Thanks to historian and blogger Ed Blum for his thought-provoking post, “God Damn America” in Black and White which can be read over at HNN. This was just the kind of historical context that I was looking for and I may even follow up on some of the suggestions for further reading:
“What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. It seems that each year, at least a handful of books come out trying to discern whether the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most recently, this can be seen in Steven Waldman’s Liberating the Founders.But so often historians have approached the topic from the perspective of elite whites, and not the people who were building the nation from its foundation, hoeing the fields and raising the cotton, washing the clothes and preparing the meals. (One exception to this is David Howard-Pitney’s wonderful The African-American Jeremiad.) If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.”
Update: I picked up this comment from the comments section over at Religion in American History:
“What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him. But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile ‘God damn America’ bile. What a psycho.”
Ralph Luker has generated a great deal of heat in response to his post on Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial statements about race and the federal government. The point of Ralph’s post, as I understood it, was to provide both a religious and political context for Wright’s words and not necessarily to condemn or praise. I’ve read excerpts from Wright’s statements and for the most part I haven’t given it a second thought. As far as I am concerned this is just another example of our obsession with religion and politics. Frankly, apart from the obvious exceptions where radical religious views are detrimental to maintaining a free society I don’t care about any given politician’s religious convictions. I’ve lived through enough cases of self-righteous Republicans and Democrats touting their religious credentials in my face only to see them fall flat on their face in disgrace. In the present case we are not even talking about Obama’s personal beliefs.
I’ve heard from the mainstream media, which means that I haven’t heard much that is constructive or that reflects how this is playing out in various sections of the country. I admit a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to understanding the history of the jeremiad tradition or the theological assumptions within liberation theology, which partly explains my reluctance to comment on this matter beyond simply not caring. More importantly, however I am unfamiliar with the spectrum of cultures that define the history of the black church. I say this in light of Ralph’s piece and an article by Gwen Robinson:
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The new issue of the Ambrose Bierce Journal is now available. Fellow blogger Craig Warren – who teaches at Penn State – Erie – has done an excellent job collecting essays around the theme of Bierce and memory. Craig managed to gather an excellent line-up of historians including Bjorn Skaptason, Brooks Simpson, Ken Noe along with reprints from Earl Hess and David Blight. Finally, there is an interview with Carol Reardon. I contributed a book review of Chandra Manning’s latest study of Civil War soldiers and slavery.
The Civil War Preservation Trust has recently released their top 10 most endangered list and it includes Antietam, in part, because of a proposed cellular phone tower that may go up just south of the battlefield. I sincerely hope that this does not happen, although I have no ill-feelings towards the company responsible for such an eye sore. After all the residents of Sharpsburg weren’t engaged in battlefield preservation following the war. I love visiting Antietam. It was where I was introduced to the Civil War in 1994 and it is one of the few battlefields where I can walk and actually contemplate the bravery of the men who fought there as well as the broader meanings of the war. This spring I will have the opportunity to bring around 15 students to the battlefield as part of a 2-day bike tour. In short, for me Antietam is the closest thing to “sacred ground.”
I have never felt the same about Gettysburg. Although I was against the push to bring a casino to Gettysburg I never viewed it as a moral question, and when the observation tower came down I never thought of it as bringing us a step closer to some notion of battlefield purity. And I am probably one of the few who would hate to see the Cyclorama Center torn down. Whenever I travel to Gettysburg (it’s not that often) I find it close to impossible to think about the battle itself apart from the distractions of the town and the ways in which the battlefield was utilized following the war. I guess too much has happened to simply see it as a battlefield where men fought and died. Yes, you can find a battle at Gettysburg and much to contemplate, but you can just as easily find overweight white male reenactors, white tourists, ghosts [I assume most of them are white.], cheap hotels, and trinkets galore. Please don’t blame me for holding such a view as Americans made the decision to commercialize and sell it long ago.
Rally on the High Ground and keep the cell phone tower away from Antietam.
Yesterday I briefly referenced the latest issue of the VMHB which contains a wonderful essay on Stonewall Jackson by Christopher R. Lawton. I finished reading the essay this morning and it has left me with a great deal to think about. Lawton provides both a gendered and generational analysis of the evolution of Jackson’s public and private life between his admission to West Point and his arrival in Lexington, Virginia. Along the way Lawton challenges the analytical frameworks of Wilbur J. Cash and Bertram Wyatt-Brown who imagine white Southern men as yearning to live the life of the slaveholding elite and practicing a set of values revolving around a strict code of honor.
Central to this recent historiography is that the myth of the emotionally-driven antebellum southerner must be replaced with a new sense that many southern men were far closer to the stereotype of the rational northerner than to the honor and violence models of Cash and Wyatt-Brown. An account of Thomas Jackson’s carefully plotted ascension into privileged white manhood is thus far less radical than it might initially seem. Jackson was not an exception among white, middle-class southern men, but rather a fairly typical model. His strategic development of self was directed by the belief that the role of “gentlemen,” to which he and so many of his contemporaries aspired, was not a preexisting condition but a position that one created in the act of playing the part. (p. 9)
This emphasis on performatives, according to Lawton, was shaped by Jackson’s careful reading of popular texts such as Parson Weems’s biography of Washington and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, his training at West Point which emphasized the importance of putting into practice moral precepts that would bring about a “Gentlemen of manners, of politeness & of education,” and in his generation’s reverence for the Founding Fathers. Finally, there were the countless books of maxims that Jackson carefully studied – the most famous being, “You may be whatever you resolve to be” which was pulled verbatim from the Rev. Joel Hawes’s Letters to Young Men on the Formation of Character &c. Jackson utilized these resources as a means to becoming a soldier, citizen, and gentlemen. What I like about this article is that it implicitly challenges the assumption that Jackson’s life is impenetrable; we see the same thing when it comes to R.E. Lee. Somehow in the process of turning these men into gods we distance ourselves from their humanity and desires. Such is the case when it comes to Jackson and religion.
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The latest issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 116, No. 1) arrived today and contains a very thoughtful essay by Christopher R. Lawton who is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. The essay which is titled “The Pilgrim’s Progress: Thomas J. Jackson’s Journey Toward Civility and Citizenship” uses Jackson as a case study to analyze “the struggles that faced many antebellum white males, about the models they were told to follow, and about expectations that they had to overcome.” (p. 4) Here is the abstract:
In this article the author argues that applying the methodologies of gender and cultural studies to the prewar life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson provides a new and exceptionally fruitful path of enquiry into the biography of one of the Confederacy’s most iconic heroes. Conversely, approaching these modern fields of study by way of such a prominent figure allows for an enriched version of what masculinity studies can do. Whereas other historians have challenged James I. Robertson, Jr.’s assertions about the importance of the book of maxims in understanding Jackson’s character, this article contends that Jackson was extraordinarily concerned with defining and following a hegemonic model of white, middle-class manhood. To that end, the argument is built around a careful and in-depth exploration of the cultural milieu in which he came of age, the books he read and that filtered into his maxims, and the social realm to which he aspired in Lexington. It is hoped that this essay makes small, but worthwhile contributions to studies of southern social mobility, the Civil War, and our understanding of antebellum manhood.
Anyone interested in a sophisticated treatment of a crucial period of Jackson’s life should spend some time with this article. It’s a breadth of fresh air in contrast with the overly simplistic slop that passes for biography and analysis in some quarters. The fundamental problem with the more popular interpretations of Jackson is an almost complete lack of historical context. In other words, the authors in question for whatever reason are unable to analyze their subject with an understanding of the broader social, political, and economic conditions in which they lived. Such is the case with most treatments of Jackson’s views of slavery and his religious outlook.
The problem is that the authors in question know very little about the subjects they write about, especially in the case of the history of religion in the nineteenth-century and the complexity of race and slavery. No, it’s not enough that you are a self-described Christian or that you believe Jackson’s life should serve as a model for your own. In fact, it is difficult to see how any religious affiliation could be considered a necessary condition for writing a respectable study of Jackson or any other Lost Cause figure. The net result of many of these studies is a watered down view of Jackson that fails to do justice to his complexity of character and the world in which he operated.
He’s back and more committed than ever to telling the “true” story of the Confederacy and the loyal place that black Southerners occupied within it. H.K. Edgerton was in Ringgold earlier this week to “stage a peaceful protest against the City Council’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from above the Depot downtown in 2005.” Unfortunately, the available news does not tell the complete story and this has everything to do with Edgerton’s presence, who is ultimately a distraction. Check out the news item referenced above and you will notice that most of the story is devoted to the fact that Edgerton is black and carries a Confederate flag. We end up trying to figure out what he is about and in the process inflating his own sense of importance.
Two of my readers were kind enough to send along additional information about this story that did not make the paper. It turns out that the Ringgold City Council removed the Confederate battle flag from a memorial that the SCV had erected in downtown area and as a compromise they flew a Hardee Corps flag, which was used by Cleburne’s Division in the battle there. About a month ago the city council learned that they were being sued by Kirk Lyons of the Southern Legal Resource Center. I am willing to bet that Lyons contacted Edgerton to travel to Ringgold in order to bring attention to this case. I am also willing to bet that until Lyons sued there were few problems in Ringgold over the compromise that had been struck which left a bona fide symbol of the Confederate cause in a public space. The problem, of course, is that most white Americans don’t identify with the Hardee Corps flag or know much of anything about its history. Wouldn’t it be more fitting to honor the white Southern men who fought in this area by displaying the actual flag they carried into battle or is that not what this controversy is about?
Dimitri offers some observations about Drew Faust’s latest study "in terms of the broader culture in which it appears…" I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, but if he ever gets around to actually critiquing Faust’s argument let me know. Oh…and don’t miss the ultimate anti-Gallagher/McPherson rant. This one is a true classic.