The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has, not surprisingly, seen a veritable avalanche of books about that monumental conflict that cost us so much and was in so many respects the decisive episode in our national history – its importance heightened by the fact that we are still sorting our its legacy. I’d like to read all the new Civil War books; but, of course, I have neither the time nor the energy to read everything about what is undoubtedly the most written about event in American history. In anticipation of my vacation, however, I bought myself a copy of the one of the latest bunch of Civil War books, one which I anticipated I would personally find particularly interesting - Southern History Professor George C. Rable’s lengthy God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War.
Rable tells the religious history of the War on several levels – theologically, institutionally, and personally. Theologically, the war was widely interpreted in terms of what Rable rightly calls Americans’ shared “providential outlook on life.” Most famously, Abraham Lincoln eventually came to see the sufferings of that terrible war in relation to God’s purposes and in the light of God’s judgment on Americans – both Northern and Southern – for the sin of slavery. Of course, not everyone saw slavery as a sin. Especially in the run up to the war, abolitionism was often seen as anti-biblical, even atheistic. The way preachers and other religious figures (including such Roman Catholics as Browson, McMaster, and Archbishop John Hughes) wrestled with the moral questions connected with slavery and secession is presented in great detail, along with the institutional impact of the conflict upon the churches, forced to face questions about their polity and their relationship with the political state (either the United States or the Confederate States), as well as more traditional moral questions, all of which came to the fore both during and before the war. Rable is especially good on the whole “civil religion” dynamic, as it evolved under the pressure of events and in the context of both old and new, established and challenged loyalties. Then, there was the personal dimension, as many Americans struggled with the meaning and value of religious faith and observance under such novel circumstances. Rable is especially good on what it was actually like to be a soldier in a military camp – or a chaplain or preacher ministering to soldiers in such settings. And, although America was an overwhelmingly Protestant country at the time, he does not neglect the way the war was experienced religiously by Catholics and Jews, both North and South. The significant contribution of Roman Catholic nursing Sisters gets its due, as do the unique challenges experienced by the minority religions as problematic participants in Northern or Southern Civil Religion.
The American religious landscape has changed a lot in 150 years, of course. We are on the whole less open to, if not seriously suspicious of, theodicies that attempt to explain anything (let alone everything) in terms of God’s providence or judgment. Yet we are still an overwhelmingly religious nation- even if, what that actually means is open to question (just as it was back then). As long as religion remains so central to so many Americans’ world-view and as long as the unresolved issues of the Civil War continue to haunt our politics even today, the Civil War as a religious experience retains its immediate relevance – not just for who we were as a nation 150 years ago but for who we are now.