Guest blog by Matthew Rowley
For all the debate over the public commemoration of statues, there is considerable common ground on one issue: monuments mould the societies that they preside over. Neither side looks at them as merely neutral or passive.
This post explores the contours of the debate among American Protestants. At a basic level, controversy surrounds who and what should be publicly commemorated. For example, is someone who owned another human being worthy of honour? This post focuses on a deeper concern that undergirds this monumental debate: will the nation resemble what it reveres?
In Trump and the Protestant Reaction to Make America Great Again (Routledge, 2020), I explore the different ways that American Protestants interact with injustice in America’s past. In particular, the book focuses on how American’s remember or forget a long history of violence, slavery, land theft and second class citizenship for women and minorities. Attitudes towards monuments are only one manifestation of this wider debate.
I argue that there are three Protestant attitudes towards America’s past. Make America Great Again Protestants focus on the good in American history and try to restore the nation to what made it great in past ages. In contrast, Make America Lament Protestants want the nation to confront historic evils so that the nation can combat injustice and inequality in the present. A third group moves beyond the Make America Lament position. Make America Better Protestants lament history and work for justice, but they also articulate a tempered and qualified appreciation for the flawed figures, ideals and documents of the past.
The contest for America’s future is a struggle over its past, and the defence and destruction of monuments is one striking visual illustration. First, Make America Great Again Protestants, generally speaking, want to preserve monuments—even when they commemorate deeply-flawed individuals, events and documents. Behind this stance is the conviction that America will resemble what it reveres.
Stated positively, Make America Great Again Protestants believe that focusing on the good in the past will move the nation towards goodness. Revering what made America great will Make America Great Again. Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical Trump supporter, makes this argument in Praying for America (FaithWords, 2020):
‘Creating memorials [as the biblical Joshua did] to remember how God has helped us in the past bolsters our faith and brings glory to God. We also establish monuments to remember either the heroism or the foolishness of our forebears. We honor significant people of the past, but we neither idolize nor demonize them. And we certainly don’t forget them. Rather, we take a long, honest look. This motivates us to right action for the future’.
Monuments silently teach, even when they teach what not to do.
Eric Metaxas makes a similar argument in If You Can Keep It (Penguin, 2016). He fondly praises earlier times when the heroic was celebrated and cites the fact that centuries of Christians were educated through reading Plutarch’s Lives (a compendium of deeply flawed, but heroic, individuals). Americans no longer have the stomach for flawed greatness; is it any wonder the nation has ceased being great?
Trump’s July 2020 Mount Rushmore speech argued in a similar vein. It is a passionate defence of American greatness in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the reckoning with history that followed. According to Trump, if Americans gaze fondly at what made America great, the nation will be moved towards greatness. This speech is Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking applied to history, and Peale was Trump’s long-time pastor.
Make America Great Again Protestants have a related fear. Stated negatively, Metaxas and Trump argue that those who constantly point out the flaws in the past will become harsh, uncharitable and take upon themselves the right of censorship. They argue that the most judgmental Americans are those who will not tolerate the heroic, though flawed, individuals in the past. Metaxas fears that America is poisoning itself with historical criticism:
‘Denigrating heroes, or simply failing to venerate them, has a cynical and toxic effect on the young generation, and we have now had fifty years in which we have neglected this ‘habit of the heart’ so vital to our free way of life’.
According to Trump, those who ‘cancel’ history also ‘cancel’ charity. Their chisels destroy and their bullhorns denounce everything and everyone they disagree with. Radical Leftists teach children
‘to hate their own country. . . . [A]ll perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition’.
Trump argues that those who hate American history come to hate fellow Americans.
‘The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice. But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society. It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion’.
He seems to suggest that those who disfigure history become disfigured.
Make America Lament Protestants have a similar approach to the public commemoration of American history: America will resemble what it reveres. Stated positively, if Americans are critical of injustice and inequality in America’s past, they will challenge injustice and inequality in the present.
Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, says ‘Trump and the white bigotocracy have little patience for real history’. The solution to present injustice comes through a critical interaction with the past: ‘America could only purge its hateful bigotry if it confronted its past with the same energy it embraced its founding fathers and celebrated the myth of American individualism’ (What Truth Sounds Like [St. Martin’s, 2018]). Unflinching critique betters America.
They also warn of the negative influence of misguided commemoration. If Americans revere racists, racism will thrive in the present. In The Color of Compromise (Zondervan, 2019), Jemar Tisby argues that ‘Removing Confederate statues… will not eradicate racism’, but it will send a powerful message of solidarity with the oppressed. He favours removing monuments of oppression and erecting ones commemorating freedom. Although statues are part of the American heritage, this heritage includes racism. For Tisby, there is a relationship between statues and the status quo—particularly when it comes to American Christianity.
Large segments of the American church have lost all moral authority to speak prophetically against racism because they continue to practice it. This tends to happen in subtle ways… Christian schools making peace with the presence of buildings named after racists or featuring their statues on campus grounds…’.
Adoration of past racist feeds apathy towards present racism.
As has been shown, both the sides use a similar logic: monuments mould the societies they look down upon. Americans will resemble what they revere. For Make America Great Again Protestants, focusing on the good makes the nation good; fixating on the bad makes one critical and intolerant. They tend to worry that denigrating American history will unmoor the nation from what made it force for good on the domestic and international stage. America cannot do good if it does not remember and value what made it good in the past.
For Make America Lament Protestants, confronting past wrongs is related to confronting present injustice; downplaying racism in the past allows racism to run unchallenged in the present. Selective nostalgia ignores past racism, sexism, violence and exploitation. America cannot overcome present injustice if it doesn’t confront its past.
If Make America Great Again Protestants have a hard time articulating what went wrong in American history, Make America Lament Protestants have a hard time articulating what went right. Make America Better Protestants frame the critique of historical injustice as an act of patriotism. For this reason, it might be able to bridge polarized responses to history. Those who love their country remove the plaster that previous generations placed over historical evil. Critiquing the nation is not a sign of disloyalty, but of national maturity. A nation has come of age when it squarely faces its past.
By Dr Matthew Rowley. Matthew is Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester and Research Associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies, UK. He is the author of Trump and the Protestant Reaction to Make America Great Again, which was released on 1 Nov 2020.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.