The gathering of white supremacists and KKK members in Charlottesville last weekend was reprehensible. The racism that was clearly being expressed should not be tolerated. The violence that ensued, particularly the person who drove his car into a crowd of protesters, is not an acceptable form of expression in our society. As Americans, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. While we as a society have determined that racism is evil, and governing documents and law prevent racist actions, we cannot prevent racism by government action. Government can only do so much to impact the heart of man. The issue of what should be allowable expression, however, is complex and difficult. Ideally, if our nation was grounded in biblical truth, we would have a scale or a standard for determining that which is appropriate and that which is not. While our nation was certainly influenced by Judeo-Christian thought, it was not created as a “Christian” nation in the sense that it was based in Scripture. The Constitution is our governing document, not the Bible. While most, if not all, of our Founders revered and respected Biblical truth, they were not willing to base the country’s foundations explicitly on the Bible because they had sought independence, in part, to gain freedom from an established church that had lost its fidelity. The Church in England had become an arm of the monarchy, and suffered from many of the same problems of the Catholic Church—the very same type of problems that had precipitated the Reformation whose 500th anniversary we celebrate this year. As a result, the Founders determined there would be no established church in America and Biblical truth would only influence our government and society indirectly. The impact that decision had on free speech is important to our conversation today. We can assert as a society that racism is repugnant and has no place in our democracy, but we have no immutable source from which to make that judgment. We make it based on good common sense and human conscience which I see as a result of God’s common grace in allowing mankind the ability to determine good from evil and to prevent man from being as evil as he might be. In our society, we have decided through democratic function and the leadership of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., that racism is not acceptable. As a Christian, I believe that conclusion is correct because Scripture makes clear that all men were created in the image of God and makes no distinction between them. The point I am making here, however, is that this conclusion is not a product of our embrace of timeless truth, but rather it is a product of a national decision.
With that base, we are left with little ability to prevent racism except in the form of action. We cannot prevent it in speech, because our basis for determining it as unacceptable is not immutable. Moreover, our constitutional system limits what government can prohibit in speech. If we were truly beholden to Biblical truth, I believe we could outlaw racist speech, because we could rest on an infallible standard. Currently, we could decide as a nation, or our courts could decide for us, that racist speech is unacceptable and therefore illegal. While I would not miss such repugnant speech, I would worry about what would be deemed unacceptable next. If Scripture was truly our basis and we were able to follow it faithfully, however, I would not have that worry. As our system currently is, we have to accept such vile communication, because not to allow it would inevitably prevent other communication that is absolutely essential in this fallen world. What would prevent our society from saying that the Gospel is offensive and should not be communicated in public? I use an extreme example for emphasis, but we could certainly reference the abuse pastors and other Christian leaders are taking for preaching biblical truth as it relates to the practice of homosexuality. Pick your example. Should Christians be prevented from expressing the truth of God’s Word? If the Bible were our standard, we could rule out evil speech with no concern for the loss of true speech. The Bible, however, is not our standard and this conversation is moot I make the point to identify the problem we have living in a fallen world with no established biblical standard when we seek to restrict speech. Alan Dershowitz has spent much of his life making the point I am trying to make here (though not from the Christian perspective). Freedom of speech in a fallen system like ours means we have to be willing to hear untrue and even evil speech, to protect the right to communicate true and good speech. To be clear, I am not calling for our Constitution to be replaced with the Bible. That cannot happen in any meaningful way in this fallen world apart from the return of Christ. I am simply pointing to one of the problems we have as humans when we deviate from that which God has ordained as true.
So how does this relate to Confederate Statues? I am disappointed we have not discussed these statues before the events of Charlottesville. The issue is now clouded with racism and politics. It has been remarkable to watch politicians and protesters who have taken no notice of statues in the Capitol building—statues members of Congress have walked by daily for years—now expressing outrage about them. I fear we have allowed white supremacists to appropriate these statues as symbols of their hate. I do think we, as a nation, need to be sensitive to what these statues communicate, however. We have a history of treating people groups in our country with disdain and as inferior. We must be ever vigilant in addressing those wrongs. Our sensitivity on this issue, however, must be limited by valid rational argument. If we allow our concern that someone might be offended to dictate what kind of expression is allowable, we will quickly spiral into chaos. So, I think we have to add to this question another consideration—common sense. I remember a statue being removed from New Orleans last spring that celebrated a white attack on the black section of town and the killing of thirteen police officers in the ensuing conflict. I would hope that I need no rationale to argue that common sense suggests this statue should be removed. Coinciding with that factor should be the purpose of a particular statue. There is a difference between “celebration” and “commemoration.” The former is an endorsement, and latter is a remembrance. This factor, too, is dicey. Original intent of those who funded that statue cannot always be the determiner. The plaques with the statues often help us though. Yet another consideration is where the statues are on display. In most cases, a statue on public property communicates something quite different than the same statue in a private museum. For those in the Capitol, we should consider why they were selected by the states to be there. Bonnie Kristian, weekend editor for The Week, suggests three possible options for the statues: 1) move them to museums or cemeteries, 2) use the statues as an art form that clearly identifies the problem or racism, or 3) create a “fallen monument park” such as Eastern European nations have done for statues of their former communist leaders. Kristian notes, these methods would not “whitewash racism or hide the past.” Finally, I think we need to find ways to de-politicize the conversation. When we make these statues a symbol of another deeper problem, we are perpetuating an anemic politic discourse with too much heat and not enough light. When we do not take on our primary issues, but rather seek to address them through peripheral debates or conflicts, we always up the ante. We get frustrated that we are not getting to the heart of the matter. We cannot understand why the other person does not see the importance of this issue. And we tend to raise our voices and elevate the stakes. Let’s focus on the main issues. When we do, we can address these more secondary issues with calmness and rationality. All of these factors help us make wise decisions regarding the removal of statues, many of which should be removed from public property at a minimum.
Finally, as a historian, I think we need to address the issue of whether or not to remove these statues from yet another perspective much different from that which is currently prevalent. I placed this portion of the blog last because in our current atmosphere, almost anything said in defense of a “Confederate” statue will be considered by some as racist. Let me be clear, I am not defending racism nor would I provide a blanket rationale for Confederate statues. I do think that because of the heat of our current conversations and the failure of our nation to fully address the underlying issues, we have created a scenario where we are not rationally and wisely considering the conundrum of the statues. As I noted earlier, there are a variety of means of considering which statues should stay and which should go. We will disagree. It is worth noting, however, that historians have long considered history as a didactic tool. We have much to learn from history. We do not scrub history of those things we find distasteful like the Soviet Union began to do shortly after it toppled the Russian Tsar. For those of us who claim the name of Christ, it is very instructive that much of Scripture is given to us in the form of historical narrative. The story includes both the heroes and the villains, the good deeds and the evil deeds, the rewards and the punishment. We learn from both sides of the historical ledger and we are poorer when we leave out one or the other. Some of these statues have value as symbols of a cautionary tale. Hopefully, they represent a conflict in America we will never relive. They should give us pause anytime we see similar lines of thinking or argumentation as was used to justify the Confederate cause. Good historians recognize that human beings are complex and no one facet of an historical figure tells the entire story. As Christians, we recognize that humans are fallen, and if our standard is perfection, we will have no statues at all. Let’s look at just one example. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for almost thirty years, wrote that a slave, Dred Scott, was not a citizen and had no standing to bring a case before the Supreme Court. Taney’s statue is among those removed from public property in Baltimore in the wake of the Charlottesville events. Dred Scott had been taken into free territory and hoped this would provide legal grounds for his freedom. Taney disagreed, using the understanding of the Constitution that slaves were not citizens as his basis. Taney actually thought he was addressing the critical issue of the day—whether or not the federal government could restrict the expansion of slavery into the territories—and he hoped he was preventing a civil war. His written opinion is rightly pilloried for its view of blacks as inferior to whites. Yet, in his personal life, we find some interesting complexity. He inherited slaves, but he freed them. Those that were too old to work he paid a pension so they could live out their days with some comfort. These actions do not exonerate him for owning slaves or supporting the Confederate cause. What they do from a historian’s standpoint is give us a clearer understanding of the human condition and the complexity the nation faced in dealing with the problem of slavery. Even our rightly beloved President Abraham Lincoln can be accused of racism for putting union before abolition and suggesting colonization of blacks in Africa might be best given the problem of whites and free blacks living in the same community. Should we remove the memorial erected to the Great Emancipator? If we make past sins the standard, then there will be no statues anywhere. The pastor in Chicago who is calling for Washington Park to be renamed because George Washington owned slaves will then have a point. We will lose much if we go to these lengths. What I will lament, if we do, is the lost picture of humanity’s failings and the constant reminder we need as their fallen ancestors to do better by our fellow man.