Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fred Clark on Gerson and Ladd: "Helpful Corrective to Gerson's Longer, Larger Piece Because Ladd Centers the Defining Facts of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights"

Yesterday, when I posted Twitter (and other) responses to Michael Gerson's recent essay on white evangelicals and Trump, I pointed you to an essay by Chris Ladd on the cruelty of white evangelicalism, about which Rachel Held Evans had tweeted, nothing that Ladd's essay fills in some of the missing pieces on evangelicalism and race that Gerson's essay had left out. I also told you that Ladd had published his essay as a blog post initially at the Forbes site, then Forbes removed it, apparently without explanation — and it would be interesting to know why Forbes took that step. Chris Ladd then reposted the essay at another site.

Today, at his Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark also recommends Chris Ladd's essay, with the following excellent commentary:

Gerson's essay is almost worth it, as it really is a thoughtful, insightful discussion of the shaping of white evangelicalism — and thus the shaping of contemporary American politics, culture, and life. I’d say it’s the second-best magazine piece on the subject to be published yesterday. The better one, I think, is Chris Ladd's "Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel." (Ladd’s piece, alas, is was published by Fortune Forbes, and their website is just as hostile to would-be readers as The Atlantic's.*) 
Ladd's essay serves as a helpful corrective to Gerson's longer, larger piece because Ladd centers the defining facts of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights. Gerson recognizes that these are part of the picture, but that’s inadequate. These factors are not also a part of the story, they are the story. Everything else that Gerson eloquently summarizes is all really just garnish and side dishes. 
So if you're going to risk having to reconfigure your browser and reinstall your apps just to read one of those essays, I recommend picking Ladd's. He cuts to the heart of the matter: 
"Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call 'evangelical Christianity,' is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy." 
This is a necessary supplement — a necessary corrective — to Gerson's long and otherwise fine history lesson. Ladd bluntly states the most basic fact about white evangelical Christianity, which is that it is and has always been intimately bound up with slavery and white nationalism. However else we attempt to define or describe it, "evangelical" Christianity has always been Bible Christianity — a form of popular Protestantism based on popular use of the Bible as easily accessible in translation. In the English-speaking world, this is not something that ever did or could exist before the era that simultaneously gave us the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the creation of whiteness. These things are siblings — twins born at the same time.

As Fred also goes on to say — and this very much needs to say — both slavery and white Christian support of slavery were not by any means solely a Southern phenomenon. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Many families with roots in Puritan New England enriched themselves smartly by engaging in the slave trade; the wealth of New England in the pre-abolition portion of the 19th century depended to a great degree on complicity with the slave system — and preachers and divines in that part of the country were frequently as determined to read slavery as a biblically blessed institution as were Southern preachers and divines.

This is an American story — and a global one, as Edward Baptist's stellar book on the intermeshing of global capitalism and American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told, informs us. Fred entitled his posting about Chris Ladd's essay "The Half Has Never Been Told," pointing readers that Baptist's book. I posted some of my own reflections about this outstanding scholarly work back in September 2016, and continue to recommend The Half Has Never Been Told to all of you.

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