folks who seized U.S. forts and armories in response to the lawful election of a man they happened to disagree with don't deserve a little scrutiny?

The point is this: Douglas Wilson is a liar and an unprincipled hack. And it's important that we say so, publicly, not because we want to be rude or argumentative or judgmental, but because lying hacks who also happen to be outspokenly Christian are bad advertising. We want as many people as possible who come across Wilson's work to know that he doesn't speak for Christians. So it is nauseating, then, to watch that video I linked to the other day and see John Piper praising Douglas Wilson because he "gets the gospel." No, he doesn't get it. No, I've never read any of his theological books and I don't need to. If you "get the gospel," your circle of empathy and moral concern begins to extend beyond white males. Wilson's not there yet. If you "get the gospel," you try to stop being a lying hack. Of course, as Christians we all experience our daily failures to get the gospel and truly live it out as we should. But most of us have some awareness of those failures and are trying to do better. It is another thing entirely to proudly publish, and defend for years, works of lies that espouse ideas contrary to the gospel.


  1. But wait a minute. The Bible does countenance slavery and prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality. The problem is Jewish and Christian theology. Wilson is determined to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Bible, and he's right that you don't just get to ignore the parts you don't like. It's religion, not philosophy, not politics.

    Being a good person and being a good Christian are mutually exclusive. Pick one.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Brendan. Obviously I disagree with you. I think there is room for good and bad people in every religion, or in no religion at all. But thanks for reading and commenting.