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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Ross Douthat

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Ross Douthat

Last Build Date: Sat, 11 Feb 2006 06:20:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

The North, the South, and God

Sat, 11 Feb 2006 06:20:00 -0600

The Civil War was Christendom’s last religious war. Not the last war in which both combatants invoked the blessings of the Christian God but the last in which so many people on both sides believed themselves to be dying not only for blood and soil or treaty obligations, but for a point of Christian principle. If the North had the better of the argument over whether Christianity demanded slavery’s end, Southerners had perhaps more fervor in their conviction that it didn’t. And both sides saw their work as a correction of America’s insufficiently religious founding — the North implicitly, in its faith-infused campaign to wipe out the original sin of slaveholding; the South explicitly, to the point of appealing to “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in its refashioned Constitution, correcting the error of the “deists and atheists” who wrote the original. The North won the war, but both sides saw their hopes at least partially fulfilled. Slavery was ended, but the religious rebirth that the South had sought was accomplished as well, albeit perhaps not in the fashion Southerners had prayed for. America was refounded, in a sense, and the second founding was more theological than the first, explicitly defining America as a God-chosen people, a new Israel that like its predecessors embodied humanity’s hope and history’s redemption. In the political theology of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and in the civic religion he helped inspire, America is both the longed-for messiah and the humanity he came to judge and save: We were chastised by a just God for our sins, the better to rise to save the world. The rhetoric worked, the theology took hold, and as a result Americans tend to see the Civil War through a Lincolnian glass, brightly — with malice toward none and charity for all, and with equal affection for righteous Yanks and noble Rebs, both sides dying that we might all be free. There is grandeur in this view, but dishonesty as well — and not only because it long allowed the South to wallow in nostalgia and the North in triumphalism while the work of emancipation was left half-done. It also allowed the national memory to elide the specific excesses of the Civil War. The judgment of the Lord may have come upon the United States in the 1860s, as Lincoln had it, but there were many individual judgments as well, which set homes ablaze, sent soldiers to certain death, tolerated rape and murder, and abandoned prisoners of war to hellish concentration camps. The time for recriminations is long past, but the time for an accounting isn’t. Such an accounting is what the Yale historian Harry S. Stout attempts in his Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, which takes up the question of wartime justice — not the ultimate justice of the North’s cause or the South’s, but the more immediate day-to-day concerns of orders given, raids carried out, and atrocities committed. It takes up, as well, the question of how leaders on both sides dealt with issues of jus in bello and whether, in the heat of the bloodiest war in American history, there were any people willing to take a dispassionate view of the conflict, to speak out against their own side’s abuses, and to question the assumption that God was entirely on one side or the other. The answer, to Stout’s seeming surprise though probably not the reader’s, is almost universally no. The religious language of the war, in particular, was nearly always the language of the jeremiad, in which God guarantees victory to the righteous and ruin to their enemies, and battlefield success is linked to piety and failure to apostasy. The preachers of the Civil War era, North and South, were light-years removed from the presumption toward pacifism that dominates contemporary religious discourse, and nearly every pulpit — as Stout demonstrates in often-exhaustive detail — rang with appeals to heaven for victory and with assurances that God smiled on the preservation of the Union or its dissolution, the abolition of slavery or its e[...]