As college campuses, court houses, and other public spaces become battlegrounds over Confederate statuary, the Old Testament words “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” spring to mind. Most Christians interpret that commandment seriously, rather than literally — more a warning about idolatry, rather than the physical act of idol making.
In the wake of Charlottesville, many of us are wondering, “What’s the difference?”
Confederate symbols have become central to an increasingly ugly debate over what America is really about. That process — from The Dukes of Hazzard to David Duke — has made Confederate statues into idols in the biblical sense: objects of intense, cultic affection for those who worship the vision and prejudices they represent.
My own work as a curator and historical researcher has led me to realize what these statues truly represent to their communities — and how deeply un-Christian that message is. They are almost always divisive symbols that mean as much to racists today as they did in the past. But they are also works of art and pieces of historical evidence. Rather than being destroyed, they should be relocated to museums or archives. To leave them in place is to commit the sin of implied endorsement.
At the heart of progressive efforts to remove Confederate statues, university presidents and city officials have rightly made the case that they’ve become hate symbols. This was first argued in the wake of the tragic shooting of black churchgoers in Charleston, 2015. The violence and disorder in Charlottesville has emboldened institutions — keen not to let recent history repeat itself — to move swiftly, taking statues down at night and without advance notice.
Many people who don’t study this sort of thing for a living may feel things are moving too quickly, and as such we can fall prey to common "straw man" arguments: “First Confederate statues, then what?” and “We shouldn’t erase history.”
President Trump has keenly parroted these arguments. Last Thursday, he tweeted the following:
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You..... ...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also... ...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
Trump’s tweets may or may not be sincere, but they are based on conflation and false equivalency. He — and this line of reasoning — is confused. It conflates history with commemoration and brackets the Founding Fathers with the Confederate leadership. And here, Trump is also prizing the aesthetics of public space over the duties of building a more perfect union. America’s parks and roundabouts will be just as pretty without Confederate monuments.
Is History Being Erased?
As a curator, I do not worry that history is being erased (or sanitized, rewritten, or forgotten) by removing Confederate statues. If that were true, Estonians wouldn’t know who Lenin was, and no one in Taiwan would remember Chiang Kai-shek.
History is being elaborated, as communities find more appropriate platforms to house monuments and grapple with the past. History — critical analysis of people and events — and commemoration — glorification or endorsement of those people and events — are very different things.
Whether it’s Jefferson Davis or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., public monuments say, “We’re OK with the things this person stood for, and we’re celebrating the things they did.” A statue of Davis therefore goes beyond remembering Confederate soldiers who fought, suffered, and died in the Civil War —it represents tacit approval of the ideology and actions of the Confederacy, of those who sent Confederate soldiers into harm’s way.
But I also believe these statues are rich with historical information, and should be preserved for scholarship. My own work, contextualizing a statue of Jefferson Davis for a Southern university, illustrates this point. The statue, now on display in an educational exhibit, shows Davis not as a rebel or a traitor, or even as a retired curmudgeon, but as a Christian statesman. The statue’s pose implies legitimacy. Davis, holding either a speech or a sermon in his hand, is over eight feet tall — intentionally imposing, as if he were superhuman. The quality of the bronze betrays details about the techniques used to create it, and the materials say something about the wealth of those who commissioned it. All of this history remains intact and accessible within the context of an exhibit or archival storage.
First Confederate Statues, Then What?
Numerous commentators, including the president, have expressed concern for the fate of statues depicting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who — like Robert E. Lee and Davis — were both slaveholders. “Where will this all end?” is a common refrain.
The implication is that statues of the Founding Fathers are now vulnerable to the whims of liberal cities, seminaries, and other institutions. Some non-Confederate statues may indeed be vulnerable, but ultimately I believe the fear that the floodgates have opened is misguided.
Washington and Jefferson certainly have mixed legacies, but they were some of our first democratically elected presidents, who peacefully relinquished power, passing it on to their political rivals. Conversely, Davis and Lee led an armed rebellion that resulted in the death of nearly a million Americans.
More importantly, Jefferson and Washington aren’t presently used as hate symbols. Statues of Lee, Davis, and other Confederate leaders have become so — and to some degree, always were. Many of these monuments were built in the early 20th century, a time of great transition and anxiety in America. Immigration and industry were in full swing, undermining America’s rural white traditions and creating a more urban, multi-cultural nation. Confederate monuments — often funded by wealthy, elderly benefactors — were deliberately reactionary, aiming to put both minorities and progress in their place.
The statues built in the 1920s and 1950s were cultural anchors as much as commemorative statues — a rebuke of the future as much as a nod to posterity.
Today’s neo-Nazis and "alt-right" sympathizers have a similar gripe with the future, and have found bedfellows from the past who shared a similar vision of an Anglo-centric America. Those in Charlottesville who waved torches were simply defending their spiritual grandfathers who fought for segregation, burned crosses, and resisted the reconstruction of America as a non-slave-owning society. The fact that today so many are young, white men — marinated in privilege and yet utterly convinced of their own victimhood — points to the enduring appeal of hate symbols to new generations.
Some have criticized municipalities and universities for removing statues under the cover of darkness. But who can blame them now? Across America, colleges are about to begin a new semester. Our president refuses to unequivocally condemn those who make it their business to “protect” the sort of monuments that our college students so often protest.
The reality is, most Confederate statues have been removed peacefully. Doing so certainly won’t fix America’s problems, but it remains an important front in the battle for what this country is and isn’t about. The American past is full of desperately dark chapters that we have a duty to learn from. This history shouldn’t be sanitized — it should be thoroughly preserved. Hatred shouldn’t be given the same grace.