Thursday, November 08, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 9)

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I have read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;

His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel,

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;”

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.

Julia Ward Howe, 1861

“…a song that transformed an idea of freedom into a vision of divine purpose….” David Hackett Fischer[i]

If the War for Independence laid the foundations for American identity, the Civil War was a deciding factor in shaping what would become modern America. Just the effects on human life of the military actions alone would have been nation changing – 620,000 soldiers killed, 1,094,453 total military casualties.[ii] But even more profound changes were both expressed by and influenced by this terrible conflict – changes in the attitudes and ideals of Americans.

We will probably never sort out all of the ramifications of such a world-altering event. Nevertheless, some things do seem clear. One important ramification was that the Northern idea of democracy became the national idea after the war. The preservation of the Union meant that the United States would emerge in the 20th century as a major player on the world scene. In fact, by the end of the century, she would be the dominant nation in the world economically and militarily, and thus the Northern idea of democracy would spread to the world.

Of course, one of the primary issues at stake in the Civil War was the issue of slavery. If it was not the only cause of the war, it was at least the most prominent battleground in the clash of visions between the North and the South. It provided the most tangible example of the ideologies which were used to justify war on such a massive scale. Many Christians today are not aware of what a theological battle American slavery was. Godly, brilliant Southern theologians and preachers, such as James Henry Thornwell and R. L. Dabney, supported slavery, while Northern theologians decried it. Ironically, southern expressions of Christianity were often more orthodox than northern Christianity. The slavery conflict was an impasse that only a war would put to rest.

In this theological conflict, both sides made mistakes which have had a degrading effect in America’s history. Southern Christians tended to be blinded by racism. Over a century of struggle to eliminate racism followed the Civil War. Christians could have had (and sometimes did have) a prophetic voice and a powerful example of refusing to engage in racism, but for many years they were complicit in a deep seated view that blacks were innately and always inferior to whites.

On the other hand, Northern Christians picked up and used democratic ideas about equality that were not necessarily biblical, either. Unlike ideas about racism, which today are roundly denounced on all sides (even though implicitly practiced by some of the loudest of their detractors), these ideas are not challenged in our society. Rather, they are considered perfectly normal and right. The error often espoused by Northerners was a natural one, given America’s founding ideas. It held that equality demanded the abolition of any kind of hierarchy within humanity. The only power that one man could justly exercise over another man must be freely granted and approved by the one under authority. At its core, this idea held that ultimate moral rights and responsibilities resided in the individual. Freedom, then, was the power of self-determination.

This unbiblical (and unworkable) idea has born bitter fruit in our country. It was expressed in the women’s rights movements from the 1840’s to the present. The same logic was picked up and used in the civil rights movement. Most recently, the same idea has been successfully used in the movement for homosexual rights.

One other effect of the Civil War, both North and South, was to forge a kind of civil religion in which the aims and goals of America became virtually the aims and goals of God. Patriotism (or, more accurately, nationalism) became a sacred duty. But Christians who think biblically should be able to see beyond these ideas. We should be able to see America as a nation truly blessed by God, but with no sacred status any more than any other nation.

[i] Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 332.

[ii] It is also estimated that there were approximately 50,000 civilian war-related deaths in the South.

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