In our increasingly polarized society there seems to have
been a shift from a “live and let live” mentality to a vigorous prosecution of
“thought crime” – no longer can we agree to disagree, but anyone who strays
from what is considered the cultural mainstream is called out and proverbially
tarred and feathered for not keeping in lockstep with the rest of us.
This creeps into the Civil War history community from time
to time, usually in fairly innocuous ways. While I’m used to the usual back and
forth about the merits of the newest ACW titles or the constant drumroll of
snarky comments related to the latest gaffes of the “heritage” movement, I was
more than a little troubled by the tone of a recent post over at Civil War Memory
that features members
of the history department of Liberty University.
The video explores the “enduring legacies” of the American
Civil War and was put on Vimeo by an L.U. film student who apparently asked
different members of the faculty to describe what they imagine to be the war’s
The result can be seen here
Levin states that the video is “just all around really bad,”
and if he is referring to the overall watchability and quality of the film, I’m
with him (but keep in mind this is the result of an undergrad film project, for
crying out loud). But the vitriol aimed by Levin and the dozens of folks who
took the time to leave their own acerbic musings is aimed at what the
professors interviewed in the film said about how the war still affects the
country to this day.
It would be one thing if these professors were wearing Dixie
Outfitters shirts and talking about how tariffs were the real cause of the war
and that slavery had nothing to do with it. But the views espoused by the
faculty were not terribly out of the mainstream. Certainly not ideal or
complete, but we aren’t even privy to everything these people said to the film
student during the interviews.
For this reason I’m willing to give them the benefit of the
doubt, but not so with Levin and his cohorts. For instance, Prof. Robert
Ritchie is scorned for reducing “the war down to sectional differences.” Not
exactly League of the South type stuff here.
Or consider Prof. Chris Jones, who said that slavery was the
main cause of the war but goes on to say that modern Americans are being “enslaved”
by the Federal government. He also cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll
states that the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political
climate. That might not be your particular outlook on life, but it’s not a
harebrained conspiracy theory.
All of this leads to a dubious claim that these professors
make the causes and impact of the Civil War “impossible to understand.”
Rather than attack what these professors actually said about
the war, the commenters (not Levin himself) launch into a diatribe about the credibility
of Liberty University itself. James Harrigan, who teaches at UVA, says Liberty
is “not an actual university” while commenters on the blog and the blog’s Facebook
page chime in with comments calling L.U. a “fake school” and suggesting that
the professors quoted got their PhDs from the University of Phoenix. See the
original post for more of this lowbrow fare.
I can personally attest that these representations are not
accurate because I actually spent two years at Liberty University from 1998 –
2000 and during that time I took two Civil War courses. One was a survey course
which had as its main text McPherson’s Ordeal
and also included Thomas’s Confederacy
as a Revolutionary Experience
. Nothing by Clyde Wilson, sad to say.
The other course was a Civil War literature class taught by
Kenneth Rowlette (who also runs the university’s well-regarded National Civil War Chaplains Museum
) with readings that included Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane and more
recent books such as Cold Mountain
and Jacob's Ladder
Can you just smell
the vast Christian Right conspiracy? Somebody call the mayor of Houston!
The point is that in no time during my two years at L.U. did
I encounter the crude caricatures envisaged in these comments.
It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned
as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about
history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the
feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what
passes as civil discourse nowadays.
I can think of several Christians, such as Steven E. Woodworth
(who also happens to be part of Liberty University’s distinguished adjunct
faculty) and Robert Tracy McKenzie
, professor and chair of the Department of
History at Wheaton College, who maintains the excellent Faith & History
blog, who have made stellar contributions to Civil War history.
To quote another Christian historian, John Fea
, “We live in
a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on
these historical issues.”
It is especially difficult for this dialogue to take place when
you’re pre-judged by your religious views.