Some Validation on War and Religion

A while back I wrote a review of Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong’s lengthy (if shallow) tome about the history of war and religion. There, I wrote this:

Third, and most troubling for the entire book, is Armstrong wants to view religion’s role in violence as simply as the critics to which she is responding. If it’s not THE cause, she seems to argue, it is exonerated. She ignores (or breezes right past) the role religion can play in making killing of the other guy all right, even if the underlying cause isn’t religious. The American Civil War is an example of a war that was purely political, but both sides thought they were doing God’s work. Ever listened to the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’? It’s all about how righteous the Union cause was.

I normally wouldn’t bring something like that back up just for fun, but a recent article in The Atlantic backs me up on this, so I thought I’d pass it along.

Allen Guelzo looks at the issue of religion on the Civil War, using a pair of new books as a jumping off point. While he’s ultimately more interested in what the war did to religion (created a bunch of new skeptics), along the way he discusses a new book by Harvard’ Drew Faust about how religion fueled the war, on both sides:

Above all, it was a time when Christianity allied itself, in the most unambiguous and unconditional fashion, to the actual waging of a war. In 1775, American soldiers sang Yankee Doodle; in 1861, it was Glory, glory, hallelujah! As Stout argues, the Civil War ‘would require not only a war of troops and armaments … it would have to be augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another…’ Stout concentrates on describing how Northerners, in particular, were bloated with this certainty. By ‘presenting the Union in absolutist moral terms,’ Northerners gave themselves permission to wage a war of holy devastation. ‘Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war,’ explained Colonel James Montgomery, a one-time ally of John Brown, ‘and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.’ Or at least offered no alternative but unconditional surrender. ‘The Southern States,’ declared Henry Ward Beecher shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, ‘have organized society around a rotten core,—slavery,’ while the ‘north has organized society about a vital heart, —liberty.’ Across that divide, ‘God is calling to the nations.’ And he is telling the American nation in particular that, ‘compromise is a most pernicious sham.’

But Southern preachers and theologians chimed in with fully as much fervor, in claiming that God was on their side. A writer for the Southern quarterly, DeBow’s Review, insisted that since ‘the institution of slavery accords with the injunctions and morality of the Bible,’ the Confederate nation could therefore expect a divine blessing ‘in this great struggle.’ The aged Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Richard Meade, gave Robert E. Lee his dying blessing: ‘You are engaged in a holy cause.’

The problem, of course, is that once you have God on your side, the other side isn’t just wrong or dangerous, they’re downright Satanic. It makes it more difficult to view the conflict in realistic, practical terms. As Guelzo puts it, “Holy causes that can never be overcome do not make provision for surrender.”

Which is where Armstrong went so wrong. Warfare is evil, even if it’s sometimes a necessary evil. Dragging religion into it, even if only to bulk up your side’s morale, doesn’t help matters and almost certainly is going to make things worse.


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