Memory, Monuments, Morality, and Mayhem: The Burden of Reckoning with Historical Symbols

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
June 29, 2020

Across the nation, crowds topple monuments and remove statue after statue. Conversations abound about the names of army bases, endowed university chairs, parks and street names—it is a controversy about names, and it has gripped many countries around the world, especially the United States.

From a Christian worldview, this massive issue comes down to four words: memory, monuments, morality, and mayhem. These are all part of the story.

But before turning to these words, two massive headlines appeared over the course of the last few days that contextualize our conversation and understanding of what’s going on in the world around us.

The first headline comes from Princeton University, where the administration just announced that it will remove the name of President Woodrow Wilson from the school known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Studies. In the early decades of the 20th century, the school was named for President Wilson, who was not only president of the United States, but was also one of the most transformative presidents of Princeton University.

The other major headline came from Jackson, Mississippi, where the state’s legislature voted to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from its state flag, thus guaranteeing that Mississippi will have a new state flag. Republican Governor Tate Reeves announced that he would sign the legislature’s bill into law.

The background to these recent developments has simmered for some time. Demands certainly surfaced in previous years that called for the removal of certain statues, for schools to be renamed or flags redesigned. The late several weeks, however, have intensified these conversations tremendously. Indeed, we find ourselves in a unique cultural and political climate where most citizens have indicated a willingness to reconsider the hard question’s surrounding our nation’s history. Recent polling data in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death reveals that a majority of Americans are not against renaming army posts that bear the names of military leaders and generals of the Confederacy. They are not against redesigning the Mississippi flag.

While these conversations have certainly existed for some time, the development of recent events coupled with an increasingly leftward drift amongst the academic and political classes, means that these issues have taken on an entirely new form. The demands have changed, and they are incredibly revealing.

In the case of Woodrow Wilson, for example, you not only have an individual who served as President of the United States, but also a former governor of New Jersey and professor and president of Princeton University. He was the most influential Democratic president after the Civil War and before Franklin Roosevelt. Wilson changed the course of American history—and reasonable people will differ as to whether his influence was for the better or for the worse. What cannot be argued, however, is the transformative and monumental figure he was, nor can it be argued that his time at Princeton University was inconsequential. Indeed, before his tenure, Princeton was a sleepy, Ivy league residential college. Once he was elected to lead the university in 1902, he transformed it into one of the most comprehensive research universities in America.

In 1913, Wilson was elected president of the United States and left office in 1921. We can understand the seismic nature of the years that made up Wilson’s presidency. His contribution to Princeton University and his career as Commander-in-Chief explains why the School for Public and International Studies bore his name.

Though a progressivist in so many ways, when it came to issues of race, he was an avowed white supremacist. Indeed, he was not merely an white supremacist in ideology—he put into action his racial views, effectively ending the service of African-Americans in the United States civil service, including the U.S. Post 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, Wilson showed the film, Birth of a Nation, twice in the White House, thus showing to some extent his identification with the symbolism later identified with the Ku Klux Klan.

This raises an important question: Which Woodrow Wilson was Princeton University recognizing when it named its policy school after him? They would have certainly said it was his transformative role as the nation’s 28th president as well as his contribution to Princeton when he was the University’s president—indeed, you cannot explain Princeton University without the tenure of Woodrow Wilson from 1902 – 1910.

But there is the existence of that other Woodrow Wilson—the white supremacist Woodrow Wilson—that has now led to the removal of his name. In 2015, the board of trustees at Princeton University considered whether to remove Wilson’s name from the school and from many other aspects of the University’s life. Instead of removing his name, the school announced that it would tell the story of Wilson differently—a fuller historical account of his life that included his white supremacy.

All that changed over the weekend when Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, announced, 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.” He also stated, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”

As you might expect, there is more to the story, especially to the timing of the announcement. A group of students and alumni of the Woodrow Wilson School presented a set of demands to Princeton’s president and to the board of trustees. They demanded that they receive a response by July 6th, raising many legitimate issues about the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. We must, however, recognize that the demands issued by students and alumni go far beyond renaming the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

The demands issued mandate an utter transformation of Princeton University, right down to what is taught in every classroom and how classes are to be taught. The demands reveal that these students and alumni view the entire American democratic project and constitutional government as an irredeemably broken, unnecessary, harmful institution that must be replaced.

One of the demands states, “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.”

Notice that there is no mention of a conversation, no summons for a debate over these massively crucial and complex issues—instead, there are six demands that must be met in their entirety. Failure to act, as the statement reads, means that the administration at Princeton University was complicit in the provocation of injustice.

As of Monday morning, June 29, 2020, we see just how the administration and trustees responded to these demands.

Meanwhile in Jackson, Mississippi, a historic development is underway that will end in the redesign of the state’s flag. Even though this issue has come up over the last twenty years, Mississippi expeditiously passed the bill to change the flag in a historic session on Sunday.

Speaker of the State House in the State of Mississippi, Philip Gunn (who, I should note, was recently the chairman of the board of trustees at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), explained the action with these words: “People’s hearts have changed. We are better today than we were yesterday. And because we are better, we are stronger.” The entire logic of retiring the Mississippi flag is for the state to have a better flag that does not include the Confederate imagery.

There are two different dimensions behind this action taken by Mississippi lawmakers. First, there is an external dimension, namely, the organizational, corporate, and political pressure exerted against Mississippi, demanding it take immediate action. There was also the pressure from the NCAA and the SEC, which stated that so long as Confederate imagery remained on the state’s flag, NCAA and SEC sporting events would not take place, especially at Ole Miss and Mississippi State University.

The second dimension came from the major denominations in the state of Mississippi. Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America spoke on behalf of the legislation to retire the flag. Indeed, just a few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public spaces.

As we look at these issues—the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs and the eventual retiring of the Mississippi state flag—I come back to the four words that capture the recent conversations and controversies that have seized the nation. These four words help us understand what is going on and to think through these issues clearly. They are memory, monuments, morality, and mayhem.

There is certainly mayhem in the country. We are in need of a rational, reflective, responsible national reckoning about these very difficult, complex issues. Remember, these issues bring up matters of race, slavery, and segregation in the United States. They bring up the slave trade, colonialism, and historical complexities. In fact, what is often missing from most of the conversations in our contemporary moment is any real historical knowledge of our nation’s past. Historical context is key to framing our conversations in a helpful, constructive fashion.

Instead of reasonable conversations, mayhem dominates the national mood and discourse. Vandalism is now normal in the media spectacle of recent days and weeks. Statues and monuments are being vandalized and torn down and those bringing them down believe they are liberating humanity.

To be clear, some of these statues and monuments should come down. Some names should be removed. The truth is, however, that the mayhem reflected in the public tenor of American society is now directing hostility towards those who were essential to the end of slavery, such as Ulysses S. Grant—or, for that matter, some of the statues of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the end of slavery in America cannot be told apart from men like Abraham Lincoln or Grant who devoted their lives to preserve the Union and—eventually, to bring an end to the practice of slavery.

Despite this fact, protesters persist, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the most influential and consequential lives of the last several centuries deserve no commemoration in our national memory. According to the mayhem unleashed by protesters, these historical figures represent a part of history that needs to be destroyed, removed, and expunged from our national consciousness.

The result of mayhem signifies what has happened in recent days. Utter chaos and confusion leads people to demand the destruction or removal of monuments to Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and even Winston Churchill.

Vandalism is not the answer—it cannot be the answer. What is now demanded of us is that our society, at every level, will honestly deal with these complex questions, doing so in a way that is guided by the other three words I’ve listed: memory, monuments, and morality.

Communities erect monuments out of an urgent need to remember a story and to tell that story to ourselves and to succeeding generations. That means, therefore, that we decide which moments and persons in our history we want to remember and commemorate. When we build a monument, endow a chair, name a city park, we are saying something about our national and communal memory that is connected to the object we decided to commemorate. Morality reminds us as Christians that none of these decisions should ever be final, but all of them are part of telling the story.

Morality for a memory means that we dare not lie about the history we tell—especially the history that we celebrate. Merely vandalizing a monument or tearing it down out of an incensed mob-like mayhem will not help. You cannot erase the past. You cannot veil the truth. Whatever our course of action—whether we leave certain monuments or not—we have a moral responsibility to tell the full story of our national history.

Those advocating for the systemic cleansing of history have yet to honestly admit their revolutionary aims. At heart, they reject our democratic experiment in and of itself.

Indeed, just consider the example of recent days in the United Kingdom, with the announcement that some commemorations to Cecil Rhodes will be removed from Oxford University. Cecil Rhodes made a fortune in the mining business at the expense of Africans. He poured much of that money into the British system of higher education, establishing what became known as the Rhodes Scholarships. Even if the scholarships are renamed, you are going to have a hard time telling the story of how the scholarship came about and where the money came from that endows this prestigious financial gift. Moreover, if you remove Cecil Rhodes, where will you stop? He was part of an entire imperial structure that went all the way to Queen Victoria in the 19th century. Hers is the namesake of what became known as the Victorian Age. Must she be expunged from the historical record? Is it even possible to do so? Would doing do anything to solve today’s problems?

As Christians consider these issues, we must always stand behind the need for telling the truth. Morality demands we tell our story fully, rightly, and without reservation. African Americans have every right to say that we have not told the story well—that we have neglected massive moral blemishes that demand our swift condemnation. We have failed to see the people made invisible by the telling of history.

Yet, even then, the issue is not settled. Where do we go from there? What do you do with a statue or monument, even as you tell the full story of that commemoration? I believe that you simply cannot remove artifacts and monuments and believe that you have somehow solved the larger problem facing our society. Removal of some names may be morally necessary and right, but even then, you have still failed to tell the whole story.

Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, and Wilfred McClay, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, have issued stark warnings about the current demands and standards issued by the cultural revolutionaries. Part of the mayhem is the assertion that we think of ourselves as innocent, while everyone else is guilty. This is dubious logic—those individuals toppling statue after statue must face the reality that there is no person they will find acceptable nor any individual that will meet their standards for national commemoration—at least for long. Indeed, Wilfred McClay suggests that what is lacking in the midst of this mayhem is a proper understanding of a monument—that monuments themselves point to partial nature of all historical achievements. There is no perfection among us, and the cracks in the story show themselves over time. History is not a long unbroken line of perfect heroes and heroines.

Some of this hits very close to home. I am president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The names of slave holders are on major buildings of this campus. The college and library are named for the founding president, James Petigru Boyce. He and the other founders of the seminary were involved either in the Confederacy or the support of the Confederacy. All of them were involved in slavery.

Their names on the buildings and institutions, however, are there not because of their dedication to slavery or the Confederacy. They are there because of their steadfast commitment to the formation of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Without them and their leadership, there would be no Southern Seminary. It was Broadus who said, “Let us quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we’ll die first.” The founders of this seminary established an explicitly theological confessional heritage and confessional identity that governs our institution to this day. There is no school without them, and not just at the foundation. Their theological convictions define us even now.

Our campus does not have statues or monuments. (Until recently, I never thought to be thankful for that fact.) We do, however, have a history, and it is a story we must tell.

In 2018, we released a major report on slavery and the history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I indicated that we would not ignore the obvious. We had to tell the story right.

As I said in that report, it is not my intention as president to remove those names from the buildings or from the undergraduate college. There would be no school and none of those buildings would exist but for the commitment of those original faculty members. That story not only comes with commemoration and glory, but also with a burden—a burden to tell the truth. A morality of memory demands nothing less than the full admission of our past. Maybe part of God’s judgment through history comes down to just how difficult these stories can be. But we must tell them. We must always tell the full story of our history.

There is one major name connected with the seminary that is, in my opinion, in a decidedly different category from the founding professors. Joseph Emerson Brown served as the Confederate Governor of Georgia. He later made a fortune in what was known as the convict labor system, which was a de facto continuation of slavery. He gave a good deal of his fortune to save Southern Seminary when it faced financial disaster—and yes, I am thankful for that reality. But the association of his name with this institution is a matter of choice. He does not have the significance nor the moral weight of the founders of the Seminary.

To put it simply, so far as it is within my power, we cannot remove the name from our history, but we will no longer use the name in an honorary fashion. As at Princeton and elsewhere, this will be a matter for the judgment and disposition of the Board of Trustees and for the larger Southern Baptist Convention.

These issues, moreover, are not brand new. 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. Indeed, the story of David is one that includes enormous sin coupled with a lifetime that pursued faithfulness to God. There is good reason that, throughout history, Jewish families have named their sons David. At the same time, there’s a good reason why Jewish families have not named their daughters Jezebel. The weight of history, morality, and memory weigh on us millennium by millennium, monument by monument, name by name.

The secular world is going to have its own conversation—even if it’s capable of having that conversation. For Christians, however, the demands are far greater. The standard is far higher. Right now, especially in the United States and among American evangelicals, we need to hear our African American brothers and sisters as they speak to us about what these names, statues, and monuments mean to them. Among Christians, the only memories worth honoring are shared memories. It will not be easy to get there, but I think we all know that in Christ, we have to go there.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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