Righting America

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The Rhetoric of the Lost Cause All Over Again, and Again | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA. Photo by Salwan Georges of The Washington Post (2020)

The other day, I was reading David Blight’s fine book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, in preparation for a project that I am going to have students in my visual/material rhetoric course work on this semester. We’re going to spend some weeks studying Confederate monuments and asking ourselves questions like the following: What do these monuments memorialize? What sort of rhetorical work do they do and on whose behalf? Why were white people dedicating these monuments anywhere from twenty-five to fifty-five years after the war was over? And, finally, what is it about these monuments (often featuring this or that Confederate soldier on horseback or standing with his rifle) that inspires such intense support as well as fierce opposition? 

Blight’s book will be important for my class because we cannot make sense of these monuments unless we understand the discourse out of which they were constructed and within which they made and continue to make meaning. At the heart of that discourse, which Blight describes very well, is the story of the “Lost Cause.” It’s a story that emerged in the South as a way to cope with having lost the war but, over time, became the story of the war for white Americans, both North and South. 

If you’re like me, some version of the story of the Lost Cause will likely be familiar to you. Central to the story is the notion that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. The North and the South went to war over states’ rights. Whereas the North supported the expanding role of the federal government, the South refused it. Indeed, the South fought to protect the freedom of Southerners and their lawful right to self-government. 

Thus, the South (which was forced into the war) fought for a noble cause (the Lost Cause)—what some have even called America’s second revolution. And had it not been for the fact that the North outgunned the South and had a voracious appetite for overtaking the South, the South would have been victorious on behalf of that Lost Cause. 

The real aggressors were the North, and the South were its victims—even “negroes” who, content as they were as slaves, were forced to leave their benevolent masters and try to make a go of it on their own. Thankfully, the South rose victorious out of Reconstruction (another campaign of Northern aggression) and redeemed the South so that it could recuperate its fine traditions and social/moral order.

This story of the Lost Cause was developed and aggressively propagated first in the South and then beyond in an effort (which was largely successful) to put to rest what any American historian worth their doctoral degree would say was the true story. According to that story, the Civil War was fought over slavery. The South fought to keep slavery; the North fought to end it. More than that, the South was determined to extend slavery into the territories for economic reasons. The North rejected that plan for largely political reasons. So Southern states, one after the other, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. War broke out to settle the question. In the end, the South lost and, finally, 250 years of slavery in the US was finally brought to an end. 

To verify that the war was about slavery all you have to do (as William Trollinger makes clear whenever he lectures on this topic) is read the secession statements of the states that left the Union and joined the Confederacy. They are explicit—they were seceding to protect the institution of slavery in the South. Plain and simple. And they were quite willing to go to war for it.

So, how did the story of the Lost Cause gain hegemony—even in the North? According to Blight, a whole campaign emerged in the last couple of decades of the 19th century to sell this story. It was an impressive (even if depressing) rhetorical feat. On my reckoning of Blight’s fantastic history of this campaign, it consisted of the following strategies:

  1. Turn the facts inside out. The rebels were the victims. The secessionists were the patriots. Their cause was freedom. Slaveholders were benevolent. Slaves preferred chains to freedom.
  1. Always refer to the inside-out story as the “truth” and point out whenever possible that the Lost Cause story is the righteous corrective to that other dangerous story.
  1. Discredit “elite” historians (and anyone else) who defends that other story. If they’re from the North, it’s more Northern aggression. If they’re from the South, then they are obviously not patriots. In other words, go all out on the ad hominem.
  1. Insist that history textbooks only tell the “true” story. Argue that the only way to protect children is to make sure they don’t even know that other story exists. 
  1. In a context of much perceived social and political disorder (like women fighting for suffrage and blacks voting and winning political office), argue that it is in holding to the Lost Cause story that order will be restored. 
  1. Find females (especially women with tight connections to heroes of the Confederacy) to serve as paragons of womanly virtue and advocates for patriarchy. 
  1. Reassure the faithful that those who tell that other story will get what they deserve in due time. God is, after all, on the side of “truth.”

As I read Blight’s history of the campaign for the Lost Cause, I became only more convinced that Americans must learn the real story of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and how the South was “redeemed” via the Lost Cause narrative (and the Jim Crow laws that followed). Doing so is simply essential for our efforts to tackle racism in this country. But that’s not the only reason I write this post.

As I was reading Blight’s history I was struck by the resonances I was hearing between the rhetorical strategies that were used in this campaign to achieve hegemony for the Lost Cause in both the South and the North, and the rhetorical strategies of Answers in Genesis (and others who push culture-war fundamentalism) today. 

Righting America at the Creation Museum is a book-length study in the rhetorical strategies of Answers in Genesis. In noting here the similarities between the rhetorical strategies of the Lost Cause and AiG, especially at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, I am drawing heavily on that earlier work. So, what exactly are those resonances?

  1. Turn the facts inside out. For AiG, God is not love; God is pissed. Moreover, he is poised to unleash his wrath at any moment. Last time around, he wiped out 20 billion deserving sinners (according to a display of numbers crunched at Ark Encounter), including men, women, children, infants, even the unborn (excepting just 8 righteous individuals). It’s anyone’s guess how many he’ll slaughter next time. But do it, he will. Moreover, God did not send his only begotten son to save everybody—only the righteous who, for instance, know that anyone identifying as LGBTQ (and not repenting of it) is damned to Hell. (Righting America 54-58)
  1. Insist that there is only one truth, you’ve got it, and anything else is very dangerous. For AiG, young Earth creationism is the truth. The Earth (along with the whole universe) was created by God in six twenty-four-hour days less than six thousand years ago. Anyone who does not believe this story does not believe that what Genesis says is true and, therefore, has no reason to take as true anything else the Bible says. This is obviously very dangerous and accounts for why US culture is in such a mess and getting worse by the day. (Righting America 94-103)
  1. Discredit “elites” who tell a different story. According to AiG, liberals, humanists, and atheists (who are readily found in cities, on the coasts, and in universities) want you to believe either that God loves you no matter what or that God isn’t in charge or that God doesn’t exist. Obviously, these “elites” are dangerous because they embrace moral relativism. God hates moral relativism, because God is just. Therefore the story of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God is a lie. The only “true” story is the one in which God punishes sinners and saves the righteous. These “elites” also think the Earth is old, and that is a very dangerous lie because it just helps to produce more liberals, humanists, and atheists. As we put it in Righting America, “In AiG’s Great Binary, there is no neutrality, no middle ground. There are but two warring camps. At the end of the day, those academics who promote evolution and/or an old Earth are serving the forces of Satan” (222).
  1. Demand that textbooks tell the right story and protect children from hearing anything to the contrary. So far, young Earth creationists have not succeeded in getting public schools to teach young Earth creationism alongside evolution, though they certainly have tried. Good Christian parents, therefore, have two options: either homeschool their children (with AiG materials) or prepare their children (via AiG materials) to defend young Earth creationism at school whenever evolution comes up. (Righting America 198-207)
  1. Insist that the “true” story is the only way to restore order amidst much chaos. For AiG, the belief in an old Earth struck at the very foundation of social and moral order because it called the veracity of Genesis and thus the rest of the Bible into question. Chaos ensued, taking a wide variety of forms including rampant drug use, abortion, women seeking equality with men in the workplace and at home, illegitimate forms of sexual identity, the persecution of righteous Christians, and so forth. The only way to recuperate order is through belief in a young earth and a just God. (Righting America 52-58)
  1. Put forth females with the right connections who will argue on behalf of patriarchy. Georgia Purdom is AiG’s female figurehead who, among other activities, regularly gives talks to women’s groups and writes articles for AiG’s publications on women’s role in the family and society. According to Purdom, women and men have different roles given to them by God. Thanks to Satan and sin, women get confused about their God-given role and attempt to take on men’s role. “Biblical womanhood” demands many things, including modesty in dress (so as not to encourage lust on the part of men) and homemaking (raising children, cleaning, cooking, etc.) whether or not she works outside the home.
  1. Reassure the faithful that those who believe (never mind disseminate) the lie will get what they deserve. For AiG, chief among those who are guilty of propagating and legitimating the lie are scholars and pastors. And for that, they will get their due. As we put it in Righting America: “What if these scholars do not heed these directives [to abandon the lie and repent of their sin] from the AiG boss? According to Ham, there will be a day of divine reckoning for the arrogant academics [and anyone else] who undermine the authority of God’s Word with their devotion to evolution and ‘millions of years’ and for church leaders who promote this poisonous message among Christian laypeople. On that day, these compromising professors and preachers will have to answer to God for what they have taught their students and their parishioners” and it won’t be pretty. (Righting America 222-223)

The parallels between the rhetorical strategies mobilized for the Lost Cause and for young Earth creationism are strikingly similar. And in both cases they are polarizing, unforgiving, judgmental, and apocalyptic. Thus, they invite hatred, fear, and violence. 

I would like to imagine that these rhetorical strategies are on their way out. After all, the story of the Lost Cause has been profoundly challenged, especially by activists who have had success in getting Confederate monuments removed. And young Earth creationism, while popular among many Americans, appears to be less and less compelling among young people who just can’t seem to work up a mood to condemn, say, LGBTQ to eternal damnation. 

There is reason for hope, to be sure. And yet scenes like the one captured in the photo below, which are being repeated across America, indicate that the rhetorical strategies of the Lost Cause continue to attract strong adherents. Hope, yes. And much work to do. So it is.

Trump Signs on a Neighborhood House. Photo by Susan Trollinger (2021).