Saturday, April 06, 2013

American Aflame Book Review

My airplane read on the recent overseas trip was a great book (finally finished this morning), America Aflame by David Goldfield. Goldfield is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had picked up the book last year in B&N, and then asked for it for Christmas. What caught my eye was this: the cover calls it "the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era in a generation. Where other scholars have seen the conflict as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield paints it as American's greatest failure: a breakdown of the political system caused by the infusion of evangelical religion (emphasis added)."

I was hooked from that moment on.

You know that I'm constantly philosophizing the issue of power. I tweeted recently asking if followers of Jesus should strive to have power or strive to be salt. The responses were telling. Like Tolkien's Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor, we can often see power as a gift from God, something to be taken up and used for good.

But my reading of the Bible and history teaches me something different. Two thoughts to share after finishing the book:

1. While the desire to see holiness reflected in culture is good, using political/economic/social power to enact such holiness has never worked well in the history of mankind. Submission to the kingdom of God cannot be coerced. We must take up our own crosses, we cannot pull people out of the crowd and force a cross upon them.

2. Any time a desire for holiness only involves change in the "other" and not in ourselves, we're missing the point of biblical holiness.

The Northern Evangelicals in the 1830s through 1850s were rightly some of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Slavery was a moral evil that needed to be overturned and destroyed. But in their minds slavery was a southern problem. As Goldfield points out, many of these Evangelicals were just as bigoted as the Southern slaveholders, and in some cases, much more so. They saw no issue with their own Darwinian beliefs that whites were more evolutionarily advanced than Africans or Native Americans.

After slavery was gone, the melting of that form of Evangelical Religion with the political and economic powers it thought it was using to destroy slavery destroyed the prophetic power in that Northern Evangelicalism, in part because the focus wasn't on true, authentic, biblical holiness, but on the evil of slavery itself. And the south didn't fair any better, where Southern Evangelicalism usually focused on keeping the societal power of whites in the same social-Darwinian vein.

In the end, the Civil War did end a certain kind of slavery, but not every kind. Evil still reigned in the treatment of blacks, in both north and south. True holiness is an elusive quarry, and cannot be obtained by human means. As I've heard others say, a partnership between Church and State ruins the State and destroys the Church.

If you like history, one that does a fair job of presenting the many faceted sides of what lead up to the war, this is an excellent read. Goldfield writes well, picking up a number of stories and characters that he follows throughout the book. I especially loved his stories of Walt Whitman, and how the times influenced Whitman's poetry. At nearly 600 pages, its a daunting read, but well worth the time and effort.

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