Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Vision Forum and the "Lost Cause"

As some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may know, an organization called Vision Forum Ministries recently closed shop after the president, Texas pastor Doug Phillips, resigned following an inappropriate extramarital relationship.  (By the way, the reporter on this story is Morgan Lee, a Messiah College graduate and former student of mine).

Some of you may recall Vision Forum Ministries from the first few pages of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  In those pages I discuss Vision Forum's "Jamestown Quadricentennial: A Celebration of America's Providential History," an event that occurred in 2007.  

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson has an excellent post on Vision Forum Ministries and how it has contributed to the South's continuing fascination with the Lost Cause.  Here is a taste:

So here we have a contemporary case study in the Lost Cause. What can we learn from it? What can this tell us about the reasons so many Americans imbibe a toxic nostalgia for the prewar South, its culture, and its (supposed) views about government?

To me, it seems fairly clear that racism isn’t the place to start. Don’t get me wrong—I’m perfectly happy to question a slavery apologist’s claim that he isn’t a racist slavery apologist. And it’s obvious that Lost-Cause, Neo-Confederate, and other ideologies of attachment to the antebellum South often do result from either conscious or unconscious racism. Even so, in this case, I don’t think it’s helpful to identify racism as the main source of the trouble. There’s little direct evidence of conscious racism, and quite a bit of evidence that the people involved don’t want to be racists. If nothing else, blaming racism is the least interesting thing we could say about what’s going on.

What does seem useful to say, however, is that Vision Forum’s evident nostalgia for a slaveowning society is directly related to a general desire to rebuild an authoritarian social structure. The right to own slaves may not be the point, but the unquestioned authority of the male householder (exercised in a clear chain of command involving all other members of the family as subordinates) certainly is. No amount of talk about “complementary” roles for men and women can conceal what Vision Forum is actually eager to announce: that its key concern is patriarchy—a system of governance, not just a distribution of social responsibilities. From that perspective, the Old South represents a convenient image of white manhood and womanhood, and its fate serves as perhaps a hint of why authoritarian manhood seems endangered today.

In addition, from that perspective, the failure of the South may be a convenient explanation for the supposed decline of Christian civilization in a providentially founded Christian nation. The Civil War can serve as the moment when God chastised his people in America, just as he did the ancient Hebrews, for straying from their appointed course. It also seems to represent what can happen when a society fails to cohere—when its authority structures, and thus its values, fail.

It’s easy to dismiss this as simple anxiety about modern life. But the impulse to give the war meaning this way may not be so very different from our tendency to see it as the moment when the nation suddenly started to cohere, when America finally started to realize values that were somehow embedded in the Founding. One is a narrative of decline and the other a narrative of progress, but both stories are based in a desire to see the Founding as an eternal moment with a cosmic purpose that we can make manifest today.
Whether any of this is really helpful for countering the Lost Cause in debate, I’m not sure. But surely it can’t hurt for us to be aware of the range of motives, in addition to simple racism, sectional resentment, or misdirected aesthetics, that may encourage nostalgia for the plantation. The Lost Cause myth, like all good myths, speaks to deep personal anxieties and desires. It’s up to good and sympathetic historians to do the same.