This of course includes Confederate soldiers. And their flags should continue to fly. Are these outrageous statements? Didn’t the Confederate States of America, as symbolized by its various flags, represent hatred of Negroes and defense of slavery, which it wished to expand westward to the new states? How is it possible to honor men who fought for such a dishonorable cause?
Before we invite the reader to a thought experiment, let us try to clear some of the deck, so to speak, and set out a few thoughts to gain some perspective. Let’s try a Q and A format.
Isn’t human slavery an evil Godless institution? Yes, of course, this goes without saying. Considering that some people can be considered property violates the essential dignity of every child of God.
Did Confederates hate slaves? Of course not. Slaves were very important to their owners. Hatred of them was not one of the slaveholders’ sins.
Weren’t the Confederates inveterate racists, prejudiced against Negroes? Just about everyone at that time was a racist. Lincoln thought the slaves inferior and did not advocate equal rights in today’s sense. In fact he was in favor of sending them off to Liberia .But thankfully he did believe they were not chattel and had a God-given right to the fruits of their labor.
Wasn’t the Civil War just about slavery? Slavery was an important issue, and may have been the flash point, but there was no single issue determining war. Others were unfair taxation, mercantilism, balance of power between the states and the national government, and particularly defense of the idea that one’s state has the legal and moral right to determine its own future. In 1861 slavery was constitutional. In his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln reiterated he was not an abolitionist: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” Most Southerners did not own slaves.
A thought experiment in two parts.
Part one. Imagine you were a woman in Massachusetts born in the 1970s. You fit in with your neighbors and registered as a Democrat. You were a practicing Christian and believed in a woman’s right to choose. You thought that opposition to abortion by Midwesterners and Southerners was unconscionable, immoral interference with a woman’s God-given right to control her own body. You are mayor of your town and President of your local Planned Parenthood chapter. As mayor you did a lot of good things. You naturally were in favor of expanding the doctrine of abortion on demand to all fifty states. You were killed in a car crash in 2010. The city council paid for a plaque in your honor, mentioning your association with Planned Parenthood. The plaque is prominently displayed in city hall. Question: would you think it wrong for groups to demand that your plaque be taken down, given your complicity in the slaughter of nearly 60 million innocent children?
Part two. Now imagine you were born in rural Georgia in 1840. Like most Georgians your family had no slaves, but hoped to prosper enough to buy one to help raise the family’s standard of living. Then perhaps you would be able to move out West and find a better life. You knew many slaves as they came into town on chores for their masters. You were vaguely aware there were many free blacks in far-off places like New Orleans, some of whom owned slaves. You were taught that God ordained slavery, but wondered why they had to live in sin since they could not marry like other children of God. You were a bit queasy about certain aspects of slavery, but like everyone else the institution was long established and universal around your world. Like many Georgians you were conscripted into the Georgia militia and along with many Missourians on both sides you were killed in the battle for Vicksburg. Later your family farm, all buildings and animals, including dogs, were destroyed during Sherman’s scorched-earth March to the Sea. Your wife remarried and had a son who paid for a plaque commemorating your service. It was placed in city hall in the 1900s. The Confederate battle flag was mounted below the Stars and Stripes outside City Hall. Should your plaque and the flag you fought under come down?
It should be obvious that we believe both of these fictional people were guilty of bad judgement and of having been born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. They both fought to defend the society they had been born into, societies in part founded on monstrous lies. Should their plaques come down? Of course not. We all fall short of perfection. Is it permissible to honor fallen heroes even if imperfect? Even their plaques and flags? To act honorably implies respect for the same sense of honor in our erstwhile enemies.
The politically motivated rush to take down the Confederate battle flag exemplifies the intolerance and intimidating power of the left. It is intended to demonize Republicans and sow discord in an attempt to divide and conquer in the 2016 elections. It does not represent a reasonable and thoughtful approach to the issue of how to think about and honor our predecessors. Perhaps it would be helpful for today’s radicals to consider seriously how posterity will judge them. Those who believe Confederate memorabilia should be banned because of their emotional reactions remind us of the Taliban destroying Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan. Their sense of offense is not privileged over someone else’s. Just consider the White House’s sponsorship of an LGBT Pride event. Grown-up toleration should trump offense (and fear of microaggressions.) It is possible to pursue political goals honorably.