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BROKEN CHURCHES, BROKEN NATION Paperback – April 1, 1997
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Goen begins by humbly stating that no one, least of all he, can understand the motivations of other men--particularly when separated by a century. It is important to acknowledge this truth, but Goen rightfully continues to examine the historical record--as he should. Just because we cannot know something omnisciently does not mean we cannot know it.
Goen spends most of his work examining the break-up of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations that occurred in the years leading up to secession. These three predominant denominations divided over the slavery question geographically. This spiritual schism led many at the time, to predict that if the churches, keepers of the faith, could not reconcile, what chance had the civil authorities?
Goen insightfully critiques the foundations of individualistic Christianity nascent in the Reformation, but blossoming under the tutelage of revolution and revivalism. This individualistic autonomy undermined the authority of the local church, and ultimately the denominations themselves. The big three denominations were unwilling, and seemed unable, to deal biblically with the slavery issue.
Northern clergy were self-righteous in their condemntation of slavery and uninterested in solutions to slavery beyond its absolute abolition. Meanwhile southern clergy were complicit in the institution of slavery, and morally compromised. They recognized that slavery is not condemned in the Bible--but they used this to justify its existence and leave it under the jurisdiction of the state alone. The southern clergy were uninterested in any biblical argument against slavery. In fact, slavery was one of the "moral" bedrocks of southern culture. The racism and caste-system in the south was biblically defended and they equated the assault on slavery as an assault on their "biblical" way of life.
The inability and the lack of desire for reconciliation ratcheted up the rhetoric and radicalized the two sides to a fever-pitch. Goen demonstrates that the clergy in both the North and the South were complicit in driving both sides to "holy war."
The work is actually quite short (190 pages) and focuses largely on the denominational schisms. He forthrightly lays the blame for the war at the feet of the churches. He had earlier defended the historian's practice of moralizing. I was disappointed that he did not adequately contextualize the abolitionist movement. But it is clear that the churches in both the North and the South bear a great deal of guilt in bringing the war upon the nation.