As I see it, three aspects of the book need addressing: (1) the underlying logic guiding the entire book, (2) the exegetical case for slavery as a permissible institution, and (3) the historical claim that the South as a nation and the slavery practiced there was comparable to the Roman practice the apostle Paul addressed. As I see it, the book stands or falls with Wilson's positions in these three areas. This is not to say that other areas of the book are unimportant, just that these issues "get to the heart of the matter" from my perspective. I would like, with God's help, to take them each up in turn in separate posts.
The Logic of Black and Tan
At a couple points in the book, Wilson outlines the driving logic of the book. On page 4 he writes:
If we want to understand the culture wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we must come to grips with the culture wars of the nineteenth century. In order to do this, it is necessary to get clear on the nature of American slavery, which was not what its abolitionist opponents claimed for it. If it had been, it is hard to see how the biblical instructions could have been applicable--for example, I would not cite 1 Timothy 6:1-4 to a person trying to escape from a Nazi death camp. "Obey the authorities!" But if antebellum slavery was the normal kind of sinful situation that Christians have had to deal with regularly down through history (e.g., one comparable to what Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus had to address), then the instructions in 1 Timothy 6 make perfect sense. We need to learn that the antebellum situation was one of Normal Sin, not one of Apocalyptic Evil.
That our nation did not remove slavery in the way it ought to have been removed helps explain many of our nations problems in dealing with contemporary social evils. Those evils include abortion-on-demand, radical feminism, and rampant sodomy.
A few pages later, making reference to the underlying argument of Southern Slavery as It Was, an argument being restated in Black and Tan, Wilson contends:
It was the contention of this booklet that the way in which slavery ended has had ongoing deleterious consequences for modern Christians in our current culture wars, and that slavery was far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists. We were not trying to maintain that slavery in itself was a positive good, like food, air, or sunlight. Our central interest was in defending the integrity and applicability of the Scriptures to our current cultural controversies, and we affirmed that Christians who apologize for what the Bible teaches on slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage. We wrote as Christian apologists, but not the kind who apologize for being Christian (p. 14).
Obviously the approach Wilson takes or the driving logic of his argument is bound up with the nature of Southern slavery. But for the moment, let me leave aside discussion of the nature of slavery for a future post so that we can give undivided attention to the logic itself.
Essentially, Wilson walks backwards from:
1. our current cultural divisions over homosexuality and marriage, to...
2. the Christians' fidelity to and application of the Bible in such controversies (or lack thereof), to...
3. what he regards as a similar cultural conflict (slavery and the Civil War) that (a) featured the same crucial issue of the authority of Scripture and (b) in his opinion gave rise to an expanded federal government that arrests or opposes biblical resolutions of such problems.
Slavery gets a lot of air play, but it's really a similarity heuristic for contemporary cultural engagement. Which brings us to my question....
Is This an Appropriate Strategy for Either Discussing Slavery or Informing Our Contemporary Battles?
Personally, I don't think so.
First, the authority of the Bible was not widely in question during the country's long dispute over slavery and its end. There were radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who believed that "To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth" (quoted in Noll, Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 32). But we call people like Garrison "radicals" for a reason. In fact,the mainstream of both sides claimed to have the Bible's authority on its side. Where Wilson sees a shrinking away from biblical authority in the practice and arguments over slavery, I see in the main a theological debate about precisely how to apply the Scripture. In general, it wasn't a matter of whether but how, at least among professing Christians on either side of the conflict. The pro-slavery arguments certainly marshaled whatever texts it could in support of the institution (see Fox-Genovese and Genovese, Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview, especially part IV). Not to be outdone, anti-slavery advocates garnered a full range of texts to make its case for abolition. That was the case among African Americans as early as the mid-1700s, when African Americans first began to be published. I'm thinking here of men like Lemuel Haynes and his "Liberty Further Extended," for example, and even the recently discovered poem of Jupiter Hammon (see, for example, Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, chapter3, and Dillon, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 16:19-1865). At best what we might say is that the mainstream of each side privileged different biblical texts in their arsenal of arguments, but both sides made their appeal to the authority of the Bible.