US churches must strike a different path from establishment racism

By Jake Cunliffe
September 5, 2017

Following the shocking events in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, in which a woman attending a counter-protest against white supremacists was killed by one of the same, many have been moved to consider the legacy of the Confederate rebellion which was put down in 1865.

This legacy is in part maintained through statues and memorials to Confederate leaders, many of them erected in the twentieth century. These objects are often kept in prominent public places such as the grounds of state capitol buildings, rather than in museums and exhibitions which could more appropriately contextualise and explain the actions of these men. Long-term political reluctance to address the legacy of the Confederate rebellion has led to protests by anti-racism activists, with some even taking removal of these statues into their own hands. Others have defended the statues, arguing that they are a part of American history and should stand as reminders from the past.

The American political system is infused with racism. One need only look at the suppression of African-American voting rights and the practice of gerrymandering constituency boundaries to come to this conclusion. City authorities already inclined to remove Confederate statues have stepped up their efforts since Charlottesville, but examples of locally-taken initiatives have remained local.

The problem is serious and urgent. Of one hundred statues in the US Capitol building in Washington DC, chosen by state governments, there are twelve statues of Confederate leaders. Only four statues of African-Americans accompany them.  The state government of Georgia had the opportunity to choose Martin Luther King Jr. as its historical representative, but instead chose Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Alabama neglected to pick Rosa Parks. Just last week, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin said he would not commit to putting the abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill in 2020, a decision made in 2016 by the Obama administration.

With no established church status in the US, there is no excuse for the Episcopal Church, of which I am a member, or any other church, not to stand against the public signs of racism in our midst.

The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Long Island removed two plaques memorialising Robert E. Lee, the senior commander of the Confederate army, in the week following Charlottesville. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia sits a little over an hour’s drive from Charlottesville. Lee worshipped there at what was then Grace Church. I 1903, decades after his death, the church was rededicated in his honour. In recent years, before Charlottesville, the vestry (parish council) of R.E.L. Memorial Church have spent time debating whether to remove Lee’s name: in 2015 the vestry voted to drop the name, but were one vote shy of the supermajority needed.

Lee is regularly described as having no personal attachment to slavery, an honourable man who loved his home state of Virginia enough to take up arms against the US army to protect it. Under this reading, Lee’s worst crime is to have been on the wrong side of history, but that reading ignores the impact of the racist ideology he fought for. But even if we take this optimistic view of Lee, keeping public memorials to him sends a message that commemorating significant white people from history, without criticism of the impact of their actions in defence of a racist ideology, is more important than commemorating people of colour who fought racist oppression.

For the Episcopal Church in Virginia, there exists an easy solution: only a handful of Episcopal churches across the country are dedicated to political or military personages, and removing Lee’s name would bring the church back to common Episcopal naming conventions. Rather depressingly, one of the few other Episcopal churches to be dedicated to a contemporary person is Polk Memorial Episcopal Church in Leesville, Louisiana, Polk having been a Confederate general, as well as an Episcopalian bishop.

The path will be long and arduous.


© Jake Cunliffe lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, USA, and serves at Trinity Episcopal Church. He is an Ekklesia associate.

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