An intelligent foreigner, making his observations at Washington at this time, would be puzzled to determine whether the Americans had a Government, or not. … It is a remarkable fact that at Washington today, there is not a single well-defined department of political power!
Southerner Edward Pollard wrote those words in 1867, coining the term “Lost Cause,” as a way of re-mythologizing the post-Appomattox Confederacy. Efforts to “make America great again” are not unique to the current president of the United States. Americans have often reasserted their national or regional “greatness,” sometimes fretting that national oblivion, if not divine retribution, was at hand. Others, dissenters mostly, warned that claims of greatness betray a national hubris blind to promises made but not yet kept. Their dissenting mantra might be: “Making American Great Again FOR THE FIRST TIME.”
For white Southerners, the Lost Cause saga remains a waning but powerful source of regional identity repeatedly mythologized and demythologized. Myths give meaning to our common existence, telling us who we are, where we fit, or where we don’t. Myths of American political and religious identity seem up for grabs these days, evident in recent polls suggesting that seven out of 10 Americans believe the country is losing a sense of shared identity; while one in four citizens claim no formal religious affiliation. Worse yet, the rise in religion-related hate crimes, white supremacy rhetoric, KKK rallies, and race-based manipulation of voting laws, suggest that some of the vilest Lost Cause-oriented ideologies are not all that lost in 21st century America. Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., require reexamination of the Lost Cause and its continuing impact in and beyond the South.
Thomas Connelly and Barbara Bellows suggest that the Lost Cause originated as “a byword for the perpetuation of the Confederate ideal,” and became a mindset for “justifying the Southern experience.” Introduced to explain the South’s defeat and memorialize its honored dead (hence the statues), it morphed into a broader method for undergirding racial segregation, denying blacks’ voting rights, and promoting culturally entrenched white supremacy, zombie mindsets that stalk us yet.
Racial, ethnic and immigrant injustices are writ large in the Lost Cause, a metaphor by which the defeated Southerners cast “the [Civil] war and its outcome in the best possible terms,” “often factually and chronologically distorting the way in which the past would be remembered.” Carolyn Janney suggests that these “alternative facts” minimized or dismissed the role of slavery as a reason for a war fought in response to “‘Yankee aggression’ and black ‘betrayal.’”
Southern white Protestantism was a major force in promoting Lost Cause religion. As Connelly and Bellows write: “The rising tide of evangelical faith, witnessed in the phenomenal growth of the Southern Baptist [Convention] and other fundamentalist churches, gave solace and structure to the defeated Confederate generation.” In Baptized in Blood, the Religion of the Lost Cause, Charles Reagan Wilson writes that “as guardians of the region’s spiritual and moral heritage,” Southern ministers “used the Lost Cause to buttress this heritage.” Wilson insists that “Christian clergymen were the prime celebrants of the religion of the Lost Cause.”
While Lost Cause advocates attempted to rewrite the South back into national identity, they portrayed the South as the prime preserver of American Christian culture. Thus, the people who lost the war retained the vision. The Southern people, even in defeat, would be more moral, more Christian, more American than their Yankee counterparts had been or could be.
Yet underneath the rhetoric of moralism, sectionalism and theological orthodoxy was the abiding scourge of racism. Lost Cause religion facilitated the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, whose violent racism was romanticized in books like The Clansman, written in 1905 by Baptist preacher and Wake Forest graduate Thomas Dixon, to describe how “the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland … saved the life of a people,” and formed “one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.”
In August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, another Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., assessed the inadequacies of Lost Cause mythology, challenging the nation to make America Great Again for the first time. Affirming the “joyous daybreak” of the Emancipation Proclamation, King warned that “one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Thus King declared: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Amid continuing injustices, might we ask:
First, can we learn to read our culture with a sense of history? Can we understand and analyze the roots of white supremacy, internet racism and KKK anti-Semitism, distinguishing alternative facts from alternative interpretations? Can we provide gospel alternatives for reading the cultural signs of the times?
Second, can we distinguish Christian conviction from culture prejudice, particularly when using the Bible for support? Many elements of Lost Cause religion were rooted in distorted biblical hermeneutics, interpretative methods that gave proof texts for anti-Semitism, chattel slavery, Jim Crow separatism and white privilege. Such bastardized biblicism (I’m retiring next year; I can talk like that) showed up recently when a Texas pastor touted Romans 13 as divine sanction to “take out” the North Korean leader, using assassination and other dark arts, as necessary. What if the theory of biblical inerrancy helps get us all nuked?
Third, can we cultivate gospel dissent, contesting the ways in which religious communities cut deals with the culture? Edwin Gaustad wrote, “This reform of religion in the name of religion, this growing edge, this refusal to let well enough alone, is the role of dissent.” It “may also be a manifestation of the unfettered human spirit.” As Christians, let’s be prepared to dissent at a moment’s notice, but be prophetic when injustice becomes so rampant that if we don’t speak the stones will cry out.
Finally, might we listen to Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, (maybe even Jesus), in understanding America, not as Lost Cause, but as Beloved Community? In August 1963, Dr. King reminded us of his dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all … are created equal.’”
Fifty-four Augusts later can we mirror King’s courage by confronting a renewed Lost Cause ideology spewing white supremacy-KKK-Nazi bigotry made tangible in torch light parades, “blood and soil” mantras, and the murder of a 32-year-old dissenter? If the hope of a Beloved Community means anything at all, then Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer must not have died in vain.
Still, Beloved Community often seems its own lost cause; hope as inconceivable as a stone cold Galilean, laid out in a borrowed tomb, waiting on Easter morning, for God’s audacious grace.