I have to admit that I have no idea why conservatives resist all manner of change in society, especially with regard to race, only to attempt to claim credit for such changes decades later. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s attempt to claim the mantle of abolition for evangelical Christians is trash history at its worst:

For many conservatives, the birthday of the movement is Nov. 1, 1790 — the publication date of Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Burke described how utopian idealism could lead to the guillotine, just as it later led to the gulag. He rejected the democracy of the mob and argued that social reform, when necessary, should be gradual, cautious and rooted in the habits and traditions of the community.

But there is another strain of conservatism with a birthday three years earlier than Burke’s “Reflections.” On May 12, 1787, under an English oak on his Holwood Estate, Prime Minister William Pitt pressed a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce to introduce a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce’s research found that the holds of slave ships were, according to one witness, “so covered in blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the (dysentery) that it resembled a slaughterhouse.” Enslaved Africans on the ships attempted to starve themselves to death or to jump into the ocean. Wilberforce thought this suffering a good reason for reform.

The only problem is that the act for which Wilberforce is best known, his effort to abolish the slave trade, it decidedly un-Burkean and un-conservative: It is the definition of radical, progressive change, and the very opposite of what Gerson describes as”Burkean” in the first paragraph of his Op-Ed.

Were that the fabrications ended there.

Both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury considered themselves Burkean conservatives; Wilberforce was a friend of Burke’s and a fellow opponent of the French revolution’s wild-eyed utopianism. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were gradualists, not radicals. They hated socialism and rejected the perfectibility of man.

But both were also evangelical Christians who believed that all human beings are created in God’s image — and they were deeply offended when that image was degraded or violated. Long before compassionate conservatism got its name, the ideas of compassion and benevolence were central to their political and moral philosophy.


But the compassionate conservatism of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury is just as old as Burke, and more suited to an American setting. American conservatives, after all, are called upon to conserve a liberal ideal — that all men are created equal. A conservatism that does not accommodate the “ideology” of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. will seem foreign to most Americans. A concern for the rights of the poor and vulnerable is not simply “theological”; it is a measure of our humanity. And skepticism in this noble cause is not sophistication; it seems more like exhaustion and cynicism.

Maintaining this fairy tale requires that Gerson remain in Britain and not discuss the circumstances of the abolitionist movement in any detail. Religion played just as actively a role in rationalizing and perpetuating slavery as it did in ending it.

In America and the most active and constant abolitionists were not Evangelical Christians, but Quakers. The same is true of Britain.

Quakers had been leading the movement to abolish slavery in Britain for more than a hundred years before Wilberforce was even born.

The largest Evangelical group in the United States, the Southern Baptists, supported slavery right up to its abolition.

Contrary to what Gerson says, an American conservatism that does not embrace Martin Luther King is not “foreign” to Americans, it is the very definition of American conservatism.

Modern American conservatism owes itself not to Burke, but to Barry Goldwater, whose great appeal was his opposition to integration. The conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s were not praising Martin Luther King Jr., they were in complete ideological opposition to him.

In MLK’s own words:

On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Conservatives have no right to claim King as an ideological ally when fifty years ago the modern Republican Party was built on white resentment of MLK and the goal of integration. Not when in 2007, they can’t find a single black lawyer willing to work for the Bush Administration in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

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