Tea Party Rhetoric: Literal Slavery Not So Bad

The comparison between anything tea partiers don’t like and slavery is evolving from downright offensive to annoyingly trite (but still offensive).

This weekend’s Sunday morning news shows switched from last week’s focus on Michele Bachmann’s husband’s work in “reparative therapy” to her own anti-gay history, with recently circulating audio of her labeling homosexuality as bondage and enslavement. (The original video in which she said this has been removed from YouTube but a lesser-quality recording of the broadcast of it on CNN is available here.)

As Kyle over at Right Wing Watch has noted, Rick Perry believes the federal government has enslaved us over debt and taxes. (By the way, he also believes, like Gary North, that the current economic crisis will bring us back to biblical principles.) And of course there’s last year’s controversial campaign ad featuring Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber and . . . Abe Lincoln (I challenge you to try to watch the whole thing). These are but some examples; there are many more.

This view, one that overstates the burden of taxes and government mandates (even if you don’t like them) and minimizes the experience of African-Americans in slavery, comes to the tea party through Rushdoony by way of David Barton (and Glenn Beck).

Bloggers frequently point to the fact that Rushdoony supported slavery, which he did. But they rarely look at exactly what this meant, as I wrote here at RD nearly a year ago:

Barton’s Wallbuilders website promotes a collection of “resources on African American History.” Much of the material is written by Barton himself but one of the essays is [Stephen] McDowell’s, drawn almost entirely from Rushdoony’s work in the early 1960s.

McDowell’s discussion of slavery, written in 2003, comes from Rushdoony’s more familiar Institutes of Biblical Law… (that) …promotes a “biblical worldview” in which slavery is in some circumstances acceptable. This worldview (like his discussion of the three-fifths rule, which minimizes the rule’s dehumanization of slaves) diminishes the dehumanization of slavery in general by explicitly arguing that God condones it in certain circumstances.

Both Rushdoony and McDowell assert that biblical slavery is either enforced on prisoners of war who would otherwise be killed or it is “voluntary.” They say that voluntary slaves, or indentured servants, “were well treated and when released, given generous pay,” unless they chose to remain slaves and be taken care of. The only biblical involuntary slaves were, as I wrote in the earlier piece, “criminals” who could not make restitution for their crimes, and “‘pagans,’ who (could) be made permanent slaves.” Sarah has written insightfully about the way on which Rushdoony revived to pro-slavery arguments made by Confederate theologian R.L. Dabney.

This is the context of Vander Platt’s since-revised family pledge that initially argued that African American families were better off under real slavery than they are now.

For Rushdoony and the tea party, slavery is both intolerable (when it’s used to describe what they see as sin or the overreach of government) or, ironically, not so bad when it has to do with real-life details of one of the most barbaric aspects of our history, the legacy of which haunts us all—black and white—still. Christianity has a long history of seeing sin in terms of bondage and multiple biblical texts speak of it in this manner (see Romans 6:6; 7:14; Titus 3:3, and more).

But seeing sin as bondage in a general sense (the way most Christians do) is a far cry from equating paying taxes with the actual slavery. Comparing slavery to anything experienced by contemporary mainstream middle-class Americans is absurd, and as long as tea partiers continue to do it they’ll be accused of racism.