22 of 55 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Hardcover)
I have read a good deal of the literature of the Civil War over the last 30 years. This book is the least edifying and most confusing (or confused) interpretation I have ever read. The fundamental problem is that Prof. Stout provides no clear idea of what a "moral" history is. Is it a history of the influence of the Christian denominations upon the war? This assumes Christians were uniquely responsible and positioned to affect the morality of the war. If so, the denominations largely divided upon North South lines and preached platitudes. Is it an assessment of how Christianity succeeded or failed to influence the conduct of the war in conformity to "just war" principles, the normative "Christian" ethical stance on war, according to Stout? If so, most Christians and Christian denominations showed little or no interest in just war theory. On both counts, organized Christianity never got into the game.
Or is the moral dimension of the war wrapped up in a reformulation of American "civil religion," a drama too big for the small stage of official organized American Christianity? If so, the vocabulary of the reformulation was largely secular, not religious at all. It referenced liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Bible and theology. Secular thought pulled religious ideology along its wake, not vice versa. As such Christianity, in its forms so diverse and its ethics so dispersed, provided no unified or logical perspective on the war and its various "causes" such as abolition, union, or secession.
In short, this is a book still in search of a valid historical methodology. As it stands now, reading this book is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle while looking through a kaleidoscope.
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Initial post: Dec 10, 2008 11:28:26 AM PST
"Stout's ambitious yet compelling thesis is that Americans' sacred devotion to their nation and its symbols is the product of massive blood sacrifice." Mr. Meyer is referred to this excerpt from a professional review. Much of the contemporary philosophical discourse of the meaning of the Civil War (while it lasted and during a generation or two thereafter), was filtered through a Victorian American Protestant framework (VAPF). The gathering of these discourses in Stout's research, and their interpretation in OTAOTN, constitute the moral history that Mr. Meyer has difficulty discerning. He also asks the wrong questions about the book and seems to think that Stout's conclusions are suspect because some sort of overarching Christianity, as a kind of rallying force, was not in evidence at the time. The war was a political outcome, and something to be endured as it wore on. It should come as no surprise that, as the casualties mounted and society shifted more to an industrial base, Americans turned to the VAPF to make sense of it all. Stout's discovery of this material deepens our understanding of the cultural history of the CW and its aftermath, as well as the mythology that developed from it.
Posted on Jun 1, 2010 1:00:26 PM PDT
Marion L. Wood says:
My objections to "Upon the Altar of the Nation" are niggling, compared to Mr. Meyer's incisive review. Some of the niggles: over-use or misuse of words such as "jeremiad" and "horrific"; use of secondary sources when primary sources are available; glaring typographical errors which, I allow, are not necessarily Professor Stout's fault, but someone should have caught errors like "Doe Vindice" -- we need to keep a doe separate from "Deo" and dating the Gettysburg Address to December instead of November; inconsistency in characterizations of major figures in the War, chiefly generals of both armies; accusations of overt, culpable racism when such behavior was the social norm. Why do I continue to read the book, with close to two hundred pages to go? #1. I always have a compulsion to finish reading a book I've started (unless it's really, really bad). #Stout does keep the narrative going, although with frequent side-tracking. #3. I'm curious to see if the book or my attitude improve.
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