Sunday, July 19, 2015

Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr., July 19, 2015

            With the lowering of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., an NAACP official opined that the flag should now be the object of moral introspection.  That may have inspired the KKK and several black activist groups to demonstrate their moral introspection of the flag on the statehouse grounds on July 18. 
            Just what does the Confederate flag represent—Is it hate or heritage?  A CNN poll found that 57% of Americans consider the flag a symbol of Southern pride rather than racial hatred; but racism has been endemic in the South.  Southern heritage is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, and the bad and ugly came to a head in the War Between the States, the Civil War, or whatever we call the terrible war that ravaged America from 1860-1865.  During that time more than 500,000 Americans lost their lives—more than in all the wars fought since then.

            The Confederate flag represents a tragedy that was as much about religion as it was about slavery, states’ rights and clashing cultures.  We need to be honest about our history and heritage.  Most Christians in the North and South were reluctant to condemn slavery as immoral since it was not condemned in the Bible, which was for them the source of God’s truth.  In How the North distorts Civil War history, Hugh Howard has noted that Abolitionists were a vocal minority, and President Lincoln was not one of them.  He pursued the Civil War in order to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery—at least not until it was politically expedient to do so.    

            It is legitimate to ask whether Lincoln’s determination to go to war to preserve the Union was worth the cost.  About 50 years later another President, Woodrow Wilson, advocated self-determination, which was the motivation for secession, as an inalienable right of all people; and later in the 20th century Americans applauded the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  It seemed that political unions were no longer sacred.  If Texas or California sought to secede from the Union today, would the remaining states go to war to prevent it?    

            The vast majority of Confederate soldiers were small farmers without slaves whose social, economic and political interests conflicted with the aristocratic slaveholders.  They were on the verge of their own civil war until the ”fire-eating” aristocrats convinced the dirt-farmers that if they did not join them in seceding from the Union and fighting the North that the slaves—who represented a majority in S.C.—would be emancipated, assume political power and destroy their livelihoods.  So the dirt-farmers went to war for self-preservation, and ironically, to preserve the institution of slavery and the wealth of their adversary slaveholders.

            The belief in white supremacy did not end with slavery and continued to plague politics and religion in the South well after the Civil War.  It spawned the KKK and other white supremacy groups that supported a racist Jim Crow culture; and until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century most churches did not condemn white supremacy and quietly supported a separate but equal culture.  But there is no Biblical precedent for white supremacy, only the naming of the Semitic Jews as God’s “chosen people;” and Jesus was a Semite, not a Caucasian with blue eyes as he is depicted on many church walls.

            The idea that God favored Semitic Jews over whites may have played a role in the anti-Semitism of the 20th century, especially in Germany, where Jews tended to live in urban ghettos and were not well assimilated with the rest of the Christian population.  Nazism was a secular religion based on white (Aryan) supremacy that could not be reconciled with the idea that Jews were the chosen people of God, and that undoubtedly contributed to the anti-Semitism that led to the hatred and violence directed by Nazis against Jews, which was similar to the hatred and violence directed by the KKK against blacks in the Jim Crow South.      

            There are similarities between the Antebellum South and the Jewish state of Israel today, and it is complicated by religious animosity.  Because Israel is a democracy, Palestinians, who are Muslims, are seen as a threat to Jewish political control of Israel, much as white southerners feared freed blacks in the Ante-Bellum South.  The Palestinians have a higher birth rate than Jews and are destined to outnumber Jews in Israel if they do not have their own state.  That makes the Palestinian threat to Israel as demographic as it is military.

            Culture shapes religion, just as religion shapes culture.  The violent conflict between the ideals and aspirations of radical Islam and those of libertarian democracy can be considered a culture clash.  And while slavery is not a factor in that current culture clash, it is similar to the Antebellum culture clash between the Jeffersonian ideals of an agrarian democracy and the ideals of an industrial North that was just beginning to understand its destiny.
            Religion, politics and race have often made strange—even uncomfortable and sometimes violent—bedfellows.  As students of history, all Americans should consider the Confederate flag as an object of moral introspection.  As for all the nation’s problems that are so often blamed on a degenerate South, It’s not Dixie’s fault.  The South has produced its share of hate, but it has also produced a culture known for its gentility and grace.  Southern religions continue to reflect those disparate qualities, from fundamentalist snake handlers and those who condemn unbelievers to hell, to progressives, both black and white, who focus their faith on reconciling their differences on religion and race through the forgiving love and mercy of God.

Notes and References to Resources:

The CNN poll found that 72% of blacks saw the Confederate flag as racist, while just 25% of whites agreed; of Southern whites 75% saw the flag as a symbol of pride while 18% saw it as racist.  See

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