No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)

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A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Readers Respond

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Several folks have been commenting in the last week or so.  Here are some of the best:

In response to my post “This Video Proves Why Robert Jeffress is the Court of Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals“, reader Tomek Jankowski writes:

But this shows just how much Trump is a symptom, not a cause. He himself is a buffoon and dangerous in some respects, but he is the prop for a segment of this country who sees in him Messianic powers to stop change, to stop the social change, the economic change that they don’t understand and don’t want. They are like latter-day Amish, who want to freeze-dry history at some point in the 1950s and just continue living like we’re in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. They believe that Trump can deliver that world for them. If he’s removed or steps down, they’ll just find another shaman, another magic man who will defeat the evil Liberals who surely brought about all this post-1950s change and take us back to the way things ought to be — the pre-Civil Rights era Southern lifestyle that God clearly wants all humanity to embrace.

Sam Smith comments on my post “Court Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. Doubles-Down on His Court Evangelicalism“:

John, I have a question. Which bothers you most, Trump’s crass and un-presidential ways, or the many “jokes”about his death, his beheaded likeness, an outdoor drama depicting his assassination, etc.? These vicious things and more have been going on for months, and you say little to nothing about them (at least comparatively). Yet, when some admittedly sophomoric and wrong tweets come along, you go into your own version of culture warrior mode and call for absolute and unqualified condemnation and besmirch (over and over) all “court evangelicals” who will not join you. Allow me to throw the question back to you. Where are you? Why are you comparatively silent on these hateful attacks against our president? It’s not like you don’t have a platform. Even as much as you dislike Trump (and there is plenty to dislike), I know that as a Christian you do not approve of this unrelenting vileness perpetuated against him. Why not step out of your own possible “group think” mentality and show a little more balance?

And John Haas responds to Smith:

I wasn’t asked, but I have a few thoughts on that.

1. The president’s spokespeople have offered various versions of “The American people elected a fighter. They knew what they were getting, and he won overwhelmingly” (Sarah Huckabee Sanders), implying that President Trump was a known quantity, and that if the American people didn’t want a foul, juvenile, self-centered embarrassment for their president, they wouldn’t have voted for him.

Let’s grant that that argument isn’t entirely without merit (though the “and he won overwhelmingly” is false). The Americans who did vote for Trump did, indeed, know exactly what they were getting, and it’s safe to assume this is exactly what they wanted–that they found in Trump an accurate reflection of their own values and character, and hence they embraced him as their best representative. The Americans who didn’t vote for Trump likewise had plenty of evidence of what he was like, and should have understood this is what his presidency would be like.

This is a man, after all, who has proudly compared his own sexual promiscuity and the risk of STDs his behaviors incurred with the heroism of Americans risking life and limb in Vietnam, he is constantly telling people that there is a way of getting 48 hour STD/chlamydia test results so there should not be any excuses when it comes to your sexual health. Apparently some 62 million Americans find that kind of crude and disrespectful braggadocio appealing.

But if that’s true, it’s even truer that any aspirant to the presidency knows exactly what they are getting when they assume the highest office of this fractious, partisan, democracy. Presidents since Washington have been subjected to all manner of relentless attack (often unfair, ridiculous, or just mean–opponents spread the rumor that Washington was actually a British agent, eg; our politics has become only baser since then) from every direction. (Trump himself, of course, was the chief promoter of such outlandish attacks during the Obama presidency.) Criticism, sarcasm, etc. is simply part of the job description. Not responding in kind–valuing the office, and the republic it represents, higher than your own feelings; refusing the allure of pettiness and demonstrating that democracy need not devolve to rancor–is also part of the job.

If the American people can’t plead ignorance regarding Trump, neither can he, his spokesmen, or his internet defenders regarding America. Trump knew exactly what he was getting into when he asked for the job.

2. It goes without saying–or it should–that a public intellectual such as Professor Fea has a greater responsibility to speak to events and actions that reflect America than he does to those that reflect the opinions or attitudes of private individuals or groups. They speak for themselves or for some limited segment of the wider society which has embraced them, if it has. No one, eg, has elected Kathy Griffin to anything, and she represents no one (I just now had to Google the incident to even get her name, she’s that important). The president is the only man or woman in the land that, with everything they say or do, in public or in private, reflects on America, for now and for all time. The words and acts of a president command scrutiny for that reason in a way that nothing else does.

3. We constantly hear that the president is a “fighter,” and so we are told we must accept, even celebrate, his words and actions. I confess I don’t see it. As far as his discourse is concerned, the president is a name-caller and a petty insulter, not a fighter. A fighter shapes the political environment in a way that promotes his or her agenda for the American people or the American interest. President Trump has done very little of this. In policy debates, a fighter works–in front and behind the scenes–to get legislation passed that furthers that agenda. Lincoln was a fighter, FDR, Reagan, even Obama. Each had to find ways to accommodate opponents, and resist their own supporters or advisers, to get important things accomplished. In every important area–from the Republican health care reform proposals to the showy but symbolic missile attack on Syria–I see a president who takes the easy route, opting for a mere “win” whatever it may be, or worse, just a headline, but who is far from a real fighter who gets solid accomplishments for the American people.

OK, I think that’s reader feedback enough for now.  I think you have enough to chew on here.

Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the piece here.

A distinguished professor of religion at a church-related, non-evangelical liberal arts college writes:

Well done, John. Though I’d want to push on the anti-intellectualism a bit. We want to go beyond attention to verifiable evidence to also encourage clarity of analysis and sound interpretation.

This scholar and church-person is absolutely correct.

But as someone who spends a lot of time with evangelicals and evangelical students, I am finding it more and more necessary to go back to square one.  Last week I was a guest on a NYC-area radio program talking about this very thing.  I  told the host, a fellow academic, about my experience last Fall teaching students how to write Chicago-style footnotes. What was once a rather mundane part of my course took on a new sense of urgency.  Yes, analysis and interpretation is much needed, but it always begins with good evidence and the dogged pursuit of truth.

Readers Respond (“Fire Insurance”)

Here is The Way of Improvement Leads Home reader Hannah Miller’s response to David Barton’s assertion that I “may have fire insurance” but “don’t think right.”

I live in Barton country. When a Christian in this neck of the woods declares that another person only has “fire insurance” it’s a pretty serious putdown. Even people like Barton, who consider themselves to be expert authorities on everything, cannot unilaterally declare who is saved and who is not saved. People who do make such declarations would be subjecting themselves to public censure for claiming to know a person’s heart. So the next best thing you can do to putdown a person you believe is a “Christian In Name Only” (XINO) is to say they have “fire insurance” which generally means they responded to an altar call once and may have been baptized a long time ago but in no other visible way are they living out a Christian walk in their daily life.

Because he has not had success discrediting you as a historian he has decided to subtly attack your Christianity, using this Christianese code to indicate to his followers that you and your ilk (Warren Throckmorton, etc) are XINOs and should not be regarded as true Christian authorities. You are no better than those pagan professors at Harvard and Yale. Probably worse because you hide behind a cross. Therefore, his followers should disregard everything you say as though Saul Alinsky himself had said it.

I hope readers will remember that David Barton is not just a self-proclaimed historian, but he is also a Pentecostal Pastor who runs his own church in Aledo, TX. For a pastor to use words like this is extremely hurtful to the body and cause of Christ. He is deliberately trying to be insulting and divisive. It is anything but Christ-like. He should be ashamed to cast doubt on another person’s salvation while calling himself a shepherd. He doesn’t know anything about your walk with the Lord. Barton doesn’t just need to check his historical facts, he crossed a line with this statement and he needs to check his own heart as a pastor. He should apologize for that insulting statement or step down as a pastor. Shame on you Pastor David. You need to go back and read James 3:1.

Thanks for this Hannah.  As I told Mark Kreslins yesterday when I appeared on his radio show, David Barton and other Christian nationalists have created an environment within the evangelical community where the depth or quality of a person’s faith is being judged by whether or not they believe America is a Christian nation.

Readers Respond: Evangelicals and the Supreme Court

Dobson and TrumpHere is a response to my very recent post “Evangelicals Hopes for a Conservative Supreme Court Rest in the Hands of Someone Nearly Incapable of Telling the Truth.”

Voting on prospective Supreme Court nominees is a bit of a Hail Mary pass in several ways. First, as you note, there’s the question of will the president come through? (Conservatives weren’t too thrilled with Harriet Meiers, eg, and if the appointment had come earlier in the Bush administration, they may have gotten her.)

Second, will the justices actually deliver what conservatives want? Chief Justice Roberts is persona non grata with conservatives ever since the ACA decision. Scalia authored Smith, which has caused all kinds of headaches.

The record on abortion and homosexuality is even dodgier. Roe v Wade was authored by a Republican appointee, and 5 of the 7 justices in the majority were appointed by Republicans. Lawrence, which struck down state laws enforcing moral norms, was also authored by a Republican appointee, and 4 of the 6 justices voting in the majority were appointed by Republicans. Obergefell also was authored by a Republican appointee.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a rational choice to vote for whoever the Republican candidate is, in the hopes that he or she might appoint satisfactory judges (and in the fear a Democrat won’t–though 100% of Clinton’s and Obama’s appointees voted in the majority on Hosanna-Tabor, the most critical religious freedom case in a generation).

But, given the spotty track record, the idea that it is mandatory or obligatory for Christians to do so seems questionable in the extreme. Especially so when so many other things about the candidates are decidedly not equal.

-John Haas