Donate to RNS

The religion of Trump’s Lost Cause

Its roots are in the Civil War.

Conference attendees pose for a photo next to a statue of former President Donald Trump at the merchandise show at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(RNS) — The fiberglass statue of former President Donald Trump that was wheeled through the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earned a full measure of derision as Trump’s Golden Calf. It was also the first icon of Trump’s Lost Cause religion.

That the Civil War cast its long shadow over the Trump presidency has long been apparent. 

The symbolism was there for all to see, from the “Unite the Right” rally against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville in 2017 to the insurrectionists carrying Confederate battle flags through the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump made the cause his own, standing up for keeping the monuments as well as the names of Confederate generals on military bases.

The message became clearer as his term went on: Just as white Southerners went to war to protect their slavery-based way of life, so white conservatives have been engaged in a proto-civil war to protect a way of life marked by structural racism. In Proud Boys v. Black Lives Matter, Trump left no doubt which side he was on.  

And then there was the role of religion.

White evangelicals’ support for Trump manifested a Christian nationalism that harked back to the Southern nationalism of the Civil War era. Then, the leading ideologists of the Southern way of life were clergymen — representatives of a trans-denominational  evangelicalism that came to dominate the region during the antebellum period.

For them, the defense of slavery was existentially connected to a defense of Christianity against godless egalitarianism. As the prominent Presbyterian divine Benjamin Morgan Palmer put it in a famous Thanksgiving sermon on the eve of the war:

(I)n this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the Americans, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.

After the war, many of the same clergy refashioned this belief into a religion of the Lost Cause, which, as historian Charles Reagan Wilson shows in his seminal 1980 study, “Baptized in Blood,” became the civil religion of white Southerners.

“In the Southern myth the Christian drama of suffering and salvation was incomplete: the Confederacy lost a holy war, and there was no resurrection,” Wilson writes. “But the clergy still insisted, even after defeat, that the Confederacy had been on a righteous crusade.”

In the latter part of the 19th century and on into the 20th, that crusade would be memorialized and celebrated across the South, with ceremonies and the very monuments that Trump & Co. sought to keep in place.

And the evangelical leaders who supported, and continue to support him sound like nothing so much as the Southern nationalist clergy of yesteryear. 

“The Democrats are really, if anything, they are opposed to faith,” said Franklin Graham a couple of months before the 2020 election. “And so the Democratic Party today is a party of the left. It’s a socialist party. They want socialism for this country.”

“We will not abandon this fight,” Eric Metaxas told Trump in a radio interview after the election. “This is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to our nation… This is God’s battle even more than it is our battle.”

Somewhere, Benjamin Morgan Palmer is smiling.