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Compartmentalizing Morality: ‘Christian’ Slave Owners and ‘Green’ Polluters

Avoiding examination of your actions when they directly oppose your morals is a human behavior, not a phenomenon of the religious.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

November 3, 2009 - 12:00 am
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I remember an episode of Cops that captures this a bit more literally than one would ever expect. Narcotics cops working in South Central Los Angeles arrested a young man who was selling crack cocaine. From one coat pocket came bags of crack; from the other pocket, a thick stack of Bible tracts. One of the detectives asked (in a way that doubtless would have offended the ACLU’s peculiar notion of establishment of religion):

Do you think Jesus would want you selling crack?

The confused look on the young man’s face showed that the left hand wasn’t communicating with the right very well.

To deter the “Christianity is all hypocrisy!” crowd, it is time to bring the “slave owner who tries to keep families together because he’s a Christian” into a modern, secular context involving the other dominant religion in America: environmentalism.

Do you believe that global warming is a serious threat to the future of mankind and the ecosystem? Yes? Do you still drive a car? If it’s a giant SUV, you are like the slave owner who goes to church on Sunday.

If it is a hybrid, you are trying to reduce the harm that you do and you may well say, “But I need a car! I’m doing less damage this way.” You are like William Ford, who Northup tells us treated his slaves exceptionally well — but still held them as slaves.

If you sold your car — so that someone else is hastening this disaster, but you have the money from it — you are the man who sold his slaves to someone else and piously proclaimed himself morally superior to the slave owners.

If you had your car disassembled so that it could no longer despoil Mother Earth — and didn’t replace it — you are Cassius Marcellus Clay, who inherited a large Kentucky plantation and freed his slaves before becoming a prominent abolitionist.

It’s easy to look with disgust and horror on the moral compartmentalization of slave owners — until you realize how much this is a fundamental part of human nature.

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Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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