Writing in the mid-1960s, cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace described Lost Cause religion as a revivalist movement aiming “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past,” terms eerily close to contemporary calls by President Donald Trump to “Make America great again.” It is true that old-school Lost Cause theology is rarely aired in mainstream white churches today. But its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well.
To be sure, this theological worldview has done great damage to those living outside the white Christian canopy. But what has been overlooked by most white Christian leaders is the damage this legacy has done to white Christians themselves. To put it succinctly, it has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion. As antebellum Presbyterian preacher Donald Frazer argued emphatically, many abolitionists had the shoe on the wrong foot by pretending to be “more humane than God.” It was God’s law, not human conscience, that set the limits on the treatment of blacks by whites, he argued. Moral discomfort, even moral horror or outrage, has no place in this theological worldview. But surely it should give white Christians pause to continue to pledge allegiance to a theological system that contracts rather than expands our moral vision; that anesthetizes rather than livens up our moral sensitivities.
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.