By Jeff Sharlet
If ever anyone was in doubt, Charlottesville has made clear to all but its devotees that the cult of the “Lost Cause” and its Confederate memorials have always been driven by one imperative: White supremacy. But many of its believers, especially those evangelical conservatives who denounce Nazis even as they remain loyal to Trump, are steeped in a revisionist history that allows them to persuade themselves that their reverence isn’t rooted in their racism. Ten years ago, I took a deep dive into the curricula of Christian academies and home schooling. What I found was a bizarre, supernatural alternative history of the United States, rooted in the feverish imagination of a proudly racist theologian named R.J. Rushdoony, in which few figures loomed larger than Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Following is an excerpt from my 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, on what those Stonewall Jackson monuments look like to fundamentalists who tell themselves “it’s not about race.”
Amid a pantheon now celebrated by fundamentalist historians, the most surprising hero is Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant general in American history and certainly the most pious. United States History for Christian Schools devotes more space to Jackson, “Soldier of the Cross,” and the revivals he led among his troops in the midst of the Civil War, than to either Robert E. Lee or U. S. Grant; Practical Homeschooling magazine offers instructions for making Stonewall costumes out of gray sweatsuits with which to celebrate his birthday, declared a homeschooling “fun day.” Fundamentalists even celebrate him as an early civil rights visionary, dedicated to teaching slaves to read so that they could learn their Bible lessons. For fundamentalist admirers, that is enough, as evidenced by the 2006 publication of Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, by Richard G. Williams, a regular contributor to the conservative Washington Times.
Jackson’s popularity with fundamentalists represents the triumph of the Christian history Rushdoony dreamed of when he discovered, during the early 1960s, a forgotten volume titled The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson. Its author, Robert Lewis Dabney, had served under Jackson, but more important he was a Calvinist theologian who believed deeply in a God who worked through chosen individuals, and he wrote the general’s life in biblical terms. To Rushdoony, the story transcended its Confederate origins, and he helped make it a founding text of the nascent homeschooling movement. It’s not the Confederacy fundamentalists love but martyrdom. Jackson fought first for God and only second for Virginia, and, as every fundamentalist fan knows, no Yankee bullet could touch him. He was shot accidentally by his own men and nonetheless died happy on a Sunday, content that he had arrived at God’s chosen hour.
Born in the mountains of what later became West Virginia, Jackson was orphaned by the time he was seven. His stepfather shipped the boy off to one uncle who beat him and then another who gambled and counterfeited and drank but also let him read. Against all expectations and two years later than most, he became a cadet at West Point. He began at the bottom of his class.
Four years later, he had climbed close to the top, and without the help of charisma. His frame and his face had broadened, but his eyes, pale irises of cornflower ringed in dead-of-night blue, seemed distant. His nose was long, wavering, and it ended in what looked like a permanent drip. His bright red lips curled inward, as if hiding. Even as an army officer, he felt so out of place in “society” that he was deathly afraid of public speaking. Absent enemy fire, he did not know how to take a stand. Before the war he watched John Brown hang with his own eyes and marveled at the strength of the man’s Christian conviction and wondered, perhaps, what he would have done had it been his neck in the noose. And yet when his own time to fight came, he proved just as ferociously devoted to his cause. In All Things for the Good: The Steadfast Fidelity of Stonewall Jackson, the fundamentalist historian J. Steven Wilkins opens a chapter on Jackson’s belief in the “black flag” of no quarter for the enemy with a quotation of Jackson’s view of mercy toward Union soldiers: “Shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.”
Earlier, in the Mexican War, Lieutenant Jackson defied an order to retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, and won. General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. forces, commended him for “the way [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans.” Many of the poor Mexicans slaughtered by Jackson were civilians. His small victory helped clear the way for the American advance, and Jackson was ordered to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the oncoming U.S. Army. He did so without hesitation—mowing them down even as they sought to surrender.
What are we to make of this murder? Fundamentalists see in that willingness to kill innocents confirmation of Romans 13:1. This snippet of Paul’s best-known epistle is a key verse for the Christian Right: “For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” Obeying one’s superiors, according to this logic, is an act of devotion to the God above them.
But wait. Fundamentalists also praise the heroism that resulted from Jackson’s defiance of orders to retreat, his rout of the Mexican cavalry so miraculous—it’s said that a cannonball bounced between his legs as he stood fast—that it seems to fundamentalist biographers proof that he was anointed by God. Is this hypocrisy on the part of his fans? Not exactly.
Key men always obey orders, but they follow the command of the highest authority. Jackson’s amazing victory is taken as evidence that God was with him—that God overrode the orders of his earthly commanders. The civilians dead as a result of Jackson’s subsequent obedience to those same earthly commanders are also signs of God’s guiding hand. The providential God sees everything; that such a tragedy was allowed to occur must therefore be evidence of a greater plan. One of fundamentalist history’s favorite proofs comes not from scripture itself but from Ben Franklin’s paraphrase at the Constitutional Convention: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Put in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson—rebellion and reverence, rage and order—results in the synthesis of self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism. A striking example is a short video on faith and diplomacy made in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, by Christian Embassy, a behind-the-scenes ministry for government and military elites created in 1974 as a sister ministry to the Family, with which it coordinates its efforts. Its founders, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade and Congressman John Conlan, considered them-selves America’s saviors. For Bright, the threat was always communism, but for Conlan, it was a Jewish congressional opponent who, lacking “a clear testimony for Jesus Christ,” would not be able to fulfill his responsibilities.
And yet, Christian Embassy’s self-promotional video almost seems to endorse deliberate negligence of duty. Dan Cooper, then an undersecretary of defense, grins for the camera as he announces that his evangelizing activities are “more important than doing the job.” Major General Jack Catton, testifying in uniform at the Pentagon—an apparent violation of military regulations intended to keep the armed forces neutral on religious questions—says he sees his position as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a “wonderful opportunity” to evangelize men and women setting defense policy. “My first priority is my faith,” he tells them; God before country. “I think it’s a huge impact,” he says. “You have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as they advise the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and the secretary of defense.” Christian Embassy also sends congressional delegations to Africa and Eastern Europe. “We were congressmen goin’ over there to represent the Lord,” says Representative John Carter of Texas. “We are here to tell you about Jesus . . . and that’s it.”
The Embassy encourages its prayer-cell members in the State Department to do the same; their first priority is not to explain U.S. positions but to send the diplomats home “with a personal relationship with the King of Kings, Jesus Christ.” Brigadier General Bob Caslen, promoted since the making of the video to commandant of West Point, puts it in sensual terms: “We are the aroma of Jesus.” There’s a joyous disregard for democracy in these sentiments, its demands and its compromises, that in its darkest manifestation becomes the overlooked piety at the heart of the old logic of Vietnam, lately applied to Iraq: in order to save the village, we must destroy it.
But that story is older than Vietnam. Here’s the village life, modest and hard but sustained by tender mercies, that Jackson wanted to save: Between the Mexican War and the Civil War, he moved to tiny Lexington, Virginia, to become a teacher. He married a minister’s daughter, gardened, took long strolls, meditated often on peaceful portions of scripture. The bloody hero of the Mexican War disappeared, replaced by a shy, painfully polite man, obsessed with “taking the waters” for his frail constitution. When the minister’s daughter died bearing their stillborn child, he married again, his “beloved esposa,” Anna Jackson, who, after his death, revealed that whenever they were alone together the publicly awkward, nervous man would grab her, kiss her, and twirl her round. They danced secret polkas. He taught Sunday school.
This is the myth of the quiet man, a noble soul of no outward distinction. “When it came to learning,” writes the Christian biographer J. Steven Wilkins, assessing his hero’s visible assets in All Things for the Good, “everything was a challenge.” Wilkins continues: “He did not have striking characteristics . . . He was gangly, uncoordinated, and spoke in a high-pitched voice . . . He did not have a great personality.” Slow, homely, and squeaky; also, peculiar in his posture—he sat ramrod straight, he said, because he was afraid of squishing his organs—and known by what friends he had for smiling lamely when he guessed that someone was saying something funny. Then came the war.
Jackson didn’t want it. Didn’t want slavery (but “accepted” it as ordained of God and kept five slaves), didn’t want secession (but accepted it as the will of Virginia, “to which [his] sword belongs”), didn’t want anything but quiet in which to consider his diet (a source of deep fascination and increasing asceticism as the war grew closer) and Scripture (he wished he’d been called by God to the ministry). Instead, he was called to killing. “Draw the sword,” he told his students, “and throw away the scabbard.”
Anxious about praying aloud in front of others, in battle, Jackson would abandon the reins of his horse to lift up his hands toward heaven. In camp he led revivals and stumbled about as if blind, his eyes shut as he talked to God. Under fire he shouted his prayers, imploring God not for mercy but for the blood of his enemies. “He lives by the New Testament and fights by the Old,” wrote a contemporary, a standard to which the movement now aspires. “He had none of the things held to be essential for leadership,” writes biographer Wilkins. “All he had was a sincere fear of God.”
This, too, is the American myth of the quiet man, transformed by crisis into a hero. This is the model for spiritual warfare American fundamentalism wants to implement in every household, each family and every living room Bible study group discovering within itself unexpected reserves of leadership and, as need arises, ferocity. Jackson’s troops thought he was literally invulnerable. His presence among his men inspired them to fearlessness in battle. And yet Jackson was killed in 1863 by his own men, who mistook his return from an unannounced scouting sortie as a Union charge. This, too, is an old story: felled within the walls. Our heroes are too great to be killed by the enemy; only our own weaknesses can undo us. Southern dreamers say the Confederacy would have won, abolished slavery peacefully, and established a true Christian nation had Jackson, “the greatest Christian general in the history of this nation,” lived to continue outflanking the Union army.
Of course, we would have won in Vietnam, too, if only we hadn’t tied our own hands, and we’d win in Iraq, if only Democrats would stop whining. Most of all, we—the believers—could finally build that city upon a hill God promised the as-yet-unformed nation nearly four centuries ago, if only we could submit to God. Jackson, note his Christian biographers, saw this problem even before the war. “We call ourselves a Christian people,” Jackson once wrote, but what he considered the “extreme” doctrine of separation of church and state prevented the United States from fulfilling its destiny.
Look at his wisdom! say his Christian biographers. “A gift from God,” he would have demurred. Oh, the humility of this fallen hero, cries American fundamentalism, always deep in conversation with its mythic past, the model for a new struggle.
Jeff Sharlet is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and the author or editor of six books, including The Family, C Street, and Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief. In 2003 he co-founded The Revealer.