West Point Historian Mixes Truth And Myth, Goes Viral

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie exposes Prager University’s uncritical acceptance of the “northern myth” that the Civil War was fought by the North to abolish slavery. While slavery was at the heart of the civil war, abolishing it was not the primary goal of the Union soldiers. Portraying abolition as such dangerously portrays racism as a blight on our national history confined to a limited geographical region, thereby scapegoating the South and minimizing an issue that is critical to understanding and repairing race relations today.

A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release [one week] ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.’”)

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”


Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.”  These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.


Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”

And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.

Top Image: Public Domain via Encyclopedia Americana, 1920, v. 7, pg. 7

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

His Soul Wrapped In A Confederate Flag

At the bond hearing, grieving loved ones forgave Dylann Roof. This was reported as news, but it was so much more than that. It was the light embracing the darkness.

And white America absorbed this forgiveness through the eyes of the 21-year-old terrorist, who watched the proceedings on a video screen from his jail cell. Whatever he heard and felt is unknown, but beyond him, in the world he believed he was saving, something gave. The solidarity of whiteness — the quiet assumption of white supremacy — shuddered ever so slightly.

The flag, the flag . . .

The fate of this symbolic relic of the slave era is now the big story in the aftermath of Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans. He acted in such clear allegiance to the Confederate flag that politicians everywhere — even Republican presidential candidates — are demanding, or at least acquiescing to, its removal from public and official locations, such as in front of the South Carolina State House.

Not only that, “Walmart and Sears, two of the country’s largest retailers, will remove all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores,” CNN reported.

This is what atonement looks like in a consumer culture.

“The announcements,” according to CNN, “are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic in the aftermath of a shooting last week at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

A few days later, Amazon and eBay also announced they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their sites. No longer available, CNN reported, would be such flag-decorated items as folding knives, T-shirts, blankets or (God help us) shower curtains.

Oh Lord. The news so quickly becomes theater of the absurd. Roof’s act of terror has forced mainstream America to begin consciously disassociating itself from the lethal margins of white solidarity, to wake up to what it really means. But this waking up, so far, seems limited to the symbolism of Confederate paraphernalia. All our guilt is being dumped here, while the pain that Roof’s act of terror has caused ebbs and slowly vanishes from the social mainstream.

In fact, an undead racism still stalks the American consciousness and it will, once again, regroup, Confederate flag or no Confederate flag. What this moment of awareness calls for is true atonement for our history.

“I forgive you.” These are the words of Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Atonement begins with cradling the pain.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, who was not only present in the church during the murders but the mother of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest of those killed. As we cradle the pain, we must cradle this as well: the open souls of the murder victims.

What do we value as a nation? Do we value such openness? The killer — who was, as he entered the church, simply an unknown young man — did not go through security clearance as he walked through the open door. He had complete freedom of movement as he entered the historic African-American church, where he was accepted simply for his humanity. Yes, such openness and acceptance are also part of who we are as a nation, but . . . do we value these qualities? Do we have the least faith that they matter now more than ever, now that they’ve been so violated?

A participant at one of the vigils last week for the murder victims “noted how a church’s doors are always open, especially to those in need,” a Daily Beast story reported. “She wonders now how churches can square their mission of public service, charity and acceptance with security concerns.”

Roof’s act of terror has opened a gaping hole in the social fabric. Can we no longer pray together?

But all such questions lead back into the depth of American history and the need for atonement and transformation. A Reuters story, addressing the segregated nature of most American churches (11 a.m. Sunday is “the most segregated hour in the nation,” Martin Luther King once said), pointed out: “The story of this division began in America’s earliest moments, when slaves and freed African-Americans alike were often expected to pray in the same churches as whites, but in areas cordoned off, often called ‘slave galleries.’”

Imagine praying in a setting that defines you as semi-human. Now imagine Dylann Roof walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a gun in his backpack. Roof was the self-defined semi-human in the church that night, his soul wrapped in a Confederate flag.

The U.S. is enslaved by its past. That’s what no one has said yet. One hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to lower the flag that symbolizes this enslavement.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at


License Plates And The Lost Cause: Concluding Thoughts

Texas License Plate

Texas License Plate

We’ll get back to the American Revolution in a few days, but before we head in that direction I’d like to share some concluding thoughts about the Texas license plate case recently argued before the Supreme Court. In a previous post I suggested that, whatever the constitutional merits of their case, the history promulgated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is simply awful. The SVC’s position is that the Confederate battle flag should be viewed as devoid of racial connotations. It’s a symbol of “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” in the words of SVC spokesman and former U. S. congressman Ben Jones. The SVC concedes that the flag has been hijacked in recent decades by a variety of hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, but they insist that the Confederate soldiers who originally fought under that banner were motivated by the highest ideals, ideals that had nothing to do with the defense of slavery or white supremacy.

The technical term for this kind of historical argument is “hogwash.” It is utterly a-historical to separate the issue of slavery from the American Civil War. Certainly few contemporaries tried to do so. That effort began after the last shots were fired, when white southerners began to fashion the myth that the conflict had had nothing to do with their peculiar institution. One of the first to set the mold was Alexander Stephens, the former vice-president of the Confederacy. In his 1868 work A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Stephens insisted that the struggle between North and South was a struggle over state sovereignty and independence. The issue of slavery was of “infinitely less importance,” Stephens declared, a “mere drop in the ocean” compared with the other constitutional issues involved.

The Confederate soldiers who laid their lives on the line knew better. As historian Colin Woodward notes, “their struggle was about protecting slavery . . . and they knew that going in.” And so did Stephens, by the way. (The Confederate vice-president was a “revisionist historian” if ever there was one.) Only seven years earlier, he had defined the sectional crisis as entirely about slavery. But not just slavery alone. As Stephens had explained to a cheering audience at Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, the struggle to preserve slavery was first and foremost a struggle to preserve the racial hierarchy that slavery perpetuated. Deriding the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” Stephens had observed that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

This is why I observed in my last post that the SCV’s version of history requires a willful blindness to historical evidence. It is false history, or more accurately, it is myth masquerading as history. And yet I don’t want to make such a negative pronouncement and just leave it at that. There’s always more at stake in our encounters with the past than simple accuracy about the past. I’m at least as concerned with how these conclusions about the past affect us. Some of you, I realize, may be offended (particularly if, like me, you have southern roots), but that’s not what troubles me. Having our convictions challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even turn out for our good. No, paradoxical as it may sound, I’m primarily concerned about those of you who agree with my historical conclusions.

Let me explain what I mean with reference to a parable that Jesus told. In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To make sure that we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus drove home the moral of the parable with this concluding observation: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If we pay careful attention to our hearts, I think we’ll find that the serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals whose beliefs or values or actions strike us as ignorant or foolish or immoral. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: toward self-exaltation—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men”—or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace—“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is part of what I had in mind when I said in my last post that there is a moral dimension to the current controversy over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Most obviously, there is the moral question of how the law of love should constrain both parties to the dispute. (My opinion would be that, whatever the Supreme Court eventually rules in the Texas license plate case, if there are Christians among the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they should relinquish the perceived “right” to display a symbol that is so deeply hurtful to many of their Christian brothers and sisters.) But in addition to this there is the moral issue of how our hearts will be affected as we follow the debate.

Whichever side of the debate we come down on, there will be a temptation to respond in self-righteousness. (When do such debates ever promote humility?) Let me focus, though, on the side of the controversy that I most sympathize with. I’ve left no doubt in your minds, I trust, that I find the SCV’s historical arguments indefensible. Intellectually, I cannot honestly arrive at any other conclusion. But with this legitimate intellectual judgment comes the temptation to illegitimate moral judgment. We can be accurate about the past and still be good Pharisees.

Let me give you just one example of what I have in mind. In debating the connotations of the Confederate battle flag, we may be reminded of those individuals from a century and a half ago that the SCV venerates, the Confederate soldiers who went into battle tragically believing that in defending slavery they were being true to America’s Founding and faithful to America’s God. “God, I thank you,” we will be tempted to say, “that I am not like these Confederates who were blind to such gross immorality!”

Before judging white southerners of the Civil War era, however, let’s conduct two quick thought experiments. First, imagine that we could go back in time and survey every white person living in the United States in 1860 (just before the rupture of the Union). What variable do you think would best predict whether an individual defended or condemned slavery? Second, let’s imagine that we could survey every white person who ever lived in the United States from 1776 to the present. What variable do you think would best predict an individual’s attitude about racial equality?

So what answers did you come up with? Without embracing determinism or denying individual moral responsibility, I can say without hesitation that the answer to question #1 is where the individual was born. With the same caveats in place, the indisputable answer to question #2 is when the individual was born. On the eve of the Civil War, no factor did more to influence thinking about slavery than regional heritage. Individuals born south of Pennsylvania would almost always have defended slavery. Those born farther north would have either opposed slavery per se or stood against its expansion.

But note that, when evaluated against the entire sweep of American history, place of birth hasn’t been nearly as important as date of birth in predicting one’s thinking about racial equality. In 1860, whites in the North and South may have differed about slavery, but they shared a common belief in white supremacy. The latter has been an American, not a regional trait for most of our history. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent generations, but the larger generalization prevails. Show me someone who unthinkingly accepts the principle of racial equality, and the odds are overwhelming that that person has been born since WWII.

So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

License Plates And The Lost Cause

Texas License Plate

Texas License Plate

As many of you will be aware, last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case pitting the state of Texas against the southern “heritage” organization Sons of Confederate Veterans. The case centers on the state’s extensive vanity plate program and whether its Board of Motor Vehicles has the right to reject messages on those plates that it deems offensive. The issue arose in 2011 when the Texas division of the SCV proposed that the state produce license plates stamped with the SCV logo, which includes at its center a replica of the Confederate battle flag.

After some initial hemming and hawing, the Board of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposal on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associates the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.” The SCV sued the state of Texas for violating their constitutional rights of free speech, Texas countersued, and in the end the case—Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.—made it all the way to the nation’s highest court. A decision is expected sometime in June.

The controversy strikes me as having at least three distinct dimensions, each fascinating in its own way. First there is the constitutional question of whether the free-speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been violated. Second is the historical question of what the Confederate battle flag has symbolized over the past century and a half. Finally there is the moral question of how the law of love might speak to the dispute.

I’m far from an expert in constitutional law, so I’m going to pass over the first question, even though it is the one that dominated the opposing arguments before the Court last Monday. (For what it’s worth, among the dozen or so pieces I’ve read about the case, I think that this one does the best job of succinctly summarizing the issues before the court, while this one is best in laying out the complexity of the case in an accessible way.) As a historian, though, I can’t pass up the second dimension, and in the essay that follows I’d like to address it. As a Christian historian I’d also like to share a thought about the third dimension as well, but I will save that for a subsequent post.

As best as I can tell, the history of the Confederate battle flag was a non-factor in arguments before the court. This was because the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is intrinsically offensive was not at issue. Boiled down, the question the justices have to figure out is this: should official state license plates be thought of as a forum for the expression of public opinion? If the answer is “yes” the SVC wins, because the Court has long held that government cannot limit speech merely on the grounds that it is offensive.

Outside of the courtroom, however, the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is offensive is absolutely central to the controversy. In the words of Dallas columnist Michael Lindenberger, should we see the battle flag as a “symbol of racism or an emblem of Southern pride”? Not surprisingly, it depends on who you ask. In the mind of the Reverend George Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Austin, Texas, the flag “represents hate,” pure and simple. To Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “it’s a powerful symbol of the oppression of black people.” According to Texas state senator Royce West, an African-American and long-time Democratic leader from Dallas, the flag is a reminder of “a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, [and] mass murder.”

Not so, say the representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” proclaims the website of the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.” And slavery? Racial oppression? Not even mentioned. But why should they be? As Ben Jones, a former Congressman and national spokesman for the SVC puts it, the Confederate battle flag “represents the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are.”

Could the two sides be any more polarized? When it comes to competing interpretations of the same artifact, I’d say that the chasm between “rape and mass murder” and “liberty and freedom” is pretty hard to beat. Clearly, all nuance has gone out the window, but then complexity and soundbites rarely go together, do they?

But which side is right—or at least closer to the truth? It may surprise you to hear it, but I’m tempted to dismiss the question entirely—not because it’s hard, but because it’s inappropriate. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol. Symbols aren’t precise things that we can label as “true” or “false.” They’re unavoidably vague and squishy, and the connotations that they evoke are unavoidably subjective. This means that they can, and frequently do, mean different things to different people. Does the Confederate battle flag stand for slavery and white supremacy? Yes! . . . in the minds of some people. Does it stand for a noble defense of liberty and freedom? Absolutely! . . . in the minds of others. As a symbol, the Confederate flag is literally meaning-less—devoid of one, objective, intrinsic meaning—and the meaning we impute to it is just that: the meaning weimpute to it.

But as a historian I’m not prepared to stop here, for much of the debate about what the Confederate battle flag “stands for” today is really a debate about the values and motives of those in the past who have willingly waved it, worn it, or followed it. Here we move from the realm of symbols to the world of historical figures, and there is more than enough historical evidence at our disposal to adjudicate between the contending sides.

coskiIf we focus on the uses of the Confederate battle flag in the recent past, there is really no argument. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the flag became the symbol of choice of countless white supremacist organizations, most notably the Ku Klux Klan. But note that this development unfolded generations after Lee surrendered to Grant. A good book to read on this point is The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, by John M. Coski.

Coski, chief historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, notes that white southerners rarely displayed the battle flag between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which existed briefly during the early years of Reconstruction, was not popularly associated with that emblem. After the Klan was reborn during World War I, in part because of the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s notorious movie Birth of a Nation, Klan rallies regularly featured not the Confederate battle flag but the U. S. Stars and Stripes.


Klan marching in front of the Capitol with the Stars and Stripes

The popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, although Coski speculates that the influence of Gone With the Wind might be part of the answer. Whatever the cause, when South Carolina’s Governor Strom Thurmond walked out of the 1948 Democratic national convention in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that he helped to found quickly embraced the Rebel banner. When the fledgling party met in convention in Birmingham later that year, state delegations entered the convention hall waving Confederate battle flags.


The Confederate flag at a Strom Thurmond rally.

From that point on, whenever white southerners wanted to protest federal policies promoting integration, they unfurled the Confederate battle flag. In 1956, a year after the Supreme Court ordered southern school districts to dismantle segregation “with all deliberate speed,” the all-white Georgia legislature defiantly voted to incorporate the battle flag into the Georgia state flag. In 1962, South Carolina’s all-white legislature voted to raise the flag atop the state capitol in Columbia. A year later, Alabama governor George Wallace “toss[ed] the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and raised the Confederate battle flag over the Alabama statehouse. When African Americans like Reverend Clark, Ms. Ifill, and Senator West view the battle flag as a symbol of racial oppression, they have very good reasons to do so. How could they not?

But the question isn’t quite that simple. For their part, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans insist that it’s not their fault if white supremacist groups have hijacked a noble symbol. According to the SCV, their purpose is to honor the memory of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy a century and a half ago. The official website of the national headquarters prominently features a 2010 resolution in which the SCV “denounce[s] the use of the Confederate Battle Flag . . . by any hate group.” The resolution goes on to contend that “the misuse of the Confederate Battle Flag by any extremist group or individual espousing political extremism and/or racial superiority degrades the Confederate Battle Flag and maligns the noble purpose of our ancestors who fought against extreme odds for what they knew was just, right, and constitutional.”

Boiled down, the SCV position is this:  On the one hand, the advocacy of racial superiority in the latter half of the twentieth century is reprehensible and the organization in no way condones it. On the other hand, the cause of the South a century earlier had nothing to do with racial superiority but was in actuality “just and right.” I’m sorry guys, but the latter claim’s untenable.

Was every man and boy who put on the Confederate uniform motivated primarily by the desire to defend white supremacy? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice. But the idea that the commitment to white supremacy can be easily separated from the Confederate cause requires a willful determination to ignore a host of contemporary voices to the contrary.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy

The most famous was that of Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy. Speaking at a rally in Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, Stephens derided the view held by at least some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens declared. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

In defining the Confederate undertaking in racial terms, Stephens was picking up a theme perfected by the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for southern rights in the run-up to Abraham Lincoln’s election. In an October 1860 editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission,” the Mercury had advocated secession in the event of a “Black Republican” victory on the grounds that “the ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves,” would mean the loss of “everything that makes life worth living.” At roughly the same time in Knoxville, Tennessee (a town I have studied closely—you can buy my book here), advocates of secession denounced “the inglorious platform of the black republican party, that places the African negro on an equality with you and every white man.”

After Lincoln’s election, voices from across the South interpreted the Republican victory as an assault on the South’s racial hierarchy. S. F. Hale, an Alabama politician sent to Kentucky to try to persuade that state to secede, declared that the new government in Washington would strike down “the sovereignty and equality of the States, . . . resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.” If the South should meekly submit, Hale prophesied, “degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life. . . . Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder?”marchingmasters

There is no reason to believe that these views were confined to civilians. Here a good book to read would be Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward. Woodward is no carpetbagger or liberal Yankee academic. He holds the PhD from Louisiana State University, one of the premier centers for the study of southern history, is currently an archivist at the Arkansas Center for History and Culture, and got his book published by the press of the University of Virginia.

Woodward begins with a survey of how the slavery question informed Confederate soldiers’ understanding of the southern cause. He finds that the two were inseparable. Whenever Confederates reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. Rebels worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Above all, they feared becoming “slaves” themselves.

As the author points out, slavery was never just an economic arrangement or an institution for racial control in the Old South, although it was both those things. In the minds of white southerners, it was also a powerful metaphor for dependence and degradation, and the black slaves that surrounded them became the embodiment of what would happen to whites if the southern cause did not prevail. Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a “rich man’s war” on behalf of the master class. “The proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes,” he contends, and expressions of class resentment were rare. “The struggle was about protecting slavery,” Woodward sums up matter-of-factly, and all ranks “knew that going in.”

Writing at the end of the 1960s, the eminent American historian David Potter, a Georgian by birth, remarked that the South was a land that remembered the past “very vividly [but] somewhat inaccurately, because the present had nothing exciting to offer, and accuracy about either the past or the present was psychologically not very rewarding.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans fit that template to a tee. I can’t speak to their constitutional argument that they have a legal right to require the state of Texas to print their logo on a license plate. But I can say this about their historical argument: It’s awful.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

Slavery And Freedom: Teaching the American Revolution, Pt. 5


No context, no meaning. Know context, know meaning.

In my last post, I explained that if we want to understand the causes and meaning of the Revolution to American colonists, we need to place the events that get into the textbooks—the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the shots fired on Lexington Green—into the larger fabric of their lives. This will necessarily involve figuring out what was going on in their lives at the same time as the highly publicized political events that we tend to remember. But we will also need to investigate what has gone on before those events—maybe even long before them. Both dimensions of context are essential.

But context is not something you simply uncover in the archives. When historians speak of historical context, they don’t simply mean “other things going on at the same time or earlier.” They have in mind details that have explanatory power—events or patterns or beliefs that help us to understand our subject more fully. As educational psychologist Sam Wineburg reminds us, the word context is derived from the Latin contexere, “to weave together.” Determining the context of a key historical event like the American Revolution requires that we “engage in an active process of connecting things in a pattern.” Historians will not always agree on what contextual details are important. You and I may not either.

When it comes to the American Revolution, certain contextual details are undeniably crucial. Academic historians agree that it is impossible to understand the beginning of the American Revolutionary War without taking into consideration the way that the relationship between England and her North American colonies was changed by the repercussions of the French and Indian (or Seven Years’) War that ended in 1763. There’s no avoiding the familiar back-and-forth of Parliamentary policies and colonial protests between 1763 and 1776, and we’ll get to that, eventually.

But first I wanted to spend half a week or so discussing the labor systems of colonial America. To get their attention, I told them that I didn’t think it would be possible to understand the larger meaning of the American Revolution without wrestling with the prevalence of slavery and indentured servitude to the colonial world. Can I say this dogmatically? No. Remember, I am learning about the American Revolution along with my students. But is there good reason to think this might be true? Absolutely, and the reason is simple: as the struggle with Great Britain unfolded, the colonists over and over and over again referred to slavery in describing what was happening. To hear them tell it, King George III had determined to make them slaves. If they meekly submitted to his yoke, they would be behaving like slaves. In slavery, the colonists found a powerful metaphor for explaining the imperial crisis.

Here are just three examples from an almost limitless supply: In 1774, the First Continental Congress condemned more than a dozen acts of King or Parliament and concluded that these “tyrannical” measures were evidence of “a system formed to enslave America.” The following year Virginia statesman Patrick Henry employed similar imagery in an impassioned address to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Most of us would recognize Henry’s emphatic conclusion—“Give me liberty or give me death!”—but moments earlier the silver-tongued orator had told his colleagues, “It is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in chains and slavery.” A year later, when the Revolutionary War was well under way and going poorly, the famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine exhorted patriots to persevere in these “times that try men’s souls.” If they chose the path of submission, Paine warned, then “slavery without hope” awaited them.

Slavery was a powerful metaphor because the colonists could relate to it. They could relate to it because it permeated their world. By the 1760s the kind of slavery we remember was largely limited to the colonies from Maryland south. In those colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia), Africans and the descendents of Africans comprised roughly two-fifths of the population, and almost all of them labored as slaves for life, the property of white masters who had a legal claim both to them and their offspring. In the tobacco and rice fields of the southern colonies, they worked from dawn to dusk producing the staple crops that made Britain’s North American colonies so valuable to the Empire.

In contrast, by the eve of the Revolution black slaves were scarcely 2 percent of the population in the northern colonies. But this was not the only kind of “slavery” prevalent in the colonial world. Long before African slavery loomed large in the colonial economy, white Englishmen like Richard Frethorne were toiling on American plantations as indentured servants. In theory, indentured servants forfeited their freedom for a period of years (typically between four and seven) in exchange for some sort of remuneration. (Most commonly, they labored to repay the costs of their transportation from Europe to North America.) Indentured servitude differed from slavery in two crucial respects: its duration was finite—adult indentured servants rarely owed more than seven years’ service—and it was not hereditary. As important as these differences were, this much must be understood: indentured servants were not free.

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

Indentured servants had few legal rights, could be whipped without recourse, could not marry or own property without the permission of their masters, might be separated from family members, and could be bought and sold during the duration of their terms of service. Nor should we fool ourselves by saying that, at the very least, indentured servants had willingly chosen to forfeit their freedom for a time in the hope of eventually improving their lives. Many, like Richard Frethorne, were sold into indentured servitude by their parents, presumably to pay off debts or provide for other family members. (Months before his death in Virginia, Frethorne wrote to his parents to beg them to “redeem me suddenly,” to have mercy on him and “pity my miserable case.”) Countless others sold themselves into servitude as an act of economic desperation. For all these reasons, historians frequently group slavery and indentured servitude into a larger category of “unfree” labor. In truth, there are enough similarities to define slavery as “permanent servitude” and servitude as “temporary slavery.”

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

For reasons that historians are still trying to unravel, in the southern colonies white indentured servitude declined dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century, but it remained crucial to the economy of the northern colonies right up to the Revolution. To illustrate the latter point, I have my students read a collection of advertisements from the 1750s from the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper of colonial America’s most famous publisher, Benjamin Franklin. “TO BE SOLD,” shouts one ad, “a likely Irish Servant Girl, about 19 years of Age, fit for Country Work.” “TO BE SOLD,” announces another, a “Dutch servant boy… and a Dutch servant woman.” “SERVANTS,” proclaims a third, “just imported… from Ireland, and to be sold by Conyngham and Nesbitt, a PARCEL of young men, women, and boys.”

To supplement these impersonal advertisements I ask my students to read a portion of a detailed memoir by a German immigrant who came to Philadelphia in 1750 on a ship carrying more than four hundred indentured servants. The writer, Gottlieb Mittelberger, condemned what he labeled “this traffic in human flesh” and described it as follows:

The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen and High-German people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places, in part from a great distance, say 20, 30, or 40 hours away, and go on board the newly arrived ship that has brought and offers for sale passengers from Europe, and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage-money, which most of them are still in debt for. When they have come to an agreement, it happens that adult persons bind themselves in writing to serve 3, 4, 5 or 6 years for the amount due by them, according to their age and strength. But very young people, from 10 to 15 years, must serve till they are 21 years old.

Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle; for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained; but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going, it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.

When we combine the number of slaves and indentured servants in colonial America, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the “peopling” of Britain’s North American colonies centered primarily on the unfree, both black and white. Between 1607, the year when the first permanent English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown,and 1775, when the first shots of the Revolutionary War rang out on Lexington Green, nearly three quarters of a million individuals came, willingly or unwillingly, to America’s shores (not counting convicts). Of these, 311,600 were African slaves; 200,200 were indentured servants; and 217,900 were free men, women, and children. In percentage terms, nearly 43 percent of the total came as slaves and 27 percent came as indentured servants. Only three in ten immigrants to the future United States arrived as free individuals.

So what are we to make of this? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

Should Christians Be Patriotic Part 2: True Freedom

8066890_sShould Christians be patriotic?

In Part 1 of this series I discussed patriotism in terms of self-interest. Presidents often talk about pursuing American self-interest and frequently use it as justification for wars and self-serving economic policies. Of course, American presidents are not alone in pursuing national self interest. Patriotism in any nation is commonly understood to be about pursuing national interest. That pursuit should raise some important questions for Christians of any nation. After all, according to Jesus the Kingdom of God calls us to die to our self-interest so that we can be resurrected to love our neighbors – including our enemies – as we love ourselves. Many want to say that Jesus was simply talking about a personal ethic, but the Kingdom of God has strong political overtones. In this regard, the Kingdom of God is an alternative to all other kingdoms and nations of the world.

Another term that is frequently connected to patriotism and self interest is freedom. Freedom is a great ideal, but what does it mean? It usually means that individuals, or nations, have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. But we know that the United States has a compromised history when it comes to its own ideals of freedom. Tragically, the self-indulgent and corrupt notion that “freedom” involves the ability to do whatever we want to do has come at the expense of others who are viewed as a common enemy, and thus a threat to our “freedom.” This has led to many atrocities, including the destruction and enslavement of countless Native Americans and African Americans. This “freedom,” then, requires uniting against and subjugating, or even killing, those we call our enemies.

If American patriotism involves the unfettered freedom to pursue self interest at the expense of our “enemies,” then Christians should not be patriotic.

For Christians, freedom is not about individuals or nations self indulgently doing whatever they want to do. Freedom, in that sense, is based on the model of Pharaoh who used his “freedom” to do whatever he wanted, which involved enslaving the Israelites. Indeed, Egypt found a common enemy in the Israelites. As the book of Exodus tells us, Pharoah said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us.” So, Egypt, wanting to be free from the threat of a potential enemy, united against the Israelites and subjugated them with increasing oppression. In Exodus, God heard the voice of the victims enslaved in Egypt. God called Moses and the Hebrews to freedom. God set them free from slavery in Egypt, but freedom from something must always be accompanied by the freedom for something. God revealed what he freed his people for on Mount Sinai. With the giving of the 10 Commandments, God bound the Hebrews together in a covenantal community. The 10 Commandments was not  about uniting against a common enemy, but uniting to be responsible for the well being of one another.

Freedom was also important for the early followers of Jesus. With Jesus as their model, they began to see how God was setting them free from violence. Jesus knew from the Exodus story that God hears the cry of victims. If that’s the case, then Christian freedom leads us away from creating victims of violence – even in the name of freedom. Christ models a particular freedom that is not based on self indulgent power over and against a common enemy, but on the freedom and the power to love. Paul provides the greatest example of this freedom to love when he wrote to the Galatians that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5)

If patriotism means the freedom to pursue my own self interest at the expense of a common enemy, then Christians should not be patriotic. For Christians, true freedom is the freedom to love – especially to love our enemies. Paul explained that this freedom was achieved paradoxically through becoming enslaved to one another through the nonviolent and self-giving love of Christ.

So, as we celebrate freedom this 4th of July weekend, remember that freedom from something entails the freedom to be for something. For Christians, freedom does not involve doing whatever we want. Christ sets us free from the violence of uniting against a common enemy and free to love all people, including our enemies.


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – A True Story for the 4th of July

Most 4th of July celebrations in America include two things: fireworks and hot dogs. Classic, right? This year I’d encourage you to add one activity to your weekend: a one hour history lesson from Dr. Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Why? Because hovering in the background this weekend like the scent of smoldering briquettes is a simple yet compelling view of America. You know what I mean – the land of the free, the home of the brave, that sort of thing. Our children will be absorbing our love of country through the flag waving, hot dog eating contests, and bands playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” to fireworks displays. Which is not a bad thing, unless our love is blind. Patriotism divorced from truth-telling can put our nation in danger and strange to say, the movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, helps us see our history and our present risks more clearly.

It’s doozy of a film that weaves history and fantasy together to create a new Abe Lincoln. This Abe didn’t just free the slaves. He freed them from being the food supply for a vampire nation. In this story, the Confederacy has been infiltrated by vampires. Their leader, Adam, is bent on establishing a vampire-friendly government. He wants to preserve slavery because when slaves turn up dead, no one launches a murder investigation. So in the movie, when Abe saves the Union, he saves it not only from slavery but from a vampire coup d’état. Yeah, Abe! Who doesn’t love it when Americans beat wicked bad guys, especially when the bad guys are blood sucking, slave-holding, already dead guys like vampires?

I know – who can take this stuff seriously? The sad thing is that we take it way too seriously. America as superhero kicking the bad guy’s ass is the kazoo humming in the background as the briquettes burn. Axe wielding Abe foiling a vampire invasion is something we can all hum along to. But no matter how much this movie wants us to believe that Abe is a good guy, completely and utterly different from the vampires he is slaying, the truth about Abe and our nation’s history is more complicated. It turns out Abe and Adam both spill blood at an alarming rate, mirroring each other in an escalating cycle of revenge. Here’s a brief plot outline: Young Abe’s mother is killed by a vampire; years later Abe tries to kill that vampire but fails; another vampire named Henry trains Abe so he can be better at killing vampires; Abe kills lots of vampires for Henry; it turns out Henry is using Abe to get revenge on another vampire, Adam; soon Adam and Abe are trying to kill each other; when each comes to control vast armies (Abe as president, Adam in league with Jefferson Davis), their personal vengeance is enacted on the Civil War battlefields.

Now here’s the really strange thing – this movie is an unbelievable fantasy tale, yet it tells a simple truth about the American Civil War: no matter how Americans have tried to moralize the war, to turn it into a noble cause to free slaves or to preserve the union or whatever you think would justify the bloodletting, it was really more like the Abe-Adam vengeance cycle than a moral undertaking. The war was the culmination of an escalating political battle over the territories that had been getting bloodier and bloodier. The combatants aligned along pro- and anti-slavery lines and their alternating victories in congress and the Supreme Court led North and South to a growing antagonism. Think of the way conservatives and liberals are counting up victories today, tallying Supreme Court decisions on immigration and health care as wins or losses for each side. That’s how it was back then and things got so tense that it only took a spark to ignite the war, the spark of a pointless skirmish at Fort Sumter. I won’t go into all the history, but the point I want to make is that at the time the war began, it had nothing to do with ending slavery and everything to do with sectional rivalry. It’s wasn’t that there were good guys and bad guys, honest Abe’s and Southern vampires. It was both sides believing completely in their own goodness and the justice of their cause justifying a war that if fought today would have involved 33 million Americans and left 7 million of us dead.  That’s 7 million good guys being killed by good guys. Or if you like, a nation of good people behaving like vampires.

I know that sounds harsh, a little hard to wash down with a hot dog and frosty cold one. But the reason I am bringing this up while we are celebrating the goodness of our nation is that I want to remind you that if we are as good as we say we are, we won’t ignore the moral complexity of our own history. As Dr. Tracy McKenzie said at our Civil War conference in March, good people do more than remember their history “in self-justifying and self-congratulatory ways.” Dr. McKenzie challenged us to tell the truth about our bloodiest and most costly conflict as a way to become a more peaceful people who are less dangerous to ourselves and others. If we can’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it, and that thought is more frightening to me than a vampire invasion. So this 4th of July weekend, don’t pay $12 to see Abe kill vampires – that’s a tired narrative. Gather the family and watch Dr. McKenzie tell you a complicated story about America, one that makes it possible for good guys like us to stop behaving like blood thirsty vampires. Now that would be a reason for fireworks.

The Spiritual Warfare of Lent: Jesus, Satan, and Rick Santorum

This is a spiritual war. – Rick Santorum

It’s Lent. For Christians, Lent is a time for spiritual warfare. Yup. I’m in a war. How do you wage spiritual warfare?

Christians have two models for spiritual warfare: Jesus and Satan.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum warned us about one of those models in 2008 at a speech he made at Ave Maria University. The speech resurfaced this week on the Internet. Here are some highlights from the speech:

Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.

This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost 200 years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.

When CNN asked Santorum about his 2008 comments, he defended himself stating, “I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil.” Spiritual warfare does involve good and evil. Santorum is right about that. But identifying good and evil is tricky business. It is easy to find evil “out there.” The difficulty is to find the evil that lies inside our own hearts. Satan, whose name refers to both Tempter and Accuser, tempts us to make accusations against others. Those accusations conveniently blind us to our own evils. In fact, we will begin to interpret our evil as good. Santorum, for example, claims that “America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.”  According to Santorum, our Founding Fathers only sowed the seeds of Spiritual Goodness. I’ll happily admit that there is plenty of good in the US Constitution and in American history, but, please. Our Founding Fathers sowed some satanic seeds, too. They refused to outlaw slavery in the US Constitution, which watered the seeds of America’s long and horrific history of racism. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny – a myth of our goodness with God on our side – we committed atrocities against native Americans, atrocities the likes of which we condemn in our enemies. We have waged wars and proxy wars, killing and destroying without ever doubting our own goodness.

I want Santorum, and all Americans, to be honest about our history. Otherwise, we are following in the footsteps of the Father of Lies. America has a beautiful and sordid history, full of good and evil. Good and evil don’t just exist somewhere out there. The truth about good and evil is that the line dividing them runs down each and every nation, and each and every person.


The spiritual warfare of Lent goes back to Jesus himself. Faithful Christians should be careful that their model for spiritual warfare is Jesus, and not Satan. Jesus himself had to choose between God and Satan – I’m sure you are familiar with the story, so I won’t go into detail. Pertinent for Santorum, as a person of faith, Jesus was tempted by Satan with the political power to rule the world … if only Jesus would worship Satan. If Jesus would have ruled the world through Satan, he would have done so through satanic principles. He would have accused his opponents of great evil and then he would have used those accusations to justify violence against them. In fact, many of his followers expected him to be that kind of king. But every time he was tempted by violence he refused.

Why did Jesus refuse? Because he rules the world through love and nonviolence. This is no wimpy love. This is true love. Jesus reveals the way to true humanity, which has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with justice, mercy, and compassion. Satan leads us over and against one another in cycles of accusations. The spiritual warfare of Lent leads us to stop the accusations and challenges us to live into God’s reconciliation.


When Fear Takes Hold: What we can learn from the Southern defense of slavery

Why did Southern states secede from the union? Between Lincoln’s election on Nov. 6, 1860 and his inauguration on March 4, 1861 seven states seceded, giving support to the theory that the South objected strongly to Lincoln and his Republican party. But in the 150 years since the war, the debate about the cause has hardly been settled. Added to Lincoln’s election, prime contenders are tariffs, states’ rights, and slavery. But one reason for secession is rarely on the list: security.

It seems odd to go to war – a risky endeavor involving death and destruction – to make yourself more secure, but it happens all the time. Security is why we went into Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. We wanted to make ourselves safe by attacking terrorists on foreign soil, taking the war to them, as the reasoning went ten years ago. But the Southern states, by seceding, tempted an invasion. The war would be fought on their own soil, not in some far away land. How could security have factored into their thinking?

I’ve been reading a special issue of the monthly magazine The Atlantic called The Civil War. If you are interested in the Civil War it is well worth purchasing. It is a collection of articles that were originally published in The Atlantic during the 1850s and 1860s, before, during and after the war. There is nothing like cutting through 150 years of commentary to let the people of the time speak for themselves. One of the articles is titled Charleston Under Arms and it was written by John William De Forest, a Connecticut-born journalist. It recounts his visit to Charleston in January 1861. You may remember that though South Carolina had seceded on December 20, federal forces still held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This is where the first shots of the Civil War would be fired on April 12. De Forest recounts conversations he had with residents of Charleston during this tense and uncertain time before the war began.

South Carolinians were committed to their right to secede. They felt they had done nothing wrong, unpatriotic or illegal. They were clearly upset about Lincoln’s election and distrusted the Republican platform, though De Forest could not understand why. The platform, he explained to one dubious citizen, was “not adverse to slavery in the States; it only objects to its entrance into the Territories; it is not an Abolition platform.” Yet this South Carolinian wasn’t buying it. He replied, “We believe that [the Republican platform] is an incomplete expression of the party creed, — that it suppresses more than it utters. The spirit which keeps the Republicans together is enmity to slavery, and that spirit will never be satisfied until the system is extinct.”

Of course, the South had a great deal to lose economically if slavery were abolished. I am no economist, but it is not hard to imagine the wealth that could be lost and how desperately some might resist such a reversal of their fortunes. Yet the Southern gentleman had a reputation of being indifferent to money. It is one of the ways that the North and South had diverged culturally. Mark Noll in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis explains that the North was experiencing “the expansion of consumer capitalism, in which unprecedented opportunities to create wealth were matched by large-scale alienation and considerable poverty in both urban and rural America.” The reputation of the Southern gentleman, on the other hand, was as an aristocratic man of honor who was above the base pursuit of money for its own sake. A rivalry emerged in which each was contemptuous and yet secretly admiring of the other, contributing to a climate of distrust and resentment that found its full expression in the argument over the future of slavery in the United States.

But it was not a defense of Southern wealth that lay at the bottom of one South Carolinian’s concern regarding the Republican determination to end slavery. I will quote directly from the article:

When I [De Forest] asked one gentleman what the South expected to gain by going out, he replied, “First safety. Our slaves have heard of Lincoln,—that he is a black man, or black Republican, or black something, —that he is to become ruler of this country the fourth of March, —that he is a friend of theirs, and will free them. We must establish our independence in   order to make them believe that they are beyond his help”…

My impression is, that a prevalent, though not a universal fear, existed lest the negroes should rise in partial insurrections on or about the fourth of March.

Above all this man expressed a fear of a violent slave revolt that would threaten the safety and security of his community. First safety. His fear was not unfounded. Slave revolts had taken place in which whites and blacks alike were killed. You will remember from your American History classes the names of John Brown and Nat Turner. These revolts caused fear and concern in the South. What we find in this quotation is that during the brief time between Lincoln’s election and the beginning of war, the threat of slave insurrections felt more real and imminent than any threat that might come from an invading Union army. Blinded by fear, the South would risk war to defend an evil institution.

What can we learn from this glimpse into Southern fears? Too often we view history a bit smugly, as if we have the perfect vantage point to understand motives, discern causes, and judge the right from the wrong, the wicked from the good. Used this way, history is not about the truth of another time or place, but is a part of the story we are telling about our own goodness. To avoid this pitfall, rather than sit in judgment of Southern fears, we might learn from them instead by asking a difficult question: Is it possible that our own fears are blinding us, too, preventing us from seeing some uncomfortable truth about ourselves?

Even more to the point, though slavery is long abolished, racism has been harder to eradicate. Are there ways in which we are as blind as South Carolinian slave holders to the continued suffering of the black community? Might a contemporary fear of loss of safety have a hold on us? I ask only because of the continuing presence of segregation in our schools and communities; I ask because according to Michelle Alexander, law professor at Ohio State and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began”; I ask because of lingering issues of voting rights discriminations and the undertones and sometimes overtones of racism in some attempts to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency.

Look, my point is not to make people feel bad. I know that for white America to admit it still harbors racist fears and delusions of racial supremacy is a really uncomfortable place to go. But sometimes allowing ourselves to feel bad is the only way to be truly good. Instead of running from our fear and pretending everything is okay, feeling bad opens the door for change. The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago but the battle for racial equality is far from over. I hope you won’t be afraid to learn more about the fears and struggles of the past. Perhaps you can join the Raven Foundation as we look at the struggles for integration in the 1940s when baseball led the way forward in the Lookingglass production of Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. We are also offering an opportunity to explore new research into the theological arguments for and against slavery that were taking place before the Civil War, arguments that have left powerful handprints on our public life today. Raven is partnering with the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College to bring you leading Civil War scholars on March 16-17 for this historical and relevant conversation. Don’t miss these great opportunities to look together at our shared history – it might even feel good!