Russell Moore’s essay in Christianity Today celebrating the removal of Robert E. Lee’s equestrian statue in Richmond (in place since 1890) is not even a celebration—it’s a dance on Lee’s grave. You would expect a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to have a certain amount of grace and tact, and not act like the stereotypical bully in an ’80s teen drama. Yet when Moore writes that Lee “at long last retreated from Richmond” he casts himself into that part beautifully.
On second thought, he does more than that. Moore makes himself first cousin to Aesop’s ass who donned a lion’s skin to terrify his village. If Moore and Lee were to meet face to face, it is no contest who would come out not just the victor but the man, and who would be stripped of his patchy lion fur.
But tone is only the dressing of an essay; the thesis is the main course. Here, Moore fails again, pontificating that Christianity demands Lee’s statue be removed from its plinth and Lee himself from our collective memory. The reason, he says, is because in fighting for the South, Lee was actively fighting for a slave system, for “a community in which some people were seen as members and others were seen as property to be exploited and tortured.” This, he says, is the contradiction to Christ’s redefinition of community where there was “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free.” As such, when people “revere the myth of Robert E. Lee,” they, “deny membership in a community that is broader and richer—where the whole body suffers when one person is maimed or raped or kidnapped or enslaved or lynched.” Implied in his reasoning—they are also turning their backs on Christ.
Moore’s lack of grace is no indication of his technical work as a theologian; the Devil can quote Scripture. But we can say he is no historian. The causes of the Civil War are still debated by historians today. True, the accepted narrative—slavery was the sole cause—is justified by citing many of the declarations of secession in which the preservation of slavery is often a cornerstone reason for secession. They will also quote Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech—”Our new government is founded […] upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man”—for the millionth time and pronounce the case closed.
If Moore had done more than simply peck at the surface, he would have found facts that glitch this narrative. For example, the fact that only 25% of Southerners were slaveowners in 1860. Of this number, only about 0.01% were slave owners in the Hollywoodized, Gone With the Wind sense, with sprawling plantations, bejeweled with white mansions, where hundreds of slaves, tilled, planted, harvested, built, and worked under the flinty eyes of horseback riding overseers. In fact, the supermajority of that 25% of Southerners who owned slaves were small farmers who owned one or two slaves, whom they worked alongside in the fields.
The point isn’t that slavery’s morality is determined by the number of slaves you own, but that most Southerners had no stake in the slavery question, making it specious as the sole cause of the Civil War. This is strengthened when we remember that by 1864, the Confederate government openly called to emancipate slaves and their families if they bore arms in the Confederate Army, a plan implemented in March 1865.
A richer, more primordial, reason for Southerners to fight was in defense of their homeland. Today, we see our state merely as part of our address that can be changed with three tanks of gas and a few hours’ drive. In the 19th century, a resident of Lynchburg, Virginia, regarded Virginia as his true home and the United States as the equivalent of his neighborhood. This view of one’s home state was true on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, although most Northerners simply thought that the “United States neighborhood” was indivisible. Leading up to the firing of Fort Sumter, there was plenty of reason for Southerners to believe that their homeland was in danger.
North and South had always been different and in very profound ways. For example, the North was Congregationalist while the South was largely Episcopalian. The North saw history linearly, moving forward toward some great destiny planned by God while the South prescribed to the cyclical theory of history. Even the concept of honor differed.
These differences grew until New England’s (i.e., the North) motivation was seen as the complete destruction of the South. James Henley Thornwell, a famous theologian of South Carolina, wrote:
The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slave-holders—they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground, Christianity and atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity is at stake.
Thomas Smyth, another cleric from the same state, classified Northerners as “Bible-haters, anti-Christian levelers, and anarchists.”
Abraham Lincoln’s election set their suspicions ablaze. As historian Bradley Birzer explained, when most Southerners saw Lincoln, they saw John Brown, canonized by his execution (Emerson said Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”). And with many abolitionists saying Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and his plans to ignite slave revolts in the South to destroy it were too tame, the South felt justified in its suspicion.
In this tumultuous atmosphere, Lee did not ardently defend slavery nor did he fight for its preservation. He fought to preserve his homeland, Virginia, after it had taken the unwise (in his mind) decision to secede.
As a man of Christian faith, Lee fought with dignity and honor, doing all he could to reconcile the two sides after his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Think whatever we want about Lee personally or his decisions, honest people should agree that his memory deserves to be remembered and honored for the qualities and virtues he displayed in the hell of war.
What’s more, his memory needs to be remembered. Duty, honor, dignity, magnanimity, faith are all qualities sorely lacking today. Lee, as an embodiment of those virtues, was and needs to be a stumbling block in a society that has accepted Satanism as its unofficial religion. His statue, overlooking the skyline of Richmond, was not actively hurting minorities, as Moore claims—unless the pain was the tickling feeling in the back of the brain that here was a great man, in terms of character and deeds, against whom we are paltry by comparison.
Moore would sacrifice this necessary corrective for a fad, essentially damning us to a shallow (even evil) existence, with no guide to something better, all for thirty cents worth of praise. Even worse, he would sacrifice his own faith for those coins.
Cheering the erasure of history automatically puts you at odds with your faith, when your faith is rooted in the flow of history (C.S. Lewis wrote that Christianity was the myth that actually happened) and when the Founder of your religion distinctly divided the world between Himself and lies. In a civilization where Christianity is already weak, it’s a bargain worthier of Faust than Paul.
Image: Robert E. Lee statue removed from its graffiti-covered plinth. YouTube screen grab.
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