1. Evangelical

“Christian Patriotism” in the Civil War

One of the most striking uses of the term “Christian Patriotism” in American history came in an 1863 speech by the (delightfully named) Edmund Burke Fairfield, president of Hillsdale College in Michigan. He gave a sermon before the Michigan legislature. It was titled – you guessed it – Christian Patriotism. The sermon is available in full text via Google Books. I discovered it as I was reading James Byrd’s outstanding new book A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War.

Fairfield insisted that support for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was not universally applauded in the North, was a requirement of Christian Patriotism.

“Christian Patriotism demands of us a large humanity,” Fairfield said. “The sublimest patriotism is that which rests upon the broad basis of justice and humanity, and overtops all the stunted growths of prejudice and caste. ‘The Golden Rule’ is the law for all times and all peoples. Every human soul, bearing upon it the impress of God and of immortality, is embraced within the scope of Christian philanthropy, without which there can be no such thing as Christian patriotism.”

Fairfield saw irony and the hand of Providence in the prospect that the South’s secession could ultimately cause emancipation. White southerners thought they were seceding to protect slavery, but God had other plans. Even in the North, freedom for slaves was not a unanimous war aim in 1861. By 1863, however, the circumstances of war had led to the threshold of mass emancipation.

“True national greatness,” he proclaimed, “is not along or chiefly, in wide domain, or brilliant achievements, or material prosperity – but in integrity, inflexible and equal justice, high and noble character and befitting deeds – in the largest liberty to every man to be and become all that God has made him to be.”

In another post I distinguished between Christian patriotism (good in the right measure) and Christian nationalism (bad), but Fairfield’s sermon seems like an outstanding case study of good (if still effusive) Christian patriotism. Elsewhere in the speech Fairfield swerves toward conflating American patriotism and Christianity itself, but that’s a topic for another time. And however noble Christian patriotism might be in its best instances, there’s always a risk of presenting whatever political or cultural agenda you support as an example of Christian patriotism. Not all causes called “Christian” are really Christian.

But I don’t think that Fairfield was just engaging in rhetorical posturing. Antislavery critics in America, such as the mixed-race pastor Lemuel Haynes, had argued (against Thomas Jefferson and others) that Christian benevolence in the republic should extend across the color line, making the blessings of liberty apply to blacks as well as whites. Fairfield similarly argued that the best traditions of Anglo-American liberty and Christianity warranted sacrifice for the benefit of the oppressed in America, as well as fighting to preserve the American Union from the secessionist breakup. This was a principle that animated many white and black Union troops, organizers of the Underground Railroad, runaway slaves, antislavery northern politicians and pastors, and more.

Christian patriotism is at its best when it summons us to make common sacrifices, on a controversial issue (such as emancipation), for the good of the most vulnerable or oppressed in our society, on the basis of Christian principle (the imago dei and the Golden Rule) and the tradition of American liberty. If that’s what Christian patriotism means, sign me up.

Again, a critic could still raise all kinds of plausible objections to Christian patriotism. Does one have to be a Christian to do anything moral or self-sacrificial? (No.) Didn’t Confederates and groups like the Ku Klux Klan cite Christian patriotism too? (Yes.) Yet it is hard to imagine the Emancipation Proclamation succeeding without the grounding principles of Christian patriotism.

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