Instrument Of Redemption? Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina was constructed out of the still raw historical memories of the American Civil War and the uncompromising political evangelism which continues to divide the US population into saints and sinners.
ONE HUNDRED and seventy-eight years ago, in the little Massachusetts town of Charlestown, a mob of Protestant evangelicals attacked and burned to the ground a Roman Catholic convent and school. In spite of incontrovertible evidence of their guilt, twelve of the thirteen men charged with instigating and participating in the riot were acquitted. Recommendations that the state recompense the Archdiocese of Boston for its loss were repeatedly voted down in the Massachusetts legislature.
I re-tell this long-forgotten tale of religious bigotry and violence for two reasons. First, it is a useful corrective to the very common belief that this sort of behaviour is confined, historically, to the states of the American South – the so-called “Bible Belt”. Second, it reveals the crucial role evangelical Protestantism has played, and continues to play, in the history of the United States.
As the 1834 Convent Riot shows, the volatile mixture of politics and religion that so baffles foreign observers of the United States is nothing new; indeed, in the opinion of at least one American historian, David Goldfield, it has been one of its principal drivers. As he writes of the United States in the middle of the Nineteenth Century:
“[E]vangelical Christianity’s influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics, and especially about slavery. What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.”
Goldfield’s observations resonate powerfully with the present condition of American political life. And if the most virulent expressions of religious intolerance have their present geographical location in the states of the old Confederacy, that is only because the creation of the Confederacy, and its ultimate defeat by Abraham Lincoln and the Union armies, was a product of the Northern evangelicals’ holy crusade against the “sin of slavery”.
One has only to read the words of Julia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic to gain some understanding of the extraordinary moral fervour pervading the Union armies – especially following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!
Religious fervour of this intensity inevitably incited an equal and opposite fervour among its intended victims. Messianic Methodists from the North were met by belligerent Baptists from the South, and their watchword was “redemption”. As Goldfield notes:
“Confederates talked of ‘redeeming’ their states from Union control during the Civil War. After the wall, the term usually implied a two-step process. Redemption would cleanse southern sins and therefore restore the Lord’s blessing on the South … it would also remove ‘the yoke of Yankee and negro rule’. Redemption, therefore, would secure for white southerners the victory denied to them in the Civil War.”
The clash of these historical convictions, in the shape of the civil rights movement, is still within the living memory of many New Zealanders. That struggle to make good Lincoln’s pledge was initiated and sustained within the context of Dr Martin Luther King’s evangelical Christian pacifism. It’s street-based expression stirred the conscience of the Yankee North, whose liberal protestant creed had been both tempered and extended through its association with progressive Judaism, the social gospel of Vatican II, and the secular humanism of “official” America’s science-based modernity.
It is by no means clear that the legislative victories of the civil rights movement betokened a genuine change of heart among Southern evangelicals. Certainly, the still-glowing embers of Southern Baptist redemptionism were stirred to life by the election of an African-American as President of the United States. Once again the racial, religious and cultural demarcations of American society are traced in lines of fire across the republic’s face.
Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina (the first state to secede from the Union in 1861) offers proof of how brightly these fires can burn. His sudden surge in popularity in the run-up to last Sunday’s primary was almost entirely due to his thinly disguised attack on African-Americans. His depiction of Barack Obama as “the food-stamps President” harked back to the South’s rejection of “Yankee and negro rule”. He didn’t quite brandish the Confederate flag – but he came dangerously close.
It is a sobering experience to witness how readily the United States falls victim to its past. Sobering, yet strangely inspiring, that the political mandate of the Almighty continues to be so highly prized, and so bitterly contested.
For Americans, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all” will always be much more than a slogan.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 January 2012.