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The Author of Loathing Lincoln Explains Why Some on the Christian Right Loathe Lincoln

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

 photo loathinglincoln.jpgOne under-reported result of the 2014 elections was the rise of Neo-Confederate politics in the U.S. This included the election of unabashed apologist for the Confederacy Michael Peroutka, who was elected to Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Council; and Joni Ernst, a proponent of nullification and secession, who was elected to the United States Senate from Iowa. It has also resulted in divisions on the Christian Right as well as in the wider Republican Party.

Thus is seems like a good time to ask John McKee Barr, the author of one of this year’s most informative books, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present for some insight into what is going on. As Barr told me before our interview, it is within the Neo-Confederate movement where the hatred of Abraham Lincoln and all he stood for meets the Religious Right.  

John Barr is currently a professor of history at Lone Star College-Kingwood [Texas], having joined their faculty in 2008. There he teaches a variety of courses including the survey of U.S. History, “Political Novels”, “The Emancipators: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Making of the Modern World,” and “Revolution and Counterrevolution.” His website can be found right here.

Loathing Lincoln is his first book and an important first effort. The tome not only provides the reader with excellent insight into the to peculiar tradition of Lincoln hatred, but by extension, a more complete understanding of many of the beliefs that underlie the current nullification and secession movements.

I began our conversation by asking Barr to explain Lincoln’s religious philosophy. Was it unchanging or did it evolve over time?

Barr: Lincoln’s religion has been a topic of unending fascination, both for his admirers and his critics. For me, the best book on this subject is Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln:Redeemer President. In broad terms, I think we can say that Lincoln grew up in a deeply religious world of Protestant Christianity. As Guelzo puts it, “Intellectually, he was stamped from his earliest days by the Calvinism of his parents.”  In addition, Lincoln certainly had what many have called a melancholic streak in his personality (Lincoln’s “melancholy dripped from him as he walked” his law partner William Herndon said), and that too, at least in my view, shaped his religious beliefs. One of his favorite poems was by William Knox, one entitled “Mortality.” A close look at that poem I think verifies the future president’s dark outlook. Still, Lincoln did go through a phase of being what Guelzo calls a “religious skeptic.” He never joined a church, and one political opponent, Peter Cartwright, accused Lincoln of what was called then “infidelity” in a congressional campaign. You can see Lincoln’s response to that charge here. Personally, it seems to me that Lincoln would just rather avoid the whole subject and he does not really answer the charge, thus lending some credence to the idea that Cartwright’s allegations were true.

Now, when Lincoln is campaigning against the extension of slavery into the territories in the 1850s he frequently attacks, or mocks, the idea that slavery is a divine institution and good for the slave (e.g. pro-slavery theology). I especially like the sentence in the preceding link where he says that “Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases.” Thus, he condemns slavery’s defenders for using God to mask their own self-interest.

During the Civil War, I think Lincoln’s language becomes much more suffused, if you will, with religious imagery. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dying (this would be millions, proportionally speaking, today) and he had to make sense of all this suffering and communicate it to the American public in religious language. The culmination of this is his Second Inaugural Address, which some historians believe is truly his greatest speech. Notice Lincoln’s sense that the war is God’s just punishment for the sin of American rather than southern slavery. It is a remarkable address, yet one without rancor and closing with perhaps the finest peroration in the English language.

Once the war concluded and Lincoln had been assassinated, then the issue of his religious beliefs became of profound importance for Americans. This is something that I explore in great detail in the second and fourth chapters of my book, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present. Lincoln’s opponents accused him of being an “infidel,” or unbeliever (this was true not only in the South, I might add), while some of his defenders claimed him as the quintessential Christian. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, tried to set the record straight in the aftermath of his friend’s death, but in claiming Lincoln was not a Christian he made many people quite angry. Nowadays Lincoln’s religious beliefs are interesting to Americans, of course, but I’m not sure they are as important to people (we are a much more religiously pluralistic country today, including those Americans who like Lincoln affiliate themselves with no church at all) as they were in the latter part of the nineteenth-century, or the early twentieth century. Still, I would agree with Christopher Hitchens that Lincoln cannot be enlisted in the atheist cause. He is instead a political figure who challenged those who claimed religious certitude, those who used religion to justify what was in their own self-interest, yet drew on religious tradition/language in attempt to ascertain the meaning of the Civil War for all Americans.

Cocozzelli: Why would conservative Christian libertarians despise Lincoln?

Barr: I think that it is because Lincoln and the Republicans used public power to intervene into a private arrangement – slavery. And, it seems to me anyway, that today many Christians are deeply suspicious of any government that might do something similar. Think gay marriage, for example. Also, I don’t know that all, or even most, Christian libertarians despise Lincoln. To be sure, some do and they are influential, but I don’t know if they are a majority.

Cocozzelli: What about Lincoln’s legacy teaches us how to effectively answer the Christian libertarian right?

Barr: Consider these words from Lincoln: “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on] any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate.”

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Thomas E. Woods, Jr. And the Right to Oppress

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

In the last several posts we have examined an element of the Catholic Right  comprised of neo-Confederate apologists who openly advocate both the state nullification of federal court decisions and statutes as well as secession.  The name that most commonly comes up when conservative Catholics discuss these things is Thomas E. Woods, Jr., who may be the leading modern confederate, intending to win what Jefferson Davis lost.  But a major difference today is that certain Catholic Right players would use the neo-confederate disruption of popular government to impose theocracy-even at the expense of national unity.

Thomas Woods is a well-educated man. He has earned a B.A. in History from Harvard as well as a Ph.D. in the same subject from Columbia from which he also holds a Masters in Philosophy. But Woods’ elite education is not reflected in his writing which is devoted to the agenda of nullification and secession. To that end, he serves as not only as a senior fellow to the über-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, but also as an associate scholar with Abbeville Institute, an institution that promotes a revisionist view of the Confederacy.

Wood is no ordinary academic not only because of his agenda but in his method of advancing his views, which often includes tactical omissions, mischaracterizations and even outright mendacity.  He is often quick to resort to hyperbole (describing those who warn of the dangers of secession as engaging in “hysterics” while describing them as “bizarre and creepy”) and name-calling (describing those who believe that the Civil War settled the issues of nullification and secession as having a “moral compass deeply deformed by government propaganda”).

He is prone to misleading statements. For example, in defending his call for the nullification of federal court decisions and legislation, he argues:

Nullification was never used on behalf of slavery.  As I show in Nullification, it was used against slavery, which is why South Carolina’s secession document cites it as a grievance justifying southern secession, and Jefferson Davis denounced it in his farewell address to the Senate.  Thus Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, backed up by the state legislature, declared the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional (the mere existence of the fugitive-slave clause in the Constitution did not, in its view, suffice to make all the odious provisions of that act constitutionally legitimate).  In Ableman v. Booth  (1859), the Supreme Court scolded it for doing so.  In other words, modern anti-nullification jurisprudence has its roots in the Supreme Court’s declarations in support of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Who’s defending slavery here?

This is a straw-man argument that completely sidesteps the main issue. Woods may rhetorically ask, “Who’s defending slavery here?” The obvious reply is, “Who here is approves of nullification under any circumstance?” The Wisconsin Supreme Court was clearly on the moral high ground in voicing its disapproval of the Fugitive Slave Act. But with that said, the proper remedy was still the Thirteenth Amendment. That is immutable. More importantly, Wisconsin ceded to the decision of the Supreme Court, thus honoring the Supremacy Clause.

Likewise, when discussing nullification and the Founders, Woods plays fast and loose with the facts of history. For example, he recently wrote:

“Nullification” dates back to 1798, when James Madison and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, respectively.  There we read that the states, which created the federal government in the first place, by the very logic of what they had done must possess some kind of defense mechanism should their creation break free of the restraints they had imposed on it.  Jefferson himself introduced the word “nullification” into the American political lexicon, by which he meant the indispensable power of a state to refuse to allow an unconstitutional federal law to be enforced within its borders.

Woods’ omissions are all-too-convenient.  First, in response to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional) nine other states expressed either disapproval or outright rejection of the Resolutions. Secondly, Jefferson was always an anti-Federalist. Beyond that, Madison would conclude that determining unconstitutionality was to be decided by the federal courts. For Madison, nullification was a means of registering protest, not acting upon it.

Much like his fellow Catholic neo-Confederate, Thomas DiLorenzo, he is obsessed with tearing down President Lincoln’s legacy.  He cites Lincoln’s early views on the issue of slavery — initially supporting the resettlement of former slaves — in order to paint him as a hypocrite. Yet no serious student of Lincoln denies his earlier views on race relations. But most serious pro-Lincoln also understand that his views evolved over time to a higher and better place.  Still, Woods, DiLorenzo and their ilk point to early stations in Lincoln’s life journey as a final judgment.  In fact, Lincoln’s journey was marked by an open mind, unafraid of where the application of core beliefs would lead him.

Why is a discussion of Lincoln’s legacy pertinent to confronting the Religious Right?  Simply because the Sixteenth President’s stand against nullification and secession epitomizes the defeat of those twin concepts of national disunity and selfishness.  Destroy Lincoln’s legacy, and the door is thrown wide open to the view that an individual state is in itself a mini-sovereign, free to adopt one religious view as that state’s established faith. This in turn, opens the door to criminalizing women’s’ reproductive rights, stem cell research, and marriage equality.

Does this sound far-fetched? As it bears repeating over and over again, not to the likes of Woods ally and Opus Dei firebrand Rev. C. John McCloskey, who idealizes a future marked by secession and civil war:

The tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors for the Faith in North America were indeed the “seed of the Church” as they were in pre-Edict of Milan Christianity. The final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. italics added

Is such an outcome an exaggerated fear? Hardly. Nullification is spreading like an out of control fire through the national edifice. A bill designed to nullify the Affordable Care Act is on the South Carolina Senate’s current agenda. Earlier this year Mississippi Tea Party legislators unsuccessfully attempted to set up a nullification panel to review which federal laws to ignore (in typical Woods fashion, he described those who disapproved as “thought controllers”). And in North Carolina a group of Republican legislators recently attempted to nullify The Establishment Clause by declaring Christianity the Tar Heel State’s official religion. Woods’ Brigade is on the march.

Historian Barbara Fields warned in 1990, that the Civil War can still be lost:

I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until, we today, have done our part in fighting as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it.

William Faulkner said once that “history is not was, it’s is.” And what we need to remember about the Civil War it is that the Civil War is in the present as well as in the past. The generation that fought the war, of the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood and had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future also established a standard that will not mean anything until we can finish the work.

You can say there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we are all citizens; but if we are all citizens then we have a task to do, to make sure that too that is not a joke; that if some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on; it’s still to be fought; and regrettably can still be lost.

Let us imagine for a moment that Woods and his ilk  can succeed where other states’ rights advocates have failed.  One of the obvious consequences would be that tyranny would not be abolished but locally established in the form of laissez-faire economics and theocracy. Indeed, the only “freedom” that would be expanded would be the freedom to oppress – the concept that is at the very heart of many Catholic neo-Confederates and economic libertarians alike. This underlying notion of the right to oppress others is the common thread that runs through both slavery and contemporary theocratic visions.

Woods is correct on one point: Nobody is talking about slavery. But with that said, some of us are still talking about the right to oppress others and one of those doing so is Woods.