Does God Approve of Gods and Generals?

We watched a bit more of Gods and Generals today and I did my best not to dismiss it out of hand in front of my students.  While I am usually pretty good about this in class I can’t claim much success today.  That said, I did think a bit about the way religion is presented in this movie.  The scene set in Jackson’s home once he learns that his services have been requested in Richmond shortly after the state seceded stood out.  Once Jackson gets word he immediately retreats with his "Esposita" to the library to read a passage from the Bible.  This stands in sharp contrast to the scenes involving Joshua Chamberlain who considers the morality of slavery and God’s position with his students at Bowdoin. 

While Maxwell managed to simplify the theological disagreements between North and South, he did capture the tragic elements relating to the disagreement.  And he did so in a way which fits neatly into our love affair with Civil War entertainment.  There is something entertaining about this Civil War meme (Both northerners and southerners believed that God was on their side) and it is not a stretch to suggest that it is even more attractive than the old saw of "Brother vs. Brother."  Just like the tragic split between families we celebrate that both northerners and southerners believed that God was on their side.  I don’t mean to suggest that such a perception is historically inaccurate.  What I find disturbing, however, is that we tend to sit on the side-lines and not more fully appreciate the absurdity of the idea that God could be both for and against anything.  This contradiction was not only present in the debate over the morality of slavery, but also within the more abstract question of providence.  In his new study The Civil War as a Theological Crisis historian Mark Noll suggests that the "most telling feature" between differing interpretations of providence "was the confident assurance with which those appeals were made."  According to Noll, this confidence exhibited by ministers on both sides explains "the shallowness of providential reasoning during the war." 

Now I want to make clear that I don’t claim to know anything about what God believes about any worldly issue.  In fact, I am not even sure what it means to say that God subscribes to any set of beliefs or that I even have access to God’s mind.  I have difficulty just trying to figure out what people around me believe which leaves little time to contemplate a being that is supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly morally good.    But apart from these considerations I am not even sure that it matters what God believes.  After all, the end of slavery seems to have had little to do with anything beyond the various forces that pushed black Americans to run away as fugitives and eventually fight in the Union army.  This is an overly simplistic view, but I only do so to emphasize that the end of slavery can and should be explained by events on the ground.  One could respond and say that behind it all was the "Hand of God" and argue the point on faith.  Of course one could argue for any conclusion by utilizing the faith card.  This is simply a non-starter at least in the context of a formal debate. 

Perhaps the the lesson to be learned is that theological arguments have no place in the public/political realm.  Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that a belief in God or the holding of certain theological tenets are not relevant to the individual, but that public policy debates should take place by utilizing secular terms.  In other words, the conclusion that slavery represented a moral wrong cannot be justified by using a theological argument since it has already been demonstrated that the opposite position can be and was successfully defended.  I worry that we are in the same position today in reference to debates surrounding abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.  We have an entire spectrum of theological arguments on these and other issues.  Where does God stand on these issues?  If I listen to the arguments we are forced into a position in which God both believes in x and does not believe in x.  What are we to do here? Can we really arrive at some modicum of agreement through this approach or are we destined to talk past one another as Americans did at the height of the slave debates?  The Civil War ended slavery not the theological debates and yet just about all religious leaders today would agree that the institution has no theological or moral basis. 

While religious leaders on both sides of recent public debates continue to present their theological viewpoints with "confident assurance" I am left wondering if their confidence will eventually be seen to carry the same moral weight with which we judge many of the arguments surrounding slavery. 

2 comments… add one

  • Anonymous Apr 27, 2006

    Just to play devil’s advocate:
    When push comes to shove, morality is based on religion. There is no a priori morality, and when you dig deep enough, morality rests only upon religion or fiat. I think for a long period, in the Western world, we have been able to suppress this connection (i.e. see the Enlightenment). So, if at the heart of it we are calling upon religion to justify what we are saying, why is there a problem with using theological terms in public? Clearly, “hand of God” answers are not answers at all. You are also absolutely correct in stating that God is not “for” any one side (He loves everyone equally). Yet there is of course the issue of the Bible as a text, and the contradictions within. People fall back on religion to justify things when nothing else can.
    For instance, take abortion. The issue is not whether or not it is wrong to kill a person. Both sides concede this. Now, why is it wrong to kill a person? You could come up with some elaborate schema like Mill or Kant, or you could avoid dissembling and just say “tradition based on long-held beliefs that ultimately go back to some sort of religion.” The crux of the abortion debate rests in how one defines “personhood.” One side says “fetus” another says “person.” It’s alright to kill a fetus because it is not a person. Clearly “a woman has the right to choose how to live her life, so if something she doesn’t want to happen happens, she has the right to kill a person” is a statement no one would agree with. The morality depends upon vocabulary. What determines the vocabulary are irrational views on both sides.
    A completely separate issue of course, is how to deal with Islam in a secular world. Is there a way to engage extremely religious rhetoric (that explicitly says “God is on our side” from a secular perspective?

  • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2006

    Thanks for writing. I assume you see that your claim that moral theory must be based in some kind of religious view and that “There is no a priori morality” are conclusions that at this point lack any justifications: conclusions must be based on reasons. As to whether God loves everyone equally I will refrain from commentingn as I am not even sure what it means to say that God loves, likes or approves anything.

    Much of Western Philosophy is built on the assumption that one can engage in meaningful discussion regarding moral/ethical foundations apart from a religious context. You mentioned Mill’s consequentialism and Kant’s internalist explanations as two examples, but the list goes on which suggests that the possibility cannot simply be dismissed with the back of your hand. It was Plato who argued in the dialogue Euthyphro that it is impossible to base moral/ethical reasoning on a religious foundation. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether a moral act is good/pious because the God’s approve or the God’s approve because the act is moral/pious. If you choose the former than any act is moral if the God’s approve, but the latter option suggests that the moral justification can be explained independently of the God’s approval or disapproval.

    In my post I hinted at the possibility mentioned by Noll in the context of the slave debates that current issues suffer from the same problems or weaknesses as they relate to theological concepts. Yes, I prefer that discussions of personhood be analyzed using secular terms. Why? Because we need to be able to engage one another utilizing a language within the public sphere. In other words, we need to have the moral/ethical debate, but the religious concepts are clearly non-starters just as they were in the context of the slave debates. Is a black man a person? Yes, of course and this has nothing to do with your religious conviction. Thanks for your thoughts.

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