Reflections on the Civil War Conference
From Vincent Bacote, April 10, 2012
Dr. Vincent Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. The author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper and the editor of Precepts for Living, Urban Ministries Inc.’s annual Bible commentary, he moderated the conference. His reflection, Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection, appeared on UrbanFaith.com.
From Jim Papandrea, March 21, 2012
Dr. Jim Papandrea is a teacher, author, speaker, and musician, and currently the Assistant Professor of Church History at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston and working as a freelance consultant in the area of adult formation. His works include Spiritual Blueprint: How We Live, Work, Love, Play, and Pray (2010), The Earliest Christologies: Trinitarian Orthodoxy Before Nicaea, Reading the Early Church Fathers, and Novatian of Rome: Theologian and Anti-Pope. His reflections were posted in his blog, Spiritual Blueprint: The Civil War: Then and Now.
From Suzanne Ross, March 19, 2012
Our Civil War and Sacred Ground conference at Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics is over, but the moral reflection it prompted in me and the fifty participants will be continuing for some time. My ideas about the causes of the Civil War, even about who the good guys and bad guys were, have been shaken to their core. I will be offering my reflections in more detail in the coming weeks, especially as the videos of the keynote addresses become available. For now, I’d like to offer the comments I made on Saturday morning as the conference was already underway and my moral certainty was wavering. Here’s what I said in response to Tracy McKenzie’s presentation the night before:
Welcome back to CACE and to the Saturday session of Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War. I’m Suzanne Ross of the Raven Foundation, your co-host for the event with Vince Bacote of CACE. Before we get started, let’s take a look at today’s schedule. You will see that there are two small group discussion sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These sessions are designed to engage you in reflection on the presentations. Tracy McKenzie set the context very well last night for reflecting on history responsibly. His hope was that we focus less on what he called moral judgment and focus instead on moral reflection, which he described as deeply introspective and involving a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable.
I’d like to add two key insights about violent conflict that guide our commentary at Raven Foundation that I hope will be helpful in making that move toward moral reflection that Tracy recommended.
First: Parties to any conflict always insist on telling a narrative of how completely different they are from their adversary, which really comes down to this: I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re wicked. But the truth is that we don’t come into conflict because we are different, we come into conflict because we share the same desires. Tracy said something extraordinary last night, that soldiers on both sides of the conflict were fighting for the same thing – liberty, to preserve the legacy of the Revolutionary War, and strong feelings of patriotism. Shared desires can unite us by “the mystic chords” of friendship, but if we insist on sole possession, on being victorious over the other, shared desires can divide and destroy. The irony, to add to Tracy’s list of ironies, is that the thing that causes conflict contains the seed of its cure. So the claim of difference is what we call Myth because it falsely blames the conflict on differences when it’s really cause by what we have in common.
Second: to tell the truth about a conflict, you have to include the perspective of the victims, the ones whose story is not part of the good guy/ bad guy storyline but would reveal it for the lie it is. In other words, you have to find the dead bodies and let them speak. That’s where the Raven comes in – the Raven is a scavenger bird that has a way of finding the decaying carcass and cawing rather annoyingly about it. When we become convinced of our own goodness, we start to believe in the goodness of our violence as well, something our victims might beg to differ with, if we’d only pay attention to their perspective. So the two points about conflict are: Differences are a false narrative, a myth about the conflict, and the victims hold the key to the truth.
As I said last night, we normally don’t do history, but when I read Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I couldn’t help but think he was offering the Raven view on the Civil War. He wasn’t buying all the shouting about differences and he wasn’t turning away from the devastation of the war, but was allowing it to hover in the background as a painful, haunting question: How could a good, Christian nation have needed to shed so much blood to solve a moral and theological problem? I’m sure you’ve already noticed that at this conference you will not hear stories of bad guys with whom we have nothing in common.
Our distinguished presenters are bringing us stories about good, God-fearing, Bible believing Christians just like you and me who held racist beliefs and sanctified bloodshed without ever doubting our own goodness. I encourage all of us to hold on to our similarities with these historical figures, to not retreat into finding some difference that will allow us to condemn them for their failures while leaving our sense of goodness enhanced by comparison, what Tracy called moral judgment. Remembering the cawing of the Raven can help us resist the temptation to the easy comfort offered by myths of difference, enabling that journey into moral reflection during our small group discussions so that not only learning but personal transformation can take place.
Recommended Reading List
By our presenters.
Tracy McKenzie, Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006).
Tracy McKenzie tells the story of Civil War Knoxville-a perpetually occupied, bitterly divided Southern town where neighbor fought against neighbor. Mining a treasure-trove of manuscript collections and civil and military records, McKenzie reveals the complex ways in which allegiance altered the daily routine of a town gripped in a civil war within the Civil War and explores the agonizing personal decisions that war made inescapable. Lincolnites and Rebels details in microcosm the conflict and paints a complex portrait of a border state, neither wholly North nor South.
Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
The Civil War was a major turning point in American religious thought, argues Mark A. Noll. Although Christian believers agreed with one another that the Bible was authoritative and that it should be interpreted through commonsense principles, there was rampant disagreement about what Scripture taught about slavery. Furthermore, most Americans continued to believe that God ruled over the affairs of people and nations, but they were radically divided in their interpretations of what God was doing in and through the war. By highlighting this theological conflict, Noll adds to our understanding of not only the origins but also the intensity of the Civil War.
Luke Harlow’s Recommendations
Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).
This slim and clearly written volume shows overwhelmingly the role of slavery and white supremacy in driving the secessionist impulse. Dew also includes a number of primary sources for readers in his index.
Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).
Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, Foner has provided the new authoritative history of Lincoln’s evolving attitude toward slavery. Initially a colonizationist who opposed the extension of slavery—but not an abolitionist—Lincoln’s policy changed over the course of his presidency as a result of his contact with abolitionists.
Steven Hahn, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
This short and provocative volume calls for a reframing of the political history African Americans, slavery, and abolition. Rather than two “emancipations” in American history (first in the era of the Revolution, second in the Civil War), Hahn argues that there was one protracted period of emancipation that climaxed in the “greatest slave rebellion in modern history”: the Civil War. This book draws from a series of lectures and follows Hahn’s Pulitzer-Prize winning A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003).
Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
Instead of a proslavery Christianity that developed merely in response to abolitionist attacks, Irons shows a tradition with colonial southern roots. Irons argues that the proslavery gospel developed as a result of daily interactions between white and black believers, in the context of biracial Christian churches. White believers routinely misinterpreted the spiritual desires of enslaved people and misunderstood black Christians as affirming a white supremacist, paternalist gospel.
Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Oshatz shows how northern Protestants’ inability to find a direct condemnation of slavery in the biblical text led to theological innovation and the rise of notions of “moral progress.” Before American Protestants had taken the measure of Darwin, before they found themselves challenged by historicism and the higher criticism, and before they fully experienced the impact of the urban-industrial transformation upon society, they fought over slavery.
Tracy McKenzie’s Recommendations
David W. Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
A riveting book that explores how Americans remembered the Civil War at the time of the Civil War centennial, it offers vignettes of the perspectives of Bruce Catton, the most popular Civil War historian of his generation; Robert Penn Warren, the prominent novelist and poet; Edmund Wilson, the era’s preeminent literary critic; and James Baldwin, the renowned African-American essayist and activist.
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).
A renowned historian (and current president of Harvard) examines the impact of the war’s enormous death toll from a myriad of angles—logistical, military, emotional, and moral, among others.
Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
Perhaps the best single volume on what common soldiers North and South thought the war was about, and why so many believed that their cause was worth dying for.
George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
A comprehensive tour de force that explores the variety of ways in which Americans—North and South, soldiers and civilians—drew on religious faith to make sense of the pace, progress, and larger meaning of the war.
Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).
A narrative overview of the war by a leading historian, this book poses the question of whether the war was waged justly, paying special attention to the criteria of discrimination (did contending armies take care to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants) and proportionality (were the costs exacted by the war in some sense proportional to the benefits expected).
Mark Noll’s Recommendations
David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Davis sums up a life-time of studying slavery in the Western world with this accessible, yet very wide ranging volume. The emancipation of American slaves occupies only a small part of his narrative, but taking in the whole book gives readers a great understanding of where the American story fits into the much bigger picture. Because the book came from material first prepared for high school teachers, it communicates a complex story with unusual clarity.
George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
This big new book is encyclopedic. George Rable’s sources are the diaries and letters of participants, as well as thorough coverage of the era’s books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Virtually every dimension—from the service of chaplains and revivals in the camps to scoffers who disdained religion and true believers who valued it supremely, and much more—receives splendid treatment.
Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).
Harry Stout wanted to have this book make celebration of the war’s sesquicentennial more realistic. His extensive treatment of the way that conduct of the war, even by revered figures like Abraham Lincoln, may have violated traditional Christian standards of “just war” makes this a most thought-provoking study.
Stewart Winger, Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).
This is one of the very best books on the perennially difficult subject of Abraham Lincoln and religion. It excels at positioning Lincoln in the political and intellectual history of his own day. Winger’s stress on Lincoln’s foundational commitment to Whig political principles opens the door to explain how Lincoln could be so familiar with evangelical Protestant themes and language and yet not be a committed church participant himself.
Robert J. Miller, Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and Faith in the American Civil War, introduction by James McPherson (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007)
Robert Miller is a Catholic priest and a long-time participant in Civil War roundtables. In this excellent book for those seeking a quick overview of the subject, he brings to bear expertly both his wide knowledge of the war and the religious sensitivity of his vocation.
Laura Rominger Porter’s Recommendations
Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Ford offers a sweeping analysis of the white South’s debates over slavery from the early national period through the 1840s. He is especially insightful on the connections between ideology and economics, which he uses to highlight the lower and upper Souths’ divergent views on slavery. The result is a nuanced treatment of how different economic regions of the slaveholding South came to terms with the institution in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.
Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
This political history of the upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee examines the fate of conditional Unionists—or “reluctant Confederates”—from the late antebellum period through the last wave of secession after Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861. It is a seminal work in the literature on southern Unionism that highlights the regional variations among white southern views of secession.
Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
This classic treatment of how major religious denominations and leaders regarded southern separatism begins with the abolitionist campaign of the 1830s and continues through the formation of Confederate nationalism during the Civil War. It argues for the significance of religion as a sectionalizing force within antebellum southern political culture, particularly by lending moral force and providential meaning to the secessionist movement.
Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Stowell examines how different interpretations of the war’s outcome among three parties—northern white missionaries, African-American Christians, and white southern Protestants—guided their distinct approaches to religious reconstruction. Tracking Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists in Tennessee and Georgia, he explores how social and political conflicts arising from the war continued to shape southern religious institutions long after its end.
Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005).
This history of white America’s postwar reunion argues that white religious leaders embraced and promoted a vision of national reconciliation founded on ideals of white nationalism. As Blum argues, religious notions of forgiveness sanctified the rhetoric of white national unity, persuading northern whites to concede the ideals of racial justice that had taken root among many northern Protestants during the war and imputed moral meaning to the sacrifices of Union soldiers. White Americans thus overcame their sectional divisions, but at the moral cost of racial segregation and imperialism.