John's Reviews > Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War

Upon the Altar of the Nation by Harry S. Stout
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Jan 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, homeschool-books
Read from January 17 to 26, 2011

There ought to be more books of this nature written--moral critiques of wars. Stout does an excellent job of sorting through the history of the march toward war, the conduct of the war, and finally an evaluation of the two sides as peace prevailed. It is clear from the beginning that the North believed the cause of 'Union' was a just one--that secession must be defeated. Nowhere was this evaluated--it was assumed. What an amazing assumption! It is also clear that the radical ideology of abolitionism had a strong influence on the self-righteous cause of Northern aggression.

In the south, the cause was seen as just because slavery was instituted and ordained by God--another dubious moral claim. It is one thing to believe that the Bible does not condemn slavery--which it does not. But it is another to claim the righteousness and God-ordained nature of African slavery.

It is clear in this book that both sides were self-righteous in their God-justified cause of war. This arrogance led to the belief, at first, that the war would be swiftly won. When it wasn't and as casualties piled up the cause was escalated by even more radical religiosity that only led to further escalation, bloodshed, and atrocities. By the middle of the war neither side was willing, or even considered concessions. The thing was too far gone and the war had become a complete moral debacle.

Lincoln seems to have understood the situation with the most clarity, when in his 2nd inaugural address he says God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came..." Both sides were in the wrong, and both sides reaped destruction.

I greatly appreciated the work Stout did in assembling the evidence of the guilt on both sides of the war. In addition, the more central theme of the book is the advent of the American Civil Religion that came out of the war. Both sides, but particularly the Protestant North practiced a worship of the state, its armies, generals, and soldiers. This idolatry is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the war. I found this to be the most shocking and disheartening aspect of the book. It is easy to see this today--particularly in the church's stance regarding our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--and with the drumbeat to war against Iran and North Korea.

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