The debate over Confederate symbols exploded across the South in recent weeks as cities removed historic monuments, white nationalists organized a torch rally to protest removals, and some states preempted removal efforts by passing legislation outlawing such actions without state approval. The 2015 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. triggered this national conversation concerning the place of the Confederacy in contemporary American life.
Growing up in the Chicago area, I naively assumed that everyone held the South responsible for the Civil War. I received a rude awakening when I began my freshman year at a small Christian college in South Carolina, a state where Abraham Lincoln is a four-letter word to some. Consistent with this experience, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found stark differences along regional and racial lines in people’s attitudes toward Confederate symbols.
As a Christian, I’m interested in the influence of faith on this debate, especially considering that the majority of Confederate symbols are located in the South which ranks as the most religious region in the nation.
The Bible is no stranger to complicated histories. David, one of the most revered figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, committed adultery, murdered to hide it, and ignored the rape of his own daughter. Yet, Scripture still remembers him as “a man after God’s own heart,” indicating the possibility for deeply flawed individuals to be held in high esteem within a faith community.
Defenders of the Confederacy argue for a similar approach to “heroes” like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Instead of emphasizing their flaws, defenders choose to celebrate their courage, valor, and faith. Furthermore, they detect hypocrisy in critics who challenge the legitimacy of certain monuments due to racism when many Union leaders held equally problematic views.
Although he viewed slavery as morally wrong, Abraham Lincoln was no abolitionist, nor did he affirm racial equality. During the Charleston installment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, his embrace of white supremacy was on full display: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality….I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Lincoln’s views on race certainly evolved by the time he delivered his Second Inaugural Address; yet, the similarities in racial perspectives between him and his southern counterparts are undeniable. Jim Wallis is correct to observe that racism in American culture is “in the air we breathe and water we drink.”
Lincoln occupies a prominent spot in public memory due to his efforts to preserve the Union at a time when the American experiment looked like it might fail. He was deeply flawed on many fronts, but the cause for which he fought is morally acceptable.
I’m reminded of a line from August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning drama Fences: “You got to take the crookeds with the straights.”
American history is fraught with “crooked” moments. From genocide against American Indians to the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans to the abusive treatment of Chinese immigrants, crooked moments are part of our story. However, taking the “crookeds with the straights” is fundamentally different than treating the “crookeds” as “straights.”
Symbols like flags and monuments connect us to the past. They shape our perspective of history, inform our identity in the present, and position us toward a future. Confederate symbols frequently romanticize one of the most abhorrent periods in our nation’s history. The values of the Confederacy contradict the message of Jesus. One stood for subjugation, oppression, and enslavement, while the other stood for love, justice, and peace. If faith communities are to be faithful to the message that we claim to embody, then we must reject perspectives that find cause to honor the Confederacy.
Phrases like “Heritage not Hate” and “Southern pride” cannot hide the painful reality that the Confederacy attempted to preserve an institution which subjugated and enslaved people of color. In his 1861 “Corner Stone” speech, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens acknowledged this intention: “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
The Confederacy mobilized in defense of a system that normalized forms of physical violence, sexual assault, and psychological trauma. Celebrating the “virtues” of those who fought legitimates the cause itself. This reality is why Germans avoid honoring the valor and courage of Nazi soldiers. In other words, heritage cannot be separated from hate.
Efforts to remove Confederate symbols have been met with fierce resistance in the name of preserving history. Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver (R) created a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that lawmakers who support removing Confederate symbols should be lynched.
The goal of removal efforts is not to erase history, but to recontextualize it. The Confederacy with its vicious legacy of white supremacy should not be honored but lamented. The University of Texas recently decided to relocate a statue of Jefferson Davis from its position of honor to an American history center on the campus, offering insight on how to deal with the numerous Confederate symbols that dominate the national landscape. This relocation affords the statue a place where its meaning and cultural significance can be properly discussed and engaged.
Ultimately, this debate extends beyond questions of who we were to who we want to be. Commemorating the past elevates it as an example to emulate in the future. David continues to be held in high esteem within the Judeo-Christian tradition because even when he failed, his heart was bent toward what was right. The Confederacy is not an honorable example of imperfect people trying to do the right thing, but a tragic warning of what happens when we pursue our interests at the expense of others’ humanity.