For whiteness is the mortar holding together the fortress of white supremacy, and if it crumbles, those walls will inevitably collapse. Because of its binding importance, the idea of whiteness has been, and remains today, vigilantly defended. In fact, virtually nothing has proven too costly a sacrifice on the altar of its defense: the bloodbath of the Civil War, the construction of a segregated education system, the creation of an apartheid Jim Crow system of laws enforcing segregation across all aspects of society, redlining real estate practices that divided virtually all of our major cities along racial lines, the development of a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates millions of black men, and even the distortion of Christian theology. If one stops long enough to reflect on it, the ransom this fiction has demanded to sustain itself is staggering: the number of lives both white and black, the amount of money and cultural energy, and the disfigurement of some of our most precious ideals.
White supremacy lives on today not just in explicitly and consciously held attitudes among white Christians; it has become deeply integrated into the DNA of white Christianity itself.
That last statement, standing alone, sounds shocking. But an honest look at the historical arc of white Christianity in America suggests that we should instead be astonished if it were otherwise. For centuries, through colonial America and into the latter part of the twentieth century, white Christians literally built—architecturally, culturally, and theologically—white supremacy into an American Christianity that held an a priori commitment to slavery and segregation. At key potential turning point moments such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement, white Christians, for the most part, did not just fail to evict this sinister presence; history confirms that they continued to aid and abet it. The weight of this legacy is indeed overwhelming.
Now, as a historian of the Nazi era, I am drawn to an even starker contrast, this one between how post-World War II Germany and the post-Civil War United States acknowledge their roles in institutions built upon human suffering. Put simply, in coming to terms with its past, Germany eventually elected to memorialize its victims, while the United States, particularly the South, chose to commemorate not the victims but the institution itself and the society that created it. The one society focuses on the victims, the other the defeated. The United States could learn from Germany’s example.
But by obscuring the meaning of the war, the choice of Civil War played a role in perpetuating a division over the war’s meaning and thereby contributed to today’s debates over Confederate symbols.
Before the 1950s, almost no southerners used War of Northern Aggression. It emerged out of white southern resentment of federal intervention in race relations during the civil rights era, and its use grew after that, encouraged by the neo-Confederate movement. As the Southern Focus Poll showed, however, even then relatively few southerners adopted it.
The Daughters’ crusade contributed to its increasing use in the twentieth century, but as shown in the South Atlantic survey, War between the States really took hold between 1940 and 1965 when whites mobilized to fight all challenges to white racial control. As with the use of the War of Northern Aggression and the flying of the Confederate flag, white southerners’ contemporary embrace of Confederate memory owes as much to the confrontations of the 1960s as to that of the 1860s
The choice reflected and facilitated reunion and reconciliation, but at the cost of obscuring the causes and consequences of the war. Civil War also made it all too easy for both sides to continue to believe their actions has been noble and justified, their behavior honorable. Neither side wrestled, as Lincoln’s second inaugural address had urged Americans to do, with their own and the nation’s failings. Reconciliation proved a positive development for the country but came at that high price. It rested on a sense of mutual innocence and contributed to the nation’s failure to understand the meaning and implications of the war.
The choice of the name Civil War, therefore, certainly reflected and may have contributed to the failure to construct a memory of the Civil War that encouraged Americans to address the centrality of slavery to the war and in American history and to ask whether the country had lived up to the war’s achievement of emancipation by promoting racial equality.
Today’s battles over the Confederate flag and monuments emerge, in part, out of that failure. These disputes over Confederate symbols owe more to today’s divisions over the role and treatment of African Americans than they do to sectional divisions of the past or the memory of the Civil War. That the nation never agreed on or came to terms with what the war meant, facilitated by a sanitized memory of the war symbolized by the choice of the generic name Civil War, makes it easy for both sides to claim that history vindicates their position.