In all Eastern Orthodox Churches, this troparion or prayer is spoken or sung frequently in worship: “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.”
This ancient prayer was, one might say, a “national anthem” that was offered on all public occasions in the Christian empires of Byzantium and Russia. It originally petitioned God to save the people, to grant victory in war, and to preserve the empire by virtue of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Today, this prayer is spiritualized as the “adversaries” become both the Devil and his armies and the spiritually wicked and sinful people who flaunt God’s law and tempt Eastern Orthodox Christians. This prayer presents in microcosm the true nature of God, man, and the Christian sense of place. It illustrates God’s love for man, man’s need for God to save him from himself, and God’s salvation of man by putting him in a place where he can fulfill his destiny to love and serve God by loving and serving his neighbor.
We need to recover that God-given model and blessed result of living in a community. This model existed in the antebellum American South. A study of that last Christian civilization on the North American continent offers a way to reestablish a Christian sense of place, and we should set aside the intellectual arrogance that makes some of us think that we are superior to those who went before us. Southerners lived on their land and in community, interdependent with their neighbors. They knew that their unchanging religious tradition gave meaning to life and a destiny. Their society gauges how far we have fallen away from a Christian sense of place and reveals how much our culture has surrendered to a narcissistic and hedonistic sense of self that engenders peoples’ obsession for individual freedom of choice, unconstrained by any source of authority outside themselves. The insatiable demand for such choice, regardless of how it may adversely affect others, added to the increasing mobility of our society, has made us rootless and placeless.
To compare our culture with that of the antebellum South, we need to look at the theological changes that occurred in New England and the other Northern states. Those changes opened the way for the emergence of a gnostic distortion of Christianity, which inevitably spawned a secular humanism that, in turn, transformed the culture of the North and has subsequently become the state religion of the United States. The traditional conservative religious faith and practice of the Southern people wove into their society the firm faith that the One God revealed and experienced in the Holy Trinity is the Father of all Creation. They believed that God’s law was revealed completely in the Holy Bible. They believed that both natural law and revealed law through Jesus Christ defined the nature and motivated the development of their culture and community. They believed that the Holy Spirit of this One Triune God welded into a unified society all of the Southern people: the planter, the businessman, the tenant farmer, the small farmer, the frontiersman, and the slave.
This unity was not politically socialist or egalitarian. It was biblical and spiritual in nature and brought into being a mutual social and charitable responsibility among the people, whatever their station in life might have been. Their biblical faith made them self-conscious and self-confident, anti-elitist but still aristocratic, with a noblesse oblige derived from their memory and love of chivalry. Richard Weaver, in his essay “The Older Religiousness in the South,” writes that the South’s attitude toward religion was a “simple acceptance of a body of belief, an innocence of protest and schism by which religion was one of the unquestioned and unquestionable supports of the general settlement under which men live.”
The Christian moral and ethical values of the South stemmed primarily from Reformation Trinitarian theology. In New England and other Northern states, these values were largely moribund among the political, social, and religious leadership. Most Southerners believed, quite correctly, that the people of New England (and, generally, of the North) had rejected traditional Christianity, which they had inherited from their Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors.
From the end of the Napoleonic wars until the outbreak of the War Between the States, Europe underwent violent political and social unrest, spawned by radical new ideas about the Christian religion and the political governments of men. In the three decades before Lincoln’s armies invaded and pillaged the South, a steady stream of New England intellectuals went to Europe where they studied and embraced these radical and revolutionary ideas. Such men as historian George Bancroft, classics scholar Edward Everett, eminent linguist George Tichnor, author and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts all drank deeply from the wells of the radical social philosophers.
These elitist New England intellectuals were convinced that Southern biblical Christianity should be suppressed because it was a stumbling block to the progress of mankind. They declared that virtue and salvation were attainable through education and social reform rather than through adherence to a traditional Christian religious belief. They advocated an unrestrained freedom of choice, guaranteed by the man-made laws of the state, which would supplant the biblical laws of God.
Many New England clergymen imbibed the ideology of the radical European theologians and philosophers who invented the “scientific” analysis of the Bible, cast aside the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and came to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was false, that Jesus was not divine, that men and women are not miserable sinners who needed a Savior. They believed that they could save themselves through better education and a greater trust in their own reason, intuition, and feelings. Richard Weaver also writes:
New England was settled in the early years largely by people who had been embroiled in religious feuds, which they found occasions for renewing after they had set themselves up in the New World. In New England . . . the right to criticize and even to reject the dogmas of Christianity came at length to overshadow the will to believe them . . . Such troubles arise only when egotistical and self-willed people make assent a matter of intellectual conviction . . . New England, acting out of that intellectual pride which has always characterized her people, allowed religion to become primarily a matter for analysis and debate.
There was indeed a profound difference in theology between the North and the South in antebellum America. The Northern intellectual leadership preached an heretical Social Gospel. The South held on to a robust, traditional, Trinitarian Christianity. The North experimented with a philosophy of ethical culture under the guise of religion. The South clung to an Apostolic Faith that dealt with the biblical realities of life, death, judgment, Heaven, Hell, and the sacredness of place.
Antebellum Southerners were well aware of what we today call “secular humanism.” Boldly, they declared it heresy, a gnostic distortion of Christianity. It is the eclectic summation of a rootless, placeless, individualistic American experiment with utopianism, universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and Jacobinism. Secular humanism destroys the Christian sense of place. It presupposes that a better world can be achieved without God’s love, mercy, and judgment. Christians know that it matters greatly where we and our ancestors were born, baptized, received Holy Communion, married, and are buried. These events in life are not only Sacraments and sacramentals but geographic places in God’s design for our lives.
Roman Catholic priest, poet, and Confederate Army chaplain Abram J. Ryan composed a poem after the War Between the States entitled “A Land Without Ruins.” In the introduction to the poem, he wrote, “A land without ruins is a land without memories—a land without memories is a land without history . . . Calvaries and crucifixions take deepest hold of humanity.”
The War Between the States and the North’s determination to destroy the Southern homeland as well as her culture during the Reconstruction Era (which is still going on) could not completely eradicate her sense of place. The South was and remains the Bible Belt. Her religious legacy gives all of America a chance of regaining a Christian sense of place, which is the only guarantee of a stable civilization. Father Ryan’s poem reflects this history and offers hope for the future.
Yes, give me the land where the ruins are spread,
And the living tread light on the hearts of the dead;
Yes, give me a land that is blest by the dust,
And bright with the deeds of the down-trodden just.
Yes, give me the land where the battle’s red blast
Has flashed to the future the fame of the past;
Yes, give me the land that hath legends and lays
That tell of the memories of long vanished days;
Yes, give me a land that hath story and song!
Enshrine the strife of the right with the wrong!
Yes, give me a land with a grave in each spot,
And names in the graves that shall not be forgot;
Yes, give me the land of the wreck and the tomb;
There is grandeur in graves—there is glory in gloom;
For out of the gloom future brightness is born,
As after the night comes the sunrise of morn;
And the graves of the dead with the grass overgrown
May yet form the footstool of liberty’s throne,
And each single wreck in the war-path of might,
Shall yet be a rock in the temple of right.