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Lecture Four: Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism

Professor Stout delivered the fourth of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Ryan Tafilowski will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s fourth lecture. Ryan is currently a PhD student in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout started his fourth lecture by discussing abolitionism. He distinguished two different “modes of emancipatory politics:” the antislavery movement and the secularist movement. According to Stout, the latter views religion as “essentially oppressive” while the former “distinguishes virtuous religion from its oppressive semblances.” Recognizing these two distinct modes is important as they correlate with different approaches to political engagement, both historically and today. As he said, “this basic conceptual difference correlates with differences in argument, explanation, objectives, means, and organization.”

Stout talked about Hume’s British contemporaries who, while they disagreed over the nature of rationality and other theological issues and even though they came from various religious backgrounds (Quaker, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian), they all agreed that true religion was incompatible with slavery. Stout then went on to make the claim that it was “their distinction between religion’s supernatural and mundane ends” that enabled them to cooperate with one another and that “the religiously plural nature of their coalition was essential to its political success.” Stout then gave a number of abolitionist examples to illustrate this distinct style of political engagement.

Ralph Sandiford, as Stout told us, was the first Quaker to challenge the supposed scriptural warrant for taking African slaves, namely, “taking Africans to be bearers of the ‘curse of Cain.’” Benjamin Lay “used street theater to dramatize both the condition of the slaves and the complicity of Northern consumers in oppression” and thanks to Anthony Benezet’s “extensive networking outside his own community and across the Atlantic” he helped achieve what one community could not achieve on its own. Thanks in part to James Phillips Thomas Clarkson, Bennet Langton, William Wilberforce, Edmund Burke, and William Pitt also took part in the abolitionist cause. According to Stout, this illustrates “how the leadership of a religiously plural, international movement can emerge out of a single congregation’s internal organizing.”

After having talked about other abolitionists Stout returned to talk about their practice of immanent criticism, which “begins on the opponent’s ground and elicits troubling implication or incoherence” even if one does not share this ground (he illustrated this by referencing the abolitionists’ use of Adam Smith’s fiscal argument against slavery even though this was not what motivated the abolitionists themselves). They instead viewed opposition to slavery as a sacred duty, noting that “Christian charity requires benevolence toward everyone created in God’s image;” which slavery could hardly purport to do since Africans too were made in the image of God. Despite specious arguments offered by paternalists, slavery could not be defended as a good.  Drawing on Abraham Lincoln, Stout mentioned that “for a supposedly good thing, ‘slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.’”

Slavery was also seen to violate the virtue of liberty. The abolitionists, according to Stout, were puzzled by the lack of slavery’s explicit prohibition in the Bible, but they were more troubled by “the thought that the Athenians and Romans who had most eloquently lauded the value of freedom took for granted that there could be no free men without reliance on slave labor.” They dismissed Aristotle’s arguments and called attention to the “flawed precedents” on which “British officials and American Founders” relied. Stout asked, “If the trouble with being subjected to Pharaoh, Caesar, Hannibal, or George III is being subjected to arbitrary power, then what justifies slavery?”

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Stout then went on to talk more about Martineau, Sandiford, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and others. With Martineau he again highlighted the position that holds slavery to be inherently oppressive, regardless of how benevolent the master is. Stout highlighted the use of the notion of false religion to “undermine its role in legitimizing and maintaining slavery.” He referred to David Walker’s 1829 Colored Citizens of the World stating that “for Walker, a religion preaching racial ‘distinction’ while claiming to be truly Christian in a truly republican country was simply absurd.” Stout went on to talk about various dimensions of immanent criticism employed by the abolitionists to unmask ethical corruption. As he stated, “When the grounds for suspicion are made explicit, logical critique shifts toward ethical diagnosis.” Stout highlighted the importance of asking “Who benefits?” when attempting to explain the troublesome situation of slavery. Drawing again on Lincoln (who was replying to F.A. Ross) Stout stated, “the pro-slavery theologian is nearly always someone who, if he decided that God wills the slave’s freedom, would immediately need to ‘walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread.’” Importantly, Stout noted that the corruption of the beneficiaries of injustice  (including various levels of complicity) need not always be conscious or intentional. As he stated, “If the benefit accrues mainly to the paternalist, then it is reasonable to suspect that the belief or practice has entered circulation and acquired the respect it has as a result of cognitively distorted social or psychological process.”

Stout then mentioned the notion of “slavish dependence,” spoke of the corrupting nature of false religion and then went on to speak of Elizabeth Heyrick, whom Stout claimed deserves a higher readership than she currently enjoys in many university syllabi, and Frederick Douglas before moving on to take a closer look at Abraham Lincoln and his notion of political religion.

Stout mentioned that “Lincoln was concerned about the failure of local authorities to hold the mob accountable” and in this detailed section of his lecture Stout shows how “political religion” played an important role in addressing this issue. Political religion, according to Stout’s presentation of Lincoln, is primarily “piety for the laws and for the heroes of liberty.” It “was a deliberately cultivated piety for the laws on which an inclusive republic of free and equal citizens depends.” It was not a religion linked to “an established church, nor theistic” and the spread of Lincoln’s political religion was through means other than the federal government, despite its national importance, such as “journals, lyceums, anti-slavery societies, revival meetings, and the more progressive lodges, clubs, and churches.” Part of Lincoln’s accomplishment was to get diverse and disagreeing groups of people to work together, including many evangelicals, despite his not sharing their theological beliefs. According to Stout, Lincoln was able to keep these groups working together “by constant tending of relationships and by tolerating disagreement over religion’s ultimate end.”

Stout next moved on to talk about “secularism and the religion of humanity.” He mentioned George Jacob Holyoake’s total rejection of religion’s value for society, who viewed it as “the sworn foe of human happiness.” It was Holyoake who coined the term “secularism” in 1851. Charles Bradlaugh did much to make Holyoake’s view influential and Robert Ingersoll referred to secularism as the only proper religion “to infuse politics with reason and virtue.” Stout then went on to talk of Auguste Comte and his call for a “universal religion of humanity,” Machiavelli and James Harrington, Moses Medelssohn, Emerson, Martineau, Durkheim, Dewey, and others, as they understood the need for religion in society and of various conceptions of what this religion might look like.

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In the last section of his lecture Stout returns to Lord Gifford and asks the question, “why would an admirer of abolitionism oppose secularism?” Stout is quick to point out that it was primarily Holyoake’s variety of secularism that Gifford was opposed to. The kind that asserted “a thorough separation of religion from politics, morality, and science.” Stout then helpfully went on to distinguish abolitionism from secularism and in doing so he returned to the distinction he mentioned in the beginning of his lecture: two emancipatory modes of politics. Secularism, according to Stout, “seeks to free politics and society from religion” and sought to put people like Gifford on the defensive. However, as Stout put it, “Lord Gifford rejected secularism’s practical proposals because he rejected its essentialist claim about religion” and he doubted the conception of reason that the secularists took to be indubitable and viewed secularism to be unrealistic. Gifford acknowledged that religion can be and has been oppressive, “but examples of oppressive religion do not suffice to show that religion is essentially oppressive, any more than examples of kitsch suffice to show that art is essentially kitschy.” The abolitionists criticized religion too. They were adroit practitioners of suspicion. The difference between the abolitionists and the secularists, according to Stout, “is that the secularist theories are meant to apply across the board to religious people as such, rather than limiting the diagnosis to people demonstrably complicit in particular forms of oppression. The hard cases for the secularist are self-consciously religious opponents of oppression,” like the abolitionists.

Many modern egalitarian freedom movements have taken their lead from the abolitionists, which “supplied them with arguments and diagnostic tools, as well as models of bottom-up organizing and accountable leadership.”  As he went on to say, “if the abolitionists had opted for secularism, they would have done the opposite—and failed.” These movements were not “byproducts of a Great Separation of religion from politics” nor were these movements overly “indebted to Hobbes on freedom or Locke on reason.” On Stout’s view, we ought to understand this history right if we want to navigate the present well.

Ryan Tafilowski will now add his initial reflection to get the conversation started.



4 replies to “Lecture Four: Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism”

  1. Ryan Tafilowski says:

    I must start by thanking Professor Stout for his erudite and extremely persuasive account of the religiously plural origins of the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century. As he has done across these lectures, Professor Stout draws on a wide breadth of diverse figures—from the under-appreciated Thomas Clarkson and Elizabeth Heyrick to familiar names like Lincoln and Wilberforce—to chip away at the questionable narrative of a “Great Separation” between religion and politics in modern times.

    I’d also like to express my gratitude to Professor Stout as well as to my colleague, Andrew Johnson, for the opportunity to respond in this forum. Andrew has worked industriously to produce detailed and thorough summaries of the lectures, so I won’t do much of that here. Instead, my aim is to explore the power of self-interest in arguments about slavery, which Stout rightly places at the core of the debates with his allusion to Cicero’s cui bono? criterion, and the extent to which various moral psychologies can account for self-interest’s corruptive influence. In particular, I wonder whether modern ethical religion identifies moral defect too closely with ignorance, thereby underestimating the potency of misdirected desire.

    In Democracy and Tradition, Professor Stout offers a compelling vision for the flourishing of a healthy democratic republic. One vital ingredient for the proper functioning of democracy is the citizens’ ability to hold one another to account by giving and expecting reasons for their respective positions. So far so good. But I would invite Professor Stout to elaborate on what recourse the tradition of American pragmatism offers in situations where reasons fail, as they so often did during debates over abolition, and positions grow intractable. During the fourth lecture, I was struck by the sense of frustration of anti-slavery crusaders such as David Walker and William Wilberforce, who adduced facts, compiled scriptural evidence, and exposed the incoherence of pro-slavery commitments by way of Socratic questioning—only to find many slave-traders unconvinced.

    After all, as Professor Stout demonstrates with reference to Lincoln’s criticisms of the pro-slavery theologian F. A. Ross, slave-owners could also supply “reasons.” As another example, consider John Calhoun’s speech before the US Senate upon the reception of abolition petitions on February 6, 1837:

    “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. I appeal to the 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.”

    Like Walker and Wilberforce before him, Calhoun also believes he is dealing in bare facts. Calhoun had read the petitions and heard the arguments against chattel slavery, but his response makes obvious the insidious power of self-interest. Evil, especially within the Augustinian moral psychology (to which Professor Stout makes reference in the lecture), has a peculiar ability not only to scramble our rational faculties, but to inhabit them and to enslave them in the service of perverse logic such as Calhoun’s. It’s little wonder that Wilberforce, as Stout puts it, “could not resist suggesting that the evil of slavery had corrupted the minds, as well as hardened the hearts, of its beneficiaries.” It is significant that Wilberforce diagnoses ailments of both head and heart, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he uses the Augustinian language of lust for domination, disproportionate self-love, and pride to explain the obstinacy of slave-owners. To put it bluntly, the beneficiaries of the slave trade wanted slavery first, then they explained its merits in “rational” terms with “facts” that served their own interests. In other words, thinking followed desiring (rather than vice versa).

    On this point, I’d be interested to bring Professor Stout into conversation with another American polymath who delivered the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh: Reinhold Niebuhr. In his series of lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr put forth a vision of the human being as the ultimate paradox. Because human beings are, in part, spiritual beings capable of transcending their nature, there is virtually no limit, says Niebuhr, to what humans can achieve. The thinkers of the Renaissance were right about that. But at the same time—and here Niebuhr balances the Renaissance with the Reformation—human beings are desperately self-interested, and this means that every achievement comes with a proliferation of new and unforeseen injustices and social ills—the “many-headed hydra” of oppression which Professor Stout mentioned briefly after the lecture. There are solutions, but they will always be proximate. So, like Professor Stout, Niebuhr believed that the democratic practice of exchanging reasons was the most suitable form of government for creating and sustaining a tolerably just society. But, warns Niebuhr, we should be under no illusions about our ability to remedy problems by reason(s) alone; humanity’s troubles run much deeper than ignorance and require a remedy more drastic than education: a reorientation of desire.

    Had Niebuhr lived to see the recent presidential election in the United States, which has spawned a surreal media war waged with accusations of #FakeNews and appeals to #AlternativeFacts, he would have been appalled, but not surprised. This, in his view, is humanity’s perennial condition: we seek to orient reality around our own interests, fears, and appetites, and, as a result, we believe what we want to believe. If Calhoun would have had access to Twitter in the 1820s (he was still using MySpace), he very well may have subtweeted abolitionist fact-checking as baseless propaganda.

    For these reasons, Niebuhr never tired of attacking what he called the naïve and sentimental optimism of “liberalism”—John Dewey was a common target—for its belief that ignorance lay at the root of social injustice and its confidence that oppression would be alleviated once all parties to a conflict were sufficiently informed. As Niebuhr saw it, a Socratic account in which no one does wrong knowingly simply did not square with what he called, somewhat ironically, the “facts” of human existence. Now, Professor Stout has raised legitimate concerns about the usefulness of the term “liberal,” and would rightly distance himself even further from Niebuhr’s caricature of it. Still, I wonder whether there are elements of Niebuhr’s vision, drawn from broadly Augustinian traditions on self-interest as a corruption of desire as well as the intellect, that are worth taking seriously in our present political state.

    Professor Stout has argued persuasively for the cultivation of virtue as a key for the healthy functioning of democracy. In Democracy and Tradition and in these Gifford Lectures, he has pointed to the likes of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman (among others) as resources for cultivating this democratic virtue. There is no doubt, it seems to me, that these thinkers are acutely aware of the tenacity of self-interest, but it’s less clear where they think it comes from and what should be done about it. As someone who knows almost nothing about this political tradition, I am curious to learn whether these writers make a distinction between rationality and desire, and, if they do, what measures they propose for the re-direction of destructive appetites.

  2. Joshua Ralston says:

    Like in the lectures before, I appreciated Professor Stout’s careful and nuanced alternative genealogy to the traditional account of a “Great Separation” between religion and politics. As he made clear in this lecture, the self consciously religious actor that works against oppression and tyranny and for dignity, justice, and equality represents the strongest counter to ardent versions of secularism that imagine religion as such to be inevitably irrational and tyrannical. While I am sympathetic to this account and the way that it holds up figures like Heyrick, Wilberforce, Lincoln, King, Heschel, and others as models for a religion unbound, I wonder how this genealogy accounts for even more radical models of religious actors that envision a need for something like an apocalyptic interruption of the system. Here I think of Weird John Brown (Ted Smith’s recent book on him) whose religiously motivated actions against tyranny press beyond the law and toward violence, or more recently of movements led by Malcom X (referenced a few times in the lectures so I’m anxious to hear what will come of him in this story), or in my own area of study in political theology and Christian-Muslim Relations, Rashid Ghannouchi in Tunisia or other more leftist and democratically inclined Islamist groups that countered both colonialism and later dictatorial nationalism. These cases, and possibly even Heyrick’s critique of gradualism, are often rendered not as exemplars but as extremists whose abiding commitments to and vision of divine justice is fanatical. Here it seems to me that it is not only the ardent secularists of Holyoake and his ilk that see ‘religiously’ motivated struggles for justice as a ‘problem’ to be managed but many republicans and liberals as well. That is too say, what space in this genealogy is their for religiously motivated revolutionaries who see divine judgment hanging over the whole system?

  3. larryhurtado says:

    I appreciate the emphasis on the distinction between “true/good” religion and “false/bad” religion in the lectures. I’m still wondering, however, if there is a certain amount of monolithic portrayal. There are only specific “religions”, or religious traditions, and “religion” includes, thus, various religious traditions that are incompatible, fundamentally, with the others included. This is so, I suggest, not simply at the “creedal” level of doctrines, but also (even within a given tradition) between those that are fully comfortable with a “secular” (i.e., not aligned to any given religion) government/state, and those that find any such state a regrettable, even oppressive situation, the ideal for them being a state that accepts its duty to enforce a given religious standpoint.

    There are Christian versions of the latter, but I take it that the “abolitionist” and liberationist figures that are referred to in these lectures reflect the Christian stance affirmed in “pre-Constantinian” texts: That the only requirement of the ruler/state is to be just, and that the Christian doesn’t at all need a Christian ruler or state, only a state that does not criminalize Christians.

    This stance seems to me to give an authentic Christian precedent and basis for affirming a “secular” state and a pluralist society. But it is in conflict with the Christian positions that see a union of church and state as the goal, and anything else as something to be endured.
    And, what of classic Islam, which seems likewise to view an Islamic ruler and state as the desired condition, and so would see a “secular” state/ruler as an inferior condition? (But perhaps Joshua Ralston can correct me.)

    So, is this difference a problem for the stated aim of “religion” serving a positive role in promoting a “secular” (not “secularist”) state?

  4. Deven Burks says:

    A hearty thanks to Professor Stout for these immensely rich lectures. My question is somewhat lighter on historical detail. If persons often demonstrate, wittingly or unwittingly, an interest in giving false testimony, in portraying the unacceptable as acceptable and that intertwining of self-interest with belief-formation occurs below the level of conscious awareness, the insidiousness of self-interest seems due, in some sense, to failings in self-knowledge. Building on Ryan Tafilowski’s brief inventory of pro-slaver reason-giving (Ross, Calhoun), one might then see pro-slavery rationalization as following, at least in part, from self-opaque cognitive failings. My question then is what means one has for countering just those kinds of failings when the person resists reasons, argument or rhetoric to that effect. If one thinks that the virtue of piety (understood as a kind of taking stock of the sources on which one depends for one’s existence) may help to counteract such failings, one may nonetheless find it insufficient for the task at hand. Certainly, one cannot set self-knowledge as an entry requirement to public discourse for any number of practical and principled reasons. What then remains?

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