Role of Religion and Morality in the Debate of Slavery
Racism has been a major issue in the United States of America. This issue can be traced back to the slavery era, where slave owners used religion as a means to justify slavery, while abolitionists used religion to show the evils of the practice. Religion has always played a huge role when it comes to morality and everyday norms in society. In the past, many philosophers have defended believing in God as a basic requirement for ethical living and morality (Niebuhr, 10-29). One of these philosophers includes Immanuel Kant, who defends the belief of God as an important part of moral life since the existence of God guarantees that one will be rewarded for a good life. Although the relationship between morality and religion cannot be denied, religion has sometimes been misused to justify immoral behavior towards one another (Williams, 21). This essay will look into how pro-slavery and anti-slavery campaigners justified their actions using religion and how these justifications are impacting racial discussions today.
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The pro-slavery activists used a myriad of religious justifications to support slavery. They mainly used Genesis chapter 9:18-27 to justify their ownership of slaves. This verse talks about how Noah cursed Ham’s descendants to be the servants of his brothers (Japheth and Shem) because he saw his father naked and drunk but did not cover him; instead, he went to his brothers. Pro-slavery activists used this verse to insinuate that the descendants of Ham (Africans) were destined to serve them because of this curse. Slave owners also justified their actions as a means of liberating Africans from their savage customs and beliefs. Most Africans were polytheists and also believed in spirit worship, while others were Muslims (Niebuhr, 10-29). Slave owners argued that by owning African slaves, they were able to control the sinful and less humane tendencies of the black race. According to DeBow’s Review “Slavery and the Bible,” pro-slavery activists justified slavery by saying that the Bible has clear guidelines on the subject and has even established rules on the treatment of slaves. They also quote several Biblical figures who held slaves and servants; these include Abraham, Isaac, as well as Jacob. Joseph was also sold into slavery by his brothers. This was a way to support the institution of slavery. The document also asserts the use of Slave women as concubines by their masters. This was in the case of Abraham and Hagar, who bored him a son since Sarah was too old to bear children. They also argued using verses from Ephesians and Colossians that talked about how slaves should behave towards their masters (Miles, 18). They advocated for slaves to be docile and obedient to their masters. They also insisted that the Israelites in the old testaments were slaves to justify their actions but failed to mention their deliverance from slavery. The Slave Bible removed parts of the scripture that seemed to be anti-slavery. This includes the exodus story in a bid to suppress any rebellious thinking.
Anti-Slavery activists viewed religion as a way to fight slavery since it was an evil institution. They insisted that slavery was stealing and argued that by taking a man as the property was a form of stealing since it was done without their consent. Stephen Symonds Foster in “The Brotherhood of Thieves” calls slave owners thieves since they were holding on to someone’s life without their consent. The book also argued that the institution of slavery was also encouraging adultery. Many people at the time did not regard slaves as human beings but rather as properties that had no choice. This placed women slaves into situations that were above their control (Jackson,7). Many of them found themselves being used as instruments to fulfill the desires of their masters. They were used as sex tools by their masters. Slave women were raped, and some of them were even used as breeders. These actions against slaves caused the breakdown of the institution of marriage. Christianity is a religion that condemns adultery and believes in Chastity. Christians believe that married people should not engage in sexual acts with persons other than their spouses. Jesus Christ was an advocate for marriage as a sacred institution and even went as far as to say that even having a lustful eye could be regarded as adultery. Those slave owners who looked lustfully at their slaves were committing adultery. Abolitionists also argued that slavery encouraged a culture of rape against women. Slave women were not given a right to choose, and this resulted in many engaging in sexual acts with their masters against their will. Many people saw this as a sin (Williams, 21). The Bible was against rape, with many abolitionists quoting the fate of rapists like Amnon, who was killed by Absalom after he raped his half-sister Tamar. Abolitionists also preached against slavery, seeing it as man-stealing. They argued that man was given the rights that could not be taken away (Jackson, 7). They argued that during creation, God gave man dominion over other creatures but not over his fellow man. They argued that no law created by man could be used to justify this act. They also argued that slavery encouraged murder. Since slaves were regarded to be property, killing them was not seen as murder. This resulted in unimaginable harm being done to slaves. With some of them being killed for no reason. Abolitionists insisted that the killing of any human being was breaking God’s commandment since a man is a man regardless of their status in society.
Today, these arguments still affect race politics. White Nationalists use the same arguments as pro-slavery activists to justify their actions against minorities in the United States of America. They insist that God has declared them to be masters of inferior races, and it is up to them to guide inferior races to live in a civilized way. This is evident even among white nationalist groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups. Some of those who live in the Southern states of the United States of America still defend slavery and their opposition to the civil rights of African Americans using the same arguments as slave owners (especially insisting Africans are descendants of Ham). Civil rights activists today use arguments made by abolitionists that all humans are created equal and are gifted with rights that cannot be taken away from them regardless of their status and race. They can be seen quoting the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt as well as addressing the evils of racism today by showing the unchristian side of their actions.
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In conclusion, the pro-slavery activist’s arguments have brought about the notion that White Americans are superior and need to have first priority over the other races. Anti-slavery activists were instrumental in creating arguments that support the civil rights movement. The use of religion by both camps has therefore played a significant role in creating a moral argument for these two sides in their stand on race.
- DeBow. Slavery and the Bible. 1850. Review.
- Foster, Stephen Symonds. The Brotherhood of Thieves. 1843. Book.
- Jackson, John L. Racial paranoia: The unintended consequences of political correctness: The new reality of race in America. Civitas Books, 2008, p. 7. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Jackson%2C+John+L.+Racial+paranoia%3A+The+unintended+consequences+of+political+correctness%3A+The+new+reality+of+race+in+America.+Civitas+Books%2C+2008.&btnG=
- Miles, Robert. Racism. Routledge, 2004, p. 18. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Miles%2C+Robert.+Racism.+Routledge%2C+2004.++&btnG=
- Niebuhr, Helmut Richard. The responsible self: An essay in Christian moral philosophy. Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, pp. 10-29. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Niebuhr%2C+Helmut+Richard.+The+responsible+self%3A+An+essay+in+Christian+moral+philosophy.+Westminster+John+Knox+Press%2C+1999.++&btnG=
- Williams, Bernard. Morality: An introduction to ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 21. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Williams%2C+Bernard.+Morality%3A+An+introduction+to+ethics.+Cambridge+University+Press%2C+2012.++&btnG=
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