Michael Ruse writes in the November/December Books and Culture:
Thanks to scholars like Mark Noll (in America’s God), we now know how deeply the racism of 19th-century America was connected with and supported by biblical literalism—especially the ways in which the Bible was used to justify slavery.
Michael Ruse, “In the Land of Nod,” Books and Culture (Nov/Dec 2008): 39.
Does the evidence presented by Noll actually indicate that Biblical literalism lies at the root of Christian justifications for antebellum slavery?
“Literal” is a tricky word. Does it mean non-allegorical interpretation? Does it mean non-metaphorical? Noll seems to mean neither in America’s God. His use of “literal” denotes a superficial, surface reading of Scripture that fails to probe the Scriptures in a theological or synthetic manner. Noll makes a causal link between common sense realism and this approach to Scripture (America’s God, 379-385). It seems the claim that biblical literalism was used to justify slavery must be qualified by a careful definition of “literalism.” Without this definitional limitation, the claim that “biblical literalism” supported racism and slavery is in danger of slandering those who currently hold to what may be called “biblical literalism.”
What does Ruse mean by “biblical literalism”? He says, “The Sermon on the Mount hardly justifies slavery, so it is not the case that one has to reject the Bible to fight against the vile practice, but many passages of the Bible taken literally seem to support it” (p. 39f.) Does he mean “taken superficially and without theological intertextual considerations”? This would cohere with Noll’s usage, but it is not consistent with typical usage. Ruse could mean “that sense of interpretation (of a text) which is obtained by taking its words in their natural customary meaning, and applying the ordinary rules of grammar” (OED, 3.a).
Though Ruse appeals to Noll, it seems more likely that he means by “literal” not the non-standard meaning used by Noll but the more common meaning found in the OED. The fact that the article deals with the Creation/Evolution debate strengthens this supposition.
If this is the case, Ruse’s claim that biblical literalism is the culprit for 19th century racism and slavery fails. In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the book-length treatment of the material Ruse refers to in America’s God, Noll indicates that racism was something read into (not out of) the biblical texts (cf. p. 52, 54).
The more successful biblical arguments against antebellum slavery did not depart from a biblical literalism (as defined by the OED above). Noll notes this was especially true among African Americans who had a view of Scripture that was much higher than many white abolitionists (p. 64).
It is true that these biblical literalists did not argue against slavery per se. They noted instead the many ways in which biblical slavery differed from that practiced in the antebellum South. In other words they recognized a difference between a non-race-based slavery of no more than six years after which the former slaves were provided for liberally upon release (Ex. 21:2; Deut 15:12-18) and a race-based slavery founded on man-theft in which the slaves and their families could be held in perpetuity.
The difficulty was not that “many passages of the Bible taken literally seem to support [slavery]” (p. 40). The problem was a lack of careful attention to the specifics of the text.