Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/09

23

Diverse radicals

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In regards to Heather’s post below there are many complex issues here, and frankly I get tired of those who want to claim that religion or anti-religion have some necessary and exclusive association with any given movement, whether it has the aura of the right or the wrong in the contemporary Zeitgeist. The specific role of religion in the modern Civil Rights movement for example is well known and acknowledged, but the complementary actions by secular liberals from the North (i.e., those famous “outside agitators”) is also part of the puzzle, as well as general social trends toward greater equality of rights after the nadir of race relations in the early 20th century. In any case anyone wishing to grapple with these sorts of complexities should read John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. The book is somewhat positive in its assessment of John Brown’s character, as one can deduce from the title, but the more important issue are the details of Brown’s motivations and actions. He was famously a New England Calvinist of the old school whose radical fervor was rooted in a particular religious sensibility. But I was rather surprised to find out that the men who went with him to Harper’s Ferry in the quixotic quest to raise a slave rebellion were generally of heterodox religious inclinations. Oliver and Watson Brown, who died during the fighting at Harper’s Ferry because of their abolitionist fervor, were themselves not adherents to their father’s orthodox religious views.

This is not to say that religion had nothing to do with abolitionism, but rather to suggest that the reduction of the movement to simply its religious wing (numerous as it was) dismisses the general social radicalism which it signaled* (and which the evangelical Tappan brothers feared) and the strong sectionalist sentiment with which it correlated. The abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun were both Unitarians, but that does not imply that was any meeting of the minds on questions of politics between these two. The Unitarianism of Parker naturally congealed with a particular sort of New England social progressivism with which it was traditionally aligned. In contrast the Unitarianism of Calhoun was simply following in the tradition of the rationalist religious inclinations of a long line of landed Southern aristocrats, most famously exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.

* The early women’s rights movement emerged out of the abolitionists.

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1 comment

  • Ploni · May 23, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Here’s my own Secular Right Book Club recommendation, filed under “books related to Calvinism and John Brown”: Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. This is one of Barack Obama’s favorite books, according to his Facebook page. It’s certainly one of my all-time favorites. Its politics are diametrically opposed to my own, but that’s unimportant. Gilead is the best contemporary novel I’ve read, period.

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