The Myth of the Lost Cause and Obama’s Prayer


I love history. Reading history is always exciting because it offers a chance to understand our story so much better. Rarely does one read the stories of others without better understanding one’s own. Yesterday I spent the day reading Alabama: A History  of a Deep South State, and needing a break went to check my inbox. I was flabbergasted to find an outpouring of vitriol over the President’s prayer at the Annual Prayer Breakfast. What was said seemed so generalized and common (especially after spending a day reading about slavery in my home state of Alabama).

“Why the rage?” I asked myself.

I actually commented on a post, arguing that to say one religion is less blameless or more blameful seemed an absurdity. For me this was a matter of humbly stating that “but for the grace of God go I,” and asking God to be faithful to us despite our ever present faithlessness. Yet show absolutely no traction to my scripture quoting and such; yet more and more emotional “they hit first” types of comments.

I went to bed asking God for the grace to forgive my part in all this; and to show me how to be a bastion of His peace in my small corner of the world. And arose this morning to continue my slog through that admittedly dense recounting of Alabama history. And so there I was prepared to move onto post-Reconstruction Alabama and found this gem of a quote:

“Power groups seek to control the government in order to shape a culture that protects their interests and recognizes their superior position…. Without strong offsetting social canons, laws and policies tend to conform to the weight of wealth, the power of prestige, and on rare occasions the influence of intellect.”

Such a beautiful and cogent discussion of the subtle ways in which power corrupts and controls; as well as, the need for strong moral voices (I call them prophets) urging the better angels to action. And yet although geared towards the struggle of native Democrats and alien Republicans for the heart of the South post-war, it also seemed to reveal something of the struggle we saw yesterday. Many of my Christian friends are angry (and in many cases rightfully so) about the trajectory of America; yet one wonders how much is anguish over our common sins and how much is frustration that our culture is rapidly setting off any recognition of Christian superiority and increasingly valuing other voices. In a phrase, American Christians no longer have the privileged position of culture-makers which allows them the ability to set the agenda and live according to their liking. The weight of wealth and the prestige of power is no longer pressing down on their opponents but in many ways pressing down on their own shoulders.

The authors of my book then go on to describe how in a moment of turmoil, the powers of Whiteness in Alabama (and the South) found a dissenting voice that reclaimed their position. They call it the myth of the Lost Cause. I will let them explain in detail:

“The myth of the Lost Cause opened with a picture of the beneficent life that slavery had brought. Next, the myth created an uncritical gospel of heroic sacrifice by Confederate soldiers and composed a litany of the indignities suffered under the ‘invading army.’ The triumphal climax came when Southerners gained redemption under the banner of the Democratic Party and reclaimed the Promised Land. Thus did myth avoid and preclude a hard appraisement of the recent past. There was rarely a public admission, and never a consensus, that slavery was a vicious system of exploitation; almost never was there recognition that succession and war had produced not only heroes but an appalling and wasteful loss of life; and only as a doctrine of dissent was there a stated belief that a future rightly belonged to efforts towards a more perfect democracy- and not at all to the claims of a counterfeit cotton aristocracy. The myth of the Lost Cause and an Old South that never was became self-perpetuating. In the South and in Alabama, whites- always with exceptions and degrees of intensity, certitude, and conviction- built a regional identity based on pride, prejudice, and an abiding sense of persecution.”

Reading about this myth explains a lot about my upbringing and about my life in the South. I see here the roots of many of the issues now pressing upon Southern shoulders. One can also see how this myth has influenced even our generation and provided a means by which we can and do understand our own story. One might substitute Civil Rights for Slavery and the War on Terror for the Civil War. One might change cotton aristocracy for baking aristocracy. Yet the melody remains the same. Do not admit fault and horror at the issues of Civil Rights. See only the heroes of Afghanistan and Iraq (for they are legion). Do not stare at the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.

In this discourse can be heard the Powerful seeking to maintain their power. The Powerful cannot allow us to think of the hurt, pain, and loss; because if we do we might ask questions. And if we start asking questions, we might question their power and authority. And authority questioned will not be an authority for long.

I’ve leave you with a quote from one of my favorite modern writers,  writing for The Atlantic on the events of yesterday:

“That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, ‘the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,’ by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct. That is unless you view the entire discussion as a kind of religious one-upmanship, in which the goal is to prove that Christianity is ‘the awesomest.

Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.”

There but for the grace of God go I (and you). May we have the humility to repent, to change our ways, and to create real cultures which are an honor to our Savior. Even so Come Quickly Lord Jesus!

 

Sources:

Rodgers, William Warren and Robert David Ward. “From 1865 to 1920.” Alabama: A History of a Deep South State. UA Press: Tuscaloosa, AL; 1994, 259-260.

The Atlantic Web Journal: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/the-foolish-historically-illiterate-incredible-response-to-obamas-prayer-breakfast-speech/385246/

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