The end of the South’s Religion of the Lost Cause (COMMENTARY)

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A Confederate battle flag flies at the grave of L.S. Axson, a soldier in the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War, in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina on June 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CONFEDERATE-FAITH, originally transmitted on June 23, 2015.

A Confederate battle flag flies at the grave of L.S. Axson, a soldier in the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War, in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina on June 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CONFEDERATE-FAITH, originally transmitted on June 23, 2015.

(RNS) The Confederate battle flag will not fly much longer on the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, where it has flown since it was dislodged from the Capitol itself 15 years ago.

The state’s political establishment wants it gone, and doubtless it soon will be. What is to be hoped is that its removal signals the end of the mythical republic for which it stands.

In the years after the Civil War, the battle flag became the emblem of the Religion of the Lost Cause, which white Southerners embraced not only to legitimate and ennoble their disastrous struggle to maintain their right to own other people, but also to create the myth of an antebellum golden age of genteel manners, Christian piety and happy slaves.

The battle flag should be “honored as the consecrated emblem of an heroic epoch,” declared Randolph McKim, a Confederate veteran and Episcopal priest who was one of the group of Southern ministers who helped create this civil religion.

As historian Charles Reagan Wilson writes in his book “Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause,1865-1920”:

“The ministers saw little difference between their religious and cultural values, and they promoted the link by creating Lost Cause ritualistic forms that celebrated their regional mythological and theological beliefs. They used the Lost Cause to warn Southerners of their decline from past virtue, to promote moral reform, to encourage conversion to Christianity, and to educate the young in Southern traditions.”

Critical to Lost Cause religion is the conviction that the Civil War was not about slavery, and that white Southerners were victims.

Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor in Charleston, South Carolina on April 14, 1861, under the first Confederate national flag (the 'Stars and Bars').

Photo courtesy of [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor in Charleston, South Carolina on April 14, 1861, under the first Confederate national flag (the ‘Stars and Bars’).

“There are those of us who have ancestors that fought and spilled blood on the side of the South when they were fighting for states’ rights, and we don’t want our ancestors relegated to the ash heaps of history,” Lee Bright, a state senator from Spartanburg who opposes removal of the flag, told The New York Times. “Through the years, the heroes of the South have been slandered, maligned and misrepresented, and this is a further activity in that.”

In fact, the heroes of the South were celebrated in such iconic manifestations of American popular culture as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.” And whoever doubts that the concept of states’ rights is still being used to deny rights to disfavored minorities should review the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage.

During the civil rights era, the Confederate battle flag became the official symbol of political resistance, as Southern states redesigned their flags to incorporate it. South Carolina only began flying it in Columbia in 1962.

This history underscores the validity of last week’s Supreme Court decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, a ruling that determined that messages on license plates are government speech, and therefore Texas had the right to refuse to create plates with the battle flag on it.

As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his majority opinion:

“Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate. But the individual prefers a license plate design to the purely private speech expressed through bumper stickers. That may well be because Texas’s license plate designs convey government agreement with the message displayed.”

Precisely.

As the unholy creation of white Christian ministers, it is tragically appropriate that the Religion of the Lost Cause should come to an end with a devotee murdering black Christians in a church in the city where the Civil War began. On the 150th anniversary of the faith’s creation, let that be Dylann Roof’s legacy.

DG/MG END SILK

  • JR

    People read too much into the Confederate flag. It is to many a symbol of a time gone by, not an affirmation of slavery. I’m not a Southerner, so I have no attachment to the flag. Here in the North it usually is used in negative ways, either by bikers or racists, but I’m guessing that Southerners view it differently, almost nostalgicically, without all the negativity that others see in it.

  • Larry

    That is a load of horsecrap. The KKK have been using the Confederate flag as a symbol of their own since practically their inception. It has the associations with white supremacy in our modern culture.

    A symbol of a time gone by…when human beings were owned as chattel property and a portion of our nation committed treason in support of such practices.

    “but I’m guessing that Southerners view it differently”

    Yeah, they view it as a symbol as to how ingrained racism is to the local politics of given areas.

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  • JR

    Whatever, Lar….I hope they reserve the right to keep it. And I think I’ll purchase a Papal flag to fly on July 4th just to bug you. Start your cascade of hate zingers now………..

  • Larry

    Nothing like celebrating treason and the idea of killing one’s own countrymen in order to keep people as property. 🙂

    If you want to dishonor your country by celebrating slavery and theocracy go ahead. Its your right of free expression.

    Something that would exist if people like yourself had reins of power.

  • JR

    Now what if I flew the Rainbow flag? Wouldn’t you just rally round my flag? If the Confederate flag represents slavery, then Ole Rainbow represents debauchery. Give it up, Larry, you represent nothing .

  • The Confederate flag is free speech, so it must never be banned.

    But it is a racist statement so it has no place on our government buildings. People should look at it as they would a Swastika. Ugly, depraved and ignorant.

    Put it on your house if you want to look awful to the rest of humanity.

  • Greg1

    The Confederate flag was first raised up above the State House in Columbia SC in 1962. That was directed by Democrat Governor Fritz Hollings. He wanted it flown from 1962 to 1965 to commemorate those who fought in the Civil War. But once the flag was raised by the Governor, people began to demand it be taken down. It became in a sense a “pissing contest.” If the people would only have allowed the flag fly, it would have come down in 1965 (end of the 100 year anniversary of the end of the Civil War). But of course, the Democrats pushed to keep it up just to make the point. In 2000 the Confederate flag was taken down from the State House, and moved to the Confederate Memorial across the street. Now they want it taken down from there. Hey, there is a bigger fight to be had in Mississippi, where the Confederate flag is actually part of the state flag.

  • Scott Shaver

    I’d rather have racists out in the open and identified by their flags as opposed to the cloak of superficial anonymity this prohibitive flag fetish will foster.

    Will make the really hard core racists more difficult to identify.

    Is Silk willing to take this same position with regard to Islamic extremism and the beheading of one Oklahoma woman and the attempted beheading of another by a self-radicalized Muslim who also was in possession of all….the right imagery?

  • Why yes, I’d be in favor of removing the ISIS flag from the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol, if it happened to be displayed there by law.

  • Be Brave

    As the heresy of Southern Confederate Christianity starts to be dismantled, the rise of the heresy of liberal gay “Christianity” rises to showcase yet another abomination.

  • Eric

    “People read too much into the Confederate flag. It is to many a symbol of a time gone by, not an affirmation of slavery.”

    Like them, you should be embarrassed to speak in public, and yet you do.

  • Eric

    Please, get the help you so clearly need.

  • Scott Shaver

    Not talking about your fear of flags Bro.Silk. Was more interested in whether or not you consider the Oklahoma beheading and attempted beheading by a self-radicalized Muslim to be the evidence of systemic reigious bigotry and violence by Muslims toward non-Muslims.

  • Larry

    Something that NOT would exist if people like yourself had reins of power.

    A kingdom for an edit function and skinnier fingers when using my phone.

  • The gay pride crowd never advocated murdering fellow Americans or owning them as property.

    So you think what consenting adults do in their bedrooms to be more offensive than treason and slavery. You Bible thumpers have some pretty messed up priorities when it comes to morals.

    You are more than free to wave either flag.

  • Greg1

    The Confederate flag at one time stood for the battle for States Rights and the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution. It has since become synonymous with the slavery issue. I would say this much, should this leftist supreme court choose to attempt widespread gay marriage in this country, then we will once again be putting the 10th Amendment back up for debate, as this is truly a States Rights issue.

  • I do believe that such acts, committed by followers of ISIS for example, are acts of religious bigotry. I don’t believe those acts represent “systemic” religious bigotry and violence by Muslims in general, any more than I believe that what Dylann Roof is alleged to have done represents systemic religious bigotry on the part of Christians — or, for that matter, that the slaughter of Muslims at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 represents systemic religious bigotry on the part of Jews.

  • Susan

    The South started the Civil War and they lost. The Confederate flag always stood for state’s rights, but the most important of those state’s rights was ALWAYS slavery.

  • Yes indeed, the notion that the Civil War was a fight over “states’ rights” rather than slavery is a steaming load. The Confederates themselves made that clear. Perhaps the most famous to do so was Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, in his “cornerstone speech”:

    “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

    The entire text is available online: http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/amgov/stephens.html

    You won’t find mention of “states’ rights” anywhere in it as the reason the Confederacy was created, but you will find mention of white men’s rights.

  • Larry

    You have half the issue here.

    “The Confederate flag at one time stood for the battle for States Rights and the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution….the state’s right specifically to declare human beings chattel property.

    One of the earliest examples of how “small government” supporters have no regard for civil liberties.

    “we will once again be putting the 10th Amendment back up for debate, as this is truly a States Rights issue.”

    And….no. We have the 14th Amendment precisely because states can no longer be trusted to be the sole arbiters of civil liberties. Since the State’s rights crowd were chief supporters of making human beings property. The bigots will just have to take their lumps as they did when segregation was shot down.

  • Again, you have messed up priorities and notions of morality if you can compare your personal distaste (or secret desires) of a carnal act with owning human beings as property.

  • @Mark,

    Religious bigotry starts with religion.
    And all religions are just ideas – they are human inventions and need to be questioned as exhaustively and mercilessly as anything else made by men.

    If it is not bigoted to approach a non-believer and preach about Jesus.
    It cannot be bigoted to approach a believer and preach against Jesus.

    Killing someone for THEIR lack of belief is itself a religious statement. (Al Queda)
    Killing someone to promote one’s own beliefs is also religious (God-given racial supremacy of Dylann Roof)

    The things to fear in civilization are irrationality, unreason and apologies for lawlessness.
    Religion promotes all three.

  • Greg1

    Susan, it was much more complicated than just slavery. That is a concoction of the liberal media trying to redirect blame. Certainly slavery was part of the declarations of secession, but then many of the Northern states had slavery, also, so it wasn’t all about slavery. In a nutshell, it was about tariffs on the southern ports, opposition to the 10th Amendment, slavery, and for the most part, self control of the part of the states. The slavery aspect was declared near the end of the war, and, rightfully so. I’m not trying to defend slavery here. What I am getting at, though, is States Rights, and the 10th Amendment. We are getting very close to this Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage, and when that happens, the same things that began the Civil War, will once again be up for debate.

  • Larry

    The minute you started to say “liberal media” you pretty much declared that you were relying on revisionist fictions and you had no idea what you were talking about.

    Northern States with slavery were not willing to leave the Union over the prospect of its inevitable ban. In every statement by Southern leaders leading up to secession, there is little mention of tariffs or the 10th Amendment.. Only one issue loomed with that crowd as the cause for treasonous action, defense of slavery. Psicop already called out your bullcrap on that one.

    The slavery aspect was declared towards the 2nd year of the war to prevent British and French intervention for the confederacy. But the Union was split over slavery from the outset.

    Thanks to the Civil War, “State’s Rights” arguments on the subject of civil liberties of individuals will never be taken seriously. Equal protection under the law is for all citizens regardless of which state they live in.

  • Greg1

    The Civil War was very complicated. Each state had its own reasons for entering it. South Carolina is a state with shipping ports that handled their trading of goods. The North imposed tariffs on all goods, causing SC to be less able to barter. Those tariffs were a huge issue for the State of South Carolina. Today, we like to broad-brush every issue, so to make it sound uncomplicated. But it wasn’t quite that simple back in the 1800’s.

  • larry

    Not really. You just want to rely on a demonstratively false and propagandized view of it in order to rehabilitate people who supported one of the vilest practices of human civilization, slavery. You want to pretend treason in support of bigotry can be justified.

    Slavery was already a subject worth killing over prior to the Civil War In the Mid West citizens took up arms against each other in order to influence whether new formed states would be “free” or “slave”. “Bloody Kansas” anyone?

    Nobody had intentions to split the union over tariffs. Nobody was going to kill their relations for such an issue. Slavery however inspired violence long before the first shots over Fort Sumpter. Slavery inspired massive networks to undermine its system and the violence inherent to it.

  • Shawnie5

    “Nobody had intentions to split the union over tariffs. Nobody was going to kill their relations for such an issue.”

    Exactly wrong. South Carolina declared Congress’ “Tariff of Abominations” null and void in 1832 and in response President Jackson called for Congress to enact legislation allowing him to use federal troops to enforce the tariff. A compromise tariff bill headed off secession and war — that time, at least.

  • Greg1

    Larry, what I am saying is it was not as simple as you try to make it. Regarding the slavery issue, the North and the South both had slaves. It was very bad, but there were many many people involved in the whole thing, including the African tribesmen who sold their brethren they captured from other tribes to the merchant men picking them up. It was a horrible thing from all sides. The South was comprised mostly of farms, the North had much industry, so the slavery issue was more monetary than anything in the south, as their farming goods were their income. So it was harder to convince the people to liberate the slaves, as the farmers were not sure how to proceed. After the war, many former slaves stayed on the farms and received wages, as they had no place to really go. So it was very sad on all sides. We can all be thankful that it is now over, but many many things were at work in the Civil war, and slavery was certainly a part of it, but not all of it.

  • Christine Rose

    You say “people read too much into it” and it is a “symbol of a time gone by.” I assume you mean it is not actually a pro-slavery, anti-equality symbol. But if people read it as pro-slavery, it is pro-slavery. Because that’s what symbols are: shorthand for something people read into them.

  • vladimir

    I have seen pictures of kkk rallies with them holding American Flags, I have seen the same thing with American Nazi party photos, they are holding US flags with the Nazi one. If you do not like the South,,,keep away from us.

  • vladimir

    The north started the war of northern aggression. They lost too after Lincoln was killed by booth, who was paid by the reconstructionist. Get over it, the war is over. A piece of cloth is sometimes a piece of cloth and can not hurt you. Be brave when you are around towels now , they are cloth too.

  • Larry

    “South Carolina declared Congress’ “Tariff of Abominations” null and void in 1832 and in response President Jackson called for Congress to enact legislation allowing him to use federal troops to enforce the tariff.”

    Not relevant to the discussion. As usual.

    Tariffs and nebulous notions of states rights were not the cause of secession in the 1860’s.Greg1 is engaging in an often used but entirely ahistorical argument to pretend slavery was not the driving factor to the division of the union. Of course he would up repudiating his own statement and admitted it was about slavery downthread.