Saturday, March 25, 2006

Henry Neufeld on the Slavery and the Bible Issue:

Thanks to Ed Brayton once again for linking to Henry Neufeld, a Hebrew scholar, a Christian and the director of the Pacesetter's Bible Institute in Florida, and his thoughts on slavery and the Bible. Neufeld, if I understand him right, more or less rejects that the Bible is inerrant, and isn't afraid to read some of the passages with a "grain of salt." And yet, it still possible that the Bible is inspired by God in some way. In other words, it's not an all or nothing deal. That, to me, is the only viable form of Christianity or religion. Appeal to sacred texts as the absolute and inerrant Truth isn't just wrongheaded but can lead one down a slippery slope to dangerous fanaticism (as opposed to benign fanaticism). Money passage:

If we...accept that if something is condoned in the Bible, then the Bible condones it, then the answer is clear and obvious--the Bible condones slavery. There really is no way around this. People who are convinced that it must not be so will continue to believe that they have somehow chopped up the evidence, but it is still there. Ed can see it. Apparently some of my fellow Christians cannot.

I know its in many ways an imperfect analogy, but let's compare Biblical interpretation with Constitutional interpretation. Let's say fundamentalism is like originalism. We already have a problem because there are different methods of originalism. So let's use Borkian original expectation originalism, where we ask whether the Founders consciously expected that the texts they drafted and ratified outlawed or compelled certain specific practices; this is what many social conservatives refer to when they talk about "original intent" and criticize "activist judges" and their "living Constitution." On the matter of Segregation, though certain forms of originalism may justify Brown v. Board of Education, such "original intent" originalism does not. The framers of the 14th Amendment were not consciously aware that they were outlawing segregated schools, and consciously believed they were preserving the legality of bans on miscegenation.

But, as Jack Balkin has pointed out, any constitutional theory that holds Brown v. Board to be wrongly decided simply isn't viable in politics. Brown acts as a "reductio ad absurdum." So on Brown/Plessy, originalists become adherents of "the Living Constitution" and say Brown was properly decided, all the while deny they are doing so. Few "originalists" of this stripe have the intellectual honesty to say yes, Brown was an "activist" decision and let the chips fall where they may. Raoul Berger is a notable exception that comes to mind.

Likewise, with the Bible and slavery. The Bible clearly condones and endorses slavery. It doesn't necessarily mandate slavery (doesn't say "you must have it"). But nonetheless, it doesn't forbid slavery as an "immoral practice" (does say "you may have it").

Slavery sort of acts as the same type of "reductio ad absurdum" on Biblical interpretation, as racial segregation does on constitutional interpretation: Any interpretation that gives us a pro-slavery justification seems like it's not morally viable (and for good reason). So just as the originalist becomes a proponent of what he otherwise would call "activism" on Brown and Loving, the fundamentalist, while claiming still to be an inerrant literalist, becomes a liberal theologian and tries to "explain away" the pro-slavery passages of the Bible much in the same way that liberal theologians attempt to sanitize the antihomosexual passages from the Bible.

Update: See Ed Brayton's post from a little while back comparing Biblical and Constitutional interpretation.

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