The evangelical Christianity we are familiar with today in the United States does not resemble what it was prior to the Civil War, when evangelical Protestants promoted social justice issues such as the end of slavery. Slavery was the primary issue that divided some Protestant denominations, the Baptists more than any others because of the strong presence of Baptists in the South. Rancor over the issue within the Baptist denomination eventually led to its division before the Civil War into Northern and Southern sects, a division which has continued to this day.
Le bon pasteur (The Good Shepherd), a painting from between 1886 and 1894 by the French artist James Tissot (1836-1902).
When people think of evangelical Christiansactive in modern political life, largely in conservative Republican circles, they are primarily thinking of Southern Baptists, because that is the denomination which has dominated politics and culture in the South since the Civil War, and it is from the South in the 1970s that arose the major political and cultural movement known first as the Moral Majority, and since then mostly known as the Christian Right. For over a hundred years, the dominance of Southern Baptists over life in the South was as close to a state sanctioned religion as we have gotten in this country, or at least in one part of it. Other Protestant denominations in the South, such as the Pentecostals, have been a part of modern evangelical Christianity, but the Southern Baptists have always been the major players.
As the de facto state religion of the South in the Jim Crow era and beyond, Southern Baptists were more interested in preserving white privilege and power than in promoting the kind of social justice Jesus advocated in His teachings. The Southern Baptists chose to ignore many of those ideas from the New Testament, lest they give black folks unsavory and rebellious ideas, and instead focused on the rewards waiting for the saved in the afterlife, where it wouldn’t cost the earthly white leaders anything in money or power. As the South remained rather isolated and more conservative than the rest of the country throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, there were further fractures within Protestant denominations, with the more liberal Northern sects increasingly considered the mainline portions of each denomination, and the Southern sects more and more lumped together as evangelical Christians, but with the twist that these evangelicals were largely white conservatives more vested in the status quo than in change for social justice.
President Jimmy Carter addresses the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, GA, in June 1978. Evangelical Christians were lukewarm at best regarding Mr. Carter, and in the 1980 election they turned him out in favor of the more conservative Ronald Reagan. Since then, Mr. Carter has devoted himself to humanitarian causes around the world, including Habitat for Humanity, all of which earned him the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
President George W. Bush meets with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention in the Oval Office in October 2006. Pictured with the President are Dr. Morris Chapman, left, Dr. Frank Page, and his wife Dayle Page. Mr. Bush the Younger was more to the liking of evangelical Christians than any president of the past 40 years other than Ronald Reagan. White House photo by Paul Morse.
When the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the 1970s went after Bob Jones University, a private evangelical school in Greenville, South Carolina, to revoke its tax exempt status on account of not adhering to Civil Rights era desegregation laws, Southern Baptists, which by that time had become indistinguishable from evangelicals, were catalyzed into action, forming the Moral Majority in order to take an activist role in national politics. They added abortion later as a rallying cause and it also served to mask the initial, primary impetus for organizing politically, which was the affront by federal interference into their pocketbooks and their white supremacist fiefdom. From the 1970s until today evangelical Christians, the Christian Right, have been a force in national politics, and never has their participation been more perverse at first glance than their unwavering support for the current president with all his defiantly un-Christian character flaws, but with an understanding of their history it begins to make sense, though it doesn’t make it right.
The 1944 filmHail the Conquering Hero, written and directed by Preston Sturges, satirizes our need for heroes and the lengths we will go to in order to assert myth over reality.
People seem to have a deep need for heroes, and will invent mythologies around the ones they anoint and erect monuments to them. If worshiping their hero and fetishizing the symbols around him or her serve as a poke in the eye to some others, well then that’s too bad. Those in power decide who gets a monument, and the powerless have to live with it. When some citizens criticize the symbolic nature of those monuments, the powerful react with anger, as if some people have a lot of nerve for objecting to getting poked in the eye.
All around the former Confederate States of America, civic arguments are going on over the proper role of Civil War symbols and monuments in public places. Almost all of these symbols and monuments are martial in nature, with an undertone of defiance. For some, the War Between the States continues, 150 years on, and those whose eyes are poked because of it need to remember their place. One wonders how they would feel if a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman was put on prominent display in Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, Georgia. How about a statue of the English King George III in New York City’s Central Park? Since at least a third of residents of the American colonies were Loyalists during the Revolution, that war can be considered the first American Civil War, or War Between the Revolutionists and the Loyalists, if you prefer.
General Sherman Memorial, Washington, D.C.; photo by Flickr user debaird.
New York City. After a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776, a crowd pulls down the statue of King George III to be melted into bullets. Contemporary engraving.
The Civil War monuments should not be removed, as that would silence part of history, like the activists who want to silence speech they don’t agree with. A better policy is to acknowledge and memorialize those other people from history, the ones who have been ignored while the powerful played up the mixed accomplishments of generals and statesmen. In Charlottesville, Virginia, where one of those civic debates is going on about the desire of some to see statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson removed from public parks, the former head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s, Eugene Williams, believes the statues should stay, but the city should also memorialize the slave auction site at Court Square. Auctioning slaves within sight of the seat of justice, the local courthouse, is a stark reminder of the contradictions in our culture, and memorializing both the auction block and Generals Lee and Jackson on their horses would yield a more complex, adult understanding of history than listening to only one side of the story. ― Vita