Monday, May 1, 2017

"Why Was There the Civil War?" Mr. Trump Asks: Some Answers from Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Since the president of the United States asked this morning, "Why was there the Civil War?," I thought I might take a stab at offering Mr. Trump some educational resources in the hope of helping him understand "why there was the Civil War." Unfortunately, coming to that point of understanding will require him to begin understanding the mentality of the white evangelical Christians, concentrated in the former slaveholding states of the American South, who are his strongest base of support.

I've just finished reading Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017), and on the off chance that Mr. Trump and his loyal fans won't read that good book, I'm going to offer Mr. Trump some excerpts from FitzGerald's book that have a direct bearing on the question he asked today. Here they are:

The Southern evangelical shift from emancipation to a defense of slavery had consequences beyond the matter at hand. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, southern evangelicals had launched a variety of reform movements, among them the abolition of imprisonment for debt, the amelioration of prison conditions, and the expansion of suffrage. But the reform movements all lost momentum before reaching their goals. In defending slavery against hostile northern opinion, southerners began to regard the advocacy of any kind of reform as potentially threatening (p. 52).

As FitzGerald notes, Southern evangelicals (who were more or less uniformly apologists for slavery after they weeded out dissidents in the lead-up to the war) promoted a doctrine called the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” advanced by Presbyterian thinkers but generally accepted by Southern evangelicals. This doctrine undergirded their rejection of social reform movements: the church belongs, they wanted to insist, to "an order of grace" that is removed from the political and socioeconomic worlds and the troubling moral questions those worlds raise. The "order of grace" is contrasted to the "order merely of justice" that the state inhabits (p. 52).

This doctrine resulted in a viewpoint among Southern evangelicals that the saving of souls — not the reform of morally abhorrent social institutions — should be the only and all-encompassing objective of Christian churches (p. 53). This focus created among white Southerners an "intensely individualistic, asocial religion"(p. 54).

Feel free to draw the lines from all of this — they're straight, clear ones — to the Republican party and its ideology today.

Then there's this: 

Coming into contact with people who read the Bible differently, southerners, unconscious of their own scrim of interpretation, concluded that those others were not Christians (pp. 54-55).

In the 20th century, as the controversy between fundamentalists and modernists heated up in American Christianity in the first decades of the century, with heavy involvement of Southern evangelicals on the fundamentalist side, the two wings of American Christianity developed diametrically opposed ways of understanding science, history, and the nature of truth, Fitzgerald notes (p. 72). She also points out — an interesting aside — that the influential series of works promoting the fundamentalist cause entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915) was conceived and financed by Lyman Stewart, an oil wildcatter who had made a fortune with his brother Milton in the Union Oil Company in California (p. 97).

Again, feel free to draw the clear, straight lines from these pieces of history to the ideology of the Republican party today. The Tea Party and white evangelical opposition to Barack Obama were more or less the same movement — and behind the Tea Party stood the oil barons named Koch. Why were the Koch brothers funding the Tea Party and white evangelicals standing against Obama, one has to ask?

About that "different" approach to the truth hammered out on the fundamentalist side early in the 20th century, FitzGerald offers two fascinating observations about the ministry of the leading white Southern evangelical whose name became synonymous with the Christian right later in the 20th century, Jerry Falwell:

Falwell often exercised what he considered his right as a preacher to tell stories that — to use Dean Atcheson’s phrase – were truer than the truth. In 1980 he regularly claimed that the Old-Time Gospel Hour had 25 million viewers, and he made up an exchange with Jimmy Carter in which he asked the president why he had "practicing homosexuals" on the White House staff, and Carter replied that he had to represent the American people. When confronted by the fact that the exchange never occurred, Falwell said that the story was a "parable," or "an allegory." In other words, it ought to have happened, even if it did not (pp. 274-275).


For Thomas Road people, education — in the broad sense of the word —was not a moral or intellectual quest that involved struggle or uncertainty. It was simply the process of learning the right answers. The idea that individuals should collect evidence and decide for themselves was out of the question. Once Falwell told his congregation that to read anything but the Bible and certain prescribed works of interpretation was at best a waste of time. He said that he himself read all the national magazines just to keep up with what others were saying, but that there was no reason for them to do so (p. 282).

Again, please feel free to draw the straight, clear lines we can easily discern from this way of thinking, from the world out of which this way of thinking emanates, and where the Republican party is today. 

There's more: the following is pertinent, too, isn't it? Here are some observations by FitzGerald about how the renowned Southern white evangelical Billy Graham engaged the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s:

On one occasion that summer [1957] he [Billy Graham] tentatively came out for civil rights legislation, but in an article in Life magazine he confined himself to pleading for an end to racial intolerance through an exercise of neighborly love. In a sermon he proclaimed: "The one great answer to our racial problems in American is for men and women to be converted to Christ" — as if the South were not peopled with born-again Christians. 
Graham also did not respond to King's plea that he hold crusades in the Deep South. He shied away from the term "integration," and when speaking of racial intolerance he often suggested that blacks and white northerners were equally culpable —even when the violence against the civil rights marchers was at its height (p. 204).

Then there's this:

Recapitulating their old sermons, evangelical preachers proposed [after the South's defeat in the Civil War] that the South was the most spiritual part of the country, the only one to hold to the truth of the New Testament Gospels, a sacred soil and the saving remnant of pure Anglo-Saxon culture. The terrible ordeal of war was, they explained, a part of the divine plan, the judgment of God, not on the sin of slaveholding, as northerners saw it, but on an insufficiency of religious zeal. The defeat, they preached, was a purification process — a baptism in blood — that would serve to steel them against the worldliness and the apostasy of the North. Thus turning inward, evangelicals once again sanctified the social order, championing states' rights, white supremacy, and the existing economic arrangements. Their message was defensive and isolationist — except for its promise that the South would rise again by fulfilling its God-given mission to Christianize America and bring the Gospel to the rest of the world (p. 225).

And there's this about the leading church (in terms of numbers and clout) of the white evangelical South, the Southern Baptist church:

Southern Baptists were comfortable in their social setting, where segregation and inequality were figured as a part of the natural order. Then, too, unchallenged by other theologies, they had come to what the historian Sam Hill calls a "special self-estimate": the view that the SBC had largely attained the simple faith and the pure gospel of the New Testament and embodied the purest expression of Christianity since apostolic times (p. 228).


So long isolated from the rest of the world, Southern Baptists had no understanding of other religious traditions and no cultural or historical perspective on their own. They had no historical experience of modifying or renewing their message to suit the needs of a changing society, and their success at evangelism had made them supremely un-self-critical. Then, too, their individualism had left them ignorant of complex social forces and unprepared to work with those of different viewpoints for the common good (p. 232).

"Why was there the Civil War?," you want to know, Mr. Trump? Ask Frances FitzGerald. She has some answers for you. For a good proportion of your most ardent supporters, that war has not ever ended. They believe that they have been endowed by God with a peculiar mission as a peculiar people to impose their individualistic, asocial, me-and-Jesus spirituality as the only possible form of Christianity in the world on the whole nation. And you are happy to assist them in achieving that goal, because they are your strongest supporters.

But you really did know all of this when you asked your question, didn't you? Just as the Catholic bishops, to their great shame, have known all of this even as they have made common cause with these folks and their individualistic, asocial definition of Christianity — resulting in the decision of a solid majority of the white members of their flock to vote for you, due to the bishops' lack of moral and pastoral leadership for years now . . . .

As they pretend that their alliance with white Southern evangelicals has nothing at all to do with racial matters, with the Civil War, with the destructive individualistic, asocial brand of Christianity Southern white evangelicals forged in their resistance to those working to abolish the morally abhorrent institution of slavery . . . .

The photo of Frances FitzGerald is by David Shankbone, who has uploaded it to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

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