A review of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll

The Civil War is the central event in American history for many reasons, not least because its participants had to answer, at least implicitly, profound questions about the character of the United States, its Constitution, and its union; the justice of slavery; the proper limits of political and military action; and even the nature of God's providence and our knowledge of it. Two new books examine the Christian clergy's intellectual and moral leadership during the war and find it wanting.

In the course of reading Upon the Altar of the Nation, one is inclined to think that Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School, has read every extant sermon delivered during the Civil War and given us at least an excerpt from each of them. The argument that runs through these quotations is that neither Northern nor Southern clergy sufficiently questioned and condemned their government's actions during the war, which the author argues were fundamentally unjust.

Stout reaches this conclusion by applying to the Civil War the "just war theory" developed by Augustine, Aquinas, and later theologians, but this approach breaks down almost immediately. Traditional just-war theory first asks whether there is a just cause for going to war. For Stout, only defensive wars can be just, but he does not examine whether either the North or the South was fighting a defensive war. Instead, he throws up his hands, confessing that "[i]n civil wars…it often becomes difficult to discern with finality who is the unjust aggressor and who the just defender." He never says whether there was a just cause for the Civil War, and does not even suggest how one would begin to answer this question.

Undaunted, he focuses instead on the conduct of the war, applying two further just-war principles: whether the sacrifices in lives and material are proportional to the goals sought, and whether civilians are protected and not made a deliberate target of attack. He argues that as the war proceeded it became more and more a "total" war in which, contrary to these principles, thousands of military casualties were accepted uncritically and civilians were treated as though they were combatants.

Often a fine narrator of the war's battles and movements, particularly in bringing alive the sufferings of both soldiers and civilians, Stout fails utterly as a moral theologian. One cannot determine whether the sacrifices were commensurate with the ends sought unless one knows what those ends were. Although he seems sometimes to deny that slavery had much to do with the start of the war (it was a war for the Union, he says), he is aware that as the fighting continued the end of slavery became more and more prominent as a war aim, and that this shift increased the war's intensity. How much sacrifice could be justified in order to end slavery? Which is worse: "total" war or slavery? Upon the Altar of the Nation does not help us to think through these issues.

Stout thinks both war and slavery are evil. But what if a nation can get rid of one only by accepting the other? Failure to confront this dilemma leads him to make some very confused judgments. He suggests that African-Americans had a just cause for war while white Americans did not, as though it were more just to fight for one's own freedom than for the freedom of one's fellow Americans. He praises General George McClellan for his unwillingness to fight in circumstances in which he might lose a great many men. At times McClellan seems to be the book's hero, because he is the sole general said to act in accordance with just-war theory. Yet at other places Stout clearly recognizes that President Lincoln could never win the war (and thus end slavery) with generals unwilling to fight, and so the author joins the general criticism of McClellan as a man who would never lose a battle because he would never fight one.

Stout does not know what to make of Lincoln. He sees that Lincoln did not simply join in the sectional blindness he believes was characteristic of most Americans. In the Second Inaugural and elsewhere the president blamed the North as well as the South for the sin of slavery and denied that he knew what God wanted. Yet according to Stout, it was Lincoln who drove the war home and committed "unforgivable wrongs" in doing so, engaging in a "feeding frenzy of blood for blood's sake." He argues that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in order to escalate the war into "total" war, but is not willing to say that Lincoln should not have issued the Proclamation.

The president wanted to win the war, and there was no gentle way of doing so. Stout does not suggest any alternative path to victory that would have saved more lives. What would have been the proper compromise to make? At times Stout sounds like a Northern Peace Democrat-but again he cannot quite bring himself to say that it did not matter whether slavery continued to exist or not. Or would it have been more just had the North fought more genteelly, but been defeated?

Nowhere does he examine the compromises that American statesmen attempted to make in the decades before the war, nor the great national debates over the extension of slavery that led up to it. Nor does he face Lincoln's contention in his First Inaugural that an individual state had no right to break up the Union. For all his many quotations, Harry Stout never takes the views of those actually engaged in the struggle with any seriousness.

Mark Noll does not make this mistake in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, takes seriously the theological views of the Protestant clergy, both white and black, during the war, as well as the views of the smaller number of Catholic clergy. He also examines the analyses of the war given by both Protestant and Catholic theologians in other countries. Although he is critical of the American clergy, his criticisms stem from grappling with the same problems they thought they had solved.

Noll believes that the Civil War generated two crucial theological questions that were not adequately answered by the Protestant Christianity dominating the country. The first was what Christianity should teach about slavery and race. The second was what God's purposes in the war were.

Noll argues that mid-19th-century American Protestantism, though retaining its faith in the Bible as the ultimate authority, had reinterpreted that faith in light of certain Enlightenment and democratic sentiments. The result was the widespread conviction that each person could adequately interpret the Bible for himself, and could confidently base his moral and political actions upon that interpretation. This union of democracy and Christianity had given the religion immense strength in the U.S. (as Tocqueville showed so vividly). But with the division of the nation, it created a situation in which Northern and Southern partisans could each read the Bible to endorse opposite causes.

There were more insidious consequences as well. The belief that each person could interpret scripture for himself led to a dependence on the "letter" of the Bible, rather than more subtle interpretations reaching to its "spirit." It was not so easy to say whether the Bible was for or against slavery. Broadly speaking, the letter of the Bible at least seemed to tolerate, if not endorse, slavery. (Jesus never condemns it, while St. Paul advises the slave to return to his master.) Those who argued that the Bible condemns slavery generally resorted to arguments from its spirit. But to argue in that fashion appeared to many of the most faithful, in the North as well as the South, to undermine the authority of the Bible itself. At the same time, Noll argues, the conflation of democratic sentiment with Christianity made it easy to think that common opinions having no warrant in the Bible were nevertheless biblical, such as the opinion that the black race was inferior.

Faith in the powers of human perception and judgment, combined with intense religious conviction, also made Americans confident that they knew God's purposes and methods in governing the world. This often made men certain that God was on their side; but even when it did not, religious leaders gave "secure, unequivocal readings of providence." This shallow confidence in one's own knowledge of God's workings could convince no one not already convinced. Noll contrasts the thinness of these religious opinions with the depth of Lincoln's understanding of God's providence. In Noll's words, "Lincoln joined together trust in providence and much agnosticism about the work of God in the world." But Lincoln's theological views had no influence in spite of their powerful expression.

Noll argues that Protestantism's moral energy was exhausted by its inability to meet the crisis arising from contradictory readings of the Bible, and by its overconfidence in discerning the ways of God. After the war, secularists increasingly came to dominate the public sphere as Christianity retreated into the private sphere, unable to give the nation unified moral direction.

The author also examines the opinions of Protestants and Catholics abroad. He argues that conservative Catholic analyses help to pinpoint American theology's weaknesses, particularly the problems involved in letting every man be his own interpreter of the Bible. Christianity cannot be authoritative for the political order without itself having an authoritative voice. Yet how can theology's authority be exercised in a manner consistent with democratic principles?

Noll's argument at times seems half-digested. He yearns for the South's communitarianism without showing how it could be divorced from slavery. He chides American theologians for taking inadequate account of new currents in European thought, without showing whether they should have resisted or embraced those currents. He laments Christianity's inability to be the nation's moral center, while praising secularism's tolerance. He admires the Catholic Church's authoritative voice, while being unsure that it is compatible with democracy. These dangling opinions may be due to the fact that most of the book's chapters were originally lectures, suggestive but sketchy. Or they may be the result of our contemporary academic culture's pressure to publish great quantities. (One yearns for the days when books were completed thoughts.) Nonetheless, Noll easily outdoes Stout in penetrating the problems faced by American Christianity in the Civil War. Mark Noll knows what one must think about, even if his own thoughts have not reached a conclusion.