Monday, June 29, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, June 29, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Princeton University Removes Woodrow Wilson’s Name from School of Public and International Affairs
The issue is inevitable. The headlines are coming to us fast and furiously. Monuments are being toppled. Statues are being taken down. There is conversation about the renaming of army posts. And of course, it comes right down to endowed chairs and universities, parks and street names. Just about community by community, all across the United States and far beyond the U.S. in places throughout Europe and the rest of the world, the controversy is now about names—names and images on monuments in memory.
As a matter of fact, that's a part of what we're going to have to talk about today as we try to gain a Christian worldview perspective on these issues, four words that all start with an M: memory, monuments, morality, and mayhem. They're all a part of this story. We'll turn to every one of those words in the course of this conversation. But first we need to recognize that there have been two absolutely massive headlines over the course of the last few days that all relate to this theme. The first one comes from Princeton, New Jersey, where Princeton University announced that it will be removing the name of the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, from the school known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Studies.
The school goes back earlier in Princeton's history, but in the early decades of the 20th century, it was named for President Wilson, who was not only, this is crucial, president of the United States, but was also one of the most transformative presidents of Princeton University. The other big headline comes from Jackson, Mississippi, where that state's legislature has voted to remove the battle flag of the Confederacy from its state flag, thus guaranteeing that Mississippi will have a new state flag and the governor of the state, Republican Tate Reeves, has announced now that the legislature has adopted the legislation, he will sign it into law.
We'll be looking more closely at both of these developments, but let's think about the background for a moment. The background has been simmering for some time. There have been demands that statutes be taken down, that army posts and national installations be renamed, that institutions of higher learning, such as colleges and universities, come to a reckoning with their past. There have been parks and street signs and all kinds of other artifacts that have been at the center of this controversy. But of course, over the last several weeks, the issues have intensified tremendously.
But there are two major developments here. One is the fact that there is a unique cultural and political moment, unique moral moment in the United States when the vast majority of citizens have registered the fact that they are willing to reconsider some of the hard questions of the nation's history. As you look at the polling and surveying in the aftermath of what has taken place in this country after the death of George Floyd and in subsequent weeks, it has become clear that a majority of Americans are not against renaming army posts that have been named for those associated with the Confederacy. That they are not against taking actions such as was taken by the Mississippi legislature.
There is indeed widespread support in this country for a reckoning to a certain degree with the history of this country. But there is another issue going on here and that is the fact that much of the nation's conversation, especially amongst those who dominate in the political and certainly the academic and journalistic classes, have moved tremendously to the left. The demands have changed. And yes, they are being presented as demands. Looking at these two recent headlines, they are both incredibly revealing.
When you look at Woodrow Wilson, yes, the 28th president of the United States. Yes, before that, not only governor of New Jersey, but a professor and then president at Princeton University, you're looking at one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Now, I've talked about Woodrow Wilson a great deal on The Briefing, and I write about him as I'm trying to understand the culture. The reality is, I would pinpoint much of the blame for the liberal direction of the Supreme Court and the rise of the administrative state and America's understanding of its international responsibility, very recklessly defined, I would associate all of those with the blame that should be alleged against Woodrow Wilson.
At the same time, Wilson, certainly the most influential Democratic president after the Civil War and before Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson changed the course of American history. You can argue, it was for better or for worse when it comes to politics and economics and international relations, but he was a transformative figure. He had also been a transformative figure at Princeton University. The university that welcomed Woodrow Wilson, formerly a professor, as its president in 1902, was really not a university as would have been internationally defined. Certainly not when compared to the German universities established upon the new notion of wissenschaft, of scientific knowledge.
Princeton was instead more of a sleepy, more Southern Ivy league residential college. And of course like at all the other major academic institutions in America, the only students who could gain admission were white males. Wilson was certainly not a do nothing academic president, he personally transformed the university, bringing Princeton into line with the more comprehensive research universities such as those in Germany, but also Johns Hopkins University from which Wilson had received his PhD degree.
Wilson was a Hegelian. That is to say, in his philosophy, he did not root his thinking in historic Christianity, but rather in a Hegelian dialectic of the unfolding process of history and of the emergence of the great idea. Also, a great man. He saw himself as a great man who was the embodiment of the great idea. He saw history inevitably unfolding into progress. And that's why the movement that he became associated with as leader is known in American history as Progressivism. It is a liberalism that claims inevitable progress. All of that of course hit a major obstacle in the Great War, as it was called, as we know it now, World War I.
Wilson took office as president of the United States in 1913 and left office in 1921. You can do the math and understand the seismic nature of the years of the Wilsonian presidency. Everything at this point explains why Princeton would have named its school of public policy, the Woodrow Wilson school. But there are reasons why it is also extremely controversial, a little bit then, but tremendously so now.
And that is because Woodrow Wilson, who was a progressivist in so many ways, was when it comes to issues of race an avowed white supremacist. And not just a little bit, an ideological white supremacist who not only believed in the inherent superiority of what he considered to be the white race, but put it into action effectively ending the service of African-Americans in the United States Government Civil Service, including the postal office, which had been one of the major avenues for the economic and professional advancement of African-Americans in the United States after reconstruction. According to historical accounts, Woodrow Wilson showed the film, Birth of a Nation, not once but twice in the White House. And thus to some extent he identified with the symbolism that would later be identified with the Ku Klux Klan.
And so in this case, Woodrow Wilson serves as something of the perfect test case or the most imperfect test case. Which Woodrow Wilson was Princeton University recognizing when it named its public policy school after him? Well, certainly they would have said it was Wilson's transformative role as the 28th president of the United States and as the president of Princeton University. Historians now, whether they are positive or negative in the estimation of Woodrow Wilson, have to put him in at least the top quartile, the top 25% of the most influential and transformative presidents in all of American history.
And then there is the fact that you cannot explain Princeton University as it is today without the crucial leadership of Woodrow Wilson in those years between 1902 and 1910. There aren't many university presidents who leave a university like Princeton to go to the governor's mansion in New Jersey and only three years later to be catapulted into the White House.
But there is and there has always been that other Woodrow Wilson. Back in 2015, the board of trustees at Princeton University considered whether or not it should remove Woodrow Wilson's name from many different aspects and dimensions of the university's life, but in particular from the school of public policy, now identified as the school of public and international affairs. Back in 2015, the trustees announced that Wilson's name would not be coming off of the school, but rather Princeton said that it would be telling other stories. It will be correcting the way it told its story, and it would be telling the story of Woodrow Wilson differently than it had before.
But all that was reversed over the weekend when Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, speaking on behalf of the board of trustees said that the board had found now that Woodrow Wilson's "racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college who scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms." In another section of the statement, President Eisgruber spoke of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, explaining, "Wilson's racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time."
But as you might expect, there's even more to the story, and especially to the timing. A group of students and alumni of the Woodrow Wilson school had presented a set of demands to the president and to the board of trustees. They went on to demand that they receive a specific response, and a response positively to their demands, by July the 6th, 2020. The students raised many legitimate issues about the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. But we have to recognize that what the national press has given very little if any attention to, is that the six demands go far beyond renaming the Woodrow Wilson school.
Those demands, and yes, they are phrased in every case as demands, those demands are for the utter transformation of Princeton University right down to what is taught in every classroom and how it is taught. It becomes exceedingly clear when you look at the set of demands that these students and alumni see the entire project of American democracy, not just at Princeton University, but the entire project of American democracy and American constitutional government, and behind that the entire project of Western civilization as irredeemably broken and unnecessary of utter transformation or replacement, and their demands really come down to replacement.
So it's not just removing the name of Woodrow Wilson, which by the way the university is going to do of the school and certain other things, but not of every dimension of the university named for Woodrow Wilson because there are endowed funds and other legal restrictions behind some of the dimensions of the use of Woodrow Wilson's name.
I want to read to you just one sentence from the list of demands issued by the students and alumni. "Below we lay out the following six demands which outline our call for justice and change. They are in no way depicted hierarchically. These demands are to be taken seriously, addressed directly and responded to by the school's administration in their entirety by July the 6th, 2020."
But as you'll notice there, that is a demand for revolution, not even of a responsible conversation about these issues. Now, there will be some who would say that Princeton had gotten the conversation wrong back in 2015. That's at least a case that some of these students and alumni could have made. But they didn't say, "Let's have a conversation about how the university should think about these things," they issued six demands with an ultimatum by a deadline of July the 6th. And you can see exactly how the university responded.
One little footnote here is just how fast moral change is taking place, especially in America's academic life. I've read every word of that document from 2015 and most of the associated documents. If you are looking at the document of 2015, and then you look at the statement of 2020, you would think they're separated by a lot more than five years. But it's only five years.
Memory, Monuments, Morality, and Mayhem: The Burden of Reckoning with Historical Symbols
Meanwhile, going down to Jackson, Mississippi, the change that will be brought about in the Mississippi state flag is epic. It's very historic. Mississippi was the last of the state flags to have Confederate symbolism in its own iconography right there on the flag. Here's what's changed in 2020. Even as the issue has come up recurringly over the course of the last 20 years, the fact is that Mississippi moved expeditiously through its legislature with a super majority to adopt the legislation that finally passed just yesterday in historic session on Sunday.
By the time the vote was taken yesterday to retire the Mississippi state flag with the Confederate imagery, the vote in the Mississippi house was 91 in favor and 23 opposed. In the Senate, 37 in favor, 14 opposed. Just a matter of weeks ago, no one could have predicted that kind of outcome. And again, before the legislature even voted, the Republican governor in the state had said that he would sign the legislation if the legislature sent it to him, and that's what they're going to do today.
Philip Gunn, who's the speaker of the house in the state of Mississippi, and I should disclose was recently the chairman of the board of the trustees at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the action taken by the Mississippi house and the larger legislature with these words: "People's hearts have changed." He went on to say, "We are better today than we were yesterday. And because we are better, we are stronger." The entire logic of retiring the Mississippi state flag is for the state to have a better flag. Clearly the flag that had included the Confederate imagery was not considered by an enormous percentage of Mississippi's population to be representative of themselves.
Now, again, there's something behind all of this, and I want to point to two different dimensions. First, you have the external dimension. There were people, there were organizations who brought pressure against Mississippi: corporations, businesses. And of course there was a lot of political pressure. But the final pressure point came from the NCAA and the SEC, that is, the Southeastern Conference. Both announced that they would not be holding events in the state of Mississippi so long as that Mississippi flag would be flying over those events. Now, in a state like Mississippi which has a very great affinity for sport and particularly for collegiate sport at universities, including Ole Miss and Mississippi State, that just couldn't happen.
But there was a second development and this is extremely important, and that is that the major denominations in the state of Mississippi, the major Christian denominations and in particular leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America, spoke on behalf of the legislation to retire the flag with the Confederate imagery. The Mississippi Baptists did so knowing that just a few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention had adopted a resolution calling for that very thing. But the courage and conviction of the Baptist and the Presbyterians in Mississippi certainly had an enormous moral influence on the state legislature. That became clear in the vote. And the presence of Mississippi Baptist leaders and Presbyterian leaders in a state dominated amongst white evangelicals by Baptists and Presbyterians in the SBC and the PCA was a massive statement right there in the state house.
But I mentioned those four words: memory, monuments, morality, and mayhem. There is mayhem right now. We are in need of a rational, reflective, responsible national conversation about these issues. And of course, a conversation that will make its way to just about every state and every locale. Remember when we are talking about issues of slavery, racism, segregation in the United States, the slave trade internationally, when we're talking about colonialism and any number of other issues, what's lacking is a great deal of historical knowledge, historical context, and a bit of honesty.
So, when you're talking about the mayhem that is now leading to the profanation of some of these statues or the vandalism of some of these statutes, the tearing down of some of these statutes, they're being celebrated in the name of human liberation. And no doubt, some of these statues and monuments should come down. Some of those names should be removed. But the truth is, the mayhem is being reflected in the fact that some of the people who were essential to the end of slavery are seeing their statues declared to be no longer welcome, such as Ulysses S. Grant or for that matter some of the statues of Abraham Lincoln.
Now there's another issue that has to play into this and that is the context of the depictions, and at least some of the context of the depictions of Abraham Lincoln or for that matter Theodore Roosevelt and others are themselves problematic. But there is no way you can tell the American story. There is no way you can tell the story of the end of slavery as it finally came about. By the end of the Civil War, there is no way you can tell that story without Abraham Lincoln, as Elton Trueblood said, “the theologian of American anguish.” You can also not tell the story of the United States of America as this nation exists today without Theodore Roosevelt.
But protesters on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom, have declared some of the most influential and consequential lives of the last several centuries to be now no longer worthy of any commemoration. They're a part of history that needs to be taken down. Mayhem is not the answer. Vandalism is not the answer. Striking down monuments and statues is not the answer. The answer is a society at every level that will honestly deal with these questions, but will do so in a way that respects those other three words: memory and monuments and morality.
How do those monuments come about in the first place? They come about by a very deeply human urgency to tell the story and to remember the story. But that means that we decide which monuments we put up and we're making a decision in every generation by the names that we put on anything, from an endowed chair all the way to a city park. Morality reminds us as Christians that none of these decisions should ever be final, but all of them are a part of telling the story. We have to decide which parts of the story we want to speak about communally, civilizationally, and whether or not we're going to speak the truth.
There is a deep instinct in Marxism towards revolution, and that means erasing those who are not an acceptable part of the revolution at any given moment. Just think back to the year 1948 in Prague, in what was then known as Czechoslovakia, and the name Vladimír Clementis. He was a minister in the communist government. But when he fell out of favor, his photographs disappeared even though his fur hat remained in some of the badly redacted photographs. In some of the successive issues of the Soviet encyclopedia, there would be more hands in a public celebratory handshake than there would be individuals because they just got eliminated, removed from the photograph.
Morality for a memory means that we dare not lie about the history. And that means there's always more to the story that probably almost assuredly indeed needs to be told. There are different arguments to be made here: take down monuments, leave monuments, say more about the monuments, put up new monuments, but simply by vandalism and mayhem tearing down the monument is the equivalent of trying to just erase people from photographs. It won't work. You can't tell the story. And furthermore, the agenda needs to be understood. What's being demanded?
Many of those who are right now just calling for a systematic cleansing of history are not admitting their truly revolutionary aims. And that means again, a rejection of our civilization or democratic experiment in and of itself, or they're not being honest in saying that the revolution can't stop when it comes to removing certain monuments or statues.
In the United Kingdom, for example, just consider Cecil Rhodes. His name and bust are now being taken off of certain artifacts at institutions such as Oxford University. Cecil Rhodes made much of his money, almost all of his money in the mining business and much of it through the British empire, particularly in Africa at the expense of Africans. But he poured much of that money back into the higher education system, the elite institutions of England, and in particular the establishment of what became known as the Rhodes scholarships. But here's something to note. Those Rhodes scholarships have tremendous value, every single one of them, and it's unlikely that even those who want to take down other names and other statues will want to remove the name of Rhodes from the Rhodes scholarship. There's too much invested in it.
But let's just say that you do rename the Rhodes scholarships as well as to take down Cecil Rhodes statue. Well, the problem is you're going to have a very hard time telling the story of how the scholarship came about or how the institution gained its endowment. You're going to have a very hard time stopping with Cecil Rhodes. After all, Cecil Rhodes was a part of the entire imperial structure that went all the way to the top, including the Queen Empress Victoria. How long will it be before the calls are to remove Victoria? But again, her name is actually associated with an entire century known as the Victorian Age. Again, you're not going to be able to tell the story of the age without reference to Queen Victoria.
The Christian answer to this is at least in part to tell the truth. History is a grand argument. It is an argument that takes different twists and turns based upon evidence and facts and the moral demand that we know more of the story and always tell more of the story. African-Americans in the United States have every right to say that we are not telling the story well, that we have not told the story well, and that there is far more to the story right down to every single monument, name, park, you go down the list, and it has become clear that a majority of Americans are open to the argument that at least some of these names are so much across the line of acceptability that the army post should be renamed, the flag will have to be changed, the statue or monument will have to come down.
Even then, the issues are not settled. Where do we go from here? Now what? What do you do with the statue or the monument? Does it go into a museum where the story is still told? How do you tell the story with a gaping hole? Well, again, there are good issues here, important issues for Christians and for our fellow citizens to discuss. But at least it's worthy of concern that we do not do what feminist writer, Rebecca Solnit, warns would be a lobotomy of the landscape. That's a good way of looking at it. You simply can't remove artifacts and monuments and act as if you have solved the problem. Removal may be eventually morally necessary and right, but even then you still have to tell the story.
The Christian Responsibility to Tell History Truthfully — What We Owe Each Other in Christ
It is also interesting that two other figures, Anthony Kronman, who was until recently the Dean of the Yale Law School, and Wilfred McClay, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. McClay a Christian, Kronman by his own designation a pagan. And when he says pagan, he means pagan. He means classical paganism. Both of them warned that the current standards demanded by the revolutionaries imply that we are innocent and all those who came before us are guilty. The problem isn't understanding that everyone before us is guilty, that's profoundly true. It's the problem of thinking ourselves innocent. The logic of those who are simply toppling the statues reminds us of the fact that they will not find anyone, even recently, to be acceptable, a logic that is increasingly dawning on at least some in the nation watching what's going on and tracing the arguments.
Going on beyond the imperfection, indeed we as Christians would say the inherent sinfulness of every one of these figures from history, Wilfred McClay goes on to say that one of the problems in the current impetus to tear down the monuments is the fact that there is no understanding of the fact that the monument itself points to the partiality. That is, the fact that there is only a partial human achievement at any given time. There is no perfection.
Some of this hits very close to home, not only in the Southern state of Mississippi but for the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The names of slave holders are on major buildings of this campus. And of course the college itself and our library are named for the institution's founding president, James Petigru Boyce, who again like Basil Manly and John Broadus and William Williams of the four founding faculty were all involved either in the Confederacy or the support of the Confederacy, all of them involved in slavery.
Their names are not on these buildings for that reason however, but because of the dedication of their lives and the inculcation of their theology into the lifeblood of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, so much so that Basil Manly wrote our confession of faith. James Petigru Boyce channeled his family's wealth into the survival of this institution. His library became the core of the library. John Broadus was the most famous American preacher of his day, both in the South and in the North, writing what became the most influential textbook on preaching in the English language.
We don't have statues or monuments on this campus and until recently I'd never thought about the fact that I should be thankful for that truth. But we do have our history, we do have the names on the buildings. Back in 2018 when we released a major report on slavery and the history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I indicated that of course we were not going to ignore the obvious. We had to tell the story right, and releasing that report was a matter of telling the truth.
But the truth is also that there would be no Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at all but for those founding members of the faculty, and the seminary would never have survived without in particular James Petigru Boyce and John Broadus. It was Broadus who said, when the seminary was almost facing extension, "Let us quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we'll die first." And it is explicitly the theological confessional heritage of Boyce and Broadus and Manly in particular that frames the very faith and substance the confessional identity and teaching of the seminary. That's a commitment made in 1859 that continues emphatically in the present.
What became Boyce College in the last decade of the 20th century, 30 plus years earlier had begun as the Boyce Bible School. That goes back to Boyce's founding vision which included what we would now know as an undergraduate program within the life of the seminary. Honestly, to our shame, there is no record that the institution considered any reckoning whatsoever when it came to issues of racism and slavery and the burdens of history when it comes to James Petigru Boyce.
As I said earlier, and repeated in 2018, I will repeat today. As president of this institution, it is certainly not my intention to remove those names from either the buildings or from the school. There would be no school and none of these buildings would matter but for the founding vision of those original faculty members. This is not just Woodrow Wilson in the course of Princeton's history, this is the fact that this is the very origin of Southern Seminary's history. But that also comes not only with glory, but with the burden. The burden of telling the truth and the burden of carrying all of the truth into the 21st century and doing so with the stewardship of memory and of morality that is certainly incumbent upon any Christian institution. And maybe a part of God's judgment through history comes down to the fact that it wasn't meant to be easy, it really can't be easy.
There is one major name connected with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that seems to me to be in a different category altogether, and that is Joseph Emerson Brown, the Confederate Governor of Georgia. He later made a fortune in what was known as the convict labor system. That is the de facto continuation of slavery in a different form. Insofar as the decision comes down to me as president, in my view, the name of Joseph Emerson Brown is a name that needs to be retired. Now, go back to Vladimir Clementis. We do not erase people from photographs. We do not leave fur hats suspended in air.
Joseph Emerson Brown gave a good deal of his fortune to save Southern Seminary when it faced financial disaster. And yes, for that I am thankful. But the continuation of that name is a matter of choice. He does not have the significance or the moral weight of those others who were the founders of Southern Seminary. To put it simply, so far as it is within my power, we cannot remove the name from history but we no longer will use the name in an honorary fashion. Eventually as at Princeton and elsewhere, this is a matter for the judgment and the disposition of the board of trustees and for the larger Southern Baptist Convention. The issues are hardly isolated here to the convention's first institution, nor do the issues stop with the 1860s and 70s.
But then again, the issues aren't brand new, are they? Just consider the patriarchs of the Old Testament and the honesty with which the Old Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us their stories. Just think of David. Despite his sin, there are still reasons why Jewish families throughout millennia have named their sons David. But there's also a reason that they have not named their daughters Jezebel. The weight of history of morality and memory weigh on us all millennium by millennium, monument by monument, name by name.
The secular world is going to have its own conversation if it's even capable of having that conversation. But for Christians, the demands are far greater. The standard is far higher. And right now, especially in the United States and especially among American evangelicals, we need to hear our African-American brothers and sisters as they speak to us about what these names, statues, monuments, and realities mean to them. Among Christians, the only memories worth honoring are shared memories. It's not going to be easy to get there, but I think we all know in Christ we have to go there.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
The next two days are likely to be massive in actions by the United States Supreme Court. I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.