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Give peace a chance: Avoid the carnage of war
David Goldfield's op-ed on the carnage of the Civil War

 'Gangs of New York' depicted the bloody sectarian riots between Protestants and Catholics in that city in 1857.
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Date published: 6/24/2012


--We are marking the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. So what? Most Americans beyond the South are indifferent to the event. Even in the former Confederacy the sesquicentennial has captured only sporadic attention.

That's a pity. The Civil War can tell us a great deal about ourselves, then and now. We have an unfortunate history of plunging into wars for God and democracy that have often made a mockery of both. If we can use this anniversary to learn about why we rush to war, it will be an exercise worth undertaking.

More than 750,000 men died in the Civil War. Extrapolated to today's population, the death toll would be close to 10 million. Consider also the millions who mourned the loss of their husbands, brothers, and sons, and consider those soldiers who survived yet returned home maimed in mind or body. Most historians today would lament the casualties, but commend the outcome: the liberation of 4 million slaves.

I disagree. The Civil War was not a just war. It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate. The war's outcome did indeed end slavery, but could we have achieved this noble objective without the slaughter? The U.S. was the only slaveholding nation to abolish the institution with a civil war.

Our government governs best from the center and depends upon compromise. By 1861, however, the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories. Framing slavery as a moral cause rendered compromise unlikely, for you cannot compromise with sin. The party in power, the Republicans, deployed evangelical dogma to raise the stakes of political discourse.

The party's ideology lay within the Second Great Awakening, a national religious revival begun in the early 1800s. Within a generation, nearly 40 percent of Americans who expressed a faith were members of evangelical Protestant denominations. The message of evangelicals was simple: If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you will be saved and enjoy eternal life in Heaven.


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David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at UNC Charlotte and the author of "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation" (Bloomsbury 2011).