Chattel Slavery presents a damned if you do damned if you don't dilemma for the Christian Nation thesis.
I've read the texts that deal with slavery in the Bible and I have concluded that the Bible does not abolish chattel slavery. When confronted with proof-texts like Colossians 3:22 -- "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord." -- I am unconvinced by the responses that such really wasn't chattel slavery, but something else. They strike me as "weasel out" responses.
And Colossians 3:22 isn't the only place the Bible seems to indicate it's "okay" with slavery. I don't read the Bible as commanding slavery. But rather, not abolishing it, that is permitting it.
The anti-liberationist view of orthodox Christianity does provide a rational response. Look, life is a vapor and what matters is where you spend eternity. If you are a slave and a Christian and your master is unsaved, in terms of cosmic reality, you are in a FAR better position than him.
The anti-slavery biblical position strikes me as a liberationist reading of the Bible. And I see biblical liberationism using more of a "loose" hermeneutic (that is, not the proof texting, the Bible is the inerrant infallible Word of God hermeneutic).
Benjamin Rush is a good example of an orthodox Christian Founding Father who was a biblical liberationalist. Not only did Rush believe Christianity, properly understood, abolished slavery and commanded republicanism, but also that the Bible taught universal salvation and abolished the death penalty in the New Testament.
But...there are uber-orthodox, proof texter types who do believe the Bible does not support slavery. Gregg Frazer (of John MacArthur's church and university) is one. Now one could argue, in this modern age where the question of slavery is "settled," they are trying to do PR work for the Bible/orthodox Christianity.
Yet, not all of the anti-slavery biblicists from the Founding era were Benjamin Rush types or unitarians. In fact, some very notable anti-slavery activists of that era were uber-orthodox.
Tom Van Dyke points me to a resource of biblical arguments historically used against slavery.
And that brings us to the damned if you do damned if you don't aspect of slavery and the Christian Nation thesis. The Founding Fathers -- not all but a good number of notables -- owned slaves. And the Founding made concessions with slavery. If permitting slavery is an authentic "Christian principle," then so much for "Christian principles."
And if it's not, then that's one glaring aspect of the American Founding that contradicts "Christian principles."
In fact, one of the uber-orthodox Calvinist covenanter types -- Rev. James Renwick Willson -- who decried the godlessness of the US Constitution and the infidelity of America's Founding Fathers, was an anti-slavery activist. And he used the fact that the Founding Fathers practiced and made concessions with slavery as a key argument for why America didn't have a "Christian" Founding.
As he wrote, in 1832:
6. Millions of men are held in bondage, under the most solemn sanction of the United States Constitution. Slaves had been introduced into the colony of Virginia, by a Dutch slave trader, many years before the commencement of the Revolution. The planters of the southern colonies, had formed the habit of executing their labor by slaves. Many, indeed a great majority of the people of the northern and middle states, were always adverse to Negro slavery. The members of the convention from the north were opposed, generally, to the slave trade. Yet some of the Boston and Rhode Island merchants had embarked a large capital in this traffic. The members from the south refused to accede to the formation of a permanent bond of union, unless their right both to hold slaves and to import them, was guaranteed by the constitution. Perhaps no topic excited in the convention a deeper interest than this one. Notwithstanding all that had been taught in the Declaration of Independence, all the treasure that had been expended, and all the blood that had been shed in the cause of freedom, yet the convention did guarantee the right of importing slaves, from the time of the adoption of the constitution until the 1st of January, 1808—a period of twenty years, three months, and thirteen days. I am thus particular, for every one of these days and even the hours must be accounted for to Messiah the Prince, "who came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."
The constitution says:—"The migration, or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808." Art. I, Sec. IV, Specification I. The Convention blushed to name the Negro slaves and the slave trade, and used a circumlocution, as if a figure of speech would conceal that iniquity for which conscience was chiding them, when the article was penned and ratified. It will not avail to say, that the deed was merely passing it by. It was much more. The slave ships, with cargoes of African slaves, were as much under the protection of the American stars and stripes, as the flannel of Britain, or the bar iron of Sweden. It was a national slave trade.
As this species of property was acquired, under the sanction of the constitution, so it is retained under a solemn national guaranty. The United States are the slave holders, as well as the several states, and the individual masters. "Direct taxes," says the constitution, "shall be apportioned among the several states, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined, by adding to the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of all other persons." U. S. Con. Art. 1. Sec. II. Specification II. These "other persons" are slaves, an abominable term, which they were as before ashamed to employ, while they sanctioned the evil. These slaves are then taxable property, by the letter and spirit of the constitution. So the article is expounded by Federalist, written by Messrs. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, and by all writers on the national jurisprudence, who are quoted as the best authority. "The federal constitution, therefore decides, with great propriety, on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and property." Imported under the protection of the American flag, and secured to their owners by the plighted faith of the nation, as property, they are now held by the nation, as a part of its wealth; "when," to use the words of Mr. Jay in The Federalist, "a tariff of contribution is to be adjusted." Fed. No. LV, p. 296.
This doctrine is more distinctly laid down in other parts of the Constitution. "The United States shall protect each of them (the states) against domestic violence." Art. IV, Sec. IV. "Domestic violence" is a phrase, which, in this connection can neither be misunderstood, nor explained away. Since the slaves are taxed as the property of the nation, the constitution pledges the power of the U. States to sustain the master against any violent measures that the slave may employ to recover his freedom.
Again, "No person held to service or labor, in one state, under the laws thereof; escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." U. S. Con., Art. I., Sec. IV. If the slave escapes from the state where he is enslaved, to another, where there are no slaves; that other is bound by the Constitution to deliver him up to the master who claims him.
Slavery indeed, is made one of the pillars of the government. "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of all other persons." Hence, the holding of Africans in bondage, is made one of the pillars, on which the fabric of American freedom is made to rest; thus committing the twofold evil of making slavery essential to the constitution, and of violating the holy and benign doctrine of representation, which is the palladium of religious and civil liberty.
That slave property is guaranteed by the constitution, has been solemnly decided by the representatives of the nation, in many legislative acts. After protracted argument, in Congress, on the question of admitting Missouri, with her slave holding constitution, into the Union, it was decided in favor of her admission, on the ground that slaves are held under constitutional guaranty.
Congress has passed many laws, on the subject of slavery. By one act, the United States courts are vested with jurisdiction, in questions arising under the slave trade. By another, the mode is prescribed in which runaway-slaves shall be reclaimed and restored to their masters in the non-slave-holding states. By the several acts of Congress, fixing the ratio for representation, the doctrine and the practice of slavery are recognized (See Gorden’s and Brown’s Digests of the laws of the United States.). Many laws passed for the government of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, before they became states; all of the Floridas, and District of Columbia, now under territorial regime, respect slaves.
In all the territories, the United States government is the slave-holder; for the political sovereignty of the territory, is vested in no intermediate authority. All the slave laws of the District of Columbia are enacted by the federal legislature. No jurist in the nation has ever presumed to maintain, however adverse many of them are to slavery, that these legislative acts of Congress are unconstitutional.
In addition to all this mass of evidence, it may be added, that numerous cases have been, and are every year decided in the courts, in applying these acts; and every judge holds himself bound, by his oath of office, to apply the laws against the African slave, whenever any question arises, on the right of tenure between him and his master.
The late insurrection of the slaves in North Carolina and Virginia, has been quelled by the United States troops, ordered out by the President, as executor of the laws of the United States. So then, we have; 1st, the convention that framed the Constitution, embodying slavery in several parts of the fundamental law of the commonwealth. 2. The federal legislature enacting laws, under the provisions of the constitution. 3. The judiciary applying the law in adjudications of slave questions. 4. The chief executive magistrate enforcing slavery by the army of the United States.
Slavery is interwoven with the whole web and texture of the federal government. All this is in direct opposition to the 4th amendment to the constitution, which provides, that:—
"No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." By what "due process of law" has the African been deprived of his liberty? Was it a "due process of law" to make war on the unoffending tribes of Africa, waste and destroy whole populous nations, and seize, bind in chains, and sell to the southern planters, a shipload of MEN? In 1830, there were in the United States 2,010,575 Africans, deprived of their liberty, by no other process of law, than that of wasting and destroying countries; and of binding and selling the unoffending children of poverty.
The United States legislature has passed sentence on their own doings. By a law passed since 1808, the slave trade is declared to be piracy.
In the whole annals of legislation, where shall we find any thing analogous to this? After prosecuting this trade nationally, for twenty years, three months, and thirteen days, Congress declares the doings of slave traders piracy; though they had traded under the protection of the national flag. What are we to infer, respecting him who holds property which he acknowledges to have been acquired by piracy? But there has been no national acknowledgment of the sin against God and man—no asking of pardon from God—no restitution. It is not wonderful that the United States Senator from Rhode Island, who had amassed a large estate by trading in slaves, always voted in the negative on the passage of the piracy bill through the Senate. We may well believe, that he saw before his mind’s eye, the pirate’s gibbet.
On the subject of the evil thus sanctioned by the highest human authority in this nation, Mr. Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, pp. 240-1, makes the following, among other very impressive observations:—"The whole commerce, between master and slave, is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other."—"The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals, undepraved by such circumstances."—"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"—"That they are to be violated but with his wrath?" The following sentiment, though a thousand times quoted, will bear to be many times yet repeated:—"Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; and that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among probable events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference. The Almighty has no attribute which can take part with us in such a contest."—"With what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other?" Twelve states do all this now, solemnly, deliberately, and under the forms of law. The convention that framed the National Constitution have done this. The United States Congress, Senate, and Executive, have been doing this, for more than forty-four years. They have thus dishonored Messiah the Prince, who is the friend of liberty; for he came to "proclaim Liberty to the captive, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."
These moral evils embodied in the doctrines of the fundamental law of the empire, have produced practical results, over which every true disciple of Christ, and Christian patriot, will mourn.
Right after that Rev. Willson explains why the "key Founders" were not Christians but infidels, not more than "unitarians."
1st. Ungodly men have occupied, and do now occupy, many of the official stations, in the government. The clause of the Constitution, barring all moral qualifications, has not been a dead letter. There have been seven Presidents of the United States—and of each of them it may be said, as Jehovah says of the kings of Israel, after the revolt of the ten tribes, "He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord."
Washington was raised up, in the providence of God, like Cyrus of Persia, and qualified for great achievements.—He was an able captain, and an instrument of much temporal good, as a statesman. Few, if any, prominent men, in any nation, have been endowed by the common gifts of the Spirit, with more ennobling qualities than the first President of this nation. His fame fills the civilized world. It is to the honor of the Protestant Religion, that this country produced such a man. What was Bolivar compared with Washington? All this praise may be awarded to one who, like the amiable young man in the gospel, "went away from Jesus sorrowful, because he had great possessions."
There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life. In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God. General eulogy, by a Weems, or a Ramsey, will not satisfy an enlightened enquirer. The faith of the real believer in the word of God, is a principle so powerfully operative, that you cannot conceal "its light under a bushel." "It works by love." "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." Is it probable that he was a true believer in Jesus Christ and his Bible, when in times so trying, and in a Christian nation, he wrote thousands of letters, and yet never uttered a word, from which it can be fairly inferred that he was a believer? Who ever questioned whether Theodosius or Charlemagne believed the Bible? "He that is not against us is for us." And it is as true, that he who is not for us, is against us.