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Christianity in the Confederate South: Southern Nationalism and Christianity


The Civil War as a Religious War:

It can be argued that the Civil War was as much theological as it was political. The split between northern and southern churches may have precipitated political secession - once religious leaders stopped trying to work together, political leaders didn't bother. Ministers signed up for war in larger numbers, especially in the South. All the officers in one Texas regiment were, apparently, Methodist preachers. Religious propaganda drove war fever and inspired confidence in ultimate victory.

Ham and the Christian Defense of Slavery:

The primary focus of those using Christianity to defend slavery and segregation was the story of Noah, specifically the part where his son Ham is cursed to serve his brothers. This story long functioned as a model for Christians to insist that God meant Africans to be marked as the servants of others because they are descended from Ham. Secondary was the story of the Tower of Babel as a model for God's desire to separate people generally rather than have them united in common cause and purpose.

Slavery, Christian Honor, and Social Order:

The concepts of honor and social order have been integral to Southern Christianity and Southern defenses of slavery. Honor meant protecting one's personal image. It didn't matter, for example, if one was honest or dishonest, but it did matter that no one said you were dishonest. Black Africans, as descendants of Ham, were seen as lacking honor and therefore deserving of slavery. Maintaining social order meant preserving traditional structures of authority: men over women, whites over blacks.

Southern Christianity and Liberty:

Southern slave owners had little interest in general liberty or maintaining a democratic republic. Their ideals were founded upon patriarchy, timocracy, and authoritarianism - not liberty, democracy, or other values people tend to take for granted today. In effect, Christianity constituted an important basis for anti-democratic movements in the South designed to deny liberty to large numbers of people, primarily (though not solely) slaves.

Christianity as a Source of Weakness in the South:

Early on, Christianity was a powerful force for inspiration and national cohesion in the Confederacy. Over time, however, the quick and expected victory failed to materialize. This was a problem for both sides, but the North had a stronger nationalistic sense of self which helped see them through; the South lacked this and thus the failures on the battlefield translated into religious despair. This, in turn, sapped the South's morale and prevented them from persevering.

Religious Reconstruction after the Civil War:

Southerners decided that they lost because they were impure of heart rather than because slavery was an unmitigated evil - to admit that they lost because they had been wrong all along would have bee too large a blow to their sense of self and their self-identification as Southerners. They had to have been right; therefore, their loss must be attributed to other reasons. Many argued that God was chastising them in order to prepare them for some higher and more glorious purpose in the future.

States' Rights, Guilt, and Manufactured Victory:

Southern secession was based upon a defense of slavery as a religious necessity and as a basic way of life. Guilt over slavery always lurked in the background, though, and losing the war made it even more difficult to face. Instead of facing it, however, Southerners claimed that they only fought for states' rights and personal honor, both of which "survived." This allowed Southern Christians to claim victory without having to deal with the moral implications of going to war over slavery.

White Supremacy and Christian Supremacy:

For Southerners, maintaining separate churches was necessary to hold on to who they really were. Churches were a primary vehicle for transmitting cultural as well as religious identity. Through the churches Southerners transmitted to their children ideals about slavery, the inequality of the races, the righteousness of secession, the evil and tainted gospel preached by Northerners, and so forth. Except for the overt racism and defense of slavery, the situation today remains strikingly similar.

Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement:

Although the South lost the Civil War, White Supremacy remained an important component of Christian teaching for the next century. White Christian churches taught that slavery was a just institution, as were Jim Crow laws and segregation; that white Christianity remained the last, best hope for western civilization; and that white Christians had a mandate to exercise dominion over the world - and especially the darker races who were little more than children.

Southern Christianity and Christian Nationalism in Modern America:

There has been discussion of the "southernization of American society," an argument that many basic premises and principles from Southern culture have become integrated into the rest of American culture. Included with this are appeals to racism and ethnic demagoguery, militaristic patriotism, and extreme political localism.

A parallel development, or perhaps the primary underlying development, has been the "southernization" of American Christianity. Although mainline Protestant Christianity has grown more liberal, tolerant, and open in recent decades, they have also been declining in influence. During this same time conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been growing in size and power.

Christian Nationalism in America is largely a consequence of the spread of Southern Christianity. Southern Christianity has long been more conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, militaristic, and nationalistic than churches elsewhere in the nation. As these attitudes have spread, they have transformed Christian churches that were once more liberal, especially where issues like feminism, the ordination of female clergy, and homosexuality have been concerned.

Southern Christianity holds firm to a male-dominated church situated in a male-dominated society, hyper-patriotism which is inextricably linked to traditional Christianity, hostility towards homosexuality and any divergence from traditional gender roles, opposition to sexual license and liberty, and the defense of traditional privileges for males, Christians, and at times even whites. All of this is gradually being incorporated into American Christianity generally, transforming not just American churches but also American culture and politics as well.

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