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It's too easy to feel morally superior to our ancestors

Liberalism of most varieties has taken a beating in recent years at the Southern Baptist Convention. And even after driving theological liberals into a separate organization, the godlier Southern Baptists remain militantly unhappy about many modern trends.

Against that background, it is remarkable that this year's Atlanta convention has acknowledged the denomination's failure to enlist in the civil rights movement. Having denounced racism as a sin six years ago, it has now by resolution tendered an official apology "to all African- Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systematic racism in our lifetime."

The resolution also condemns the historic error of Southern Baptist ancestors who in 1845 split with their Northern brethren over slavery: "Many of our forebears defended the "right' to own slaves. . . . We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery . . . and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past."

Years ago, English historian Herbert Butterfield, who was intensely interested in the role of religion in history, cautioned against facile moral judgments upon the men and institutions of the past. Feeling morally superior to the past could, he warned, be a form of the sin of pride.

Slavery and slaveholding, as condemned in Atlanta, would find few if any defenders today _ fewer, even, than the Inquisition which considered that in burning heretics it was enforcing God's will. Declarations of moral superiority to ancestors and their institutions can, however, cloud understanding, especially when the issue is slavery.

How were slaveholders able to live with themselves, if one of their sustaining institutions was as wicked as we now consider it to be? The answer is that most of them did not regard slavery as wicked. The antidote to guilt was the eternal human facility for rationalization. When slaves were thought of as subhuman, they were regarded as simple creatures whose good luck it was to be exposed to Christian conversion. That great benefit, by the lights of the time and place, outweighed the lesser evil of captivity.

We speak here of the South as it was after the cotton boom and the cotton culture got a grip on the region in the first quarter or so of the 19th century. Earlier generations, at least in the upper and border South, viewed slavery as a plague, bound to collapse. It would be hard to improve on Thomas Jefferson's blistering denunciation of the "boisterous passions" of slavery in his "Notes on The State of Virginia." But within a generation, Jefferson owned more than 200 slaves and religious men were writing just as eloquently to defend slavery.

Obviously, the Atlanta resolution sacrifices historical complexity, when necessary, to the urgent priority of racial reconciliation.

But the most interesting point about the Christian condonation of slaveholding in the 19th century is that it shows so dramatically the human capacity for adjusting religious belief and conscience to economic convenience.

As long as slavery seemed to be dying, and as the old tobacco agriculture faded, it was widely denounced. But by the time of the great Baptist schism in 1845, many good Christians held slaves in the serene confidence that the Bible condoned slavery, whatever Yankee preachers might say. Didn't St. Paul himself admonish slaves to obey their masters? And were the slaves not fortunate to be brought out of the wilderness and civilized? (It is perhaps significant that the Baptist split came in a quarrel over the qualifications of missionaries.) Religious conviction was bent to fit the demands of the moment.

It is always safe to look back with a blush at the sins of benighted great grandfathers. It might be more challenging to try to imagine in what ways less visible to us we, too, rationalize religion to fit the expediencies of the hour.

Washington Post Writers Group