Assessing the Lost Cause and Southern Civil Religion
Long ago, when I was considering a dissertation topic for the study that would become the book Baptized in Blood, I looked at a long list of potential dissertation topics from my supervising professor at the University of Texas at Austin, William Goetzman. One of them caught my eye, “Attitudes of Religious Fundamentalists toward the Civil War.” This topic caught my emerging interest in southern religious history, but a quick survey of possible materials suggested that fundamentalists in the early twentieth century did not, in fact, think about the Civil War that much. However, more research suggested that the religious leaders of mainstream southern denominations did indeed say a good deal about the Confederacy, from the end of the war to World War I. When I defended my prospectus, several of my professors remained a bit skeptical about studying the Lost Cause, which for them evoked older, outdated ideas of the noble white southern past. What new could you say, Charles, about the Lost Cause? I discovered the answer thanks to my professor of American religious history, Howard Miller, who introduced me to Robert Bellah’s article on the American civil religion.
Forgive this confessional beginning, but my mind was brought back to all of that when I read the four fine papers in this forum, all of which in one way or another address issues of the Lost Cause and civil religion. As Keith Harper notes, the Lost Cause has become the dominant paradigm of postwar southern religion. If so, it partially represents a general rise in interest in the Lost Cause as an interpretive concept in understanding the New South era. I first met Gaines Foster at the Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill in 1975, where I had gone to work on my dissertation. To our mutual surprise, we discovered we were both working on the Lost Cause, and our books (his of course was Ghosts of the Confederacy) came out within two years of each other, establishing a beachhead for the modern study of the Lost Cause. Various monographs began to appear in the 1990s, including works on Confederate veterans homes, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Ladies Memorial Association, the political and aesthetic dimensions of the Lost Cause, monuments, and other specific topics. But David Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History jacked up the significance of the Lost Cause when he made the case for it as one of the three dominant narratives of the Civil War in American thought. The field of memory studies in the South has grown to great scholarly authority, and Fitzhugh Brundage, among others, has shown how the Lost Cause became the basis for white southerners control of the South’s public memory and a factor in white political and cultural dominance in the region. Both Blight and Brundage, in other words, saw the Lost Cause glorification of white southerners’ efforts in the Confederacy as a key component in buttressing the white supremacy society that was codified in the late nineteenth century. The Lost Cause was not just a nostalgic cultural romanticism, but a structural foundation for white power. Like too many other scholars in southern history, though, ironically neither Blight nor Brundage highlighted the role of religion in this assertion of southern white cultural power. Still, I think the essays in this forum speak to the significance of the religion of the Lost Cause, but also to its limitations as the only interpretive model for understanding religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South. Moreover, several of them present promising new directions for the study of religion in the South.
Arthur Remillard’s paper builds on his book Southern Civil Religions, which decenters the study of civil religion in the South by examining competing moral visions of society in the post-Reconstruction South. When I first read his manuscript, I understood he was revising my work, albeit gently, that had focused on singular southern civil religion. His ideas about competing civil religions, among blacks and whites, men and women, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Democrats and Republicans, were exciting ones. They shared the language of social unity, but they differed, sometimes drastically, in the contents of their visions. Remillard made the Lost Cause civil religion, based in the Confederate memory, one of several identities in the late nineteenth century. His approach focuses on moral codes of differing visions of the good society in the South, rather than on the analysis of mythology and ritual that earlier works on the Lost Cause, including Baptized in Blood, present. His paper here reflects his new work on religion and sports, an area of particular interest to me as well, at least since I wrote my “Death of Bear Bryant: Myth and Ritual in the New South” article that argued for the Bear as “a modern saint in the southern civil religion.”1 Remillard notes that his study is not really about the religion of the Lost Cause, but by the end one sees its implications for the southern civil religion. As he notes, in this time period, the Lost Cause shaped “moral interpretations of everyday life.” He uses the figure of Jack Johnson to show how he meant differing things to differing people—to whites an embodiment of unclean challenges to the superior white racial society with its memory of the noble Confederate ancestors, but a “God-sent blessing” to African Americans, again using religious language. He also uses baseball’s and football’s stories in the South to suggest their complex regional and national meanings, raising as they did moral dimensions as organized sports could desecrate the Sabbath and relate to gambling and violence that evangelical Protestantism opposed. Only when a muscular Christianity showed the benefits of competitive sports to preachers and their flocks, and only when southern religious colleges started beating interregional competition did the region’s evangelicals begin investing moral and spiritual meanings into sports. I remember being in Sewanee for a lecture awhile back and saw this at work. The Episcopal University of the South was playing their long-time rivals, the College of Washington and Lee in football, and a banner strung across the entryway to the Sewanee campus proclaimed: “Tiger, Tigers, Leave Them in the Lurch/ Down with the Heathen, Up with the Church.” A southern civil religious mantra if I ever heard it.
Remillard’s work on sports and religion has the potential to throw light on one of the most intriguing issues for me of the Lost Cause civil religion: namely, how did it make the transition from its rootedness in the Confederate memory to a broader civil religious patriotism rooted in cultural forms like sports and music. What did it mean that early twentieth century sports teams had names like the Robert E. Lees or the Praying Colonels, or that the Confederate battle flag waved over many college and high school football fields in the South and bands played Dixie? Richmond’s Douglas Southall Freeman used the radio beginning in the 1920s to spread the message of the Lost Cause throughout the community, a modern communication form that spread the sainthood of General Lee to broader audiences, at least in Richmond, than perhaps ever before. A defining modern cultural genre, film, gave us the enormously powerful Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, extending the Lost Cause into the twentieth century, not as a movement of monuments and Confederate veterans activities but as part of a cultural web of race, religion, and memory at the heart of the segregated South. Sport may indeed be another revealing lens on this transition of the Lost Cause from tradition to modernity.
Our next two papers, by Keith Harper and Edward Crowther, raise issues of denominationalism and its relationship to the religion of the Lost Cause. Yes, the “B” word: Baptist. As we know, there are more Baptists than people in the South, and these two essays present contrasting stories. Harper offers sage comments on the limitations of the Lost Cause as an inclusive interpretive model for religious life in the period. As Paul Harvey noted there are splitters and lumpers, and certainly I was a lumper when I wrote Baptized in Blood. I’ve become more of a splitter since then, understanding the limitations of a stress on social unity rather than diversity.2 Still, some social and cultural forces contributed to whatever unity existed in the post-bellum South, despite all the diversity we now appreciate, and the sacralized rituals and myths of the Lost Cause surely contributed. Harper points rightly to the conceptual difficulties inherent in the civil religion concept. Peter Gardella’s book, American Civil Religion, offers one of the most recent engagements with the topic. Unlike most who wrestle with the concept, he gives no specialized definition of civil religion, but argues instead it fits his definition of any religion, which he says designates “a system of nonrational commitments that holds life together.”3 He sees four values in the American civil religion: personal liberty, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance, and most of his book is given over to analyzing monuments, texts, and images of that American civil religion. Despite definitional problems, the content of civil-religious systems continues to occupy interdisciplinary scholars. The term “good society” is increasingly used to focus discussion of religious-political interaction in American society. Bellah used that term as the title of his 1991 book, The Good Society, and Art Remillard uses it well in his book. At the heart of the southern civil-religious concept has been a belief that the South has had a special destiny to play.
Harper is very convincing in showing that James Boyce and John Broadus were not backward looking Lost Cause apologists, but rather forward looking, institution builders that fit a different paradigm, that of the New South. Harper asks a relevant, pointed question: “From a slightly different angle, how does civil religion contrast with religion in an evangelical, pietistic sense?” He points to the denominational disagreements that typified the southern religious scene, and he points to my all time favorite in that regard, the enduring Baptist attitude toward the heresies of Alexander Campbell. What more be said? What was needed was theological training to take young people and prepare them to spread an appropriate evangelical doctrine into the future. They strike me as representatives of an understudied idea in the South. We know much about the “burden of southern history,” but what about the “burden of the southern future?” In each generation of southerners there have been those thinkers who thought of the future rather than stressing on the need to preserve southern tradition. Still, I think there is room for southern civil religious language to be perhaps used in characterizing such figures as well. It is language rooted in evangelicalism rather than the memory of the Civil War. In looking at the predominant southern evangelical churches in the early twentieth century, historian George Tindall noted the strong sense of regional mission that the southern evangelical churches and claimed “The logic was inescapable.” Quoting Victor I. Masters, he added “The hope of the world is America, the hope of America is evangelical religion of the most orthodox type, the hope of the American church is the southern evangelical churches.”4 Men like Boyce and Broadus probably earlier shared that sense of mission. Masters, a Baptist minister, in his 1918 book The Call of the South even directly related the importance of southern evangelicalism to the region’s experience of spiritual discipline that resulted from Confederate defeat. Masters concluded that the South’s “consciousness of its own pains and sorrows, of the gallantry and chivalry of its sons, of its mistakes an sufferings, of its superiority to the worst calamities which came to it, of its ability to build a civilization out of ashes, makes the present South worth far more both to the nation and to itself.”5 That said, one appreciates the analysis here of why Boyce and Broadus did not become Lost Cause ministers. Their prewar Union sentiments, ties with northerners, and the need for funds from whatever source available—all these seem very relevant reasons that would make such evangelical leaders of the time focus their energies on building an institution that faced the future not the past. As Harper puts it, “they chose to plant their feet in another world.”
Ed Crowther’s paper also concentrates on Southern Baptists through one of my favorite characters in southern religious history, J. William Jones. As Crowther notes, I had a chapter on the good reverend and admired his cheerful temperament, enthusiasm for his cause, and his importance to what I was studying. This paper takes the study of Jones to a new level, largely because it makes excellent use of Jones’s writings to present us with a compelling story of the emergence of the southern civil religion during the Civil War itself, rather than at war’s end, as most scholarship has suggested. Matthew Speiser has argued that antebellum celebrations of southern ways amounted to the beginnings of the civil religion, and I now agree that southern civil religion began before the war, with the development of a regional sense of religious mission that accompanied the emergence of a southern regional identity as far back as the 1820s.6 Crowther’s depth of research in Jones’ writings supports his argument that how southern religious people experienced the war established key themes of the Lost Cause. Jones saw that experience in the light of a providential meaning of the war as a way to evangelize the South, and his documentation of the heroism of southern soldiers and leaders and their embodiment of the ennobling “good death” gave Jones ammunition, so to speak, to sanctify them as part of the postwar Lost Cause. Through his wartime experiences, Jones had on-going opportunities “to craft a pro-southern record of the Civil War that served as a first draft of Confederate military history.” Finally, Crowther shows how Jones pivoted after the war into his new role as interpreter of wartime southern experience into the crafting of the religion of the Lost Cause.
This essay is a major contribution to extending discussion of the southern civil religion to the wartime context. My only suggestion is to make use of Harry Stout’s magisterial Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War to buttress the argument here. Stout argues that the bloodshed and sacrifice of the war sacralized American concepts of destiny on both sides. In the process he gives, I think, new gravitas to the civil religion concept, showing how religion contributed specifically to the ideological support of both sides in the conflict. He sees the civil religion as both “religious and ideological, cultural and theological. … exerts enormous power … a power that can be even greater than traditional theistic beliefs and rituals.”7 It is a sweeping claim, but it might be interesting to think of Jones in terms of that argument.
Chad Seales offers us an ambitious and theoretically sophisticated exploration of the relationship between southern religion and secular culture. He addresses an issue that the civil religion in general often does not address, namely that people in a society may not see phenomena scholars label as religious as in fact religious to them. The essay is well framed, placing his argument in the context of three existing models for interpreting southern religion—cultural captivity, cultural carriers, and religious cultures, as modified by Beth Schweiger’s call to move beyond the cultural captivity thesis and to embrace a more inclusive picture of religion in the South. He brings Weber and Durkeheim into the analysis in sorting out issues of religion and morality. His case study is a fascinating advertisement for Sovereign Cigarettes in the early twentieth century, which he deconstructs to show how essential language of southern evangelical Protestantism was used by mass marketers to connect a broad southern audience, rooted in religious worldviews, to a secular, commercial product. As he writes, “They worked to make secular consumption a religious habit, without ever demanding the consumer admit that what they did, what they bought, how they shopped, was now part of their religious world.”
Seales uses this case study to offer a broad new approach to studying religion in the South, namely to focus on a materialist morality. He makes good use of the ideas of Manuel Vasquez and his “non-reductive materialist framework to sort out subject, objects, and practices that are not self identifiably religious.” As Seales explains, this approach is a materialist reading of Durkheim, “one that can be used for our purposes to revise a religious cultural model into one that accounts for the similarities and differences of southern religion and secular culture.” He has a wonderful litany of cultural practices that one might identify as southern, ones even offering “ultimate salvation in pig races and greasy poles, and baseball games, and mammy floats, and minstrel shows, and mock weddings, and skinny leg contests, and beauty queens, and tractor pulls, and old cars.” None of these, as he notes, southerners would consider a “religious cause in the same manner as the one they lost. We can speak of Lost Cause belief, but can we say the same of all nationalistic rites?” This wonderful litany reminded of T.S. Eliot’s commentary how a society’s “way of life” is a form of its religion. Eliot noted “we can see religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture.” Eliot identified culture with a way of life and went beyond that to suggest an ideological component—the sacralization of the way of life. Eliot argued that “culture” is “all the characteristic activities and interests of a people,” and he enumerated some of those that made England, England. “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.”8 Each of these is “part of our culture” and “also a part of our lived religion.” Will Herberg, in Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, made the same point about American culture. “It embraces such seemingly incongruous elements as sanitary plumbing and freedom of opportunity, Coca-Cola and an intense faith in education—all felt as moral questions relating to the proper way of life.”9 Notice that Herberg sees these as relating to “moral questions.” Seales is onto something, and he goes beyond Eliot and Herberg in offering us a model of how to make sense of these “seemingly incongruous elements.”
As one who has long tried to show how religion came to pervade southern culture outside of the churches, I find this argument very compelling and insightful. The issue of intentionality is still there, though. When I have read religious meanings into cultural activities, I’m acutely aware that religious people may not intentionally claim these activities for religion. This new formulation may suggest a kind of capitalist hand guiding business to adapt to the southern context—Marx again. But this new model offers great possibilities for showing in particular instances how this works, and I for one look forward to this exploration.
This forum has been an unusually well crafted one, as the essays have kept the focus on southern religion, the Lost Cause, and the civil religion. It is heartening to see new directions for the study of southern religion and continued engagement with the Lost Cause/civil religion as an important issue in southern history.
Charles Reagan Wilson, “Death of Bear Bryant: Myth and Ritual in the New South,” Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 39. ↩
Paul Harvey, “Religion in the American South Since the Civil War,” in A Companion to the American South, ed. John Boles (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 387-406. ↩
Peter Gardella, American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). ↩
George Tindall, “The South and the Savage Ideal,” in The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 volume 10 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1967), 196. ↩
Victor I. Masters, The Call of the South (Nashville: Home Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, 1920), 18. ↩
Matthew Aaron Speiser, “Seeking the Roots of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2008). ↩
Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Peguin Books, 2007), 10. ↩
T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 30. ↩
Will Herberg, Protestant Catholic Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 75. ↩