The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
by Mark A. Noll
University of North Carolina Press, 216 pages, $29.95

Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
by Harry S. Stout
Viking, 576 pages, $29.95

Nothing in American history”not the Revolution, not the Second World War”has topped the Civil War in public fascination. Even at the time, newspaper readers eagerly seized on the latest war news, reading dramatic accounts of battles fought and territories gained.

In the early 1860s, the graphic revolution in printing was in full swing, so the written accounts were often supplemented by illustrations of soldiers setting off cannon, brandishing swords, and discharging pistols into one another’s faces. By the war’s end, the Civil War industry had already begun, and it continues to churn out numberless books, articles, and graphics”everything from serious research to kitsch”detailing battles fought and strategies employed. Then there are the preserved battlefields of Manassas, Antietam, and all the rest, with guided tours and battle reenactments, where we learn interesting details about rifled muskets, minié balls, and the strong teeth necessary to bite off the tops of paper cartridges.

All too often, though, pictures of the grandeur of the war leave out its grisly toll. The shooting and the cannonading in the Currier & Ives engravings seemed to produce few effects beyond dramatic swoons. The sight of a man’s face being blown off or his bowels spilling out might have taken some of the edge off the appetite for war news. (Matthew Brady’s photos of bloated bodies and skeletons in wheelbarrows were rarely seen outside of Manhattan during the war.) The butcher’s bill, with the death of some 620,000 servicemen, was the costliest ever paid by Americans in any war.

And this does not include the civilians lost in the war. James M. McPherson, whose Battle Cry for Freedom is the standard one-volume work, estimates the figure to be close to fifty thousand, almost all of them in the South. A minority of them were killed during the battles that engulfed their region, but most died from starvation, exposure, and disease after being uprooted from their homes and farms by the occupying forces.

But before we even begin to pass judgments on the cost of this war, we have to take account of some perplexities. The Civil War culminated in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. No matter the price, can anyone harshly judge a war that got rid of the nation’s most shameful inheritance?

Counterbalancing that is another inconvenient fact: At the time it began, most Northerners”including the president”had no intention of going to war to end slavery. The intention was to save the Union, with or without slavery. Most Americans today would agree that saving the Union was itself a noble end. But suppose the war had saved the Union with slavery. Would we look back on it in the same way we do today? Would we think of Abraham Lincoln as we do today? Would we be singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”? How would we balance the terrible human cost of the war against that end?

Perhaps these are imponderables, but they all circle around the fact that ending slavery is now seen as the grand telos of the war. Yet, in the decade preceding the Civil War, many Americans, even in the North, weren’t sure that there was anything wrong with black slavery. How could a people, overwhelmingly Christian and in the midst of a series of Christian revivals called the Second Great Awakening, find it so difficult to discern the moral evil of enslaving their fellow humans? And how could that same Christian nation, whose peoples, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, read the same Bible and worshipped the same God, have engaged in mutual bloodletting of such staggering proportions?

Mark A. Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation try to work out some answers to these questions. The authors are both historians of religion whose writings reflect their keen interest in the development of American theological and moral discourse.

The first question, on the theological debate over slavery in this country, particularly interests Noll, while the scope of Stout’s book is indicated by its subtitle: “A Moral History of the Civil War.” Stout’s is a compact, tidy work, which largely confines itself to the task of explaining why the debate on whether the Bible condoned slavery ended in “deadlock””that is, why it finally “was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”

In reviewing the clashing Bible-based arguments on the legitimacy of American slavery, Noll contends that the two sides were not competing on a level playing field. They were arguing within the dominant culture of America at that time, a culture that “successfully clothed the Christian faith in the preeminent ideological dress of the new Republic.” It favored a biblical exegesis that was “democratic, republican, antitraditional, and commonsensical.” The pervasive belief was that to understand the Bible properly we need neither a Church magisterium (the Catholic view) nor university-trained theologians (the early Puritan view). It was all really quite simple: Just open the Bible and read.

Held to that single rule, antislavery exegetes faced serious challenges. Noll cites eight separate passages in the Bible favored by slavery supporters, from passages in Genesis and Leviticus to Paul’s “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh” in Colossians 3:22. What were the opponents of slavery able to muster? Not much, not at least if they were confined to the letter of Scripture. There is the injunction against “man-stealing” in Exodus 21:16 (“And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death”) and Jesus’ Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 (“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even unto them”), but these passages require some explanation”and that ran against the grain of biblical literalism. The finely nuanced arguments of other slavery opponents, such as those stressing the contextual difference between ancient Hebrew slavery and the race-based slavery of the South, found even less popular support.

The tragedy, Noll thinks, is that the cultural tradition that had formerly bound the nation together began pulling it apart during the run-up to the Civil War. American political culture had assumed its distinctive form not from the Constitution nor from the rather wintry religious sensibilities of its founders but from the fervent revivalism of frontier Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. But during the slavery controversy, the culture’s individualist and antitraditional strains began working the other way. With every man his own authority on the Bible, theological debate on slavery degenerated into quotation duels, each side firing its favorite passages at the other. Noll finds merit in the criticisms put forward by some European Catholic writers of the time, which attributed the American theological crisis to the lack of mediating church structures, and he notes that even revivalism in Europe drew on corporate traditions of exegesis.

If the immediate effect of this Bible battle was deadlock, leaving the issue to be decided on the real battlefield, the ultimate effect, Stout thinks, was an implicit agreement in the future “not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.”

That seems questionable. The Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century loved to cherry-pick from the Bible to make its case for “social democracy.” And Noll himself cites the example of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s, whose appropriation of Scripture paralleled that of the abolitionists a century earlier. In fact, he approves of the civil-rights movement’s use of scriptural tropes, and he ends his book by confessing his own ambivalence about secularization. It is a “very good thing” because it has allowed people besides Anglo-American Protestants to enter the national debate on morally charged policy issues and has spared the American people any more bloodshed stoked up by Bible-quoting; but it is also “not a good thing” because it has made it harder “for deep, religiously rooted moral conviction” to influence contemporary debates on abortion, the environment, education, and other morally significant issues.

If Noll ends on a note of ambivalence, ambivalence practically defines Stout’s book. It deplores, yet in the end seems to justify, the sacralized patriotism that emerged during the Civil War.

Along the way in Upon the Altar of the Nation , we encounter other mixed judgments. Sometimes Stout suggests that a series of pragmatic compromises might have headed off the war; yet at other times he seems to concede that no morally acceptable compromise”none that we would accept today”could have stopped it. He is horrified by the Union army’s rampage through the South, yet concedes that reining in the Union forces probably would have prolonged the war. Referring to the campaigns of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan that ravaged the Southern countryside, he writes, “With their crushing military campaigns and remorseless destruction of civilian property, they brought the end in sight.” Without it, the war, with its attendant suffering, could have gone on much longer. So the destruction was a remorseless act of kindness.

Paradox runs through this book, but how could it not? The war itself was a bundle of paradoxes. A war fought for a noble end”though we’re still debating what the end was. A war presided over by a politician with the reputation as a temporizer and compromiser”who fought it as a total war, demanded unconditional surrender, and treated civilians as objective enemies. A war that plunged the nation into sectional bloodletting on a scale unknown before”yet finally bound it together more firmly than ever in a religion of patriotism.

All these antinomies are probed and worried over in Stout’s ambitious book. His “moral history” has two major strands winding through it: a narrative of the war and a commentary on its morality. The battlefield accounts, which he calls the “spine” of the book, rely heavily on secondary sources but are immensely readable. Stout provides a vivid appreciation of the ferocity of the battles and the shifting tides of a war whose outcome was uncertain three years after it began. And he never lets us forget the human cost, which forms the gravamen of the book’s moral reflections.

At times Stout comes close to concluding that, because of the prodigal expenditure of soldiers’ lives and the deliberate suffering inflicted on civilians, the Civil War was an unjust war. In the end he resists that conclusion, but not without more ambivalence. Stout is much better at raising questions than answering them. Perhaps that is as it should be. Except in kitsch portrayals, this war remains enigmatic. As he reminds us, it was not a static event but a dynamic one, “with ever-changing meanings and transformations as one bloody year moved into the next.” He is not attempting a final reckoning but inviting his readers to try out their own judgments, “and, in judging, to learn timely lessons for today.”

Stout considers all wars to be evil, but he is not a pacifist. He subscribes to traditional just-war theory, according to which a war can be justified if it is fought for the right reason ( jus ad bellum ) and in the right way ( jus in bello ). Aggressive wars for selfish ends are always unjust, but wars responding to aggression or even, in certain cases, preempting it may meet the first of these tests. Did the North go to war for the right reason? At the war’s outset, the stated purpose was to save the Union. Was that a just purpose? He answers with skeptical shrugs. “Did Norway have a right to secede from Sweden? Does modern-day Chechnya have a right to secede from Russia?” There are no definitive theoretical answers. “Only a Civil War would determine the answer.” He seems to have come to the same sardonic conclusion that Noll reached in considering the Bible’s view of slavery: The “Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman” decided the question.

Having taken any debate about the war’s purpose off the table, Stout can move on to the way it was fought. Here, two considerations apply: proportionality between ends and means, and discrimination between soldiers and civilians. The first refers to the relationship between the end sought and the death, injury, and destruction inflicted in order to reach it. Was saving the Union worth 620,000 soldiers’ lives? The answer leans toward the negative: If we’re not even sure that the war was fought for a just purpose, how can we possibly justify that scale of killing? As for the second criterion, the need to distinguish between soldiers and noncombatants, the war seems to be even less just. He recounts what he calls the “wanton” destruction of the South at painful length. We are reminded again of Sherman’s ruinous march through Georgia and the Carolinas, Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley, and the outrages against defenseless civilians by occupying troops implicitly given license to do just about anything they felt like doing.

What was driving all the ferocity? What was it that put a Christian nation on a path of such unimaginable bloodletting? Stout thinks that the ultimate cause was the shift in the war’s aim from the limited one of saving the Union to “a Republican-led religious crusade” to end slavery. Once that occurred, “limitations disappeared, ‘conduct’ was subordinated to victory, and victory apotheosized into one divine right against wrong.” But if the war became savage and unlimited because its aim shifted from restoring the Union to abolishing slavery, then perhaps the war could have been avoided, or at least limited, if abolition had not become part of the war aims.

Stout seems to nod in that direction, citing with apparent approval Lincoln’s scheme of voluntary, compensated emancipation followed by colonization (in Africa or South America) of freedmen. The plan went nowhere”Southern whites wanted nothing to do with any kind of emancipation, Northern whites thought it would bankrupt the treasury, and blacks considered the whole idea insulting. Still, Stout likes it because he thinks it might have helped drain some of the moral-religious absolutism out of the war. This is the heart of his case against the way the war came to be fought: “Were leaders in power able to see both sides as right and wrong, the alternatives to war might be explored. But in an atmosphere of absolute right and wrong, with God in control and demanding total surrender of sin and evil, few could escape the trap.”

Some clarification would help. Does he mean that on the slavery issue both sides in the war were equally right and equally wrong? And was there really some way to split the difference? He doesn’t tell us, and so we are left with a bad aftertaste. From today’s moral perspective”a privileged one in this respect”we wonder whether Lincoln’s proposal for compensated emancipation and voluntary deportation deserves even the kind of praise we give to noble but impractical ideas. If it were adopted, slavery would have continued for many years, slave owners would have been rewarded with public funds for stopping what they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place, and blacks would have been officially invited to leave the country they had helped build for more than two centuries. Would we really want to have that chapter inserted into our history? Lincoln himself came to realize the moral inadequacy of his proposal after talking it over with a group of black leaders.

Throughout the book, Stout calls our attention to the self-righteousness, arrogance, and hypocrisy of Northern spokesmen. True enough. But the character flaws of the spokesmen should not detract from what they were speaking about. On slavery, both sides were not right and wrong; one side was right and the other side flat wrong. There are inclinations in Upon the Altar of the Nation ”or call them temptations”toward moral relativism. Stout struggles to check them, striving toward a middle position between relativism and uncritical approval of the Union cause. In his introduction, he suggests that “the right side won in spite of itself .” His argument, he explains, is that “in too many instances both sides descended into moral misconduct.” No one will deny the unfortunate fact that armies often misbehave during war, but that hardly reaches the central issue running through Stout’s moral reflections. The larger issue is whether America is in some way “chosen” to play a determinative role in the events of world history.

The idea goes back to the New England Puritans and their belief in God’s special covenant with New England. Stout, while insisting that a huge gulf separated the seventeenth-century Puritans from the American revolutionaries of the next century, agrees that the Puritan idea of “chosenness” worked its way deeply into American political rhetoric. References to the Puritans appear in a number of places in this book: Both sides in the war seemed to be aware of the Puritan legacy, though they had quite different attitudes toward it. Connecticut minister Horace Bushnell thought the North had lost at Bull Run because it had forgotten its Puritan “errand in the wilderness”; Southern secularists deplored the entry of religious considerations into the war, calling it Puritan; and Southern clergy accused the North of abandoning revivalism for Puritanism.

On this particular point, Stout seems inclined to agree with the Southerners. He is convinced, and makes a strong case for it, that a belief in America’s “chosenness” was what injected religious fervor and moral absolutism into a war that began simply to restore the Union”turning it into a crusade for freedom and endowing the word Union with a new, mystical meaning. Much of Stout’s book is spent detailing the high cost of that crusade and wondering if there wasn’t some way to avert it.

Both Stout and Noll are struck by the tragic irony that America’s own brand of religious culture, which has done more than anything to promote national unity, drove it to extremes during the Civil War era. Noll locates its origin in revolutionary America, while Stout traces its roots, rhetorically at least, back to the covenantal theology of the Puritans. Whatever its origins, “chosenness” has exerted a powerful pull on the way Americans define their country, and it cuts across all sorts of partisan and ideological lines. As Sacvan Bercovitch has observed, it was appealed to by Martin Luther King Jr. to stigmatize racism as un-American, and by Ronald Reagan “to hitch the rhetoric of John Winthrop and Tom Paine to the campaign for Star Wars.” It uses biblical, prophetic language: the language of sermons and jeremiads. It talks about grace, consecration, and sanctification, language found nowhere in the Constitution or even the Declaration of Independence.

Over time, the belief of Americans in their nation’s special errand seems to ebb and flow. It receded noticeably in the 1920s and in the immediate post-Vietnam period in the 1970s. But let a Pearl Harbor or a September 11 occur and it all comes flooding back: the solemn assemblies, the patriotic anthems, the nondenominational prayers, the calls for national renewal. Right now a sizable minority of Americans wants no more of it, regarding it as “theocratic,” dangerous to world peace, and a threat to religious freedom. For the majority, September 11 is still deeply imprinted in memory, as is the conviction that America has a singular and indispensable role to play in world history.

Both Noll and Stout seem to share that view, though Stout goes out of his way to dismiss the possibility of “some sort of divine Providence” being behind it. Yet his own explanation, which turns on “the idea of popular sovereignty,” “freedom,” and “nationalism,” boils down to the tautology that America is the world’s last, best hope because Americans think it is. To his credit, however, Stout has raised the right questions and given us material for trying out some alternate theories.

Perhaps, then, we need to have another go at the Puritan-inspired notion of “errand.” Have we been summoned, or are we just talking to ourselves? Are there signs and patterns, clues to something beyond the day-to-day tumult, which could justify America’s faith in the national “errand”? If so, then we ought to accept it and explore its implications”work with it. If not, then perhaps the time has come to follow the example of our European brethren: Cough it out of our system once and for all.

George McKenna is an emeritus professor of political science at City College of New York .