Editorial - God, Country, and the Justices

In the public library with my children recently I spotted a DVD version of Gods and Generals. I've long had an interest in history—it was for a time my major in college—and the Civil War was an area I particularly concentrated on. Filmmakers have a tendency to rewrite history, but I couldn't resist checking out the DVD.

Gods and Generals is about civil war. It shows combatants falling like scythed wheat onto the farm fields of some of the early clashes. But it is a stylized killing, made transcendent and ultimately bloodless by elevating it to a pseudo religious event amid the grand chords of triumphal music.

At first touching, the film's insistent equating of religious faith with political identification became for me the real violence of this retelling of an epic contest between two parts of what is again a whole. I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln's famous comment that both sides prayed to the same God, and that both could not be right. True and a truism, I suppose. Still, truisms are not so obvious to those submerged in their genesis.

The Civil War was many things at once. It was, of course, the transfer of real power from an agrarian South to the rapidly industrializing North. It was in many ways the victory of the machine of modern society and methods of war over the arcane old-world views of tradition and entrenched social norms, however problematic some of them may have become. It can be seen as part of the mechanism that moved the U.S. from its English roots to our present multicultural identity. And I think it can be argued that the struggle ushered in a new state-federal paradigm that broke with much of the vision of the Founders—laying the ground for some of today's religious liberty dialogue.

The Civil War also reached into the religious sentiments of the time and co-opted them. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," immensely popular at the time, shows how militant the religiosity could be in the North—and it ignores the subtlety of Lincoln's observation. The issue of slavery allowed the Northern leaders to invoke the religious "jihad" of the abolitionists almost as a cover for some very real and structural political differences that had led to secession. In the South there was indeed the conflation of political aims and the bedrock issues of spiritual faith.

However, the film I saw ignored the real and often cynical aim of many in the South to defend a lifestyle and an economy that was not only out of sync with the rest of the country but pass
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."