Slavery Was Essential to Southern Political Theory

As a follow-up to my previous post on Southern heritage, I had thought to provide a sort of annotated bibliography of Civil War sources dealing with slavery, but Ta-Nehesi Coates recently published an essay that surpasses what I would have been able to do. So to complement that, I’d like to highlight a few key personalities and documents, explain some of their main features of the political and economic arguments, and give some reflections on what all of this would have meant historically and politically.

The Early American Republic Was Always Unstable 

Let’s start with John Calhoun. Calhoun represents a bridge between the American founding and the Civil War. He was born after the Revolutionary War and died before the Civil War, and he was actively involved in American politics from 1812-1850. Calhoun was a complicated character. He was a Southern Agrarian, and yet he was also a Unitarian. He was a Jeffersonian “Democratic-Republican” who went on to serve as Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President, feud with him over some central points of political theory, especially states rights, and end his career with some fairly rigid and provocative ideas, namely a very strict notion of states rights, the legitimacy of both nullification and secession, the concept of concurrent-majority and a full-throated defense of slavery. Some of Calhoun’s thought is quite genius, though in that sense also creative rather than traditional, and some of it is morally repugnant. But what he shows us is that the interval between the American Founding and the Civil War was a combustible one. There were no halcyon days which were later assaulted. No, neither the North nor the South represented some invasion of rogue ideology which ruined the American project. The American project was always one with multiple and competing interests which never made explicit some of its most basic transcendental commitments. And so, in that way, it was always unstable.

Slavery was the big issue during Calhoun’s day because it touched all of the other big issues. Slavery accounted for about half of the country’s entire way of existence. It made up an enormous part of the economy, and it was a major player in the world economy. You could compare it to the role that oil plays in today’s world, and you wouldn’t be far off. But it was domestic and so impossible to hide from sight. Slavery was also relevant to westward expansion, since the addition of new states would always raise the question as to whether they would be free states or slave states. And that question was relevant, not only to the new states, but also to the old states, since it would determine the future political influence and power those old states would have. If more slave states were added, then the free states would lose out in Washington, and if more free states were added, then the slave states would lose out in Washington. Thus slavery was not “the only issue,” but it was the issue that touched all other issues and was therefore the main point of contention.

The South’s Contribution to the Slavery Issue: A Positive Good and Political-Economic Necessity  

Now, slavery was not original to the South. It predated the United States as a nation, and so the Southerners would always call out the Northerners as hypocrites on this point. We should also add that a large portion of the North was more or less economically bound up in slavery, even if no slaves were actually present on their own land. Banks, lending, markets, and the rest were not limited to any one “section,” and the clash between Jackson and Calhoun shows how even two Southerners, men largely sharing the same region and culture, could disagree over other political issues. But what does make slavery a distinctively Southern problem is that the founding fathers largely admitted that slavery was an evil which,while not being able to be removed in their own day, would need to be done away with in the future. The leading Southern political thinkers would come to reject this point of view, arguing instead that slavery was a positive good and even a part of the natural law and divine hierarchy of human society.

Calhoun and Slavery

Calhoun, again, is an important representative of this shift. He said this in 1837:

Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it–and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.

But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.

Now, what’s really interesting in this speech is something that no one has yet brought up in the popular conversation. Calhoun makes slavery the solution to the problem of capitalism:

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse… There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.

This shows us that the issue was much more than “hate” or “prejudice.” Slavery was a key part in political and economic theory. It was the perceived solution to the problem of the unemployed and those who could not otherwise support themselves. It also helped to support workers’ rights in that it removed the most burdensome labor from free workers and placed it on slaves. The slaves were a sort of property, to be sure, but they also received a sort of full patronage (harsh and brutal as it was) from their masters. Calhoun believed this was an inescapable feature of economics and that slavery was preferable to laissez-faire capitalism.

Jefferson Davis, the Future President

Jefferson Davis, writing 21 years later and on the eve of the Civil War, made this same point about slavery’s relationship to capitalism:

The same dangerously powerful man describes the institution of slavery as degrading to labor, as intolerant and inhuman, and says the white laborer among us is not enslaved only because he cannot yet be reduced to bondage. Where he learned his lesson, I am at a loss to imagine; certainly not by observation, for you all know that by interest, if not by higher motive, slave labor bears to capital as kind a relation as can exist between them anywhere; that it removes from us all that controversy between the laborer and the capitalist, which has filled Europe with starving millions and made their poorhouses an onerous charge. You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting form a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.

Davis argues that slavery actually creates equality, and it does so by a sort of caste system. Now even the poor whites are ennobled, since they are preserved from servitude.

This shows us that there is a combination of ideas at work in modern American slavery. It was racial, but it was also exploiting race in order to address other systemic problems. Slavery could solve workers” rights, and it could bring unity and equality to all white people. Indeed, an argument could be made that the modern concept of a unified “White” identity was an invention of this period of history. Instead of a hierarchy of whites, there can be an equality of “whiteness” over and against “the servile race.” It’s hard to imagine a late-antique Greek or Roman identifying as “one race” with a Gaul or a Goth, and European history is full of a sort of racism internal to “white” people. America was supposed to overcome such divisions, and the Southern solution was to reduce the matter to black and white.

There was also a sort of old-world aristocratic view of manual labor. Certain occupations were deemed either inappropriate or impossible for gentlemen to engage in, and so slavery would help to supplement this remainder. But this was only partly “old-world.” It was also directly related to the modern issue of labor cost and wages. Large-scale agriculture came with major expenses, as it still does today. Slavery was not, contrary to some popular assumptions, on an inevitable decline in the 19th century. It was being offered up as a great solution to persistent economic dilemmas and competing market forces. This fact will resurface in several of the secession documents.

Alexander Stephens and the Cornerstone of the Confederacy

The last piece of evidence I want to highlight in order to show that slavery in the 19th century was not merely a relic of a common past but a dynamic component of contemporary political theory is Alexander Stephen’s infamous Cornerstone Speech. Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy, and this speech was his attempt to explain the causes for Southern secession and also the key features of their new constitution and political theory. He mentions states rights and the role of the tariff, but he is clear that the “cornerstone” of the confederate political philosophy is negro slavery and white supremacy. In addition to this, he also admits that this is an advancement from a past instability, showing that the Confederacy understood itself to be a step forward in historical progress and not simply a preservation of an earlier unified tradition.

Stephens says this:

All the essentials of the old constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated. Some changes have been made. Some of these I should have preferred not to have seen made; but other important changes do meet my cordial approbation. They form great improvements upon the old constitution. So, taking the whole new constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment that it is decidedly better than the old.

He then goes on to explain what is “new” about the confederate constitution. He begins with the equality of industry, noting how the tariff was used in the past to favor some occupations and economic interests over others. This has been abolished by the new constitution. Stephens next notes that “internal improvements” (the building of roads, the development of land, railways, etc.) would no longer be under the jurisdiction of a central or federal government but rather the individual states. He then moves to the added role of cabinet members in congress and the longer presidential term. But finally he gets to the most important principle and indeed the very cornerstone of the new government: slavery and negro subordination.

Stephens, sounding very much like a believer in manifest-destiny and even the unstoppable march of progress says that the American founders were largely mistaken on slavery and that subsequent historical developments have led to the Southern position:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Now that really is an incredible argument, and it is not very “traditional.” Stephens says that founders were wrong to say that slavery was a necessary evil, and he says that their confusion came from the fact that they believed in the equality of the races. This was “fundamentally” wrong in Stephens’s understanding, and therefore the new Southern political theory would be entirely built upon the the notions of racial inequality and that slavery was “natural and normal.”

Stephens unpacks this argument in some detail. He says that the anti-slavery “fanatics” actually form right conclusions from their premises but that their premises are “fancied or erroneous.” The “principle” which comes to the front of this debate is that of racial inequality:

They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Stephens is here saying that racial hierarchy is a natural law instituted by God Himself. The Confederacy, then, becomes “the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.” Its newness is in its perception that the problem with previous class-systems was that they admitted inequality within the same race. What the Confederacy had discovered was that the equality which classical liberalism was looking for was indeed attainable, but only within a system of racial hierarchy. Stephens explains:

Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.

This is civic religion of the grossest variety, and Stephens is clearly making racial hierarchy and negro slavery a matter of divine law. He goes on to show that this was not something which should be limited to the American South, but, being a fact of nature and a divine precept, would eventually spread throughout all the world:

Thousands of people who begin to understand these truths are not yet completely out of the shell; they do not see them in their length and breadth. We hear much of the civilization and Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa. In my judgment, those ends will never be attained, but by first teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that “in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,” and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.

Understood in the context of its own thinkers and statesmen, the Confederacy then was progressive rather than traditional. It was based on economic and racial views which constituted a unique political philosophy. This was a correction to and perfection of the original American founding, and it was thought to be a bold step forward along the historical march of progress. The central principle of it all was racial inequality, and negro slavery was its cornerstone.

Secession Documents and Justifications

In addition to the matter of political theory and grand philosophical ideals, the Southern states also made practical arguments. These are what they would appeal to in order to justify secession. Constitutional and procedural grievances do appear in these statements, but the central topic is consistently slavery.

South Carolina was the first state to secede, and its declaration of secession is long and complex. It certainly does push “states rights” to the forefront, arguing, after the legacy of Calhoun, that the other states of the Union had violated the Constitution and thus broken the political pact, thus leaving the Southern states justified to secede. The specifics of this constitutional breach, however, all had to do with slavery. The declaration begins by arguing that the United States Constitution “established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted.” This then leads to the contemporary matter, that the US government has itself become “destructive of the ends for which it was instituted” and thus dissolved the binding nature of the compact:

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

What have these fourteen states done? They have violated the 4th article of the Constitution by aiding and abetting runaway slaves. They have attacked the property of the Southern states by allowing the slaves to be taken away from their owners (thus a form of theft), and they have overthrown the political logic of the three-fifths compromise, thus violating article 2.1.3 of the Constitution. The final stated offense is that some states have even granted citizenship to slaves, “persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens.” This last issue has thus overturned the balance of political power and created an existential crisis for the South.

Mississippi’s was the second state to secede, and its declaration of secession places slavery and its economic significance at the very beginning:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Here we see a combination of global market interests and a supposed natural law which made blacks the only appropriate agricultural workers. Southern slavery is said to be essential for world “commerce and civilization.”

Georgia’s declaration of secession also centers around slavery, and it makes a direct connection to westward expansion:

We had acquired a large territory by successful war with Mexico; Congress had to govern it; how, in relation to slavery, was the question then demanding solution. This state of facts gave form and shape to the anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North and the conflict began. Northern anti-slavery men of all parties asserted the right to exclude slavery from the territory by Congressional legislation and demanded the prompt and efficient exercise of this power to that end. This insulting and unconstitutional demand was met with great moderation and firmness by the South. We had shed our blood and paid our money for its acquisition; we demanded a division of it on the line of the Missouri restriction or an equal participation in the whole of it. These propositions were refused, the agitation became general, and the public danger was great. The case of the South was impregnable. The price of the acquisition was the blood and treasure of both sections – of all, and, therefore, it belonged to all upon the principles of equity and justice.

Notice that the Georgians are not opposed to conquest and the annexation of new territory. To the contrary, they claimed responsibility and joint ownership over this new territory. Thus there was no anti-imperial South. The Georgia declaration concludes with the observation that the South is essentially being robbed of three billion dollars worth of property.

The Texas declaration of secession repeats many of the themes already stated, and it highlights racial inequality as a natural law:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The declaration concludes by stating its belief in white supremacy and that the current status of negro slavery was a part of the “revealed will of the Almighty Creator”:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

The Commissioner from the state of Louisiana wrote to the Texas secession convention at around this same time, and he revealed Louisiana’s commitment to negro slavery as an essential feature of their economy and political existence:

Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery, and of the free institutions of the founders of the Federal Union, be­queathed to their posterity. As her neighbor and sister State, she desires the hearty co-operation of Texas in the formation of a Southern Confederacy. She congratulates herself on the recent disposi­tion evinced by your honorable body to meet this wish, by the elec­tion of delegates to the Montgomery convention. Louisiana and Texas have the same language, laws and institutions. They grow the same great staples—sugar and cotton. Between the citizens of each exists the most cordial social and commercial intercourse. The Red river and the Sabine form common highways for the transpor­tation of their produce to the markets of the world. Texas affords to the commerce of Louisiana a large portion of her products, and in exchange the banks of New Orleans furnish Texas with her only paper circulating medium. Louisiana supplies to Texas a market for her surplus wheat, grain and stock; both States have large areas of fer­tile, uncultivated lands, peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity.

The Commissioner virtually identifies slavery and the Confederacy, speaking about slavery as the primary goal of the new political entity. It also argues the seceding states must not remain independent, but rather band together for one another’s continued existence:

The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy…The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and deter­mination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her the theatre for abolition emisa­ries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities…She is unwill­ing that her action should depend on the border States. Her inter­ests are identical with Texas and the seceding States. With them she will at present co-operate, hoping and believing in his own good time God will awaken the people of the border States to the vanity of ask­ing for; or depending upon, guarantees or compromises wrung from a people whose consciences are too sublimated to be bound by that sacred compact, the constitution the of the late United States. That constitution the Southern States have never violated, and taking it as the basis of our new government we hope to form a slave-holding confederacy that will secure to us and our remotest posterity the great blessings its authors designed in the Federal Union. With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.

Slavery is clearly the primary interest, and so the slave-holding states should not make themselves dependent on states which do not share that interest. Slavery is said to be a “social balance wheel,” and thus the hope was for a new “perpetual” government.

Concluding Thoughts 

Civil War history is thick, and there is much more we could say about all of this. I have not presented anything which professional historians have not rehearsed many times before and in better detail. But what I do hope is clear is that the Confederacy really was distinguished by its commitment to slavery. The concept of states rights was certainly relevant to the conversation, but this was never merely an abstract interest in anti-federalism but rather a commitment to preserve the right for states to possess slaves. Therefore when terms like “Southern rights,” “minority rights,” “liberty,” and “tyranny” are used, they are always in direct connection to the debate over slavery. And when leaders of the Confederacy had the opportunity to explain what was new and special about their government, they went right to the question of slavery.

Southern slavery was not a continuation of ancient slavery. Western Europe had done away with that system, and the new system of slavery only came about with the new exploration of the Americas. The institution of slavery in the South was “peculiar,” as they called it, and it was totally bound up in early modern political developments, the emerging agrarian markets, and a new sort of racial theory which the Southerners saw as a new chapter in  history. All of this, taken as a whole, is what makes up the identity of the Confederacy. There was certainly a commitment to chivalrous protocol, Christian orthodoxy, and early American heritage among the peoples and communities of the South. However, none of those things managed to feature in the leading identity markers of the Confederate States of America. They were not unique to the mid-19th century South and were therefore not distinguishing characteristics. The distinguishing marks were racial inequality and an agrarian economy built on slavery.

Having laid all of this out then, the question that usually arises is whether we must then reject the South and Southern heritage as a whole and declaim it as villainous. The answer to this questions depends upon two other questions. “Do you believe that the distinguishing marks of white supremacy and slavery are immoral and worthy of rejection?” and “Are you willing to make efforts to clearly distinguish between the inheritance of Southern culture and the legacy of the Confederacy?”

My own answer to both of those questions is yes.

Unreconstructed No More

I used to be an unreconstructed Southerner. It didn’t last very long, but it wasn’t that long ago. I would never have admitted to being a racist (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t), and I would have argued very strongly that racism and love for the Old South had no necessary connection to one another, but did I read a lot of historical revisionism regarding the Civil War and the Old South, I did regard “the North” as a symbol of “Big Government” and modernity, and I even went to two League of the South Meetings. Among the many things in my life that would surely disqualify me from ever running for president, this brief prior of my life has got to be near the top. But here’s the important thing to know—I was not raised that way and it was never my heritage. Continue reading

New Website for Christ Church Lakeland

The church where I pastor, Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida, has a new website, and it looks really great. Please check it out. Thanks to Beka at WindFarm Marketing for the fantastic work.

For the past year (at least), this blog has mostly been devoted to my sermons. Those will all be at the church’s site. I’m not sure what will become of Wedgewords. I won’t delete it, but I may not add any new content. This site has been a sort of “old faithful” since my days in seminary, and it has helped me grow in a number of ways. I learned a lot, sometimes by mistake. But I think it is probably time to focus my energies in specific places. I will continue to write my more academic-ish stuff at The Calvinist International, and I will probably put all of my other pastoral writings at the Christ Church page.

I don’t think I’ve said a lot about Christ Church on here, but I took the call to be their pastor last July. We are a small congregation in Lakeland, Florida, located nearly midway between Tampa and Orlando. We are Reformed and Evangelical, but our liturgy is a bit more “formal.” We look as much like a Lutheran or Anglican church as we do a Presbyterian one. We are still in the early stages of church life there, and we could definitely use support and word of mouth. The Lord has to build of course, and I have been trying to make a special effort to discern His calling for us. Your prayers would be most appreciated.

What is the Kingdom of God?

Text: Romans 14:14-18

We have been discussing relationships, roles, and authority structures in our ongoing sermon series. Thus far we’ve talked about manhood, womanhood, courtship and families, and the relationship between the family and the church. All of these are good, and yet there is a sense in which each of them are challenged by the gospel. Jesus doesn’t actually come for these things. While He can and should make a positive difference in each of these relationships, He is here to proclaim salvation from sin and guilt, and He is here to bring His kingdom. But what is this kingdom exactly?

On the most basic level, the New Testament identifies the kingdom as the Holy Spirit’s work in and among believers. We believe that it will eventually fully manifest itself in the transformation of all creation, the new heavens and new earth, but prior to that point the kingdom is spiritual and not earthly. We can see that this is the case in that striking statement from the Apostle Paul, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The meal, the ritual itself, is not the kingdom. Instead, the kingdom is the spiritual grace that the ritual ought to be creating and promoting. If the meal is not doing that, then it is not the kingdom.

There are two classic errors that come up in any discussion of the kingdom of God. Continue reading

The Family, the Church, and the Kingdom: What Comes First?

Text: Luke 14:25-33

What if I told you that Jesus asks you to give up your family? What if I said he bids your family to come and die? Well, that’s exactly what he did say: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). And he didn’t talk like this just once. No, he seems to have poked people’s sensitivities on this point a few times. For example:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’  He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:34-37)

What does Jesus mean by talking like this, and what are we to make of it for our own families today? How does this teaching instruct us to go about making our priorities in life, and what does it mean for the church? Do we always need to put the family first, or are there other considerations?

Hate Your Family?

Hate your family? Those sharp words are meant to grab your attention in order to teach a deep spiritual truth. Jesus doesn’t mean that you have to dislike your family. You don’t have to have especially hostile feelings towards them. You don’t even have to try to do things which will show displeasure towards them. The point is that you have to be willing to put your faith ahead of all of your earthly possessions, commitments, and relationships, even your family. You must “hate” your family in the same way that you must “hate” your own life. Jesus means that you must be willing to sacrifice them if that’s what it takes to follow Him. Continue reading

Abortion and Mixing Up the Political Categories

The relationship between theory and practice is always tricky, but when it comes to politics it can get so out of whack that you really do wonder what motivates people after all. For instance, why are Southerners all Republican now? It was the Republican party who served as the aggressor (at least in the Southerner’s eyes) during and after the Civil War. My grandfather swore that he would never vote for a Republican, and I’m pretty sure he kept that promise. Even growing up in the 1990s, in my small Mississippi town, I remember that all of the city and county officials were Democrat. There usually weren’t any Republicans even on the ballot. And yet, by some magical twist of history, almost all the Southern states vote Republican on the national level, and almost all conservative-minded Christians in the South believe that the ideals of the Republican party are more or less consistent with a Biblical world and life view and philosophy of governance. Is this change simply because of Civil Rights? It’s hard to say.

Again, there’s the case of my grandfather still voting Democrat late into the 20th century and even until the start of the 21st century, and he was hardly a progressive-minded man, at least when it came to social issues. And most Southerners are not just Blue-Dog Democrats or Dixiecrats, opposing the Civil Rights’ issues but still retaining older Democratic values of labor protection, agrarian values, and suspicion towards unchecked corporate power. Not at all. The Republican transition is mostly complete, especially on the fiscal matters. And yet, Mississippi still manages to bring in more Federal subsidies than any other state (at least I think it’s still #1 in that category). As I said, it’s a very strange world. The moral issues probably have as much to do with the transition as anything, as the Democrats did kind of become the party of revolutionary morality, but even here there are a lot of questions that could be asked.

Abortion is another case where things don’t actually make sense. Continue reading

Abortion is an Attempt to Project Strength

I should first say that I am not a full-time pro-life activist or counselor. I’m not trained in crisis management. I don’t think I’m even particularly good at “on the street” scenarios. But I have gone to abortion clinics in Jackson, MS and now Lakeland, FL on a semi-regular basis to pray, sing psalms and hymns, and try to speak to the folks in the parking lots and offer them help and other options.

I grew up in a politically moderate household. I won’t tell you how everyone voted, but I was raised to believe that abortion was a pretty tragic situation which women would only ever consider if all other options had been exhausted. I was taught that we needed to be careful not to berate them, judge them harshly, or fail to show them compassion. Based on my experience attempting to follow precisely that advice, however, I have to say that the narrative is all wrong. Abortion, at least today, in the Southern states, is not some sort of last ditch effort to preserve one life, which would be legitimately threatened, at the tragic but necessary expense of another. Instead it is a projection of strength on the part of the would-be mother.  Continue reading

Lent and the Sacrifices of God

Text: Psalm 51:15-17

Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, and many Christians who did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar are now becoming very interested in it. Some are madly in love with all things liturgical, seeing Lent as one way to rediscover lost roots. Others are critical of it as faddishness, a sort of picking and choosing of one’s piety according to whatever seems interesting. And then there’s always the perpetual fear of subtle Romanizing. Lent can be abused in a legalistic way. I would be more than happy to talk about each of those concerns at another time, but it is my belief that each of those conversations actually distract us from the real point of what Lent is supposed to be. Like all forms of liturgy, Lent is meant to be an aid in worship, a way of assisting our thoughts and devotions in focusing on God’s majesty, our sinfulness, and the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

What would you think if you saw a man staring at his own glasses? He might be adjusting them or fixing something that had broken. That would make sense. But what if he never seemed to finish? What if he just kept staring and commenting on his glasses, asking other folks to admire his glasses, but never got around to actually wearing them? You’d think he probably didn’t know what glasses were for in the first place or that he had some other serious disorder. You certainly wouldn’t be inspired by wonderful blessing of cured vision! Liturgy works the same way as a pair of glasses. You are not supposed to look at it. Instead you are supposed to look through it to see something else, namely Jesus. Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus. How should it do that? During Lent, we ought to remember the significance of our sin, the guilt which we bear before God, and the great price paid by Jesus on our behalf. We have no thought of atoning for own sins at this time. That would be insane, an impossibility that would only leave us in perpetual despair. No, instead we remember the death of Christ, the curse which he bore for us, and, in response to that saving act, we put to death the remaining sin within us in order to show our gratitude towards Jesus.

Psalm 51 is particularly fitting in this light. Continue reading

How Do We Make New Families?

Sermon text: 1 Cor. 6:12-20

I first heard about the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye when a girl who I was trying to get to go out with me used it as a pious way to say no. “There’s this book you should really read…” I remember her saying. And that was it. I had no chance. Well, I didn’t exactly rush out to get it. The fact that she was dating another guy in a just a few months didn’t make things any better!

Since then, I have read a lot of material on what is called “biblical courtship” or “biblical dating.” I’ve seen strong defenses and harsh criticisms. I’ve met people with every opinion on the matter. My wife and I even “courted,” and it looks like the results were all positive. But people continue to have lots of questions. Is there a biblical way to date? Is there more than one way to do it? How weird is this going to make me, and how much is it going to cost? Those are just the most common ones.

This morning I’d like to talk about this topic of dating and courtship, and I’d also like to talk about how we talk about it. You see, there’s actually not a biblical passage specifically aimed at the question. It might surprise you to hear that, given how popular the topic is. But no, there is no one place in Scripture that singles out courtship and gives direct commands. Instead, what the Bible gives us are moral laws concerning sexual behavior, categories of people-groups and authority, and principles of wisdom. Continue reading

What is the Family For?

Text: Genesis 2:18-25

The previous two weeks have covered what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Today we cover what it means to be a family. I actually had to wrestle a bit with whether to ask “What is marriage for?” since you might think I’ve skipped over that question. But as I thought about the main points of both previous sermons, it became clear that asking “What is man for?” and “What is woman for?” already took up the question of “What is marriage for?” at least in part. In both of those sermons we showed that the Scriptures identify man as “husband” and woman as “wife.” The new element we will add today is precisely the relationship between husband and wife which produces children and creates a miniature society.  In other words, we will be discussing what it means to be a family. And so we ask our third big question in this series, “What is the family for?”

What is the Family?

Before we can get to the question of what the family is for, we have to first identify what the family is. This is, once again, controversial. Today’s progressive ideology claims for itself the freedom to define and redefine the family. Primarily, it identifies the family as a wholly voluntary and often temporary arrangement entered into primarily for the purpose of maximizing individual happiness. Continue reading