Although post-Civil War Southern Baptists largely denied it until recent decades, slavery was the overriding cause of the American Civil War. Only in recent years have contemporary Southern Baptists by and large admitted what their white faith forebears in the antebellum South openly declared: the defense of slavery was the reason for the formation of the Confederacy.
Upon the defense of slavery white antebellum southerners constructed an argument of freedom: if the United States government denied whites the right to own black slaves, they reasoned, then the government was intruding upon their personal liberties and freedoms. In defending white liberty and freedom (it did not occur to most white southerners that blacks might also be humans deserving of equal rights), southerners argued, they were standing up for states' rights and against the federal government (although the same southerners quickly argued for federal centralization when it could be used to advance slavery).
By the end of the war, unrepentant southerners (Baptist and otherwise) reconstructed their arguments into the myth of the Lost Cause. Gone was slavery as the primary reason, or even a real reason at all, for the war. Instead, southerners had warred against the North in a valiant effort to preserve personal freedom and liberty and states' rights. The honorable and righteous South had been defeated only because unholy and unjust northern forces marshaled overwhelming military might against noble but overwhelmed white southerners.
For nearly 100 years after the Civil War, racist white southerners ensured that blacks, although now free according to the United States Constitution, were kept in subjugation to whites through intimidation and violence (the Ku Klux Klan) and oppressive laws (Jim Crow and segregation), means sanctioned (openly or quietly) by most white Christians. True freedom for blacks in the South came only in the 1950s and 1960s when the federal government forced the old Confederate states to integrate schools and other public institutions. Even then, most whites, including many if not most self-proclaimed Christians, resented integration and federal intervention - and many resisted with anger and violence. Many white Christians, refusing to recognize blacks as equals and angry over the intervention of the federal government, pulled their children out of public schools and enrolled them in the new white private schools that suddenly sprung up in an effort to keep white children from being contaminated by contact with black children.
Integration, in short, vividly opened old wounds of white southern defeat and challenged the cherished mythical narrative of the civility, righteousness and godliness of white supremacy. While memories of Civil War and Reconstruction injustices remained anchored in the minds of indignant white southerners, this new intrusion of the federal government upon white southerners' liberties and freedoms reheated inherent racism and anger.
When the Supreme Court in 1963 (Abington Township School District v. Schempp) ruled that the government could neither promote nor denigrate religion (but instead must maintain neutrality) in public school classrooms - a court decision that Baptists, historic champions of the freedom of church and state, lauded and supported - it added fuel to the anti-federal government anger already boiling in a religion-saturated South. The boiling anti-federal government anger among white conservative Christians, however, did not reach critical mass until the late 1970s, following the growing pluralism of the 1960s, the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and the 1976 Internal Revenue Service ruling revoking the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because the school openly discriminated against African Americans (a decision upheld by a 1983 Supreme Court decision).
The Religious Right was formally birthed in 1979 from (primarily) white southern anger over pluralism and the 1963, 1973 and 1976 federal decisions. Rallying Christian fundamentalists and taking the name "Moral Majority" for their movement, they claimed to represent the voice of God in a nation that had forsaken God and turned to "human secularism." Falsely claiming that America at its founding had been a "Christian nation," they rejected the historical Baptist struggle for separation of church and state that culminated in the creation of the world's first secular nation, and instead created historical myths in which to anchor their desire for an American theocracy.
From 1979 to 2009, the Religious Right allied itself closely with a Republican Party that - proclaiming a moral and religious mandate - glorified unfettered capitalism, stoked public anger at the image of an intrusive "big government," passed laws that publicly benefited the wealthy while quietly stepping on the poor and middle classes, alienated minorities through party policies, cut the taxes of the wealthy and produced unequaled federal debt and an unparalleled wealth gap between rich and poor, warred against other nations on false pretenses, proclaimed opposition to Roe v. Wade (but did nothing to overturn it), fought against separation of church and state, and used evangelical language and theocratic imagery to continually co-opt fundamentalist Christians.
Then, in February 2009, the nation's first black president took office, and the mostly white Republican Party found itself largely confined to the states of the Old Confederacy, rejected soundly by voters under 40 nationwide, and decidedly thrown out of national power for the foreseeable future.
In response, white Republicans and Libertarians began holding "tea parties" protesting "big government," both in terms of growing debt (Obama inherited an economic disaster from the Bush administration, and government efforts to shore up the economy violated the god of capitalism which many conservatives worship - never mind that runaway capitalism got the country into our current mess) and intrusion upon personal "liberties" and "freedoms." Both the imagery (Revolutionary War) and language ("freedom," "liberty," "patriots") echo arguments used by white antebellum southerners in their defense of slavery.
This month, enraged tea partiers have transferred their anger (and hatred) to congressional town hall meetings focused on the moment's issue: health care reform. Conservative white Republicans and Libertarians are now channeling their anti-government anger against health care reform.
Yesterday's edition of National Public Radio's To the Point, a panel discussion of health care and religion, summed up the anger-laden health care reform debate. A spokesman for the Christian Coalition (an arm of the Religious Right) cut through the clutter in the current debate. Health care is not the real issue, he insisted. The real issue is that "the government will control everything," beginning with health care. He later continued, "public health care will destroy our democracy." A representative of the conservative Cato Institute added that "government operates through violence or threats of violence" and insisted that if health care reform is enacted, "the government will put you in jail or shoot you if you don't buy health care insurance." The Christian Coalition spokesman rejected any concept of universal health care as a moral issue, insisted that one of the current health care reform proposals includes the words "rationed care" (and then had to recant when it was pointed out that he was not telling the truth), and defended capitalism as biblical. Another guest, an American health care scholar originally from Canada, remembered that upon moving to the United States, she was stunned to observe that some conservatives "believe in markets the way some people believe in God or Christ." Jim Wallis of Sojourners calmly and systematically pointed out the falsehoods propagated by the Christian Coalition and Cato Institute, while a Catholic scholar outlined the moral, ethical and Christian imperative of universal health care.
To the ears of one who has spent much of the past few years writing on the subject of religion and the American Civil War (the focus of my dissertation), the rhetoric and language of yesterday's NPR health care debate resonated closely with the rhetoric and language of the antebellum and Civil War era debates concerning slavery: white religious conservatives selfishly defended their personal "freedoms" and "liberties" and "rights", while religious liberals argued for the biblical, moral and ethical imperative of equal rights and justice for all persons. Ironically, however, the conservative slavery-defenders of old had a much more solid biblical case than today's religiously conservative opponents of health care reform: slavery is a biblical theme and as a practice is not explicitly condemned in the Bible, while there is no biblical basis for free markets and capitalism; in fact, the New Testament repeatedly condemns the pursuit of individual wealth and warns against the corrupting influence of money.
The white anger over Obama's presidency and health care reform, in the words of protesters, ultimately rests in claims that the federal government is plotting to take away their freedoms and liberties. Video clips of this month's town hall meetings across the nation include angry senior citizens living on socialized medicine (Medicare) ranting against ... socialized medicine. The video clips also reveal claims that the government "outlawed prayer and legalized abortion" and now wants to take away the right to decide one's own health care, and "we're not gonna take it anymore!"
It is well documented that most of the health care reform claims of the angry white crowds of protesters are not true; they are simply repeating lies. But the anger is real, and it is strikingly similar in tone, language and content to that used by white southerners who defended slavery and railed against big government in the antebellum South. Whereas slavery was the real issue and antebellum white southerners used the pretext of an intrusive big government interfering with their personal freedoms and liberties in order to wage war on the North, today's angry white conservatives who constitute the base of a Republican Party anchored in the Old Confederacy have reversed the pattern: having convinced themselves (in the years since the Civil War, stoked in the modern era by Reagan) that federal government is determined to take away their personal freedoms and liberties (while at the same time unconcerned about the rights, freedoms and liberties of minorities and those who disagree with them), they are attacking an egalitarian-focused government by taking a very public and abrasive stand against a black president who is committed to ensuring that all Americans have adequate health care.
In other words, to a previous generation of white southerners, the campaign to abolish slavery became the pretext for constructing a narrative of an intrusive federal government denying personal freedom and liberty to the racially privileged, while universal health care today has become ground zero of the antebellum/Civil War era racially-infused "intrusive federal government" narrative that never died.
Who will win in this modern reenactment of the American Civil War? Big government has never been the real problem. In 1861 and today, the real issues entail human rights, morality and ethics. And in both instances, certain privileged classes (whether by power, socio-economic position, religion, wealth, and/or race) ignore the real issues in order to preserve the status quo that favors them.
The American ideal, encapsulated in our nation's founding documents although not always fully realized, is a nation of persons enjoying equal rights, freedoms and liberties. Emancipation of blacks moved America closer to these ideals; enactment of universal health care is a step that would move us yet closer to the American ideal. It is time to put to rest the self-serving and racially-laden myths that took root in the antebellum South and have poisoned public discourse and civility ever since, and move a step closer to the American ideal that encompasses all persons, by enacting universal health care. I can only hope that today's Obama town hall meeting here in Bozeman , and others that follow in the coming days and weeks, will help move us closer toward the American ideal.
Here is a beginning point in terms of a bibliography of the American Civil War.
Survey of Religion and the American Civil War