This entry started off as one about political geography, but changed along the way. That geography notes that perhaps the most monolithic conservative group of states is the South. They coincidentally are also considered, by most metrics, the most “religious” states. The third coincidence is that they also, at one time, seceded from the Union which brings me to the gist of this article: religion and the Civil War and, specifically, is there a legacy that explains current political geography?
Many historians have noted the religious nature of America since its founding despite the Constitutional provisions against an establishment of religion. To deny this fact is to deny reality. Tocqueville, in the 1830’s marveled at America’s religiosity and its equal thirst for democracy- two things that seemed at odds, but he argued that religious values, morals and customs is what kept the seedier sides of democracy at bay. By the midpoint of the 19th century, America was perhaps the most Christian country on earth with landscapes dominated by church spires and ringing church bells. By 1860, there were an approximate 40,000 churches in the United States. Of the 78 colleges founded by 1840, most were church-related. There may have been a “wall of separation” between church and state, but no such wall existed between church and culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, who belonged to no church, in his 1846 run for Congress had to quell the uneasiness of the electorate by confirming his religiosity.
Because religion was closed off from the law and policy-making, it found an outlet culturally by forming organizations dedicated to alcohol temperance, Bible distribution and against vice and immorality. Tocqueville recognized that since religion was walled off from the law and policy making, religion “directed the mores” which then worked to regulate the state. However, Tocqueville never considered that a time would come when religion would be content with its cultural dominance and would instead take a managing place in politics. The Civil War presented that opportunity.
With slavery as the backdrop, the Civil War began as a rather benign dispute over the right of states to secede from the Union. What happened after South Carolina made that fateful decision and the first shots at Fort Sumter- a rather small skirmish that may have killed 2 people and one confirmed dead mule- soon transformed into something entirely different. Lincoln’s characterization of the war as one to preserve the Union had become a war to abolish slavery. To the South, it became a war of survival of a way of life and, one may argue, a more Christian way of life.
In the North, the churches emphasized that America- the Union- had a special place in the world and must be preserved to carry on that mission. Because of our democratic institutions and Christian values, America was the pinnacle of civilization at the time. If the South succeeded, then the advance of liberty around the world would be deemed a failure. Northern ministers often invoked the 20th chapter of Revelations. If the North prevailed, it would prepare the way for the Kingdom of God on earth. Although they did not believe in the literal return of Christ, they preached that it would enter in a century of bliss.
Regarding slavery, there was hardly unanimous agreement in the North. Some denounced it as a sin. Yet others noted that the Bible was full of slavery and even condoned it, that Jesus spoke not a word against it despite living in a time when slavery was commonplace and that the letters of Paul explicitly commands slaves to be obedient. The most common belief fell between the extremes of abolition/emancipation and acceptance. At best, they believed that slavery would die a slow, gradual death and they were to await God’s providence in this area.
In a sneaky way, the churches of the North began to radicalize the war effort. What began as a war to preserve the Union transformed into a war of liberation. This neatly matches with Lincoln’s views. In 1861, it was a war of preserving the Union. By late 1862, he proposed the emancipation of slaves in 1863. In his 1864 reelection campaign, he proposed a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Losses on the battlefield were necessary because it would lead to the moral rebirth of the Nation.
In the South, the message was quite different, but no less “Christian.” Their position revolved around two points. The first was that the state was sovereign even to the point of secession. This was the primary cause of the Civil War. The second point was that slavery was not only expedient, but ordained by God and upheld by the very Scriptures Northern ministers were espousing.
More than the North, the South proudly proclaimed their Christianity. The new Confederate Constitution declared its Christian identity by “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” They chose as their motto, “God will avenge.” Jefferson Davis’ speeches are filled with references to the Christian will in securing their independence from the godless, secular North that put those secular concerns above the duties of Christian service. Vindication for a new “nation under God” came on July 21, 1861 at Manassas.
It is important to note that women and children- whose husbands and fathers were off fighting the war for the Confederacy- were the ones who heard these weekly church sermons. This made women of the South fiercely loyal to the cause. It was their resolve, in part, that prompted the brutality of Sherman’s march to sea and whose actions may be considered war crimes today. To the South, the loss of the war would be tantamount to the loss of Christian religious values in America.
And in a sense, the Southern mindset bears some truth. One of the major reasons the North won the war was because of its superior transportation and industrial infrastructure. The South was still a largely agrarian-based economy and society. As many sociological studies have demonstrated, the shift from agrarian to an industrial society leads to more secular rather than traditional values. These traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, a deference to authority, family values, and the importance of the parent-child relationship. Traditional values also include national pride. If these sound suspiciously like conservative values and beliefs, it makes perfect sense that conservatism found a home in the South.
Most political pundits like to paint the Republican Party (and by extension, conservatism) at a demographic crossroads. They note that the population is becoming less white and older. By that, they mean that the GOP base is shrinking and it will find itself in the minority and/or deceased. But, this writer believes that one’s skin color or one’s age is less important than where one lands on that traditional versus secular values continuum.
A perfect example was an ABC News poll taken after the 2012 presidential election. That poll found that a majority of self-described white conservatives had less of a problem with a family member marrying a black than they did with a family member marrying a Mormon (which is what Mitt Romney is). In other words, the white Protestant base of the party had less of a problem marrying outside one’s race than they did marrying outside one’s religion.
The Civil War proved the shortcomings of religious absolutism which made it all but impossible to use that absolutism going forward to address problems of an economic or social nature. The war made it difficult for deeply rooted religious conviction to shape any influence over public life. That is unfortunate since that religious conviction, which Tocqueville found so perplexing, was the foundation that guided the American dream to that point in history in 1861. The Southern Protestant churches began the retreat almost simultaneously with the retreat from the battlefield of Gettysburg.
Christians in both parties see America as the “promised land.” But, we part ways on what it means to be the chosen people. Republicans take pride in the fact the United States is the greatest country in the world and we boast of our moral superiority. Democrats, on the other hand, see America as an imperfect creation with more work to be done in living up to our ideals of equality and justice. In short, it is the old equality versus liberty difference that defines the differences sometimes expressed through religious rhetoric.
With the Civil War more than the issue of slavery and the Constitutional questions surrounding secession, Christianity allied itself with the actual waging of war in the most overt manner possible. There was no ambiguity or conditions on the part of either side. In 1775, American militiamen sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Less than a century later, they were singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” America has not been the same since.
Join the conversation as a VIP Member