The Sin of Confederate Hero Worship
By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Why do Americans stand for Southerners idolizing the Confederacy, despite the evils of slavery and treason at its heart?
This week, I took my family to Virginia in pursuit of one of my favorite summertime activities, visiting Civil War battlefields. We traveled to the four great battlefields around Fredericksburg, where more than 100,000 soldiers died in the course of the war. I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting Appomattox Courthouse where on April 9, 1865, Lee famously surrendered to Grant, in effect ending the war.
What consistently baffles me in making these visits is the romanticization of the Confederacy that continues 140 years after the war's end. Wherever you go in the South, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and the other Confederate leaders are venerated as heroes. In the course of my travels, I have driven on Robert E. Lee Drive and Jefferson Davis Highway. I've seen myriad monuments to Stonewall Jackson, and I've seen the Confederate flag flying from cars and homes.
As an American who loves his country, I am appalled by the persistence of Confederate hero worship in the South 140 years after the Civil War's end. After all, the South fought for a truly evil cause. While there were other factors that led to the Civil War, no serious, objective historian would deny that the principal cause of the war was the institution of slavery, and that the South fought to preserve its "peculiar institution."
Whether or not the soldiers of the Confederacy personally believed in slavery, they still fought to preserve the hideous, reprehensible practice of buying and selling human beings--each and every one created in the image of G-d--like animals. Babies were torn away from their mothers' breasts; men, women, and children were whipped like beasts. This was the essential, defining institution that the Confederacy struggled to keep.
Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. But his personal feelings about the institution are utterly immaterial. The only relevant point was that he used his military genius to fight a war that would have kept men, women, and children in chains. What on earth could make a man like that a hero? What could make a man like Jefferson Davis a hero in the eyes of the good people of the modern South, and what message are those who lionize this man sending to their children? That it is good to rebel against the United States?
Last summer, when I visited Richmond, the Confederate capital, with my children, I was astonished to see the enormous statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and the other confederate luminaries that line Monument Avenue, which the Virginia tourism literature calls "one of America's most beautiful boulevards." This, in the heart of a city that is about 60 percent African-American. If I were they, would I abide this display of veneration for the Confederacy's leaders? Were the statues erected with any thought to the feelings of the city's black residents?
And aside from the slavery question, were these men not traitors to their country? The Confederate rebellion cost the United States 580,000 lives. It began when the South rejected the election of Abraham Lincoln, a president who they believed would abolish slavery but whom we Americans today regard as the greatest president ever to lead this country.
Let's put this in the starkest possible terms. The cause for which the Confederate leaders fought, namely slavery, was no more noble than the cause for which the terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Al Zarqawi fights for today in Baghdad.
Zarqawi fights to enslave the Muslim people, and the Confederate leaders fought to continue the enslavement of American's black sons and daughters. Zarqawi fights to deny Muslims their rights and to deny them a say in their political future, and the Confederate leaders fought so that blacks would have no rights and no future. Zarqawi fights so that women can be whipped in the streets when they are dressed immodestly, and the Confederate leaders fought so that black women could be lashed when they disobeyed the orders of their masters. In every way, the enslavement of blacks that Lee and Davis fought to perpetuate is much more severe than any kind of enslavement that contemporary Muslim governments, however brutal and despotic, would currently inflict against their people.
To be sure, I do not compare the Confederate leadership to terrorists. Davis and Lee never waged a war against civilians, and in their personal lives historians tell us they were scrupulous gentleman. Lee in particular was instrumental in getting his fellow Southerners to lay down their weapons after Appomattox rather than contuing a guerrilla struggle from the mountains of the West. But the cause for which these men fought was just as odious as that for which terrorists would lay down their lives today.
It is high time for the United States to remove statues of Confederate leaders. And for those who say that removing such statues would be an affront to free speech, I would respond, are there any statues of Benedict Arnold in the United States? And would anyone dare erect one? And yet Arnold's treachery against the United States was child's play compared to the damage caused by Davis, Lee, and Jackson.
The great men of the Civil War were not the rebels, but those who fought to preserve the unity of this great nation rather than to tear it asunder. The great men of that terrible war were those who ultimately freed the slaves from bondage--most notably Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman--rather than those whose victory would have had fellow Americans owned as beasts of burden by their countrymen.
The idea that any southern state capitol would fly the Confederate flag offends the sensibilities and perpetuates racial division. Did we forget that it is the symbol of rebellion against the authority of the United States and stands for hatred of America?
I know that this is a hot-button issue, and that there are some state capitols that want to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into theirs because, they argue, the Confederacy is an integral part of their history. Indeed it is. But is the wrong history, the worst kind of history that could be perpetuated. While I would never compare the Confederacy to Nazi Germany--there are, after all, gradations of evil, and the Confederacy did not approach the inhuman slaughter by Hitler's minions--no one would accept a historical argument for incorporating the Nazi flag into modern Germany's flag. Modern Germany is rightly ashamed of its past and the symbols of that past.
In the same way our country could never remain the United States if the South had gained the upper hand, likewise we cannot be a great country if we romanticize those who fought an evil rebellion whose ultimate objective was the perpetuation of America's foremost moral sin.
Which leads me to another conundrum. Many of the Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy are religious Christians who lead lives devoted to moral excellence. How is it possible that they would make heroes of men who betrayed the Bible's essential message: that G-d is the father of all humankind, and all of us therefore are equal before Him?
There is no easy answer to this question. Some would say that the original sin of the Confederacy's Christians was to talk themselves into believing that slavery was really a benevolent institution, granting support, food, and shelter to a population who they believed could not fend for themselves. The perpetuation of that sin would be lionizing the Confederate leaders and believing that it does not offend the South's black citizens or undermine its morality. Still others would say that when G-d-fearing Christians honor the Confederate leaders today, they do so as a means of honoring the South and a lost way of life rather than focusing on slavery. It's collective amnesia. The horrors of slavery have been forgotten and only the charm of the old South has remained.
But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don't make the grade.
When religious southern Christians engage in nostalgia for the Confederacy, they are making the mistake of putting Southern sentiment before religious conviction, in effect elevating an inferior part of their identity over the most central part. Regional loyalty must never come before eternal principle.