David Goldfield’s article “Avoid the Carnage of War” (June 29 Viewpoint) may be provocative reading, but it is bad religious history. Goldfield does not like war, and he thinks the American Civil War could and should have been avoided. He labels the Civil War a “war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion.” In this thinly veiled screed, summarizing some basic ideas from his recent book “America Aflame,” Goldfield thus interprets the Civil War as a cautionary tale for America today.
Who was essentially to blame for the war? Goldfield demonizes Northern evangelicals and the group he sees as their political arm, the Republican Party. Driven by their need to expiate America’s sins, in particular slavery and the presence of the Roman Catholic Church, Northern evangelicals wrote the script for the Republicans and a “messianic” Abraham Lincoln.
Moralistic passion overrode rational thought, Goldfield argues, making political compromise impossible and war the result. Republicans “deployed evangelical dogma to raise the stakes of political discourse.” One does not have to read far between the lines to find the views of a politically motivated, anti-religious critic, and also – ironically – an effort to let the “Slave Power” off the hook.
It is quite a trick to throw bones to both the Lost Cause crowd and to those today who see “evangelicals” as a political bogey-man.
The most favorable review to date of Goldfield’s book asserts that “he sometimes seems to be writing as much about our own time as about time past.” But historians should learn early in their training the danger of such present-mindedness creeping into historical interpretation.
The dean of American religious historians, Harry Stout of Yale University, observes that “Goldfield detests Northern evangelicals so much that he does not really care to engage them on their own terms,” and judges the book a “failure” as religious history. Renowned Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton University notes that in his book Goldfield “never defines precisely what he means by evangelical Christianity.”
Indeed, Goldfield fails glaringly to distinguish the evangelicalism of that era from what we term evangelicalism today. In his Viewpoint article, he applies a reductionist and deliberately simplistic definition of current evangelical faith to antebellum evangelicalism: “Accept Jesus Christ as your savior and you will be saved and go to heaven.” Earlier evangelicals, sitting on the “anxious bench” awaiting a movement of the spirit, would hardly have recognized such a characterization of their faith.
Moreover, Goldfield lashes Northern evangelicals for their anti-Catholic “bigotry,” conveniently shielding Southern evangelicals from such charges. Yet as Stout notes incredulously, “even a cursory reading of Confederate sermons reveals a mentality equally anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant among that group.”
Good history would not deliberately omit such evidence. Neither would it fail to mention that anti-slavery activists were not simply anti-Catholic “bigots” but had become disillusioned with the Catholic hierarchy largely because it was virtually unrepresented in the movement to abolish slavery.
The suggestion that the North was guilty of an unwillingness to compromise and a “rush to war” borders on the absurd. The sectional conflict had been building for decades, with repeated efforts to reconcile deep differences. Lincoln sought to prevent slavery’s spread to the territories, not to abolish it, and his deeply sincere, often-repeated hope was to save the Union. If anyone was at fault for a failure to compromise, it was the southern firebrands.
Goldfield is guilty of one misrepresentation after another. His claim that Republicans were “avowedly evangelical” would have been news to the many Unitarians, Quakers and free thinkers in their ranks. Republicans were also “proudly sectional.” But which section of the country broke away to form the Confederacy?
Also, as McPherson observes, Goldfield claims for Lincoln words that were actually written by an anti-slavery farmer. Such misattribution becomes more likely when one tries to fit the evidence to one’s argument, rather than vice-versa.
The assertion that “self-righteousness eroded the vital center of American politics” underscores Goldfield’s general carelessness. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. coined the phrase “the vital center” to mean something quite different. He objected vociferously when President Clinton tried to employ it as a weapon against political extremism.
In this Viewpoint piece, Goldfield misrepresents with abandon critical aspects of antebellum American history in order to bolster his ideological agenda. He condescendingly reminds us that the Constitution is “America’s Scripture.” But which side seceded and wrote its own new constitution? Far from offering a genuine scholarly reflection, Goldfield’s article is the anti-war statement of an over-imaginative scholar twisting history to promote his own political vision.