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150 Years Ago, the Confederate Constitution Used Mike Pence's View of 'Religious Freedom' to Justify Slavery

04/06/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
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April 9, 2015 will be the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant, marking not only the end of the Civil War, but also the end of slavery. When Jim DeMint last year stated that faith did more to end slavery than the federal government, his viewpoint was obviously "mostly false" and a whitewashing of history. As I stated in my Roanoke Times article after DeMint's comments, the Confederate Constitution and other Southern documents from this era utilized God and religion to justify slavery, not end the practice. Only a Union victory ended the forced bondage of 4 million human beings.

Similarly, when Gov. Mike Pence signed Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, his motive was to utilize religion as a means to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. There's a reason that a Georgia florist won't serve gay couples and it's the same reason an Indiana pizza parlor won't host a gay wedding: some Americans think it's an affront to God. As a result, many conservatives were ecstatic that another "religious freedom" bill passed a state legislature. Upon hearing news of the law, one conservative group declared, "VICTORY AT THE STATEHOUSE! Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!"

While Gov. Pence and Indiana lawmakers aren't asking God to legitimize secession, they are indeed hiding behind the notion that one's religious expression correlates to the identity of another human being. American history illustrates that Pence's viewpoint was prevalent over 150 years ago, but in a far more horrific context. Confederate era documents are filled with references to God and religion, primarily because the South viewed slavery as a divine right. According to the Constitution of the Confederate States, the words "Almighty God" and "slavery" (none of these words are found in the U.S. Constitution) serve as the moral foundation for secession and the formation of a new country:

We, the people of the Confederate States... invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America....

No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed...

No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs,. or to whom such service or labor may be due...

In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government...

Adopted on March 11, 1861, "the favor and guidance of Almighty God" allowed Southerners "the right of property in negro slaves" and the creation of a new country. For the millions of African-Americans held against their will, any escape attempt meant that they were to "be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs." Thus, the Confederacy was based upon a Constitution that stated God was in favor of slavery; the economic engine of the South.

According to a New York Times article titled When Cotton Was King, the Confederate Constitution's reference to "Almighty God" as justification for slavery was linked to the Southern economy:

This in turn led to a consumer revolution whose raw material was slave-produced cotton -- 80 percent of which was produced in the South...

On the eve of the war, cotton comprised almost 60 percent of America's exports. Slavery expanded accordingly. The number of slaves increased from 700,000 in 1787 to over 4 million on the eve of the American Civil War; approximately 70 percent were involved in some way with cotton production. Indeed, so closely tied were cotton and slavery that the price of a slave directly correlated to the price of cotton (except during years of excessive speculation).

Therefore, the Civil War wasn't simply a "War of Northern Aggression." The conflict that resulted in the death of over 750,000 Americans was a war of economic survival for the South; Southern currency even showed images of slave labor. For this reason, the Mississippi Ordinance of Session states "a blow at slavery, is a blow at commerce and civilization."

During the Mississippi State Convention of 1861, a prayer was given by Reverend C. K. Marshall that might resonate today (at least in the belief that God cares about who enters your flower shop or pizza parlor) with the 20 state legislatures who've adopted their own religious freedom laws:

Almighty and Everlasting God, we come into Thy presence on this solemn occasion, so freighted with the interests of all we hold dear as a people...

We, therefore, devoutly look up to Thee, praying that Thy Fatherly blessing may so inspire this body that by their action and labors the cause of liberty, religion, agriculture, commerce, government, our domestic peace and general prosperity...

Thou, oh, God, has seen the malign and mighty agencies which many of the sister States of this great national family have for years past employed for our annoyance, reproach and overthrow, as equals in the Confederated Union; and how they have pursued the purpose of depriving us of our just rights, and destroying in our midst the institution which Thy Providence has solemnly bound us to uphold, defend and protect.

The "cause of liberty" referenced by Reverend Marshall in 1861 (ironic since slavery is the antithesis of freedom), as well as his belief that the North was "depriving us of our just rights," were statements in a prayer to God. As in the Confederate Constitution that Mississippi followed during the Civil War, "Almighty and Everlasting God" was asked to defend "the institution which Thy Providence has solemnly bound us to uphold." This institution was based upon the untold suffering of other human beings.

The problem, of course, is that since God hasn't come down to Earth and legitimized the contempt many conservatives have for the LGBT community (and atheists, evolution, abortion, rock music, Barney, and other things), God's preferences are subject to speculation. Similarly, America's past shows us that interpreting God's will doesn't always look good to posterity. According to The Atlantic, "In his 'Segregation Now' speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him 'a system that is the very opposite of Christ.'"

Finally, the Cornerstone Address of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explained the theological differences between the U.S. and Confederate constitutions:

They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal...

The negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, [note: A reference to Genesis, 9:20-27, which was used as a justification for slavery] is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.

...It is, indeed, in conformity with 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 in glory."

To legitimize secession, slavery, and his new country, Stephens cites the Bible, the Creator's decision to create "the inferior race," and explains that we shouldn't "question" or "inquire" as to why God created one race to reign over another race.

If Gov. Pence and Indiana's state legislature had taken even a cursory look at U.S. history, they could have learned that our past is littered with moments when Americans evoked God in order to legislate their disdain for other human beings. However, until God comes down and tells the world that florists and pizza parlors shouldn't serve the LGBT community, it's best to keep bizarre religious interpretations away from refusing service to other American citizens. Religious freedom shouldn't be a way to discriminate or justify hatred and intolerance.

It wasn't a justification to enslave others in 1861 and it isn't a reason to refuse service to a gay couple in 2015.