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Charlottesville, Confederate Memorials, and Southern Culture

Four Recommendations

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I am not a politician, or a political activist. I am a pastor emeritus who spends much of his time trying to answer hard questions about what the Bible means and how to apply it to our lives. So after the deadly conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11–12, 2017, I posed myself a lot of questions.

Sometimes the Bible gives direct answers to our questions. Like the question “How should we talk to each other?” Answer: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

But that’s not mainly what the Bible does. Mainly it put us on a path of transformation. It points us to Jesus Christ and the good news that he came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He died on the cross to bear the sins of all who believe in him (1 Peter 2:24). He absorbed the righteous anger of God (Romans 3:24-25). And now anyone — from any race, tribe, people, class, or nation — who believes in him has forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43), and eternal life (John 3:16), and the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to fight our own sins, like pride and selfishness and fear and greed and lust and racism (Romans 8:13).

So the message of the Bible is not mainly a social program of personal or national improvement. It is mainly a message for how to be reconciled to God, and how to become a kind of exile and sojourner in this world till Jesus comes to make all things new (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20; Romans 8:21).

Why Would an Exile Care?

The catch is that the Bible tells us pastor-exile types to do good to this messed up world in the meantime. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

So I ask myself, How do you “do good” to a world like this? My own conviction is that if we only fix broken social structures and don’t help people toward eternal life, our love is thin. So my little crusade is to incite Christians to care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. To work for peace on earth, but not peace with God, is myopic. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and in that way to each other (Ephesians 2:16).

So here I am, a Christian exile in America pondering the implications of Charlottesville. You will see below why my mind has gone in the direction of Confederate memorials. How should I think and act about that point of conflict? What are we to do as a nation? The questions multiplied. Here is my best effort so far to find some answers.

“You Will Not Replace Us!”

Memorials recall sadness for the sake of joy. Someone — or thousands, or millions — have died. This is the sad part. But the memory is preserved — memorialized — for a reason. Not to make people sad, but to make them glad in some good resolve — a resolve formed by the sheer preciousness, or the personal virtue, or the righteous cause of those who died.

The recent demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville became a flashpoint for the issue of Confederate memorials. The stated goal of the “Unite the Right” rally was to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

One of the reasons this conflict captured the attention of the nation as viscerally as it did was the partial overlap between white-supremacist slogans and broad American fears. When the demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” they linked the removal of the Confederate statue with the wider fear that an entire way of life is being “replaced.”

French philosopher Renaud Camus argues that “European civilization and identity are at risk of being subsumed by mass migration, especially from Muslim countries.” He calls this idea the “Great Replacement.” This is one of the roots of the chant “You will not replace us!”

In America we have several subspecies of this idea. One of them has center stage for the moment, namely, the Southern-cultural identity interwoven with thousands of Confederate symbols throughout the Southern states. Millions of Southerners hate the attitudes of white supremacists but hear in the words “You will not replace us!” something paradoxically attractive.

“Where Does It Stop?”

I grew up in the South. I know what this feels like. I have spoken with Southerners in recent weeks, and have felt their reflexive anger at the notion of changing the name of every street, park, town, bridge, lake, dam, school, library, holiday, and military base that bears the name of a Confederate “hero.” Even my putting quotation marks around that word feels to them like a threat.

This unexpected, partial overlap between white-supremacist slogans and the latent indignation of American Southerners about perceived disregard for Southern culture (replacement) is one of the main reasons this event in Charlottesville took on the magnitude that it did.

Of course, the President’s words (both in spirit and content) fanned the flames of conflict among those whose passion was white supremacy, those aiming at counter-demonstration, and the wider population concerned about Southern-cultural heritage. Mr. Trump especially touched the nerve of the concerned Southerners when he lamented the removal of Lee’s statue by drawing attention to memorials for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, saying, “You really do have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’”

My interpretation of that last question from the President is this: If you don’t know where to stop, don’t start. Which means this: the President is opposed to the removal of Confederate memorials. He did not say this in so many words, but that was the implication as I heard it. For the President to offer in passing a facile judgment about such a weighty and far-reaching issue for our nation was deplorable. His job is to help point the way to conflict resolution, not to cynically sweep the issue aside as foolish.

Civil-War Passions Are Not Gone

Perhaps the President doesn’t see that the issue of Confederate memorials is an echo of the unfinished conflict of the Civil War. For example, in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, there is a 28-foot-tall Confederate memorial in Springwood Cemetery with an unnamed soldier atop the pedestal. It was first erected in 1892. One of its plaques leaves little question what is being memorialized:

All lost, but by the graves
Where martyred heroes rest;
He wins the most who honor saves:
Success is not the test.
The world shall yet decide,
In truth’s clear far off light,
That the soldiers
Who wore the gray and died
With Lee, were right.

This statue is a memorialized prophecy. “In truth’s clear, far off light” — that would be 2017 — “the world will yet decide” that the cause of the Confederacy was “right.” What we saw in Charlottesville was evidence of the fact that, at the level of conviction and emotion, the war is not over. The passions that enflamed the will to secede from the Union, and the passions that drove the force to prevent it, are alive in our land.

Slavery and State’s Rights

At one level, the conflict was about the right to secede. That was the “political question of the hour.” But “slavery . . . everyone knew was the economic, social, and moral issue on which the political question turned” (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 1). The Constitution of the Confederate States, which Robert E. Lee was fighting to uphold, provided explicitly that “No . . . law denying or impairing the right of property of negro slaves shall be passed” (Article I, Section 9, 4). “The Confederate States may acquire new territory. . . . In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress” (Article IV, Section 3, 3).

Alexander Stephens, who would become vice president of the Confederacy, gave a speech on March 21, 1861, ten days after the adoption of the Confederate Constitution, explaining why it is superior to the U.S. Constitution and why Confederate secession was underway. Among the reasons was the securing of slavery as the rightful place of the Negro in “our form of civilization.”

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst, us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution [seven states had seceded by the time of this speech]. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . . They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In other words, the Civil War was fought in defense of a new government as part of “our form of civilization.” Embedded in that form of government was the right to own slaves, the South’s “peculiar institution.” This institutionalized enslavement of the Black race was built on the prevailing assumption that the Black race was inferior, and ordained by God for a servile role and a segregated place.

The visceral commitment to segregation for a hundred years after the Civil War was a clear and powerful witness to the abiding conviction of many whites that this perceived inferiority, if not the God-ordained servility, had never changed. Emboldened by the spirit of the White House, this ineradicable white supremacy has taken the hoods off. We are in a new day of race-related conflict. And the need is great for thoughtful recommendations rather than dismissive soundbites.

Recommendation #1: Recognize the richness of Southern culture apart from slavery and civil war.

For many, one obstacle standing in the way of seriously considering the pros and cons of removing Confederate memorials is the sense that the Confederacy is essential to authentic Southern identity. I think this is a mistake. So my first recommendation is that we — Southerners especially — make the effort to articulate the richness of Southern-cultural heritage aside from slavery and the Civil War. I think this effort might go a long way toward dispelling the hasty and inaccurate judgment that, if some or all Confederate symbols go, there won’t be anything left of Southern culture.

I think the opposite is true: if the brick of the Confederacy is removed from the castle of Southern culture, the building will not collapse. I am no historian, nor a cultural expert. But just a small effort to see Southern culture reveals something more vast and varied than the legacy of slavery and Civil War. For starters:

Writers: Mark Twain. William Faulkner. Robert Penn Warren. Flannery O’Connor. Erskine Caldwell. Edgar Allan Poe. Sidney Lanier. Cleanth Brooks. Ralph Ellison. Thomas Wolfe. William Styron. Truman Capote. Walker Percy. Cormac McCarthy. Anne Rice. Shelby Foote. John Grisham. Wendell Berry. Zora Neale Hurston. Eudora Welty.

Music. Black Gospel. Spirituals. Bluegrass. Cajun. Delta Blues. Dixieland Jazz. Ragtime. Rockabilly. Shape Notes. Soul. Grand Ole Opry. Nashville. Stephen Foster. Buddy Holly. Little Richard. Fats Domino. Ray Charles. James Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis. Hank Williams. Eddy Arnold. Louis Jordan. Scot Joplin. Nat “King” Cole. Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash. The Carter Family.

Food. “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t cooked.” Black-eyed peas. Brunswick stew. Cornbread. Grits. Catfish and hushpuppies. Sweet tea. Barbecue. Co-cola. Greens. Gumbo. Biscuits and gravy. Southern fried chicken. Jambalaya.

Land and place and critters. Love of place. Red dirt. Blue Ridge Mountains. Appalachia. Bayou. Mississippi Delta. Outer Banks. Piney woods. Kudzu. Cotton. Magnolias. Black Bears. Ticks. Dogs (to be kept outside). Southern architecture (white columns). Churches. Churches. Churches. Especially Baptist churches.

Sports. Kentucky basketball. SEC football. High school football. Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Auburn and Alabama. Stock-car racing. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The point of this random, incomplete list of aspects of Southern culture is not that these are somehow pure over against slavery and the cause of the Confederacy. There are no completely pure aspects of human culture. The point is, first, that Southern culture is vastly greater than slavery and the Civil War. And, second, that therefore the removal of some or all of the Confederate symbols would not cause the castle of Southern culture to collapse.

Of course, that does not answer the question whether any given memorial should be removed. But it might help us weigh the pros and cons with less heat and more light.

Recommendation #2: Consider carefully the criteria for which public memorials to create or keep.

My second recommendation is that we think through what criteria should be used in deciding if a memorial should be built or removed. It seems to me that at least three questions are involved in deciding if a public memorial is good for a community or a nation: (1) What reality is being memorialized? (2) Is this reality worthy of public admiration and emulation? (3) Is the person who is symbolically embodying this reality so compromised with evil that regardless of the reality being memorialized, the person is too tarnished even to be used to memorialize something worthy? None of these questions is as easy to answer as it might appear at first.

1. What reality is being memorialized?

Not only may this be ambiguous historically, but it may also be different according to the interpretation of the onlooker. For example, the Civil War Unknowns Monument in Arlington, Virginia, erected in 1866, contains the remains of 2,111 soldiers from both Confederate and Union armies gathered after the war near Bull Run. The inscription says that “grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army of martyrs. May they rest in peace.”

What is being memorialized here? It is ambiguous because the soldiers of both armies are called “noble martyrs.” Not only that, but the phrase “noble army of martyrs” is a direct quote from a Christian hymn, the Te Deum, where the reference is explicitly to Christian martyrs. Even if we said that what is being memorialized is each soldier’s “last full measure of devotion” (to use Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address), we cannot escape the painful fact that most died devoted to a cause that the other side considered evil. And many who look on today have sympathies with the one or the other.

The Confederate memorial at Springwood Cemetery in Greenville, South Carolina, referred to earlier, is clearer about what is being memorialized: “That the soldiers / Who wore the gray and died / With Lee, were right.” Even here there are ambiguities. Some would put all the focus on state’s rights, not slavery, and say, that is what is being memorialized. Others would point out that the decisive reason the South insisted on the state’s right to secede was to preserve the reality of slavery, and therefore, that is what is being memorialized.

It has been pointed out that George Washington owned slaves and that this may compromise the existence of statues in his memory. With regard to Washington memorials, even when there is no explicit inscription, most would agree that what is being memorialized is his achievement on behalf of establishing the existence of the United States — first, as an independent nation and, second, as a republic, not a monarchy. Whether his slave-holding undermines his ability to represent those two values is the third question below.

The point here is only that, when we consider removing a memorial, we should first try to establish what is being memorialized.

2. Is this reality worthy of public admiration and emulation?

The second question to consider when weighing the removal of a memorial is whether the reality being memorialized is worthy of admiration and emulation. The effort to disentangle the Confederate cause from the evils of racism and slavery, so that the reality being memorialized by Confederate memorials can be seen as admirable, is not seen as successful by many African Americans, nor by many others, like myself. This effort is made all the more difficult by the fact that, increasingly, white supremacists are using those memorials as evidence that their own belief in the racial inferiority of African Americans is in clear continuity with the Confederate heroes. The continuity of that belief is difficult to deny.

So not only is there likely to be disagreement about the precise reality that is being memorialized with any given memorial, but, in addition, the disagreement will often be even deeper about whether that reality is worthy of admiration and emulation.

To make matters even more urgent, the inclination to remove a Confederate memorial is intensified not only by the judgment that the memorialized reality is seen as unworthy of admiration, but also by the fact that racist beliefs in the present — and the injustices that flow from them — are fortified by the memorials in question. In other words, the memorials may, at the same time, celebrate past wrongs, and support present wrongs. This is why the movement to remove such memorials has grown.

3. Is the person who is symbolically embodying the memorialized reality so compromised with evil that, regardless of the reality being memorialized, the person is too tarnished even to be used to memorialize something worthy?

The point here is that there might be agreement on what is being memorialized, and that it is admirable and worthy of emulation; and yet the memorial might be rejected on the ground that the person symbolizing the memorialized reality is too blemished to have public support. For an obvious example, a statue honoring the power of effective speaking would not use Adolf Hitler, though he was an effective speaker. Damnably effective.

On the Charlie Rose Show, after the Charlottesville tragedy, Al Sharpton was asked about memorials to George Washington in view of the fact that he owned slaves. Sharpton said, “The public should not uphold somebody who had that kind of background.” My interpretation of the word “uphold” in that context is that a person who held slaves should not be memorialized with taxpayer money.

Perhaps he misspoke. Or perhaps I have misinterpreted. But you can see the issue. Such a view with regard to the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is probably not going to get a lot of traction. They are too deeply and thoroughly embedded in the origin and character of this nation as a whole. But the issue must still be faced. Many of us would argue that a memorial for Washington is much more clearly distinguishable from the evils of slavery than is a memorial for Jefferson Davis.

Recommendation #3: Reflect seriously on who should decide what memorials to create or keep.

A third recommendation is that we reflect seriously about who should decide what public memorials are created and kept. Beside the three criteria for deciding which public memorials are good for a community, we have the question of who decides. Neighborhoods? School boards (say, in the case of school names)? Park boards? City governments? State legislatures? Federal legislatures? Mobs with ropes?

I do not have a specific answer to this question. By default, in almost every memorial case, some publicly elected or appointed group already exists as the authority to make this decision. That group may or may not be suited for the daunting task. For surely that task includes not only careful thinking about the questions raised above, but also empathetic and discerning listening to those whose lives are significantly affected by the memorial. The aim of public officials should be to restrain evil and support what is good (1 Peter 2:14). This is no easy task. But I would want the decision-making power to be in the hands of those elected officials best suited for the complexities of this task. (See below for the question of what to do with moved memorials.)

Recommendation #4: Preserve noteworthy memorials in an appropriate setting.

A fourth recommendation is that artistically noteworthy memorials (like statues and paintings) not be discarded but preserved in a setting where the memorials are viewed as educational artifacts rather than celebratory icons. The aim would be to locate them where the moral, cultural, and historical issues that made them controversial can be clarified. This is my answer to the objection that the removal of memorials is the loss of important history — with both its positive and negative lessons. I take that objection seriously.

My answer is that this is precisely what museums are for. There is a difference between educational history and celebrated legacy. There are no statues to Adolf Eichmann, but there is a Holocaust Museum.

Two Good Examples

The Minnesota State Capitol was recently refurbished. All the artwork was restored to its original luster. However, two large paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room were not put back in their prominent positions. One was “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” which portrays the 1851 signing of a treaty that secured some 22 million acres that would become Minnesota. The problem is that territorial governor Alexander Ramsey had pressured the Indians to sign the treaty quickly, without their knowing its full implications. The other painting, “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony,” has been seriously criticized as a naïve distortion of Native American dress and psyche.

Solution: both paintings were moved to the third floor, given their own spacious room, and accompanied by large placards explaining the history and the controversy. This solution followed from extensive discussions with people on both sides of the display issue. Noteworthy art was preserved. Important history was not lost. Education was advanced. Celebration of unworthy misrepresentations was muted.

Another example of moving controversial memorials from a place of celebration to a place of education is the strange George Washington sculpture by Horatio Greenough. Washington is bare-chested, draped like a Greek god, sitting on a throne, and handing his ruling sword, handle first, to the public. It arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and was controversial from day one. First, it was displayed in the Capitol Rotunda. Then it was moved to the east lawn of the Capitol in 1843. Then it went on exhibit in the Patent Office. In 1908 Congress acted to transfer it to the Smithsonian Castle, until in 1964 it found a proper home in the National Museum of American History.

This seems to me a good solution. The sculpture has proved embarrassing. At best, it is ambiguous. Nevertheless, it had been commissioned by Congress. It has some artistic merit. It is, after all, George Washington. And it makes a great discussion piece — for a museum. Probably not the Rotunda.

The point here is that the removal of memorials does not have to mean the loss of art or history or worthy culture. The entire debate surrounding a memorial may be shifted from the place of celebration to the place of education — from the town square to the county museum. In fact, it seems wise to me that any attempt to “remove” a memorial should be preceded by a serious plan to preserve the memorial in a new setting with explanations about why many see it as a problem, and why others see greater merit. Which means we don’t remove memorials. We move them. We reconceive them. We move them from the place of public admiration and emulation to the place of public deliberation and evaluation.

My Hope and Prayer

I don’t see any of these four recommendations as the last word on these issues. As a Christian exile, who is thankful to God for his mercy in making America my place of sojourn, I hope these reflections might be helpful as we try to live in peace and overcome the living legacy of racial devaluing, derision, and oppression.

Ultimately, it is the sinful inclinations of every human heart that create legacies of arrogance. At bottom there is only one remedy for this. The Bible calls it a “new covenant” that God makes with his people:

I will give you a new heart, says the Lord, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)

In the night before he died, Jesus lifted the cup at the Last Supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). In other words, he died to bring that prophetic vision into reality. He died to give us new hearts. If we look to him as the place where all our sins are punished, and everlasting joy is secured, we will be new. And in that newness, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). That is the end of every legacy of disunity.