One nation under God


Yale religious historian Harry S. Stout’s most recent publication, a 576-page reckoning of religion and morality during the Civil War—and its present-day cultural echoes—began as “a title in search of a book,” he told the audience on Swift Hall’s third floor Monday afternoon. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War takes its name from a phrase used in wartime letters to the families of fallen soldiers. “I hit on the title,” Stout said, and the rest was “an odyssey of discovery.” What he discovered was that “the Civil War bequeathed to Americans the idea of America as a redemptive nation, that a ‘civil religion’ was incarnated in civil war.” From blood sacrifice, he said, rose a sacred devotion to nation, freedom, and their symbols. Even today, he said, that devotion informs moral justifications for war. Dissecting political speeches, newspaper editorials, letters, and diaries—and recounting incidents of devastating carnage—the book asks whether the Civil War was a “just war.” Stout’s answer: not entirely.

The Jonathan Edwards professor of American Christianity at Yale, Stout is a visiting fellow in the Divinity School’s Jerald Brauer Seminar, an annual program in which ten students and two faculty members discuss and write on separate topics with a common theme. This year’s focus: “religion and violence in American culture.”

At Monday’s event, a panel of three Divinity School professors—W. Clark Gilpin, AM'72, PhD'74, Martin E. Marty, PhD'56, and Catherine Brekus—offered critical synopses of Stout’s book and posed a few questions: Why not use slaves’ voices in the book? What was Abraham Lincoln’s role in convincing Americans that 600,000 Civil War deaths were “inevitable”? How were African Americans and Native Americans left out of the nation’s newly “consecrated land”? In what ways did the South win the war? Calling Lincoln an “emergent character” in Stout’s book, Marty said he wanted to know more about his “ethos, pathos, his logos.”

Audience members came with questions too, and for more than half an hour Stout and the panelists discussed Civil War nomenclature, the South’s “lost cause,” national memory and mismemory, and the definition of moral history. “Would it have been better for the country if the Confederate generals had been put on trial for war crimes and executed?” Stout asked listeners. “It’s almost impossible to imagine.”


Photo: Stout and the panel address the Swift Hall crowd.

Photo by Terren Ilana Wein

May 3, 2006