The most recent New Republic features a thought-provoking book review of The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders Worldview. The authors of the book argue that Southern intellectuals had a pretty solid theological case for slavery: The Bible is "the Word of God and God's words sanction slavery." In fact, "the proslavery protagonists proved so strong in their appeal to Scripture as to make comprehensible the readiness with which Southern whites satisfied themselves that God sanctioned slavery", which came to be seen as the embodiment of "God's divine order".
The article is unsettling because it's hard to argue with the slaveholders' logic. The Bible is almost never anti-slavery in either the Old or New Testaments, and in many cases it's quite enthusiastic about the concept. While the Israelites resisted their slavery in Egypt, they went on to enslave others, all with God's apparent approval. Even Jesus, while showing complete love and compassion for slaves, seemed to regard slavery itself as a fact of life. Of course, one could argue that Jesus preached an overall message that was implicitly anti-slavery, but why then did he never explicitly challenge the institution during his earthly ministry? (If I've missed instances of an abolitionist Jesus, someone please point them out to me).
The scary question is this: If I had been born and raised as a Christian slaveholder on a Southern plantation, would it even have occurred to me that slavery was wrong? According to this article, many in the South did sense that slavery might be immoral, but they comforted their uneasy consciences by turning to the Bible. Which then raises the other disturbing question: Is the Bible a reliable guide in ethical matters? My initial answer would be no.
There's no doubt that the Southern Christians were practicing a dubious natural theology, in which they believed that the social order of the antebellum South was simply a reflection of "God's divine order". They supported slavery for economic and social reasons, and then sought vindication in Scripture. In essence, they were reading Scripture in the wrong direction, and this cautionary tale reinforces the idea that if we are to hear the Bible as God's Word to us, then we must be prepared to surrender all of our preconceived notions of God's will. Without this openness, revelation will simply become a plaything for human agendas, whether liberal or conservative, slave or free.