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Slavery and "Big Government": the Emancipation Proclamation’s Lesson 150 Years Later

150 years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln first told someone that he was going to emancipate the slaves. Chatting with two Cabinet members, he revealed that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity,  absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued five and half months later, applied only to slaves in the Confederacy. The point was to deprive the Confederates of their main source of labor and bring much of that labor into the Union army, where blacks served in all sorts of ways. Lincoln did not free the slaves in the Union. Still, it was a huge turning point in the struggle for racial justice.

Lincoln took a great political risk. Racism was rampant in the Union. Northerners had not gone to war to free the slaves, but to save the Union. The president himself insisted that the cause of Union was the only reason to fight. He said he would be willing to keep every slave enslaved if it would help win the war. When he decided that freeing them was crucial for victory, he raised the specter of armed African-Americans demanding equality, which terrified many white Northerners almost as much as Southerners. Democrats played constantly on that fear, trying to discredit Lincoln and his Republican Party.

Lincoln was willing to take the political risk, not only because of the military advantages, but because he saw a major shift in public opinion in favor of emancipation. Historians now credit that shift largely to a surge of evangelical Christian piety that had been sweeping the country.

Most Northerners of that era held religious and social values that would fit very comfortably with today’s “religious right.” And they had many of the same fears. “Socially, communities seemed troubled, in flux, coming apart,” historian Orville Vernon Burton tell us. “Culturally, all that was American seemed steadily diluted, adulterated, narrowed.” 

When conservatives are plagued with those feelings, their healing balm is to divide the world into a simple dichotomy of good against evil and to join the forces of good in a war -- social, political, and military if need be -- against the evil.

In the late 1850s, the new Republican Party formed to fight one evil: the spread of slavery into the western territories. There was little enthusiasm for war. Once the Confederacy seceded, though, the slavery issue almost disappeared, as “the salvation of the Union” became the only concern. A year later, ending slavery joined winning the war at the top of the Republican agenda.

It’s striking to see how quickly and easily 19th century evangelicals (most of them conservative by today’s standards) could change their top political issues.

We’ve seen the same thing in the 21st century. The day after Election Day, 2004, the pundits credited George W. Bush’s re-election to the power of the religious right and its overwhelming concern for “social issues” -- the fight against “secular humanism.” A closer analysis of the exit polls showed that the key to Bush’s win was the perception that he could best win the war against terrorism.

In 2004 conservatives showed no fear of “big government.” They wanted a government strong enough to protect them from terrorists and declining moral standards. So they voted enthusiastically for a president who had driven the nation deeply into debt, erasing the surpluses of his Democratic predecessor.

Now, neither “social issues” nor terrorism rise to the top of the conservatives’ list of most important issues. Neither one gets more than about 5% in “What is your most important issue?” polling, although 35% to 40% of Americans call themselves conservative. Even among evangelicals, the leading concern of the day is the federal debt and curbing the spending of “big government.” 

In the Civil War era evangelical conservatives could change their favorite issue so easily because each issue was only a symbol of their real concern: having some evil, any evil, to resist. The name of the evil was a secondary matter, at best.

Today’s conservatives, evangelical and otherwise, are driven by the same need. A world starkly divided between good and evil is a world that has a firm, clearly defined structure. As long as that moral boundary line seems immutable, the world no longer seems in flux or coming apart.

As long as they can place America squarely on the side of good, they no longer have to worry about their nation seeming diluted or adulterated. Any issue that lets them draw an absolute, patriotic dividing line will do the job and inspire their passion, at least for a while.

Unfortunately, when the world is morally divided like that, someone on the “wrong” side usually suffers. In today’s political climate, the millions who depend on government funds for their very survival are the potential victims of the conservative crusade. (Just take a look at this one sad story, out of dozens that appear every day.)

But it’s worth remembering that, in 1862, politicized evangelicals Christians pushed a hesitant president to do what was so obviously the morally right thing, even if he did it only as a way to win the war. Today, there is a small but growing minority of evangelicals who are deeply concerned about the environment. There’s a smaller number of white evangelicals -- and lots of evangelicals of color -- who are deeply concerned about peace and social justice.

Progressives have a dangerous tendency to stereotype all evangelicals as conservative and reactionary. It would be better strategy to engage them in conversation and treat disagreements somewhat diplomatically. No one knows what issue might engage evangelicals’ passions next year.

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