Onward Christian Soldiers: Political and Religious Dynamics of the US Civil War Era

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Ephesus

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Galatia

Politics in the United States of America predictably falls into an all-too familiar opposition between conservative and progressive causes. Champions of a former era of lost grandeur fill the ranks of the Republican Party and its rightist milieu. Advocates of a better future for all by correcting the injustices of the past and present tend to support the Democratic Party or other elements of a leftist social terrain. American religion divides along similar lines with Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and other conservatives facing off against “liberals and leftists” both religious and secular. This bifurcation is ultimately an over- simplification as anyone familiar with the further reaches of both the American far left and far right can attest, as well as the existence of a persisting “centrist” or moderate constituency, who play a key role as “undecided voters.” The enduring strength of this polarization nevertheless has deep historical roots within U.S. institutions. The bloodiest conflict over these sharply opposed politics was the Civil War of the 1860s. The broad social upheaval of the 1960s echoed much of that earlier era’s catastrophic warfare with issues of race, war, and economics triggering a multi-systemic crisis that touched upon seemingly disparate domains such as gender, sexuality, and perhaps most broadly, the relation of humanity to the earth itself as a new ecological consciousness developed. Even today, the divide in US politics between left and right falls along lines that were most vividly drawn in the Civil War era.

That this polarity is fundamentally tied up with religion is less well understood. Our exploration will examine the conflicts within and around religious life that permeated the Civil War. Of all modern industrial nations, the United States of America has one of the highest levels of religious identification. Opinion polls routinely find that over 90% of the populace believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Church membership statistics and attendance at religious services are remarkably high compared to other similar nations. Surveys also find that a significant correlation exists between degree of religious adherence and identification with a conservative political agenda. This close connection is not a recent phenomena and as our study will find, much of the contemporary American religious and political landscape was profoundly shaped by the Civil War and the wider social context of that era.

As religious historian Mark A. Noll documents, religion and politics in the Civil War period were tightly interconnected. He writes,

“…the evangelical Protestantism that dominated public life at midcentury had gained its place because it successfully clothed the Christian faith in the preeminent ideological dress of the new Republic. In particular, it had vivified, ennobled, and lent transcendent value to republican political assumptions, democratic convictions about social organization, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States.”

Noll highlights in particular four features of the dominant US Protestant tradition that were departures from the Christian nations of Europe: Anti-traditionalism, Republicanism, an emphasis on written instruments of government, and an ideological evolution in the doctrine of original sin’s effects on human virtue. Anti-traditionalism in Christian thought grew out of developments following the Protestant Reformation in which private interpretation of religious doctrines and texts were elevated over the past pronouncement of Church authorities. While continental Catholics and Protestants emphasized the authority of tradition as a bulwark of theological orthodoxy, US Protestantism became dominated – after the Revolution of 1776 and the adoption of the federal Constitution’s disestablishment of all churches – by a counter-tradition that rejected such a view of authority. The largest denominations at the time of the Civil War were Baptists, Methodists, Restorationists, and Presbyterians, which had substantive anti-traditional orientations. These bodies grew exponentially between 1790 and 1860. This contrasts with much slower growth among the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

This rejection of tradition generated in the US context a greater anti-intellectualism than was found in Europe. Particularly in proslavery churches, the Bible was regarded as literally true and if the Bible had a single reference to slavery as a positive good, such passages were considered as eternal truths needing no interpretation by Biblical scholars. In contrast, Catholic and Protestant Europeans deployed far more complex hermeneutics that drew on history, tradition, and formal learning. This resistance to critical thinking accounts for some of the difference between European and Canadian efforts at abolition among Christians. Their respect for tradition and scholarship allowed for a more deliberative and gradual approach to the abolition of slavery in England, Canada, and other European nations. The rigid anti-intellectualism of Southern slaveholding culture elevated the political stakes into a fundamental question of religious fidelity which made the recourse to armed warfare much more unavoidable in the US. The proverbial unmovable object met an irresistible force.

However, the story isn’t so simple as Bible-thumpers on one side opposing apostates and unbelievers. Many Christians did join the abolitionist cause and cited Holy Writ as their justification. One familiar interpretive tactic was to draw a line between the Old and New Testaments, with the latter held up as a gospel of peace, charity, and freedom and the latter as a violent record of human sin and ignorance. The cause of abolition was undoubtedly aided in the Northern States by successful antislavery legislative victories in England, the struggle for which had produced a bold and sophisticated Christian theology of abolition especially in the writings of William Wilberforce. His writings fairly bristle with piety and conviction:

“Is it not the great end of religion, and, in particular, the glory of Christianity, to extinguish the malignant passions; to curb the violence, to control the appetites, and to smooth the asperities of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties?”

In contrast, the works of the leading abolitionist in the US, William Lloyd Garrison, adopted a more critical stance towards religion:

“To say that everything in the bible is to be believed , simply because it is found in that volume, is equally absurd and pernicious… To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth.”

From the proslavery perspective, Garrison’s views enabled his opponents to stand their ground on a source of authority that was widely regarded as above all human reasoning about “the truth.” That American Christianity was in many respects even more authoritarian than its Continental counterpart is one of the social ironies of modern history. The US Baptist tradition in particular incorporated into its foundational narratives stories of persecution in Europe driving sincere, simple, and faithful believers out of an apostate society into a divinely “promised land.” This desire to worship and obey God free from human traditions and institutions was also part of the founding ideals of Quaker and Puritan colonists, though Quakers came to abolitionism over a century before the Civil War. That the quest for religious and civil freedom could be appropriated into a religious defense of brutal enslavement of African human beings boggles the modern mind.

A key aspect of the power of proslavery biblicism was the widespread reliance on a single translation of the Bible by most preachers and lay Christians, the King James Version (hereafter KJV) published in 1611 which became the standard text throughout the English-speaking world. When opponents of slavery attempted to formulate careful arguments based on a historical analysis of ancient practices that were called “slavery” in the KJV, their arguments rang hollow in the anti-intellectual culture of much of American Christianity. Again, a great historical irony is that a translation created under the auspices of one of the same European governments that were demonized in standard American narratives of State-Church persecutions became the standard translation used by anti-intellectual church leaders and believers to defend an authoritarian institution.

A deeper cultural factor plays into this milieu of biblicism when considered from the standpoint of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of mass communication, notably his “Gutenberg Galaxy” hypothesis. The printing of books as a mass reproduction of ideas and language produces a shift in human culture that McLuhan characterizes thus, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such.” Further, “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.” And, “Print, in turning the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralizing forces of modern nationalism.”

McLuhan’s theory provides a lens on the biblicism of the proslavery culture. Bibles had become the most easily accessible books in the US than in any prior society and given the dominant theological view that these texts were infallible and inerrant, these portable objects became an external authority that stood over against the private opinions of “sinful men” and “human reason.” One could discover what God’s eternal view on any subject was by consulting this book. Such intense emotional investment in an external object calls to mind Freudian theories about the super-ego. Freud postulated that as a child grows to fear the punishment of its parents for its misbehaviors, it begins developing an internal system of self-protection that can turn into a toxic internal critic. The fear of punishment from an external authority is turned into an internal self-punisher. In the cases of exceptionally troubled personalities, an external object can be invested with this authority to punish, most notably a religious ideal, whether embodied in priests or a sacred inviolable text.

Tying Freud’s superego theory to McLuhan’s Gutenberg hypothesis leads us to another element in Mark Noll’s analysis of the religious culture of Civil War America, that of an emphasis on written instruments of government. The US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights assumed the character of infallible documents in the popular mindset, much as the Bible itself. In our time the current debates over the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” seems to carry a similar religious cast of mind as that of the study of scripture for many religious conservatives. Not only could one not challenge the Biblical authors, one could not challenge the august phrases of the American Constitution, least of all the passages that defined slaves as 3/5s of a person!

A further level of analysis is suggested by Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. If the Bible and the American political texts are sacred documents, their mass production as objects of commerce plays into their roles as markers of value.

“[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world … the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.“

If the transformation of human labor, including the labor of writing sacred texts and perpetuating their existence over two millenia from the ancient “cradle of civilization” to deliver them into the hands of millions as the infallible word of God isn’t the perfect example of commodity fetishism, what else could be? This text potentially judges every social interaction with moral rules that are considered timeless. Little wonder that proslavery theology flourished in the South.

However, the Civil War did happen and slavery was forcibly abolished in the entire United States despite the solid support that existed for it in some quarters. This brings us to face one of the unresolved aspects of the Civil War era, the role of racism as a systemic devaluation of human beings based on perceived ethnic membership. The aftermath of the Civil War is characterized by a sustained struggle over the human and civil rights of the newly emancipated slaves. Simply ending the basic institutional forms of slavery did not resolve a whole host of problems that were directly or indirectly connected with that system.

This history of US racism also reveals that to a significant degree, Northern society participated in the dehumanizing practices of segregation, economic discrimination, educational rationing, and excessive police force directed at African-Americans. Despite the overt victory over the slave system, racism lived on.

Cornel West identifies three cultural sources for American racist attitudes, a

“…Judeo-Christian racist logic, which emanates from the biblical account of Ham looking upon and failing to cover his father Noah’s nakedness, thereby provoking divine punishment in the form of blackening his progeny, links racist practices to notions of disrespect for and rejection of authority, to ideas of unruly behavior and chaotic rebellion. The “scientific” racist logic, which promotes the observing, measuring, ordering and comparing of visible physical characteristics of human bodies in light of Greco-Roman aesthetic standards, associates racist practices with bodily ugliness, cultural deficiency and intellectual inferiority. And the psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers.”

Of course, our analysis to this point has focused on the biblical theology of slavery, but West points to a specific theology of racism that is today quite discredited. The “Curse of Ham” was identified by white Christian racists during the Civil War as black skin. Thus, the oppression of Black persons was merely carrying out the will of God. This viewpoint survives in more subtle fashion among Christians today when the history of the faith is told through a trajectory from Judea to Rome to Germany to England to the USA. Missing from this history are the stories of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and other African forms of Christianity. Africa is religiously characterized as a dark continent of tribal superstitions and Islamic strongholds. Even today one can find Evangelical Christians who reject slavery, yet wonder whether there would be such vibrant American Black Churches without that experience. In an odd twist, this analysis seems to suggest that Blacks are in fact a modern type of the Hebrew slaves in Pharoah’s Egypt.

West’s second source, “scientific” racism is also still present in society, most notoriously in the 1994 publication of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. They wrote, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” In the Civil War era, Samuel George Morton theorized that it was possible to judge intelligence by cranial capacity. Many prominent Western intellectuals held perhaps less crude, but nevertheless comparably racist ideas of biological inferiority.

The final form of racist logic West identifies is both highly suggestive, but also perhaps more difficult to establish as true. Earlier, this field was hinted at in the brief remarks on Freud and the superego. West elaborates,

“… psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers. This logic—rooted in Western sexual discourses about feces and odious smells—relates racist practices to bodily defecation, violation and subordination, thereby relegating black people to walking abstractions, lustful creatures or invisible objects. All three white-supremacist logics view black people, like death and dirt, as Other and Alien.”

To return to the Civil War era, Mark Noll notes that while proslavery biblicists were quite willing to defend slavery as divinely ordained, they were unwilling to consider that slavery might be an appropriate system to apply to whites. This discriminatory aspect of US slaveholding is very likely the critical flaw that spelled the end of favoring slavery in Northern states. The rise of industrial production and capitalist waged labor produced an enormous demand for hourly workers in a variety of growing businesses. Slave labor simply had very little utility in an industrial economy.

    The growth of capitalist industry carried with it new conceptions of individualism that weakened the racist assumptions of American society, though subsequent history proved that they never fully disappeared. The calculating logic of modernizing society was ultimately incompatible with slavery.

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