Putting up and tearing down statues has been part of American history from its beginning. In July 1776, New York City patriots held a public reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of an equestrian statue of King George III. Then they pulled down the statue, melted it, and used it to make bullets.
Soon the British defeated George Washington’s army in New York, however, and occupying British soldiers made an alternative vandalistic statement. They tore the head and arms off a Manhattan statue of the pro-American British politician William Pitt. Both statues had only been erected in 1770.
Statues tell people stories about their history, but the fate of a statue can change fast.
Just think of the golden calf in Exodus. While Moses was away, the Israelites worshiped the calf as the god who brought them “out of Egypt.” When Moses got back, he ground the calf to powder, dumped it in water, and made the people drink it. Statues don’t have a sterling reputation in Scripture, given the prohibition against them in the Ten Commandments and the trouble over Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in the Book of Daniel.
What should Christians think about the new effort to take down American history monuments and symbols, such as the Confederate banner that was part of the Mississippi state flag?
The topic has personal stakes for me. I was born and raised in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union in 1860. In my circle of friends and family, there was a strong streak of neo-Confederate sympathies. I would once have bristled at the notion of taking down Confederate symbols and monuments because I figured they were an indication of respect for Southern history and heritage. When I became a born-again Christian in my late teens, I was no longer so sure.
The post–Civil War era saw a great movement to erect monuments in the name of national unity and to honor what became known as the South’s “Lost Cause”: the vanquished but ostensibly laudable aims of the Confederacy. Defeat in war is as likely to generate monument-making as victory is.
In addition to the now-controversial Emancipation Memorial (1876) depicting Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave in Washington, DC, Southern cities began putting up statues of Confederate generals and soldiers, such as the 1878 monument erected in Augusta, Georgia, which includes several Confederate generals and is capped by a Confederate soldier who reportedly refused to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. The monument inscription reads in part, “For the Honor of Georgia. For the Rights of the States. For the Liberties of the South … No nation rose so white and fair: None fell so pure of crime.”
Though most such monuments went up before World War I, they kept appearing (mostly though not exclusively in the South) throughout the 20th century, sometimes in not-so-veiled responses to the long civil rights movement. Remarkably, a bust honoring Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma, Alabama, was not erected until the year 2000. It was stolen in 2012 and replaced in 2015. Forrest was one of the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, and he oversaw the 1864 Fort Pillow massacre of African American troops in Tennessee.
Removing monuments to figures such as Forrest should be an easy call for Americans, especially for Christians. Forrest was a brilliant tactician, but also a Grand Wizard of the Klan. He committed racial atrocities in the name of a rebellion against the United States. If standing on public land, such monuments should be removed and at most be displayed in a museum, not in a place of honor.
Most monuments require tougher judgments than someone like Forrest, though. What about generic monuments to Confederate soldiers, many of whom did not own slaves, even though they fought for a nation committed to slavery? What about slave-owning Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, Washington, and (perhaps surprisingly to some) Benjamin Franklin? What about presidents such as Woodrow Wilson or even Lincoln, who held racial views common to the white people of their time that appear loathsome to many Americans today?
This is not just a civic dilemma, either, as many Christian churches and colleges have plaques or statues honoring slaveholders or segregationists who played an important role in the life of their denomination or school. The Southern Baptist Convention is only the most conspicuous Christian institution that has wrestled with its history of race relations, due to the SBC’s pro-slavery origins and its status as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
My employer, Baylor University, was named for Judge R. E. B. Baylor, a Southern politician, Baptist leader, and slave owner. In the wake of the racial unrest generated by the killing of George Floyd, Baylor appointed a “Commission on Historic Campus Representations” to study the university’s history of complicity in slavery and racial injustice and to review campus representations, such as a prominent statue of Baylor, erected in 1939.
Here are a few guidelines for thinking about removing historical monuments. First, it is better to make decisions via deliberation instead of resorting to vandalism. Although we smile at the memory of American patriots yanking down the statue of King George, vandalism is an extreme and provocative tactic in the moment. A democratic process nearly always takes longer than one would like, but decisions like Mississippi’s to change its state flag have the imprimatur of a deliberative process, which is more durable.
Second, if we remove historical statues, we should do it with as much humility as we can muster. This is where a Christian view on the matter is distinctive and helpful. If you assume that everyone is a sinner—and that we ourselves are the “chief of sinners”—then there’s less reason to revile people in the past or present for their failings. Of course, that does not prevent us from recognizing people’s transgressions; it just keeps us from setting ourselves above them on a holy perch of judgment.
Acknowledging the failings of people in the past should not make us prideful, but it should chasten us about the risks of abusing power or of becoming captive to the values of the time. I routinely remind my American history students that if they had been born into a white slave-owning family in 1776, it is virtually certain that they would have died as slaveholders, too. Why would you or I have been the lone emancipationist among the vast majority of white Southerners who didn’t support freedom for slaves? Everyone likes to think that they would have been the one to think outside their cultural box, but most people don’t do so.
A final guideline is that we should be willing to ask why it is important for us to keep a particular monument standing. Patriotism rightly understood is good and virtuous, but it cannot be a first-order commitment for a Christian. Love of neighbor is a first-order commitment. If a neighbor finds a celebratory monument to be painful or offensive, that’s a pretty compelling reason to consider removing it. It doesn’t damage my faith if any particular historical symbol is taken down, even if I think that taking it down might be an overreaction.
We should also realize that even if we take down every potentially objectionable monument in America, it won’t address ethnic disparities in income, education, incarceration, marriage, and childrearing. Symbols are far easier to destroy than ingrained social patterns are.
If our primary citizenship is in heaven, and our primary allegiance is to the global church, that makes a big difference about how much we revere American history. I love studying and teaching American history, and I have devoted my vocational life to doing so. But make no mistake: American history has nothing like the eternal significance of God’s truth revealed in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ.
Think about the perspective of a brother or sister from Nigeria or Guatemala. They can certainly understand us symbolically honoring our historical heroes, as they do for theirs. But Washington and Lincoln play no role in their Christian faith, and they shouldn’t in ours either.
If we do attach spiritual significance to American historical heroes, then we may have become devotees of American civil religion as much as of Christianity. This is the same impulse that leads some Christian history writers to insist that all the Founding Fathers were Christians, in spite of much evidence to the contrary in the case of founders like Franklin and Jefferson. If the American founding plays a role in our faith, then we might desire for the founders to serve as saints in civil religion. Having historical heroes (flawed as they might be) is good and normal, but we should never treat them as idols.
It will be tough for our fractured culture to find symbolic figures in the American past who truly unify most of us. But the monuments erected prior to the 1960s, during the Jim Crow era, didn’t reflect any full national consensus or participation either. If we dig a little deeper into American or Christian history, however, we can surely find some good candidates. One of my favorite examples is the recent naming of Grimké Seminary, an evangelical school in Richmond, Virginia, for pastor Francis Grimké. Grimké was a former slave who became a traditionalist Presbyterian pastor and a courageous defender of African Americans’ rights.
Deciding not to give someone a place of symbolic honor is hardly the same thing as erasing history. If all you know about Lincoln comes from viewing a statue of him, you don’t know much about Lincoln anyway. Libraries hold thousands of books on Washington, Lincoln, and even figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, and that should not change. What we’re talking about with monuments is publicly celebrating historical figures.
Our sensibilities about honor change. All our monuments and markers went up at a certain time for a certain purpose. Sometimes those purposes were good, sometimes not. Even if we don’t find a monument objectionable, our love of neighbor—and especially love of brothers and sisters in Christ—should compel us to listen to those who do.
Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. CT reviewed his latest book, Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis, last year.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.