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.”
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SOURCE: The Front Porch