Dred Scott Rolls in His Grave

In his column in the Times today, David Brooks (as usual) lays spurious claim to a "middle ground" (what he calls "Lincoln's land") between passionate, crusading evangelicals and the "bland relativism of the militant secularists" (whatever that is). Of course, Brooks is not really cutting a middle path; what he really means is that he sympathizes with the right wingers, but wants them to be a little more cautious -- i.e., maybe not stomp all over the filibuster rule, which has come in handy for conservatives in the past.

But in so doing, he blithely conflates the "evangelicals" of today's religious right with the "evangelicals" who opposed slavery in the nineteenth, as if they are pretty much the same people.

Brooks is taking advantage of the looseness of the term "evangelical" - under some definitions, any Christian denomination, even Catholicism, could be called evangelical - to give today's conservative Protestants credit for the work of the nineteenth century's liberal Protestants. This is fairly common now among conservatives who like to compare abortion to slavery, so much so that President Bush could use the Dred Scott decision (which upheld the Fugitive Slave Act) as a code word for Roe v. Wade (which legalized abortion).

One right-wing anti-abortion activist in Kansas told Thomas Frank, "If John Brown lived today, he'd be considered a right-wing religious fanatic...He'd be considered one of us today."

Of course, they've got the cultural dynamics of the conflict over slavery spectacularly wrong. This is historical piracy, much like the attempted conservative appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr. (though a few wingers are still keeping it real). As Frank describes the anti-slavery movement in What's the Matter with Kansas?:

And while they were indeed religious people, the denominations to which abolitionists belonged were the mainline Protestant churches pilloried by the right for not spreading the damnation around sufficiently: Unitarians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers.
Whereas the anti-abortion movement today features the prominent participation of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 as a pro-slavery denomination. But today, a century and a half late, they denounce slavery - in the service of attacking abortion rights. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, cites Dred Scott and the anti-slavery movement in this anti-choice screed. Old habits, however, die hard: Southern Baptists have no problem recycling pro-slavery rhetoric to justify the oppression of women. (Can it possibly be true, by the way, that at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in 1998 - when the denomination's creed was amended to include a requirement that wives must submit to their husbands -- the Oak Ridge Boys sang a gospel version of the Rolling Stones' misogynist anthem "Under My Thumb"?)

More from Frank on the antebellum red state / blue state divide:
Then, as now, one heard ferocious denunciations of snobbish, lily-livered, interfering intellectuals from the East; charges of media bias; hearty affirmation of that rough-and-ready species of man who knew the value of concealed carry; and expressions of partisanship so blind as to overlook virtually any election irregularity.

But one did not hear any of this overheated rhetoric from the Free-Soil Party in Kansas. These were the trademark attitudes of the other side, of the pro-slavery "border ruffians" and their supporters in Congress. And it is in their thoughts and deeds that we can make out the true ancestors of today's backlash conservatives.


The abolitionists, on the other hand, were the kind of folks who, were they alive today, would set the Wall Street Journal to howling about political correctness, threats to the Constitution, and elitist, know-it-all meddling in the affairs of others. In fact, in the happy times before the sixties came and ruined everything, abolitionists were generally presented in school textbooks in just this way: as intolerant moralists, screeching proponents of a dictatorship of virtue who, through their self-righteous intolerance, did no less than cause the Civil War. Identifying oneself with them was a tactic of far-left groups such as the Weathermen and the Communist Party. Abolitionism only became respectable - and suitable for purposes of conservative legitimacy-building - thanks to the efforts of radical, and, yes, revisionist historians of the sixties and seventies.

And the abolitionists themselves? Strictly blue-state: effete, Anglo-Saxon, tea-sipping, college-educated - the sort of people that David Brooks would mock for turning up their noses at NASCAR and whom Bill O'Reilly would razz for not understanding real life as it's lived by tough mugs on the street.