Douglas Wilson on Slavery: The Evangelical White Man’s Burden

In a follow up to my last post, I’d like to direct some attention toward Douglas Wilson’s opinions on slavery. There’s already been some excellent coverage of his views (Wartburg Watch has a particularly good post), but to those of us who have been following Wilson’s writing for years, there really can’t be enough exposure. So here’s my contribution, and a caveat: I’m writing about this subject as the descendant of a Southern slave-owning family. My family’s papers are owned by the University of North Carolina, and many of the records from their plantations and political activities are available for online reading. None of this is shared as a boast. I’m deeply ashamed of my family’s involvement with slavery. It tarnishes any pride I might otherwise feel about my heritage, and I am acutely aware that even though I did not grow up in wealth, I benefit from an upper class tradition of education that was literally built on the backs of slaves. This is my white privilege. I do not forget for a moment.

Neither does Doug Wilson. But Wilson feels no shame about this or the legacy of slavery; quite the contrary. According to Wilson: “Our central interest was in defending the integrity and applicability of the Scriptures to our current cultural controversies, and we affirmed that Christians who apologize for slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage.” Black and Tan, pg. 14.

The “we” in this sentence refers to Steve Wilkins, formerly a board member of the League for the South. If “the League for the South” sounds a bit like something out of the late 19th Century, that’s because it kind of is: they advocate the establishment of a free and independent Southern republic. They’ve also been labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. So let’s recap: we have one Calvinist preacher and a neo-Confederate, and they agree on two things: slavery and the evils of same-sex marriage. At no point does Wilson acknowledge or condemn the League of South’s extremist leanings. He can’t, really. Wilkins is a necessary ally in the culture war.

Wilson goes to explain that he is not racist; in fact, he identifies racism as the South’s great sin. I think he sincerely believes this. He also sincerely believes that African culture during the antebellum was “inferior” to white Southern culture (pg. 17), and attributes this inferiority to a lack of the gospel. In saying this, Wilson is locating himself within the same Protestant tradition that motivated the first English missionaries to leave for Africa. It’s the White Man’s Burden with an evangelical spin. Colonialism (and slavery) is viewed through a humanitarian lens. Christianity is visualized a civilizing influence. It’s why, in 1820s England, missionary supporter Hannah Kilham wrote “As superintendents and directors, we should ever bear in mind that we are fellow-probationers with the dear children…all other distinctions seem lost in the contemplation of this.” Victorian Testaments, Sue Zemka.

Kilham’s choice of words is deliberate. She is not referring to African children in this passage, but rather African adults encountered by British missionaries. All Africans qualified as children. They were culturally inferior, but Christianity could improve their condition. When contemporary anthropologist Talal Asad writes of “cultural hierarchies,” this is what he means. And Wilson’s work reflects these an adherence to the same hierarchies revealed by Hannah Kilham centuries earlier. Wilson describes the gospel as “a gift,” (pg. 17). This is not necessarily a problematic attitude itself, but in Wilson’s paradigm, it’s a gift received only by Europeans. Hello, colonialism. I see you hiding there under that Calvinist rock.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if Wilson considers himself a racist. He explicitly locates non-white cultures as inferior. That is itself racist. The belief that others must be civilized, and taught to assimilate into Western cultural mores, is racist.  Racism isn’t just an irrational hatred for other ethnic groups. If it were, the degree of entrenched racism revealed year after year to still be present and relevant in the United States would reflect the size and influence of the white power movement. It would certainly not be so pervasive. But it is, and so racism’s definition has to be expanded. It’s more than hatred; it is an attitude of cultural superiority and the characterization of the American black as something Other. And by this standard, Douglas Wilson is a racist.

Wilson also believes that the Bible supports slavery, that Robert E. Lee was a “gracious Christian gentleman, a brother in Christ, and an honorable man.” My ancestors also owned slaves. To their peers, they were no doubt gracious Christian men and women. But they were not honorable, because it is not honorable to own another human being like chattel. Even our most celebrated patriarch seemed to acknowledge this in an indirect way when he referred to slavery as “a curse” upon the South. And if I can detach myself from my personal history to acknowledge this, what is Wilson’s excuse? What reason is there for his fetishization of a South that only ever existed for a privileged few?

The answer again is this cultural hierarchy. White slave owners existed at the top of this hierarchy because God commanded it and left evidence for its structure in the Bible. It is a source of authority and power to organizations like the League of the South, and to Wilson himself. It’s the reason why Wilson can characterize men as the “colonizers” of women and truly believe that this colonization benefits women. Wilson’s doing us a favor, the same sort of favor my ancestors did for their slaves. It’s the civilizing mission at work.

Thanks to the work of historians Alison Twells, Sue Zemka and Richard Price, whose research on missionaries and the colonial encounter spawned this blog post (and my dissertation). 

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