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Religion, faith and war affected American history in important ways, says Princeton prof

JACKSON, Tenn.Oct. 25, 2002 – There has been a debate swirling around for decades amongst historians on the effects of the Civil War. One of the major arguments has been about how religion in America changed during and after the “War Between the States.” One historian in particular – Harry Stout, a professor of history at Yale University – has made a career out of examining the affects of religion in America. He spoke about the effects of religion on the Civil War at Union during the sixth annual Carls-Schwerdfeger History Lecture Series in October.

Students and teachers from neighboring high schools and universities as well as people from the Jackson community joined Union students and faculty in listening to Stout’s lecture. The purpose of this lecture series, said Stephen Carls, chair of the history and political science department at Union, is to provide the community with a greater knowledge of history.

“It is our hope that through this series people can better expand their horizons and their understanding of the past,” Carls said.

The series has brought several leading historians to the university within the past six years, including professors from Georgetown University and John Hopkins University. Each historian is asked to present a lecture on a significant topic in his or her area of study. Stout’s area of study is American religious history.

During his lecture, Stout spoke on how religion played a huge role in the American Civil War and how the results of which still live on today. According to Stout, some of the legacies the war left were the changes of the rules of war and the proof to the world that “a democracy can endure despite internal conflict.”

Another legacy that the war left behind was the fact that religion was never the same for the country again. The development and popularity of a new civil religion swept post-Reconstruction America. Stout paralleled this new religion, calling it “nation worship, where Lincoln was the prophet and later Messiah and the Constitution was the American scripture.”

Considered the greatest preacher of his time, Lincoln’s greatest sermon was the Gettysburg Address, said Stout.

“Patriotism started to overshadow traditional religion,” Stout stated. “Examples of it could be seen when preachers would encourage their male churchgoers to join the cause and be ‘soldiers for Christ’ while encouraging everyone else to support the war effort.” “The need to keep the Union together was essential,” Stout stressed. “Lincoln’s thought at the time was that he had to keep the Union together because this country was and still is the world’s last great hope for survival – a thought which still exists today.” Those thoughts and ideals about unity in times of crisis were given new life following the events that happened on Sept. 11, he believes. Shortly after the towers fell, flags were waving, cries of justice rang out over cries of reason and people were looking to the government to take action. It is for that very reason, Stout said, that it is important to remember what happened, look back, and learn from it.

Despite all the bad things civil religion brings, the professor did see some positive aspects – civil religion keeps a country somewhat unified over what is right and wrong, keeps a nation somewhat moral, and as Stout put it, has kept us from attacking the Middle East so far.

So it is his hope that President Bush and his administration will do the right thing in reaction to all the events that have happened in this country within the past year. Use the past as a guide, he said, to make the right decisions for the country, to keep the morale of the people and to allow the voices of reason and religion to be heard over zealous patriotism.

By Tracie Holden, Class of 2004


Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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