05 February 2013

America Aflame - Burned Out!

It's rare for a book to do me in, but I've been trounced.

Love books + Love NPR = Love book reviews on NPR. 

Which led me to read David Goldfield's America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, an analysis of how Evangelical Christianity contributed to the run-up to the Civil War, but also how it impacted the Gold Rush, the treatment of Native Americans, expansion West, etc. 

Librarian Nancy Pearl's Picks for the Omnivorous Reader remarks, "political leaders sought a middle ground between an individual's rights and the need for national stability (we're still searching for the right balance today, it seems)."  And in the wake of the recent election, it seemed an especially fitting time to read about the impact of Christianity (or more to the point, religiosity) on American Politics.

How many hundreds (thousands?) of books have been written about the Civil War?  I admire an author that looks at the causes (and effects) of the Civil War in a new way.  And the very best history books,  IMHO, illuminate the past in a way that also reflects on aspects of our present.

Little did I know that the Northern anti-slavery movement existed hand-in-hand with anti-Catholicism; "the Beecher family [Harriet Beecher Stowe's] stood in the forefront of both the crusade against Catholics and the crusade against slavery" (p.26, emphasis mine).  As a Catholic, this hit home rather sharply.  Did heroes like the Grimk√© sisters, or William Lloyd Garrison, hate "my people"?  It does give me pause. 

It also reminds me that although Abolitionists fervently believed that OWNING other people is wrong, it didn't keep them from continuing to believe that some people were/are better than others.  Makes me think about bitterness toward some of today's immigrants or the not-so-thinly-veiled racism against our African-American president.

The social pain of our time has eerie echoes in the past. 
  • "The Republicans' [1856] campaign erased any line between religion and politics. Churches became party gathering places; ministers stumped for the party's candidates.... The ubiquity of religious rhetoric and imagery in the Republican campaign, however, further polarized an already divided Union" (p. 125). 
  • Urban violence was measurably on the rise, with death by firearms up significantly.  (p.136)
  • Economic woes of 1857-1858 increased the religiosity of the nation: "Social disorder created a sense of foreboding that drove... men to seek solace from God.  In an increasingly evangelical nation, the suspicion that an epic struggle loomed took firmer root during these dark months (winter of 1858), a sense that events were occurring that 'may bring together the hosts of evil in one concentrated effort to crush the nation.'" (p. 146). 
Any of this sound familiar?  Think about Mike Huckabee proclaiming that the Newtown tragedy is because of our national "sin problem." 

Or how about this charming characterization:
Northerners and southerners may have prayed to the same God and espoused similar evangelical Protestant principles, but slavery inspired vastly different professions of faith.... To one southern minister, the divide was simple.  Northerners were "atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, rationalists, Bible haters, anti-christian levelers, and anarchists."  Southerners, on the other hand, were [according to the same minister] "God-fearing and Christ-loving, conscientious people... that... have a zeal for God, and seek his glory and the good of man." (p. 173)
No, this WASN'T ripped from the pages of the 2012 Republican National Convention.  It's the sentiments of the late 1850s.

The scope of this book is enormous.  So much so that like I said above, America Aflame did me in.  It's only 533 pages (not counting endnotes) and beautifully written, but it's very detailed and a bit hard-going. 

And here's the real kicker.  I have it out on interlibrary loan, and I'm now past the maximum number of times that I can renew it.  I'm in serious violation of my New Year's Resolution.

But even halfway through, there's a lot to reflect upon.  This blog post barely scratches the surface of America Aflame.  In fact, maybe it's best that I stop here for now, in the early summer of 1863, a few weeks before Gettysburg.  There's plenty of story to tell beyond.

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