Donald Trump’s continually divisive language – especially as it relates to defending the Confederate flag and Southern monuments that glorify the actions and legacies of military and political leaders that supported the South during and after the Civil War – is not new.
His tactics derive from a movement called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (the Lost Cause, for short) that was implemented by Southern sympathizers soon after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Lost Cause sympathizers were not willing to accept the military, social or political defeat of their platform that was shaped by the idea that whites had an ordained right to own black slaves.
So, they sought to distort and revise the purpose behind their choice to stand against the Union while simultaneously reframing their intent as a glorious and God-ordained act that was honorable.
Beginning in 1866, the Lost Cause concept allowed the previous actions of Confederate leaders to be reimagined through a lens of heroism by reinterpreting the purpose of the war and its subsequent fallout.
Lost Cause advocates attempted to recast the genesis of the war from being about slavery instead to the idea of “state’s rights.” But what rights did the Southern states work so hard to keep? The right to maintain slavery.
They also attempted to reframe their aggressive stand for slavery as an impassioned response to Northern attempts to control the long-held Southern way of life.
Lost Cause proponents did this by reframing the myths, symbols and rituals related to Southern life and the Confederacy.
The myths they propagated were:
- That the South was a place primarily focused on nobility and chivalry and not on building an economy that was driven by the use of Black bodies.
- That the enslavement of Black people was a noble cause because it provided these “savages” the opportunity to become Christianized.
- That white-dominated society was a primary part of God’s intentions for the nation, as evidenced through the idea of manifest destiny.
The symbols they protected were the Confederate flag (which struck immediate fear in Black people), plantation life (which had as its foundation the unpaid and often severely punished service of Black bodies) and the Bible (serving as the ultimate source of power and control over those Black bodies).
If a Black person was not willing to obey their masters as the Bible commanded, then they had no hope for God’s earthly protection or heavenly home.
The rituals prolonged by the Lost Cause were the active resubjugation (reincarceration) of Blacks under the guise that Blacks were not able to take care of themselves, were prone to criminality and, therefore, did not deserve their freedom, and that slavery was an inherent good for them.
Another equally emphasized ritual was that not only should Blacks serve whites, but that women should serve men, and that the poor should serve the wealthy.
When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Lost Cause proponents had effectively succeeded in initiating their plan to reframe their original intentions and to adopt a position as victims to unrighteous Northern interference.
Unfortunately, this playbook has been updated for the 21st century.
There are people who lead our nation and churches today who are attempting to hinder the full inclusion of people who they have deemed as not fitting their image of what good Americans look like.
They seek to do so by:
- Reframing those who do good for the poor and outcast as anti-American.
- Holding on to racist symbols from the past and framing opposition to those symbols as heretical and standing against tradition, which in the Lost Cause is always more important than doing good.
- Using the Bible as a convenient tool even when what the Bible teaches stands in direct opposition to what is being done.
- Pitting people against each other by framing one side as undeserving of God’s full love through the use of fear.
The irony of this is that God does not call us to be good Americans.
God calls us to be good followers of Jesus even when that means we find ourselves on the opposite side of political, social and economic powers.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week on racial justice. The other articles in the series are:
Your Church Can’t Separate Faith, Anti-Racism Work | Aurelia Davila Pratt
As Monuments Come Tumbling Down | William Brackney
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.