Going Wrong With ConfidencePosted March 29th, 2011
by Bert Williams
Christian conviction fueled wartime ardor on both sides of the American Civil War. So say a number of contemporary Civil War historians. Because the war began 150 years ago this spring, Americans are likely to hear much more, during the next four years, about this grim chapter of the national experience.
The unavoidable reality is that many Christians were completely wrong in how they viewed the spiritual dimensions of that conflict. It seems worthwhile, then, to consider this sad, cautionary tale—a true one, at that. And it makes sense to suggest that Christians of the 21st Century will benefit from considering the experience of those Christians of a century and a half ago.
The first shots in the Civil War were fired by Confederate cannons at the Union’s Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. The date was April 12, 1861. The Confederates finally surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia four years later, on April 9, 1865. Between these two dates, more than six hundred thousand Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives.
The important anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on how an individual, or a large and influential movement, can go wrong with confidence.
GOD ON THEIR SIDE
During the Civil War, both the North and the South confidently and fervently asserted that God was on their side.
For many years, New Englanders had believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, ordained by Him to settle the “New World.” By the 1850s, opposition to slavery by clergy in the North was growing. During the war, the influence of abolitionists continued to grow in churches of the North, to the point that all northern Christian denominations, with the exception of Catholics and Episcopalians, took up the cause of emancipating the slaves. However, the unbridled outbursts of some northern clergy against slavery became so extreme that many in the Republican Party—President Abraham Lincoln’s party—distanced themselves from such talk.
The South, on the other hand, claimed that the North had a “godless” constitution. It was true that the name of God was nowhere specifically mentioned by the framers of the Constitution of the United States. By contrast, the Confederate Constitution, which had been ratified on March 11, 1861, proclaimed a Christian identity—“invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” Those in the South claimed that industrialized northerners were materialistic secularists whose determination to see slavery come to an end was based on their own selfish economic interests. Slavery, in the view of the largely agrarian South, was God-ordained (They based this contention on Scripture references found in the writings of Paul), and gave Christian slave owners an opportunity to instruct slaves in the ways of salvation.
In retrospect, it is clear that both sides marshaled the Biblical evidence and arguments that they believed supported their own views—and firmly convinced themselves that they were right.
But of course they could not both be right.
THE PRESIDENT’S HUMILITY
President Lincoln, while ordering the emancipation of all slaves on January 1, 1863, assumed a much humbler attitude toward the question of slavery than did prominent clergy on either side. In his Gettysburg Address, there was no bravado, and no invoking the blessing of God on the Union cause. Rather, Lincoln simply paid respect to the memory of those who had lost their lives in that horrific Gettysburg battle.
“Now we are engaged,” Lincoln said, “in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
The closest the president came to choosing sides during the Gettysburg Address was a comment in which he longed for freedom: “It is for us the living … to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
The war raged on for nearly a year and a half after Gettysburg. Lincoln was re-elected president, and—as it turned out—was scheduled to give his second inaugural address only days before the surrender by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In view of the impending Union victory, those in attendance at Lincoln’s inauguration expected a much different speech than the one he gave.
CHARITY FOR ALL
The president could have exulted in the imminent triumph of the Union cause, which by this time was almost assured. He could have gloated over his nearly-defeated foe. He did nothing of the sort. Midway through the brief address, he said of the competing sides:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
Rather than claim God’s support of the Union cause, Lincoln simply stated:
The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?
And though a rapid end to the war now seemed inevitable, Lincoln made no prediction:
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Finally, the president expressed nothing but mercy toward the forces that had been arrayed against the Union cause. He concluded:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
President Lincoln’s humble demeanor and the honor he paid to his opponents stood in marked contrast to the arrogant attitude of many Christians on both sides of the conflict. It stands as a rebuke to many Christians in 2011.
Do the following ideas and attitudes—from the Civil War era—sound at all familiar? Consider thoughts from several recent books about the war.
According to Eugene D. Genovese, Christians on both sides appealed to a “Higher Law” in arguing for and against slavery. Terrie D. Aamodt writes that the theme of cosmic struggle was adopted by both sides, each painting their cause as noble and their opponents as evil. Songs, poems, tracts, and sermons used apocalyptic language to describe the enemy. Mark Noll explains that northern Christians appealed to the overall spirit of the Bible in opposing slavery while southern Christians appealed to literal language in specific Scripture passages to defend slavery.
Edward R. Crowther notes that, particularly in the south, culture and religion reinforced each other. Christianity, as practiced in the south, embraced the routine, every-day customs of the south as almost sacred. Drew Gilpin Faust writes that Christianity was the “central foundation” of the Confederacy. Indeed, Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso go so far as to insist that the Civil War could not have happened without the southern clergy’s endorsement.
In the 21st century, many Christians are very certain about the positions they promote. But once again, as in the 1860s, Christians do not all agree with each other. Also—as in the 1860s—the 21st century finds the customs of Christians and the customs of society to be intermingled—and both considered, by many, to be God’s way.
George M. Fredrickson notes that the influence of the Christian clergy in the North declined after the Civil War because much Christian preaching had become nearly indistinguishable from secular political thought.
Fast forward to 2011. When I am driving, I sometimes listen to talk radio, not because I particularly enjoy it but because I am interested in knowing what people are listening to. On many occasions, the talk I hear coming from some Christian talk radio programs is nearly indistinguishable—in both content and attitude—from the talk I hear on several secular talk radio and cable TV shows.
WHAT TO MAKE OF IT
What should the thoughtful Christian make of this? First, we should not be so terribly certain that we are always right. Humility, please remember, is a Christian virtue. History has not been kind to the Christians of the Civil War era, especially to those on the Confederate side. They were so sure they were right. It was so obvious to them. No other answer seemed possible. And yet they were wrong.
And although it can be reasonably argued that Christians on the Union side were closer to the truth, the way they went about promoting their views eventually weakened their influence on society.
The point is not that Christians should avoid having strong convictions. We should have them. But we should also have the grace and humility to consider asking hard questions of ourselves, and to consider the possibility that other viewpoints could, at times, have merit. We may not always be as right as we think we are.
When a crowd of people gets going in the same direction they can so easily convince one another to go too far in promoting the right—or, worse, to go the wrong direction while being certain they are right.
President Lincoln did not doubt the rightness of the Union cause, but he did not grandstand, he did not deride his opponents, he personified humility. His example—much more than the example of many Christian pastors of his era—is the one Christians should emulate in our own time.
Sources: www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org; www.brucegourley.com/civilwar